Plastering over the cracks

Oliver Tobias Arthur of the Britons, broadcast by HTV in 1972
Oliver Tobias in Arthur of the Britons, HTV series first broadcast in the UK in 1972

John Morris The Age of Arthur:
a History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1973

The sixties and early seventies were an exciting time for those interested in that transitional period between the removal of Roman troops from Britain and the lowland’s transformation into England, the ‘land of the Angles’ (and Saxons, of course). Long disparaged as the ‘Dark Ages’ or the ‘lost centuries’, this Cinderella period was then becoming more acceptable to scholars to study under alternative, less romantic labels: post-Roman, Early Medieval, Late Celtic, Early Christian, Late Antiquity or Anglo-Saxon, depending on your point of view or your specialisation.

The sixties also saw the rise of popular interest in archaeology, and Leslie Alcock, director of excavations at sites such as South Cadbury in Somerset, was one of many discovering clear evidence for major activity during this period in Wales and the West, not least at South Cadbury itself, dubbed Camelot because of its ‘Arthurian’ finds. Alcock also published an archaeological and historical overview of the period called, significantly, Arthur’s Britain (1971), in which he made a tentative case for the existence of a Dark Age warlord called Arthur. The legendary figure was lending his aura to the current zeitgeist, appealing to a range of opinions from highbrow through middlebrow to lowbrow, from students through Romantics to New Agers.

In the wake of this Dr John Morris, a senior lecturer at UCL, published his The Age of Arthur, the synthesis of years of study in Late Antiquity  – as the closing centuries of the Later Roman Empire were often described – and its aftermath. His wide interests, learning and experience (which ranged from army service to socialism, from academic work in India to pacifism) made him an interesting candidate to attempt a syncretised survey of Late Antiquity in the British Isles, which incidentally for him included Ireland and Brittany. Marshalling a huge mass of documents and references to material culture he put together an unprecedentedly detailed history of Britain over three centuries, exactly that timescale that had traditionally been called the Dark Ages. Unfortunately he entitled his tome The Age of Arthur.

Alcock had received some criticism for the title of his book, which appeared two years before Morris’, but at least he tried to argue from the evidence he presented. Morris didn’t. His approach was in many ways similar to the popular histories of an earlier time where much was erected on sometimes flimsy evidence, dubiously interpreted and stated with no uncertain authority. Quite apart from extraordinary new narratives – such as a complex military campaign across South Wales which nobody else has ever detailed, before or since – he continually referenced his own Arthurian Sources which had yet to be published and which thus made it impossible for the general reader to validate his claims. His colleagues, however, were not so easily hoodwinked, and he was critically crucified for it. The core of his narrative was the reconstructed career of the unquestionably historical Arthur, an undertaking which in many ways was the counterpart of an earlier counterfactual history from eight centuries before, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s notorious History of the Kings of Britain. And like that earlier historical fabricator from disparate sources Morris was laughed out of court.

John Morris survived just four years after the publication of The Age of Arthur in 1973, sadly long enough to see his reputation crumble amongst his peers following the appearance of this work. Much of the evidence for his arguments was to appear in his Arthurian Sources series, but he died long before these were ready for publication. What was eventually published was barely the ghost of what he must have intended, but even so enough survives to show that his methodology – using his undoubted scholarship to plaster over the cracks of diverse and often uncertain evidence to suggest a sound structure – was ultimately flawed.

The Age of Arthur, if read at all for enlightenment, should be used with caution and with some prior knowledge and understanding of the limitations of the available evidence. Four decades of archaeological and other research mean that many of his ex cathedra statements have regretfully to be disregarded. Sadly that hasn’t stopped some enthusiastic disciples, such as Rodney Castleden, from claiming his throne, alas with rather less erudition.


6 thoughts on “Plastering over the cracks

  1. It is a pity that such undoubtedly gifted people fail to show their speculations for what they really are, and are ultimately the losers. Had he presented all the evidence, and built his constructs on them as possibilities showing warts and all, it might have presented a far more respected body of work.

    1. You’re right of course, Col, and it’s a shame that the over-ambitiousness of this work will forever prove a damning epitaph for a previously respected scholar. Mind you, a fuller discussion of the evidence for his assertions would probably have rendered this already chunky volume unwieldable.

      When I first read this as a callow youth out of uni I was excited but also puzzled by it; I subsequently realised why. I’ve also got some of his Arthurian Sources (the very title now sets my teeth on edge) and they are a very uneven collection of volumes, some invaluable, others an indigestible mess.

      1. Regrettably, many such researchers go into a sort of religious zeal with their own theories, and display the same tendencies to squeeze available proof hopelessly out of shape to make them fit as the religionists do.

  2. I’ll admit to mining this source on occasion for ideas, but only do so because my education was on this topic and I know the flaws in his methodology. Taking the vitae at face value? That’s like believing a fan book on a rock star.

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