The Arthurian Game of Origins (Thesis Thursday #4)

I alluded earlier to the reaction one of Geoffrey’s near-contemporaries, the historian William of Newburgh, a historical competitor of Geoffrey’s who launched a full-frontal assault against him in the preface of his own history. In general, Newburgh is the sort of historian that modern historians like to look to as an early precursor, a kindred spirit who insisted on hard evidence and corroboration, a guy smart enough to see right through Geoffrey.

I had this whole Carrie Underwood vampire joke ready (Newburgh is also famous for describing a kind of vampire-ish creature), but somehow no one on the Internet has made a picture of Carrie Underwood as a vampire. My faith in DeviantArt is shaken.

And so we applaud when we read Newburgh writing

For the purpose of washing out those stains from the character of the Britons, a writer in our times has started up and invented the most ridiculous fictions concerning them, and with unblushing effrontery, extols them far above the Macedonians and Romans. […] It appears that whatever Geoffrey has written, subsequent to Vortigern, either of Arthur, or his successors, or predecessors, is a fiction, invented either by himself or by others, and promulgated either through an unchecked propensity to falsehood, or a desire to please the Britons, of whom vast numbers are said to be so stupid as to assert that Arthur is yet to come, and who cannot bear to hear of his death. […] Whatever this man published of Arthur and of Merlin are mendacious fictions, invented to gratify the curiosity of the undiscerning.

The rest of Newburgh’s attack on Geoffrey is so well known1 that a quick précis will suffice to cover it: 1) Geoffrey writes to praise the Britons, who everyone knows are nothing but traitors, cowards, and liars; 2) he makes Arthur a conqueror of more kingdoms than either Augustus or Alexander; 3) he takes the prophecies of the demonically-sired Merlin as if they were those of a new Isaiah; and 4) he contradicts Bede, the historian William takes as exemplary and beyond reproach. Newburgh’s trenchant criticism is truly so delightfully phrased that we modern scholars never tire of quoting it and using it to bludgeon poor Geoffrey’s reputation. “See! Even his contemporaries knew the game!” we crow as we slip in a few more lines of Newburgh.

Bede, shown here sitting on a tuffet for some reason. Curds and whey not pictured. (Image from the Nuremberg Chronicle)

And this is of course true. Newburgh certainly knew the game Geoffrey was playing quite well, for he goes on to play exactly the same game himself. As his attack on Geoffrey continues, Newburgh takes issue in particular with Geoffrey’s invention of a lineage of four generations of British successors that stretch from Vortigern to Arthur by way of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, because it bangs up against Bede, who placed a line of four Anglo-Saxon kings from Vortigern. If Arthur had been the fourth British king since Vortigern, Newburgh argues, he would have had to have been the contemporary of Hengist’s great-grandson Æthelberht, who Bede places as fourth from Vortigern’s conqueror Hengist, and who lived in the time of St. Augustine’s mission to Britain.2 And surely Bede would have mentioned this. Case closed, says Newburgh, and for some reason we tend to let him close the case by ignoring the fact that Newburgh is making his line of four Anglo-Saxon kings up, too.

Æthelberht was a real guy who lived in the days of Augustine, as Bede tells us. But though Newburgh tells us (that Bede also tells us) Æthelberht was the fourth king from Hengist to rule all of England, Bede says no such thing. Bede does have a list of three kings that he claims had imperium over all the Angles, but they do not form a line of successors in the same way that Geoffrey places Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelius, Uther Pendragon, and Arthur, and the list does not begin with Hengist, either. Indeed, one of the kings on the list of imperium holders, Ælla, is in Bede one of Hengist’s rivals, the ruler of the South Saxons while Hengist rules in Kent. Nor is Æthelberht the fourth descendant from Hengist genealogically speaking. Bede makes Æthelberht son of Irminric son of Octa son of Orric son of Hengist, not Hengist’s great-grandson but rather his great-great grandson. And even if Newburgh had gotten all his names and rules right, why ever would such a weak argument rooted in a genealogical construction of history be convincing to us today?3 It has hardly ever been the case that two different lines of kings correspond exactly to the other, and when it has happened, it’s merely a fluke that gives rise to a Trivial Pursuit question. It’s not like the King of France checks his watch and starts shopping for coffins just because he hears the King of England has just died. That’s not how history works.

But it is how we want history to work, even today, and how the Anglo-Normans would have liked their history to look. Everyone likes a tidy story of fathers succeeded by sons at the appropriate intervals. Historians like Geoffrey and Newburgh working to Anglo-Norman tastes knew this and adjusted their product accordingly. They must have known what they were doing in order to do it, and thus that other historians, their rivals, were doing it as well. These were not credulous monks studiously copying the works of their predecessors, nor faithfully translating fortuitously specific British books they just happened to get from a helpful famous cleric. This was merely the impression they sought to give, the game that they played. Any time we find a historian’s actual source, we find them hardly so scrupulous as they claim. Geoffrey was perhaps the most flamboyant liar, but the difference between him and “proper” historians was one of degree, not kind. Even while calling attention to Geoffrey’s inventions, Newburgh can’t help but spin out some lies of his own, misrepresenting his authority and history to make a point and tear down a rival and to protect his place in the market for tidy, convincing, (and mostly inaccurate) history.

The market for tidy inaccurate history today is rivaled only by the market for image macro-based humor.

The word count reminds me I should be closing now, as does the clock that drifts ever closer to midnight. But to preview my next installment, the game historians play is not so different from the games Arthurian writers end up playing throughout the Middle Ages, even those who did not attempt to write a historical account of Arthur.4 Always, even in romance, medieval writers must pretend that there is a “true” Arthur whose story has been mangled and corrupted, and now only in their version may the truth out. They must attack the fictions of others without calling attention to their own fictions. And somehow Uther Pendragon always seems to end up making an appearance when an author is seeking to correct the record, the foundation that must be re-poured before Arthur’s life story can be built upon it.


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  1. And this entry in Thesis Thursday already so long. []
  2. Not that Augustine. The other one. []
  3. Genealogical history was the norm for writers in the twelfth century and on into the Renaissance. As Bloch and others have shown, time, land, and lineage blend into one chronological strand. It’ understandable for those living in a world where primogeniture ruled property division; the law does half the mental work for you. []
  4. And even today. Cf. That really crappy King Arthur movie that came out a few years ago. []

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  • http://www.lindacmccabe.com/ Linda McCabe

    To add a little bit of popular history to this narrative you might want to include a mention of Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth” describing the period known as the Anarchy.  He for some inexplicable reason changed the name Matilda to Maud.

    • http://www.gotmedieval.com Got Medieval

      Never fear, Follett’s in the clear. Maud was one of Matilda’s nicknames. Makes as much since as Bob and Robert or Jack and John.

      • Jen Grinnell

        Or Jim for Giles.

  • Anya Stickney

    I never knew a thesis could be so entertaining.  I can’t wait for next Thursday!

  • Mark

    Thanks, I enjoyed this.

  • Maria

    I had to read all three pages after you dared us.  I enjoyed them all.

  • Justy Engle

    This probably won’t make you feel better, but I found this an interesting article about the potential future of Humanities dissertations.

  • Anonymous Soprano

    You know, it never ceases to amaze me that the explanations of history’s oddest, well, mysteries always turn out to be the most mundane, dull, and frankly, depressing things. Geoffrey could have been many things – an international (well, national, anyway) man of mystery! A man with his finger on the pulse of the nation! A canny, savvy player in a world amok. 

    …nope. Just an unsuccessfully upwardly-mobile clergyman, “who translated the history of the kings of Britain from British into Latin,” and  became the bishop of St. Asaph in Wales.”

    Well, at least [what we presume to be] his stories had something interesting in them.

    …we always assume that other periods in time were more interesting than ours. I’m pretty sure the answer that is, “nope.”

  • https://profiles.google.com/104791269167429064986 Judy S

    Not all women in 12th-c England were named Matilda. The non-Matildas were named Marie (e.g. the ones who wrote the Lais, Fables, St. Patrick’s Purgatory, and Life of St. Audrey, plus all the ones who have been identifies as possibly being that author, plus their mothers). You need to consider this alternative explanation for your monogram data.

  • https://profiles.google.com/104791269167429064986 Judy S

    Got through page 2 and I have to point out–Matilda daughter of Henry I, aka Maud (Mechthild, etc.) was Empress through being married to a Holy Roman Emperor. Even after this Emp, another Henry I think, died, she was still  referred to by the title–it had nothing to do with her insular ambitions.

    • http://www.gotmedieval.com Got Medieval

      Hmm.  The way I phrased it was influenced by someone I read (the exact someone buried under layers of other someones in my memory), who argued that Matilda relied on the title Empress because even though Stephen’s crowning himself king was a problem for her, she was unwilling to damage the title and office of monarch by declaring herself queen.  Two people claiming the title (even though one gendered King and one Queen) would’ve made the title suspect even if she did overthrow him. I’ll need to find out who said that and why.  (Perhaps she added Anglorum or Britanniae or something to her title of Empress after Henry I died. Another thing to check.)

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  • Anonymous

     Cf. That really crappy King Arthur movie that came out a few years ago.

    This footnote is always applicable; you don’t even need to have a specific Arthur movie in mind. They’re all crappy and ahistorical, and there’s always one that came out a few years ago.

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