Contextualising the evidence

Rex Arturus: detail of 12th-century mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, Italy
Rex Arturus: detail of 12th-century mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, Italy

Thomas Green Concepts of Arthur The History Press Ltd 2008

Tom Green’s excellent study follows a growing scholarly trend to treat the hypothesis of an historical Arthur seriously, even if it means ultimately demolishing the case for a genuine hero of the same name. Nick Higham’s King Arthur: myth-making and history, for example, showed how the 9th-century Historia Brittonum (attributed to Nennius) was put together with a contemporary political agenda in mind, meaning it must not be relied on to accurately reconstruct post-Roman British history.

Unlike Higham, who accepted that there might possibly have been some Arthur-type warlord at the core of the Nennian construct, Green, I think persuasively, argues from the available documentary evidence that there never was such a prototype historical figure. Instead, the earliest sources (some contemporary with and others predating Nennius) make it clear that, first, Arthur was a mythological figure, defender of Britain from giants, monsters, witches and the like; and, secondly, that it is Nennius (or rather his anonymous source) who first historicizes Arthur. Nennius does this by pitting him against human adversaries (namely, the Angles and the Saxons) and attributing to him a selection of both mythological and genuinely historical battles. Those critics who instinctively felt that Arthur was more an archetypal hero than a flesh-and-blood warrior may now feel more vindicated; those who believe that there was a real king called Arthur will vehemently disagree.

If I have a criticism it’s this: that Green’s discussion frequently repeats itself within the dense text, perhaps reflecting the fact that much of his material appeared as scholarly papers online. This is a shame as his message and arguments, while needing to be academically rigorous, also deserve to be more generally accessible. If potential readers can stick with it, Concepts of Arthur is an inspiring read which does not disappoint those who want a satisfying contextualising of the very disparate evidence.

Green’s cover, incidentally, shows what may be the earliest surviving Arthurian portrait, not from Britain but from Otranto in Puglia, Italy. Labelled REX ARTURUS, Arthur is shown riding a goat in a vignette that is part of a staggeringly huge and detailed mosaic of the Tree of Life covering the whole floor of the cathedral. Amongst biblical scenes, the Zodiac, the months of the year and a few other notables such as Alexander the Great, Arthur is in a key position at the end of the nave, just before the crossing, flanked by Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Abel offering his sacrifice of a lamb. What is a British hero doing in such distinguished company? And especially here in the heel of Italy sometime before the middle of the 12th century?

The answer must be related to the Norman invasion of much of the southern part of the peninsula in the century following the Norman conquest of England. The Normans of course included personnel from the rest of Northern France, including Brittany; and the Bretons remained linked, not least linguistically, with the culture of the insular Britons. Quite how a warrior Arthur might become a goat-riding dwarf king is unclear, but the contemporary Welsh writer Walter Map describes just such a figure in a document entitled Of the trifles of courtiers. According to Map anybody (and that includes a Dark Age British king called Herla) who enters the dwarf’s underground kingdom, even for three days, returns to the human world two or more centuries later. Though Map doesn’t give this dwarf king a name, that very similar figure in an Italian mosaic doesn’t inspire confidence in the belief that Arthur, king or not, was a genuine historical figure.

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2 thoughts on “Contextualising the evidence

  1. It sounds like Tom Green might be guilty of the old crime of damning all parts of a source for problems with one section? I should get ahold of this, but do you know how in-depth he was in the sources’ sources and biases?

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