One of the most controversial books about the end of the Roman presence in Britain and the Sub-Roman Britain which survived until the modern shape of a Britain divided into England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales emerged in the mid Seventh century AD, is The of Age Arthur written by the UCL scholar John Morris and published in 1973 four years before his death. When published it caused much outrage among the sniffier echelons of Dark Age academia, but also won much praise and a huge following among the general public.
The Dark Ages are probably the most influential period in our history, a true inflection point of even greater magnitude than the Reformation, an overwhelmingly Celtic Britain, albeit with a thin Roman overlay, was broken in pieces and replaced by a patchwork of minor fragmented Celtic kingdoms in Wales and Ireland, and the composite Anglo-Celtic kingdoms of England and Scotland over the course of three to six centuries depending on one’s view.
But we know very little of what happened and that’s why they are called the Dark Ages, right? Well, how much we know or think we know is largely a matter of one’s perspective or prejudices towards what we regard as admissible evidence. And this is where John Morris, arguably the most eminent Dark Age scholar of his lifetime, based largely at University College London, really upset the academic establishment, or most of it at least, because Dr Morris was prepared to treat with respect and regard as being of value almost any near contemporary source, whether an early 6th century polemical history written by the British monk Gildas, a whole raft of hagiographies of Dark Age Celtic saints, Celtic bardic poetry from the period, snippets written about Britain from Continental writers, or archaeology. He regarded such sources with sympathy, but many of his rival academics considered his sympathy for all the sources from the period to amount to credulity.
Morris had spent a lifetime collating and understanding this vast array of different sources and in the Age of Arthur he proceeded to construct a comprehensive detailed narrative and analytical history of the British Isles and Brittany for the period 350-650 AD. Morris was a maximalist who didn’t think that an early source should be disregarded because it wasn’t a narrative history according to modern dictates or, even more restrictively, arguing that only archaeological evidence has any value as it is free of human prejudice, albeit it’s missing the point that how one interprets such evidence is very much influenced by the prejudices of the archaeologist!
The 1960s when Morris was doing much of the spadework for his magnum opus was an optimistic time in Dark Age scholarship, a feeling fed by exciting excavations at South Cadbury Castle, showing its refortification after the Roman withdrawal, that much could be discovered about Dark Age Britain and that maybe there was much light after all. The 1970s, especially after Morris died, saw a shift in fashion to a minimalist view – that contemporary writers and sources couldn’t be trusted and must be binned, and that really it was impossible to know anything of the events or personalities of such a fluid period and that only archaeological finds could give any insight into the progress from Celtic to Anglo-Celtic Britain. The exemplar of this attitude was David Dumville who essentially argued that Morris was a fantasist and that none of the written sources were worth much of a second glance, effectively stating that we can know almost nothing of the history of Sub Roman Britain. Further to this have been the influence of what might be termed as Archaeological Fundamentalism in Dark Age history propounded by the likes of Ken Dark who seem to believe that only archaeology has any significant value for understanding history, but the problem is that using archaeology to discover what really happened is like asking a blind man to describe a beautiful sculpture, it can tell you something of its tangible form but not what t looks like. It’s a nihilistic, negative acceptance of defeat without really trying.
So, what we can know of the Dark Ages depends on what we are prepared to consider as evidence and Morris was catholic in his approach. He wasn’t naïve and understood that a saint’s hagiography would include miraculous deeds, but also that they would be appended onto a real character about whom some factual core would be preserved. He knew that Gildas was writing a polemic, highly partial against the British rulers of the day and recounting British history as a weapon to show up their misdeeds, but he also knew that polemic only works if includes facts to give it credibility, and to have a political history written from the British viewpoint in that brief generation of stability before the collapse in the face of the Anglo-Saxon onslaught just a few years later is beyond price. To simply chuck Gildas aside because he’s politically partial is cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, but that’s what modern historians of the period do. Morris didn’t; he sifted all these various sources and then wove what remained into a fascinating and rich tapestry of narrative history of this formative period in our history, grafting on to it the archaeological evidence known at the time.
But what offended the Dark Age nihilists most of all was Morris’ acceptance of the historicity of Arthur, for whom the non-existence of an Arthur, whether ‘king’ or commander-in-chief of the Romano-British forces after Ambrosius Aurelianus, has become an article of faith. The fundamental problem for those advocating the existence of Arthur is that Gildas, whose life must have overlapped with that of Arthur, doesn’t mention him but does mention the earlier Ambrosius. Why has never been explained and therefore many have said that he cannot have existed, mainly those scholars who also regard Gildas as not having any historical value, which is highly inconsistent if not hypocritical of them.
Against this, the 7th century epic poem Y Gododdin mentions Arthur in passing (which has led some to argue that Arthur was active in the northern counties of England and Southern Scotland, well away from Gildas in the South West), as do the melange of quasi mythical and historical Welsh writings of the 7th and 8th centuries under the name of Nennius. There are further tantalising tangential mentions of an Arthur as a great hero in the late 6th and early 7th century sources which suggest there was a historical figure now obscure to us. Morris’ view was that Gildas’ omission is not fatal to the existence of Arhur, and Gildas may well have had his own reasons for promoting Ambrosius’ fame by ignoring Arthur.
For my part, the existence of Arthur is better attested than was the existence of Troy before Schliemann’s excavations and the latter found the archaeological proof of the basis of Homer’s Iliad. As I said, if you are prepared to accept that most legend tends to have a kernel of truth with tall tales accreted around it as has been shown so many times, then accepting the historicity of Arthur is a pretty easy swallow. And if you still struggle with the idea of an Arthur fighting pagan invaders in all corners of Britain, I’d point out that there is overwhelming evidence that a Romano-British general, called Riothamus, and an army of over 12,000 Britons fought a series of wars in Northern France in defence of the remains of Roman authority there around 460 AD, before settling there. Ever wondered where the legend of Lancelot came from?
The structure is logical, setting the scene by describing late Roman Britain, setting out the sources and then trying to establish a narrative history for the British Isles and Brittany about 650 AD drawing upon that very broad range of early sources and archaeology. In doing so he looks at every local state, even if only short-lived, the differing regional patterns and their histories, and gives real depth of insight into all the moving parts of a highly fluid set of interactions between different states, peoples and cultures in febrile times. It’s all done with a tremendous self-confidence and verve, and is fascinating and informative reading. It doesn’t debate the evidence a lot, merely recounts Morris’ conclusions drawn from it, but then he is trying to flesh out as comprehensive a narrative history as possible for the general reader. It’s well written and dense in its description of events, but easy to follow and not cursed by the turgid tortuous prose of most academics. This section of the book probably upset the likes of Dumville more than the others because he’s building something up, not smashing everything down.
Morris then goes on to analyse the salient features of the states and societies of the time. Starting with the Christian church and its critical role in the peaceful conversion of the pagan Irish, Picts and Anglo-Saxon invaders when for a time it had been on the brink of annihilation. It clearly stabilised society and preserved learning, and brought literacy and civilisation to previously chaotic societies – pre Christian Dark Age Ireland was clearly not that different to some of the more anarchic tribal areas of darkest Africa and very far from the bucolic primitive nirvana of the New Age wishful thinkers.
Next, Morris addresses society, the economy and its changes, and how the collapse of the Roman era economy triggered major changes in the nature of society, and how the English and other cultures imposed their own societies on the more numerous Romano-Britons, transforming the people of the British Isles in the process. What was emerging by the 650s wasn’t just politically different to what had been in 350 AD, it was transformed in almost every way. Just about all that endured was the Christian church which had grown into areas previously unconverted by missionary activity, but even this was different to the church of the Roman era, certainly outside South East England, because this church was built around the monasteries, led by abbots, not bishops, was more collegiate and less focused on formal structures, and was focused far more on mission and in doing so tamed and educated the victorious pagan invaders.
If you want the best introduction to all the potential evidence and what can be argued from it to have happened in the British Dark Ages it’s difficult to suggest a better or more comprehensive survey. You don’t have to agree with everything, you might think he stretches the evidence too far at times, but at least you will know it’s there and what it says. About the only major field of evidence missing is the emerging corpus of DNA studies, which simply didn’t exist in Morris’ lifetime, and whose meaning is even now hotly debated, albeit it seems to be flowing back in the direction of major immigration into parts of Britain in the Dark Ages and certainly more significant than the recently dominant ‘culture rather than population change’ school of history.
In reality, the picture was probably largely local and very complex, with greater Celtic survival the further West one goes. What is fascinating, and Morris alluded to this to a degree, is that some of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were British-Celtic in origin, e.g. Wessex whose great early founding king had a British name, and we should perhaps see in them a fusion of local British and Anglo-Saxon elites, perhaps stemming from alliances or even the hiring of the latter by the former as mercenaries in the Roman tradition. The story of Vortigern may well have some truth in it after all as Morris believed, and Gildas’ description of British rulers so riven by rivalries that they would rather ally with the invaders against one another than against them seems to have been based in truth as well.
It’s a wonderful book, comprehensive, well-structured and written, supported with plenty of helpful maps. It has to be Base Camp for starting to tackle the mysteries of the Dark Ages.
© JD de Pavilly 2021
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