Geoffrey Ashe: “A Certain Very Ancient Book”;
Traces of an Arthurian Source in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History.
Speculum 56, 2: 1981
in association with Debrett’s Peerage
The Discovery of King Arthur
Debrett’s Peerage Limited 1985
A recent guest post by Katie Wilkins of Doing Dewey on Lory Hess’s blog Emerald City Book Review introduced a 1985 publication that stimulated some discussion. It prompted me to look up some reviews I penned of Geoffrey Ashe’s book at the time, plus one of the academic papers that preceded it.
Below is the slightly edited texts of those reviews with some linking commentary, for those who like to muse on the historical origins of the Arthurian legends. The Speculum review is from Pendragon XIV/3, summer 1981, and the book review appeared in Pendragon XVII/4, autumn 1984 (published February 1986). Of necessity the arguments are involved and rather complex — I hope it all has a little more than just historical curiosity!
ARTHUR continues to inspire further, sometimes original research. Far from being anchored firmly to the Battle of Badon (around 500 AD) he keeps drifting out of our grasp further back in time, a sort of “Doctor Who on horseback” as [a] television reporter said. Geoffrey Ashe’s paper for the Journal of the Medieval Academy of America involves a radical rethink of some conventional ideas of the historical Arthur, and we are grateful for a complimentary copy provided by Speculum which forms the basis for this summary.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History [of the Kings of Britain] (c 1136) gives the first full-blown account of King Arthur we possess, and appears to form the basis of most of the later medieval romances. Determined efforts have been made to discover his ultimate sources, and Ashe suggests where we might search to find the missing links. We start with some contemporary or near-contemporary Continental writers — Cassiodorus (c 531), Jordanes’ Gothic History (c 551), Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks (c 591) and especially Sidonius Apollinaris’ Letters (c 470-80) — who collectively provide the following account as interpreted by Ashe:
467. Leo I, Emperor of the East (457-74), appoints a Byzantine noble, Anthemius, as Emperor of the West. Anthemius then seeks British aid against Euric (King of the Visigoths from 466) who has greedy eyes on northern Gaul — Armorica (Brittany) and the Kingdom of Soissons under the general Syagrius, ‘King of the Romans’ (see map).
468. As Simplicius succeeds to the papal throne, a certain Riotimus or Riothamus, King of the Britons, comes over to Gaul with a reported 12,000 men in response to Anthemius’ appeal. Around this time marauding Saxons under a chieftain Corsoldus are routed by ‘Romans’ (Syagrius and the Britons?) with some Frankish Allies, and are expelled from the area around the lower Loire.
The Britons, however, are about to be betrayed by Arvandus, imperial prefect of Gaul and Anthemius’ deputy. [Arvandus] advises Euric, King of the Visigoths, to attack the Britons north of the Loire and then partition Gaul with the Burgundians.
469. Arvandus is rumbled, and subsequently impeached by the Roman Senate. But Euric has already acted …
470. After Riothamus enters the state of the Bituriges (modern Berry) he is himself routed after a lengthy battle by the Visigoths, before the Romans of Soissons can aid him, at Bourg-de-Déols near Châteauroux. Euric then expels the Britons from Bourges and Riothamus flees to the Burgundians, allies of the Romans. Riothamus disappears from history in the area around Avallon (Gaulish: ‘place of the apples’).
Does this story sound familiar? A king of the Britons — defeating the Saxons, betrayed by a deputy while fighting in Gaul, disappearing mysteriously near Avallon — is suspiciously like the continental campaigns of Arthur described by Geoffrey of Monmouth, taking up half the story of Arthur’s reign in the History. Geoffrey’s earlier Prophecies [which he ascribes to Merlin] have it thus:
The Boar of Cornwall shall lord it over the forests of Gaul. The House of Romulus shall dread his savagery and his end will be shrouded in mystery.
There are several obvious objections to the equation Arthur = Riothamus:
1. “The name is different.” Riothamus [Ashe suggests] is Celtic *Rigotamus, meaning ‘king’ with a superlative suffix (ie ‘Great King’). This could be a title like Vortigern ‘high chief’ or Augustus ‘the august one’, and Riothamus could be short for Artorius Rigotamus, ‘the Great King Arthur’.
2. “The dates are different.” Riothamus disappears in 470, Geoffrey [of Monmouth]’s Arthur in 542. Where did Geoffrey get 542? Ashe argues, persuasively, that Geoffrey saw a date 442 and could not square it with a post-500 date for Badon, which was not originally associated with “Artorius Rigotamus”. Not realizing that this date 442 was calculated from the Passion (not the Incarnation as accepted now — though the computations are incorrectly devised) he adjusted it to 542. (A later Arthurian writer, Wace, even adjusted this further to 642!)
3. “Arthur’s enemies are different.” Having adjusted dates, Geoffrey is not averse to reworking details to suit his purpose of glorifying Arthur above all others, Romans included. He forgets however to omit other details which confirm an earlier dating: he mentions the Emperor Leo (d 474) and Pope Sulpicius (= Simplicius? d 483), and sends Arthur to a place southwest of Langres, not far away from the Burgundian Avallon.
4. “Arthur is nowhere mentioned in earlier references as being in Gaul.” One of Ashe’s star witnesses is a Latin Legend of St Goeznovius, dated 1019 and given third-hand in a 15th-century MS (formerly at Nantes Cathedral). This places “the great Arthur King of the Britons” in the period immediately after Vortigern, in the mid-5th century. The Saxons are subdued in Britain AND IN GAUL before the King is “summoned at last from human activity”, whereupon the Saxons return to the Island […]. The Legend is independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth, placing Arthur’s heyday more than half a century before.
There are other objections of course, like Arthur’s connection with the Battle of Badon and the list of Arthurian battles given in [the 9th-century Historia Brittonum attributed to] Nennius (did they actually take place in Brittany?).
But enough has been presented of Ashe’s case to show it merits consideration. Not only will adherents of an “historical” Arthur have to do some rethinking, but more credence will have to be given to Geoffrey’s claim that he translated into Latin “a certain very ancient book written in the British [ie Breton] language” and which in particular gave him details of the final dim battle of Camlann. Did this ancient treatise also supply details for the Legend of Goeznovius, and are these the traces of a “missing link” in a chain of Arthurian sources leading to Geoffrey of Monmouth?
These were my thoughts back in 1981 when I first read Ashe’s paper. When the book came out in 1985 I was given a chance to see if his central thesis had changed and if my cautious acceptance had altered in any way. There is some repetition here now but the critical emphasis has slightly shifted.
The historical documentation for Arthur is very sparse. These are the folktales contained in Nennius’ History of the Britons from the 9th century. And there are the entries for the “Arthurian” battles of Badon and Camlann in the Welsh Annals of the 10th century. The folklore throws more light on human psychology, however, and the Annals are rather too late to be reliable. All rigorous scholars of the period have been troubled by the apparent lack of contemporary allusions to Arthur in documents or inscriptions: in a relatively literate age a man of his supposed stature had escaped notice.
Discovery argues that Arthurian scholarship in Britain is too insular. If it wasn’t, it would have taken more account of the Gaulish episodes contained in the 12th-century so-called History of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Arthur’s forays on the continent, which take up a considerable part of the narrative, are usually regarded as unhistorical and an embarrassment. But later continental chronicles place Arthur firmly in the late 5th century rather than the early 6th. Geoffrey of Monmouth, it is clear, is also working with irreconcilable dates. Arthur dies in 542, but flourishes in the time of Pope Leo (died 461). His heyday is quite obviously thought of as the 460s.
[…] Arthur, by these accounts, matches up with Riothamus, a king of Britain whose existence is in no doubt. With 12,000 troops he is reported to have fought Saxons successfully in the Loire valley, though his army was later decimated by the Visigoths. Ashe argues strongly for the equation of Riothamus with Arthur.
This is a very attractive hypothesis. It is Ashe’s fourth essay on the subject, refined and expanded since “A Certain Ancient Book” first argued the case in Speculum. It certainly answers many questions, and solves many problems of chronology.
There are, of course, difficulties. Riothamus is never specifically identified with Arthur in any of the chronicles between the 5th and 12th centuries. Ashe has put less emphasis on the two names being near anagrams of each other but continues to argue, against the opinions of some philologists, that Riothamus is not a name but a title: “Supreme King”. He points out that many leaders were better known by their cognomen or nickname (eg Caligula) or title (Augustus) and that some we know only by their titles (eg Vortigern, “Overlord”). These are useful analogies, though for Arthur-Riothamus no more than that. The two separate bodies of lore about Arthur in Britain and Riothamus in Gaul prior to the 11th/12th century is still worrying, though if we resorted to analogies we would note the recognisable correspondences between the native Macsen legend and the continental history of Magnus Maximus.
Despite these doubts Ashe has, I think, proved his case that Geoffrey’s fictional European adventures of Arthur are based on Riothamus’ expedition as detailed in continental histories no longer available to us. This does not prove there was no Arthur in the “traditional” period ascribed to him either side of 500 AD, and we may still believe that the richness of Arthurian lore need not owe its diversity to the exploits of a single [individual].
What it does prove is that, before Geoffrey of Monmouth, an implicit identification was made: that Riothamus and Arthur were one and the same. For sceptics the question is, how far back can we trace this implicit identification before the matter is beyond doubt?
While scholarship has expanded in the three decades since the above was written I’ve not come across any new revelations concerning historical documents validating Ashe’s identification (though that’s not to say that there hasn’t been any). So, what I think it boils down to is this: Geoffrey of Monmouth writes a bestselling pseudohistory of Britain which includes Arthur invading mainland Europe to challenge a claim that he owes tribute. It’s possible that he drew on histories that told how another post-Roman British king, Riothamus, also sailed “by way of Ocean” to engage in battle in Gaul. But that may be it.
What about the themes of betrayal and disappearance which appear to support the Arthur/Riothamus identification? These don’t really bear up, I suggest. Betrayal is a common thread in political and military history, and that it occurs in both instances is no proof of the two rulers being one and the same. And the same applies to the disappearance motif: Riothamus simply drops out of the story, with no associated details that even make his end similar to Arthur’s.
As for Riothamus being last heard of somewhere in the vicinity of Avallon in Burgundy, this is clutching at straws; Avallon is about 150 miles from Bourg-de-Déols where Riothamus’ forces were finally defeated, and around 100 miles from Bourges from where the remnant of the Britons were subsequently expelled. Even if Avallon (Aballo in Roman times) resembles the name of the spot where in legend Arthur went to heal his wounds, it’s far from conclusive — for example, the Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall at Burgh by Sands was anciently Aballava, which similarly derives from the Celtic word for ‘apple’.
Anyway, pity poor Arthur. He challenges the Romans who are demanding back payment of tribute they say is owed to them. Though he comes within a hair’s breadth of defeating them he is called back to Britain to deal with insurrection. I’m reminded of certain parallels with an island nation disputing its payments to Europe and which is similarly having to deal with turmoil within its own governing party. Plus ça change …