Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Presentment of Englishry....

To be published by Shearsman in 2019. The working title was 'Stories from Laȝamon's Brut'.

A Presentment of Englishry in the 11th century was the offering of proof that a slain person was English (therefore unimportant), in order to escape the fine levied upon hundred or township for the murder of a ‘Frenchman’ or ‘Norman’. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Alan Garner and Mark Edmonds: The Beauty Things.

The Beauty Things

Take it in your hands, look, pay attention, turn it over and repeat the process. 

If you’ve read ‘The Voice that Thunders’ you’ll know about ‘The Beauty Things’, and if you haven’t, it’s easily explained. They are objects, things, which have significance for their owners and are valued for reasons that have no relation to their economic value.

So this book, which it must be said is a beautiful object, is a celebration of things.  It claims to be an extension of conversations between Alan Garner and Mark Edmonds, who is an archaeologist.  It consists of photographs and short texts: brief extracts from Garner’s books and unattributed words in quotation marks.

The book celebrates the beauty and functionality of things made in stone, wood and metal, from the earliest stone hand tool to the Jodrell Bank Telescope…it invites you to stop and consider the complex miracle that is homer faber and the vertigo inducing length of time we’ve been around…without sentimentalising or romanticising the human maker, from that first deviant ape who thought sharpening a bit of stone might lead somewhere to radio telescopes scanning the universe and looking at light that had left its source an unimaginable number of years before that ape started chipping.

The Beauty Things  invites the reader to pay attention to specific examples of this making habit. It offers provocative suggestions, it raises questions. Feel the weight, look, imagine, consider, then turn it over and repeat the process. It reminds me of a Colin Simms poetry collection: that fascinated, absorbed willingness to keep looking at the same object without ever exhausting the need to keep looking. It’s a very non-fashionable view of the world, one that celebrates the careful craftsman, the slow acquisition of ability and knowledge. It celebrates both the idea that questions are often better than answers and the pleasure of paying attention.

There are questions. About the way we portray objects from the past. The way the museum case makes static what was always a work in progress, something to be used, improved, perhaps discarded. But also, more troubling, about what these tools have to say about aesthetics.
The stone axe is beautiful. But was beauty an aim of the maker, or simply an accident of design. Is the recognition of beauty simply an aesthetic response to a shape, or is beauty, in this case, a profound, possibly pre verbal, in built recognition of achieved functionality. If the latter, did the aesthetic impulse have an evolutionary function? 

For readers of Garner’s novels there is the echo of familiarity: artefacts which turn up in his books appear in the photographs. And I won’t be the only person who has always wondered what a stone book looks like…the spine is smooth, like a piece of well tooled leather, and I want one. Nor will I be the only person to be surprised that “The” Stone Book was not made by one of Garner’s family…..but as he says here, he had to make things up.

There is one thing missing from The Beauty Things: a book. Not a stone book, a paper book.
There should be a word for this, where the thing that is missing from an object is supplied by the object itself###, but the book ‘The Beauty Things’ is a beauty thing itself, a carrier of stories and questions, something to hold and contemplate. It has its history, from rock scratching to clay tablets, rolls of papyrus, velum, paper: we are, after all, living in a civilisation that could not exist without writing. Books are as much a part of our history and our making as the axe and the horseshoe.
You can buy a copy here:

### IF there is a real word for this I would love to know it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Vortigern part three: The Historia Bruttonum, the Pillar of Eisleg and the Medieval Imagination.

Vortigern becomes a character. 
The Historia Bruttonum, was written or complied around the beginning of the ninth century (Current dates are to the 820s, localised or at least connected to the court of Gwynedd in the reign of Merfyn Frych).  It is the oldest surviving, developed Vortigern story.  
Although the narrative is sometimes confused and self-contradictory, Vortigern has become a character with something approaching a biography. It is he who is responsible for the ruin of Britain. He is a weak and evil man. The external manifestation of his evil is sexual. He has a son by his daughter, and his infatuation with Hengist’s daughter, who appears here for the first time, allows Hengist to outwit him. 
However, by the ninth century, there were competing versions of the story: a Good King Vortigern and the HB’s Bad King. 
 Early Welsh Genealogies preserve Vortigern’s name as an honored ancestor who adds luster and legitimacy to the royal dynasties, even claiming him as the eponymous founder of a Welsh Kingdom. 
Neither Arthur nor Ambrosius appear in the genealogies. Vortigern’s presence not only suggests that he was considered historical at the time, but also proves the HB’s version of his life was not the only one in circulation. David Dumville pointed out, a long time ago, that Vortigern disappears from the genealogies after the tenth century, suggesting that the Bad King version proved the stronger.
The ‘Biography’.
In the HB Vortigern is now ‘King of the Britons’.  He doesn’t invite the Saxons.  Hengist and Horsa have been exiled from Germany. Vortigern gives them Thanet and in return for food and clothing they offer Vortigern their services in his wars against the Picts. As they become more of a threat, Vortigern is outmaneuvered by Hengist who uses his daughter, (who is not named in the version I've been reading) as a bargaining tool. The devil enters Vortigern's heart and he is so besotted he is prepared to give up half his kingdom for the girl.  
However, Vortigern is also in an incestuous relationship with his own daughter, and they produce a son. Confronted and humiliated by Saint Germanus, Vortigern flees with his wizards. He meets Ambrosius, a boy without a father, who advises him, and makes a prediction about the British and Saxons based on some worms they find in a pond. Given that this is written in a Welsh context, it’s hardly surprising the prophecy ends with a prediction that the British will eventually expel the English. 
In his absence Vortimer, Vortigern’s eldest son, fights against the Anglo-Saxons, but although victorious at first, dies. Hengist comes back and treacherously slays the leading Britons. Vortigern dies. 
In outline, and in some of the details, this is the story Geoffrey of Monmouth will use. But there are at least three centuries between Gildas and the Historia Bruttonum and that is really all that needs to be said about the historical value of the HB’s account. 
The Medieval approach to the past.
It is obvious that the story tellers have been at work. The story of Ambrosius, the boy without a father but with the gift of prophecy (a story which Geoffrey will elaborate and shift to Merlin) is straight out of a folk tale. The HB also records three versions of Vortigern’s death. He is burnt to death ‘with his wives’ as a result of St Germanus’ prayers. He wanders alone and forgotten and dies of heartbreak. The earth swallows him up.
It’s difficult for modern readers to understand how different the early medieval attitude towards ‘history’ was to the thing we learn in school or at the library. The medieval tolerance for obvious inconsistency within a single text can be astonishing. 
The HB contains the miraculous, the marvelous and is internally inconsistent. The whole point of the story of Ambrosius is that Vortigern has to find a boy who has no father. But after he’s prophesized, Vortigern asks him: ’What family do you come from?’ and the boy replies ‘My father is one of the consuls of the Roman people’. You could try and rationalize this but you’d be missing the point. 
 The idea of establishing facts, sorted into a chronological sequence that could be dated, or critically evaluating available sources, rejecting alternative narratives to establish which is the most likely, was not wide spread medieval practice. Even when it was attempted, the attempt was complicated by the difficulty of dating anything outside living memory.  
The HB for example uses at least three different dating methods: from the Incarnation, which we have inherited as BC/AD, from the Passion, and the Roman way of dating by naming the consuls in the year. 
It’s worth remembering that Bede’s date for the Adventus was nothing more than an educated guess. The HB gives two dates for the arrival of Hengist and Horsa and makes no attempt to reconcile them. The first is 347 years after the Passion, which puts the date somewhere around 370-380.  
Later, the HB uses consulships to date the reign of Vortigern to 425, claiming the English came in the fourth year of his reign, which would be 428/9, ‘four hundred years after the Passion’. 
The difference between modern and medieval thinking can be swiftly demonstrated by using the inscription on the Pillar of Eisleg. There Vortigern is named as the father of a line of kings, friend of St Germanus and son-in-law of Magnus Maximus. This is the Good King version. 
We know from other sources that Magnus Maximus was an historical character, a soldier of Spanish descent who took troops from Britain to invade Europe, was briefly Western Emperor until he was executed in 388.
We know daughters were used to extend family influence and establish alliances. When Magnus was on the rise, he would have chosen her husband carefully: someone with enough power to be attractive as an ally. On the other hand, she would have had no value to anyone in the aftermath of his defeat. 
So, if Vortigern married her, it’s likely he did so before 388 and it’s also likely that he would have been an adult and a significant player in the political landscape by that date. How old would that make him in 449? 
Ironically, Guy Halsall, doesn’t use this to support his argument for a fourth century Adventus because he has already suggested that Vortigern and Magnus are the same person. On the other hand….
But such a thinking process is not medieval. In the Annales Cambraie the entry immediately before the famous reference to the battle of Badon records the death of Bishop Ebur at the age of 350. The writer saw nothing odd about this.
And therefore
The value of these stories as ‘historical evidence’ may be negligible. Watching anyone trying to tease out some historical ‘facts’ from the tangled mess is an entertaining spectator sport, but the activity is ultimately futile.  The Historia Bruttonum and the Pillar of Eisleg, the early Welsh Genealogies, Bede, Gildas, and the Anglo-Saxon chronicle tell us little or nothing about the historical reality of the fifth century, but reveal a great deal about what Peter Hanning called ‘the historical imagination’ of their tellers. 
In the imaginations of the story tellers, Vortigern, who may never have existed, moves towards his role as the great national villain in Laȝamon's Brut (where all these post have been heading.) The last steps in the process are the adjustments Geoffrey of Monmouth had to make to fit him into a coherent chronology and tidy up the narrative's loose ends. 

But, as the Historia Bruttonum says, for now: ‘Enough has been said of Vortigern and his family’.

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Beauty Things

Someone else's opinion for now. It took a while to track this down, but now I have a copy and it is a beautiful book.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Lady Godiva and Me is back in print

The naked lady rides again, with an accompanying cast of earls, churls, ranting preachers, shop girls migrants, factory workers skinheads and schoolboys.

A lightly revised second edition, available from Lulu, Amazon US or UK, and from the shop at

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Vortigern part two: Gildas, Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

This is the second of three posts tracking how a story involving a ‘Vortigern’, which runs clearly from Gildas, to Bede to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, will become a story about Vortigern, which can be traced from the Historia Britonnum to its elaboration under Geoffrey of Monmouth and from him to Laȝamon.

In what becomes the ‘English’ version of the story, the events remain the same: three ship loads of Germanic warriors are invited to Britain and then turn on their employers. But there are important shifts in emphasis across these three texts. 

As in all Medieval sources, genre, purpose and context have a significant impact on the information and as in so many early medieval sources, they give the frustrating sense that we are reading eye-witnesses to important events who could have told us what we want to know but who, instead, are obsessed with telling us about their neighbours’ hats.  

Gildas (A very brief introduction)

The De Excidio Britannia of Gildas is a notoriously difficult text to use as an historical source. When it was written and where it was written and how reliable it is are ‘sources of scholarly contention’.   

‘Gildas’, is the only surviving insular source for the fifth century but was probably written in the first half of the sixth. Imagine trying to reconstruct the history of British settlement in Australia from one sermon delivered a hundred years after it happened, ritten by a radical evangelical who saw history in terms of divine reward and punishment. 

On the other hand, Gildas was obviously educated, part of a literary culture, and writing about events which may have occurred within three generations, which is usually considered to be the reliable span of oral history. So, tread carefully, but don’t write him off. 

He is writing an open letter to castigate his contemporary Britons for their sinful ways. The historical section at the start shows that their failures in history are a direct result of their turning away from God. The English are the instruments of God’s punishment and a sign of his disfavour. However, at the time of writing, although the English have taken much of the island. If the Britons would only repent, there is still time to get rid of them. 

Or if you wish, the Latin is here, with a facing translation:

The relevant text is in Part one, Chapters 22 and 23. For anyone new to early medieval texts, the fact that the translations and the texts vary, even to the extent ‘Vortigern’ is named or identified, is normal. For convenience, I’m going to quote from the second of the above links.

Vortigern in Gildas.

Abandoned by the Romans, and incapable of defending themselves. A council is held, to deliberate what means ought to be determined upon, as the best and safest to repel such fatal and frequent irruptions and plunderings…

Gildas continues, At that time all the members of the assembly along with the arrogant tyrant are blinded;such is the protection they find for their country (it was, in fact, its destruction) that those wild Saxons, of accursed name, hated by God and men, should be admitted into the island, like wolves into folds, in order to repel the northern nations.

For Gildas, the decision is not simply in keeping with the well-known, late Imperial habit of recruiting tribal allies, although his vocabulary later implies he knew about that practice. For Gildas, it’s a disaster: Nothing more hurtful, certainly, nothing more bitter happened to the island than this.  

A great deal of ink has been spilt discussing if ‘Superbus Tryannus’ (arrogant tyrant in the quote above) is a title, an insult, a nasty pun, a name or any combination of these. Some texts and translations give both the phrase and the name. Some just the phrase. You can take your pick, or mix and match, and argue your case. Later traditions would treat it as a personal name and elevate Vortigern to the status of King. 

But three things are worth noting. 

In Gildas’s version the decision to invite the three ships of Saxon mercenaries is not an individual’s, but taken by a council. 

The Saxons are presented as already known to be worse than the Picts and Scots… ‘when absent they feared [the Saxons] worse than death’ they are hated of ‘God and men’.  

The decision to invite them is a divinely sanctioned disaster. The implication is that if the Britons had turned to God, they would not have needed to invite the wolves into their home. What utter depth of darkness of soul. What hopeless and cruel darkness of mind

Vortigern in Bede

By the eighth century, when Bede writes his version of the coming of the English, the writer’s context has changed.  The 'English' are now not only dominant in the country, but for Bede, they are God’s chosen people. They are still His instrument of punishment for the Britons, but they are no longer feared seaborne raiders, hated by God and men, who sacrificed a percentage of their captives to ensure a safe journey home. 

Although the story is basically the same, the emphasis has also shifted. Bede is writing 3 centuries after the facts and understanding Gildas in the light of his own times. His history is dominated by great individuals: popes, saints, warrior kings, operating without or without God’s favour. His own political landscape is dominated by kings, kingdoms and their wars.

So Vortigern is no longer just a name, but a King, and it is his decision to call in the Saxons: ‘For they [the Britons] consulted how they might obtain help to avoid or repel the frequent fierce attacks of their neighbours, and all agreed with the advice of their King, Vortigern, to call on the assistance of the Saxon peoples across the sea’ [my Italics]. 

Bede repeats this in his next chapter: they came ‘at the invitation of King Vortigern’. Bede also records that the first chieftains were brothers called Hengist and Horsa.

He says nothing more about Vortigern or the brothers but that’s not surprising. From the arrival of the three ships which he dates around 449 to the arrival of the Augustine Mission in 596, he records nothing about the late fifth or most of the sixth century except a brief reference to a British victory at Mount Badon.  

Vortigern in the ASC

Not surprisingly, for the writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the English are neither ‘hated of God and men’ nor God’s chosen people/instrument of His punishment for the sinful Britons, nor limited to three hundred years in their rule of the Island. Vortigern is neither evil nor stupid, simply the remembered agent of the Anglo-Saxon arrival. 

The ASC mentions Vortigern in only two entries; 449 and 455. The first names him as King of the Britons, and responsible for the invitation. The second, six years later, (there are no intervening entries) records laconically that he fought against Hengest and Horsa; Horsa was killed and after that Hengist became King with his son. There is no mention of what happens to Vortigern. 

The genre of these three texts didn’t provide the opportunity for their writers to go into the who, why, how, of biography, even if the purpose behind them made that desirable, which it obviously didn’t. However, having made him into such a pivotal figure, it’s hardly surprising that stories would develop to answer those ‘biographical’ questions: who was this ‘Vortigern’? Why did he do that? What kind of man was he? What happened to him?  

In the next post, Vortigern becomes a character with a biography.  

(One thing to keep in mind, which I’ll return to later, is that as the stories develop across time the initial scale of the events becomes forgotten.) 

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Story of Vortigern

I’m not interested in whether or not Vortigern was an historical figure. I am interested in his role in ‘The Legendary History’ or ‘The Matter of Britain’, in particular the version of his story told by Laȝamon and how that story had developed. 

Laȝamon's version, written sometime after 1155, is the earliest English version of what resembles a full life. The brief appearance of Vortigern’s name in two entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has been developed into a complicated narrative which leads to the conception of Arthur:  Vortigern first seizes power, employs Hengist but is out-maneuvered by him, he marries Hengist’s daughter, fights his own sons and brings Merlin into the Legendary History. 

Vortigern’s story seems to belong to three traditions which might be separated purely for convenience. I'm particularly interested in the story before Geoffrey (1 and 2 below).  

1)   Gildas > Bede> Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
2)   Historia Brittonum (Nennius) / 2a  [The Pillar of Eliseg] 
3)   Geoffrey of Monmouth>Wace>Laȝamon
1 is the ‘historical’ Vortigern. From a possible mistranslation/misreading of Gildas to the brief Chronicle entries for 449 and 455.  

2 is ‘legendary’ and British.  This version is not only ‘fuller’ but different to 1 in a number of significant ways. The inscription on the pillar of Eliseg seems to commemorate Vortigern, but as Higham (2002, p. 167) writes : it treats him ‘with great honour…as a figure of extraordinary repute to whom the current generation look back with proper reverence'. As such it may be the only positive treatment of Vortigern in any of the sources. 

Have I missed any sources from the period before Geoffrey?
(A separate post on each of the traditions to follow).
Update: It's been pointed out that I've left out William of Malmesbury. My thanks.