Surprisingly out of date

Dark Ages made even darker
Dark Ages made even darker

Angus Konstam British Forts in the Age of Arthur
Illustrated by Peter Dennis
Osprey 2008

“When the Romans left Britain around AD 410, the unconquered native peoples of modern Scotland, Ireland and Wales were presented with the opportunity to pillage what remained of Roman Britain,” runs the blurb, repeating the time-honoured scenario of “Post-Roman Britons [doing] their best to defend themselves”. This they largely did, suggests this book, by refurbishing Iron Age hillforts in the west of Britannia, and British Forts in the Age of Arthur focuses on “key sites” such as Dinas Powys, Cadbury-Congresbury and Castell Deganwy, as well as the more famous Tintagel and South Cadbury.

The first thing to be said is that this is an attractively illustrated 64-page paperback, largely in colour, with maps, photos and original reconstructions by Peter Dennis of the sites of Tintagel, Wroxeter, Dinas Emrys, South Cadbury, Birdoswald and Bamburgh. The second thing to be noted, however, is that you have to use the utmost care in accepting the author’s statements as gospel: there are plenty of half-truths and out-of-date bits of information, such as the now-discredited old theories about Castle Dore in Cornwall having a Dark Age hall — subsequent work in the eighties showed there was no Dark Age occupation. The bibliography shows an over-reliance on books published in the 70s, since when much re-evaluation has gone into Late Antiquity. In fact the title of the book clearly acknowledges a debt to John Morris’ The Age of Arthur, a work which is sadly both misguided and unreliable.

If you take the text and artist’s reconstructions with a large pinch of salt then Angus Konstam’s book forms a useful introduction to the broad military background of the period; while its evocation of “the most famous warlord of the ‘Dark Ages’” and his “doomed” attempt to “unite the Britons in the face of Saxon invaders” demonstrates a largely uncritical belief in the historicity of Arthur. British Forts in the Age of Arthur seemed so promising, but for a booklet published in 2008 it is surprisingly and disappointingly out-of-date.

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9 thoughts on “Surprisingly out of date

  1. It is certainly disappointing when authors don’t keep up-to-date with developments in their field before launching into print. Even a fairly major re-write necessitating a publishing delay is better than presenting disproven facts or speculations.

    1. In this case there’s clearly no excuse as Osprey publishers seem to have a well-regarded library on military history of all periods. According to his website (http://www.anguskonstam.com/ — naturally) the author has penned over seventy books, and calls himself as ‘one of the world’s leading authorities on piracy past and present.’

      Unfortunately, as a jobbing author he is less authoritative about this particularly area. No doubt after a career in the Royal Navy and with a Master’s in maritime archaeology he is well qualified to write on naval history, but for hillforts in the post-Roman period he often appears all at sea.

  2. Thank you for pointing out the flaws or misrepresentations found in this book and for taking the time to link to updated information. Do you think it is pure laziness or wishful thinking when modern authors use outdated research?

    1. I prefer to be generous to the author by attributing the flaws to his enthusiasm for an historical period outside his own specialism. But I do blame publishers and editors for not ensuring that their expected authoritative standard is maintained.

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