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Monday, 28 February 2011

Nennius’ Numbers

[I am working on a book on post-imperial Britain (Worlds of Arthur), more or less finished - aimed at a wide audience.  It's essentially a book of three parts: 'old worlds' (the old historical narrative, based on a face-value reading of the written sources, and the old use of archaeology to 'prove' this narrative); 'present worlds' (the scholarly analysis that has taken apart the written record, more modern use of the archaeological record) and 'new worlds?' (my own ideas).  Anyway, I've been working on the Historia Brittonum (sometimes referred to as by 'Nennius', probably incorrectly) and where he got his dates from.  Here are my conclusions (this is from Part 3 of the book, by the way). 

Essentially I'm supporting the argument that most of what we read in the HB ("Nennius") is to be understood as a composition of 828-9, usually on the basis of sources we still have, occasionally on the basis of possible sources which are lost but which weren't contemporary or other than legendary - rather than a patchwork of fragments of 'accurate' lost historical sources. Not a new line, I admit; just a development of what I consider to be the most plausible approach. 

I'm grateful to Richard Burgess (Ottawa), who knows more about late antique chronica minora than anyone, for discussion of some of this but all the below is still very much a draft and he shouldn't be associated with any imbecilities that it contains.  Anyway, see what you think.

Note: that I keep tinkering with this, because I keep finding stupid mistakes in it, so if you are interested I'd keep checking!)

A page of the HB

To pursue this argument we need to examine the account of the Historia Brittonum, which has various things to say about Maximus and Vortigern, as well as giving us no fewer than two dates for the arrival of the Saxons (adventus Saxonum), one in 428 and the other in the reign of Gratian, in 374. The latter comes close to the date in Maximus’ reign that I am suggesting. We’ve seen how Bede calculated his date for the Adventus to the period 450-55. How did the author of the HB (“Nennius”) come up with his dates and are they accurate? Any answer to this question requires us to think first about what his sources were and whether they might have been reliable. It has not uncommonly been suggested that the HB’s author had access to a now lost set of British annals or other historical material closer in date to the fifth and sixth centuries.

The writer of the HB clearly had access to the works of Gildas and Bede, whose reliability for our period we have already discussed. We examined the passage about Arthur’s battles and its sources in the last chapter and concluded that it was the HB-author’s own work. He (assuming it was a he) also made use of a series of royal genealogies, both English and Welsh. This is an important point as it shows how written sources and other traditions travelled across the cultural ‘frontier’, regardless of how some of our sources wanted us to view this period as a constant war between ‘the’ English and ‘the’ Welsh. For the period from the end of the sixth century onwards, the HB may have drawn upon poetic sources, given his mention of the names of some bards and possibly some other Welsh historical texts. These may have been of reasonable reliability given that this is a period from which adequate records of various types do survive, but they are unverifiable and often do not coincide with other records, like Bede’s. Given Bede’s own agendas, we should not assume that this makes them untrustworthy; it simply makes it difficult to decide whose version to follow. It is certainly the case that the HB’s author has worked them into the overall scheme of his work, employing phrases that are paralleled elsewhere in his account to make the story of the north mirror that of the south (as we saw in chapter 7). Nevertheless these do not bear upon the precise enquiry that concerns us here.

In addition to these sources, the author used a life of Saint Patrick, based upon the saint’s own Confession but infused with the legends that had accrued about the Apostle of Ireland by the ninth century, and he drew upon strange miraculous material about Saint Germanus of Auxerre. This is quite unlike anything we can see in the Life of the saint by Constantius of Lyon and it is clear from the HB’s own account that there were various versions of this story in circulation in ninth-century Wales. It has been suggested that the Saint in question is a different Germanus, a Welsh Saint Garmon, but this seems unlikely. About forty years after the HB’s composition a British bishop Marcus was telling Heiric of Auxerre, a devoted publicist of Germanus’ cult, about the saint’s British miracles, which he either drew from the HB itself or from the same sources (it is just about possible that it was Marcus himself – described as an old man in the 870s – who wrote the HB). To this list we can add a series of other sources which have not otherwise been preserved: the story of Ambrosius/Emrys and Vortigern, the materials employed for the account of Vortigern, Hengest and Vortimer in Kent, the list of the ‘wonders of Britain’ and a curious history of the nine (or seven, according to the ‘elders of the Britons’) Roman Emperors who ruled in Britain.

This last is more than oral tradition as it clearly made use of classical histories, but the main conclusion that we can draw is that, aside from Gildas and Bede, the sources listed above are almost entirely legendary in nature. Wherever we can check them against earlier and more trustworthy materials they can be shown to be wholly unreliable. This immediately raises a huge obstacle for anyone arguing that the HB’s account of the fifth century and the arrival of the Saxons was based on lost histories. Even were this the case, what reason would we have to suppose that such histories were any more reliable than those of Emrys, Vortigern and Germanus? What grounds would we have for supposing that, beyond the invocation of historically-existing characters, they presented anything like an accurate portrayal of fifth-century events? Again, we must return to the point made at the start of chapter 4, that medieval histories were written for quite different purposes than modern ones. It is interesting that the composer of the HB tended to leave his sources discrete and allow them to say their piece (as in his different accounts of Magnus Maximus and his different versions of the death of Vortigern), but this does not add to their inherent reliability.

The catalogue above nevertheless omits one important group of sources, those drawn upon for the HB’s chronography, the measurements of time since the beginning of the world and between particular events. This is principally to be found in chapter 66 of the HB but other comments are scattered throughout the work. Here we can identify other sources, which still survive and are contemporary with the fifth century. In these passages are also included dates referring to Vortigern and other British fifth-century events. So, even if, for now, we leave to one side the rest of his narrative, can the dates that the HB gives for the adventus saxonum be relied upon? Do they represent contemporary fifth-century annalistic record ‘fossilised’ in this ninth-century history or are they, like Bede’s dates, the more or less educated guesses of a later scholar, based on evidence which we still have? Answering this question requires not merely mental arithmetic but awareness of two or three chronological systems and two different ways of counting, as well as every effort not to slide from one to another (something the HB-author did not manage)! So, with a strong coffee to hand, let us take a deep breath and enter the world of ‘Nennius’ numbers’.

The HB gives us a number of chronographical measurements expressed as the number of years between X and Y. Those of relevance to our enquiry can be listed in rough chronological order as follows (with their HB chapter number in brackets):

He gives us some other chronological indices:

To all this we can add his statement that from Magnus Maximus’ time the rulers of the Romans were called consuls.  Absolute dates in AD form can be pinned to these as follows:

From this, some valuable conclusions can be drawn. The first is the remarkable degree of error and inconsistency. From his writings the author could variously calculate the present year as AP 796, AD 825, AD 831 and AD 857! For the difference between AP and AD dates, see below.  The fourth year of King Merfyn Frych (‘the Freckled’) was 828-29, which equates with none of his calculations! We can nevertheless establish that this was, for him, the current year. Furthermore, AD 831 ought, as we'll see in a moment, to equate with AP 804, not AP 796 and, conversely, AP 796 should be AD 823 rather than AD 831. Another conclusion would be the fact that our author clearly did not cross-check his sources for consistency, but took each on its own terms and let it stand.

This confusion is not surprising. The author was familiar with at least two chronological systems. He knew the common anno passionis (AP: the Year of the Passion) system and the more ‘new-fangled’ anno domini calculation (counted from the Incarnation).  Given that Christ's Passion was held to have occurred in the consulate of the twins Fufius and Rubellius in AD 29  there ought to have been, by antique reckoning, twenty-nine years between AP and AD dates (we would see the difference as twenty-eight*). However, the difference between the AP year, according to the calculations generally-accepted in late antiquity, and the AD year, as we would reckon it, is twenty-seven (or to contemporaries twenty-eight), so that AP 401 is the year we think of as AD 428. Note, though, that at HB 4 our author seems to think there were (by his counting) thirty-six years between AP and AD dates…!

Our author was also aware of a system of Easter cycles and Ogdoads (octads) – eight-year cycles. An Octad was half of an Indiction, the Imperial Roman fifteen-year tax-cycle which was still employed as a dating mechanism in the early Middle Ages (by late antique methods of ‘inclusive’ counting, there were two eight-year Octads in a fifteen-year Indiction). Some Easter tables were organised in groups of four years, according to bissextile (leap) years, so an Octad might be seen as two of these. As if this were not enough, though, there were actually two ways of establishing the date of Christ’s passion circulating in late antiquity; one thought the crucifixion took place in Tiberius’ fifteenth year, the other believed it occurred in his eighteenth. This produced dates that were (by antique counting) four years apart. It is not uncommon in fifth-century history to find an event, dated to a particular year in one source, placed four years later in another.

We can, however, also note that the author’s use of the consulates is fairly correct and consistent, provided you assume that the consulate of Stilicho referred to is always his first, in 400 (as it clearly is in one instance), and that the author always means the first consulate of Theodosius II and Valentinian III, in 425 (they also shared the consulate in 426, 430 and 435). There seems to be a slight error in the years from Fufius and Rubellius (29) to Stilicho (400), which the HB gives as 373, rather than 371 as one would calculate it in the twenty-first century. In fact this is not a mathematical error. The consulate of Stilicho is indeed numbered as AP 373 in late antique chronicles and Easter Tables. A real error, or inconsistency, is where the author counts twenty-eight years from Stilicho’s consulate to that of Theodosius and Valentinian. By modern standards the difference is twenty-five and by late antique reckoning it is twenty-six. He is two years out.

We can reasonably deduce from all this that one of the HB’s sources was a consularium (consular list) or a chronicle or Easter Table based upon one such. Numerous such sources existed in late antiquity. We can further deduce that that his list counted its years by the AP system. In HB 66 the author dates the adventus saxonum to AP 347 (AD 374). Counting Stilicho’s consulate as 373 years from that of Fufius and Rubellius, as we’ve seen, also implies the use of an AP system. Then we have his statement that the consulate of Felix and Taurus was in the 400th year since the incarnation of Christ. This is wrong but this consulate was (as usually counted) in the 401st year since the passion of Christ. This is itself important because it shows that the author could slip from one chronographical system to the other without realising.

We can now establish some of our author’s sources. His odd statement that from the time of Magnus Maximus the Romans’ rulers were called consuls, suggests his consularium/chronicle source began with Magnus Maximus. The calculation of the number of years from Creation to the consulate of Constantine and Rufus further suggests that this source ended in 457. If this work were a continuation of Jerome’s Chronicle then it would have started, or had a break in the text, after 378, making Magnus Maximus’ usurpation one of the earliest events it recorded and certainly the first to mention Britain. Prosper’s Chronicle, written in fifth-century Aquitaine and dated according to the AP system, would fit the bill and a closer examination shows that chapter 29 of the HB is indeed a jumbled sequence of quotes from Prosper. Bede also used this source. However, Prosper’s Chronicle ended in 455 with Valentinian III’s death. As it happens there were continuations of Prosper, one in a now lost eighth-century or earlier manuscript from the Reichenau (Germany) – preserved in two later copies – which take the story on to 457. Perhaps it was a version like this that the HB-author used.

However, a source starting in 378 or thereabouts would not tally with the HB’s use of the date AP 347 (374) for the adventus. Thus, following earlier analyses, I suggest that he was also using Victorius of Aquitaine’s Cursus Paschalis (loosely, Easter Sequence), which also counted in AP dates and stopped in 457. Victorius started with the consulate of the twins Fufius and Rubellius (in which the first ‘Easter’ had occurred), so the difference between that and the consulate of Stilicho could be worked out from that source. It must be said, though, that both works could well have had interpolated comments introduced into them during the 350 or so years between their composition and that of the HB, and we can repeat the possibility that the version of Prosper was itself one that continued the account down to 457 to harmonise with Victorius. None of this implies that any of the possible interpolations were made very much closer in time to the events described or even that they were made in the British Isles. Both sources were Aquitanian and could have arrived in Britain with additions already included.

Another text used was, it seems, a different Easter Table, set out (unlike Victorius’) according to a nineteen-year Easter Cycle. As we can see from his calculations, this source, in spite of being an Easter Table, seems to have counted in AD dates. It was from here that the HB-author derived his Irish chronology.

As mentioned, there are (by antique counting) twenty-eight years between AP and AD dates and twenty-eight is a number that crops up several times in computations using the HB’s dates. We’ve also seen how the author slips from one chronological system to another. He says there were twenty-eight years between Stilicho’s consulate and Theodosius and Valentinian’s. The year 428 recurs, and twice seems to indicate twenty-eight as a margin of error. Once is where the author says that the adventus took place in AD 400, when he seems to have meant AD 428 (= AP 401). His mention of the consulate of Felix and Taurus, his statement that this was four years from the consulate of Theodosius and Valentinian, and his mention of a forty-year period of fear after the death of Maximus suggest that it was 428 that he meant. The other indication of confusion comes when the author says that the adventus was 429 years before the fourth year of king Merfyn. This would also work out at AD 400/401. Our author, or his sources, seems to have stressed the 400th year since Christ’s birth or Passion, using Stilicho’s first consulate (400) as a fixed point. If, when he was trying to calculate the number of years between the present and past dates, the author aligned his Irish source and his copy of Victorius or Prosper along the year 400, he would then have had to count twenty-eight years forward (down the page) from the AP source to read off the AD date. Sometimes, evidently, he either forgot to do this or forgot which system the number referred to, and on one occasion he counted backwards (or up the page) instead! Arguments based upon internal consistency and numerical logic within the HB start on shaky ground indeed.

Sometimes the appearance of the number twenty-eight is fortuitous. That between Stilicho’s consulate and the first joint consulate of the emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III is an error. As the HB-author would have counted it, there were twenty-six. By late antique reckoning there were also twenty-six years between Stilicho’s second consulate (405) and Theodosius and Valentinian’s third (430), but twenty-seven years between Stilicho’s first consulate (which on balance is probably the one the HB-author means) and Theodosius and Valentinian’s second joint consulate (426). By modern reckoning there were twenty-eight years between Stilicho’s consulate and that of Felix and Taurus, which the HB-author also uses, but he would have counted that as twenty-nine years. Overall the statement that there were twenty-eight years between Stilicho’s consulate and 425 seems more likely to result from a simple error in counting the years in a single source than a confusion between two sources’ different dating of the same event.

If we accept that the HB-author had these sources available to him, where does that leave his comments about the adventus saxonum and the other British events mentioned? Possibly he, simply enough, found the entries to do with Vortigern, the Saxons and the strife between Ambrosius and Vitalis in these sources. We will return to the implications of this. I think, however, that the problem is solved quite simply. Saint Germanus clearly mattered to the HB-author and to early medieval Welsh politics generally. I have already noted how the HB’s hagiography hushes up the Britons’ heresy and presents Germanus’ visit instead as a moral ‘crusade’ against the corrupt Vortigern. Yet, on the ‘Pillar of Eliseg’, a stone column erected in neighbouring Powys a generation or so after the HB’s composition, we can see the kings of Powys claiming Vortigern (there a son-in-law of Magnus Maximus) as their founder and saying that his son Britu was blessed by Saint Germanus. Obviously their version of fifth-century events was rather different from that presented in Gwynedd! That there were various versions of the stories about Vortigern in circulation in the ninth century is clear enough from the HB itself, which gives three different versions of Vortigern’s death, although it claims authority for the version it presents first by saying it was to be found in ‘the book of Saint Germanus’. One might assume that in Powys a version closer to the Life by Constantius of Lyon was preferred, with Vortigern written in as one of the local leaders blessed by the saint. Germanus had (literally) become a political touchstone.

Now, in Prosper’s Chronicle, the HB’s author would read that Germanus came to Britain in the consulate of Florentius and Dionysius (429) in response to appeals from the island. He knew that Germanus was associated with Vortigern, for good or ill, that when he arrived in Britain Vortigern and the Saxons were already up to no good and that when he was in Britain Germanus took part in a campaign against the Saxons. For these reasons, it is not difficult to see why he simply put the arrival of the Saxons in the year before Germanus’ arrival. Even if this entry was to be found as an interpolation in the chronicle sources the author was working from, they could well have got there as a result of the same calculations. There are other reasons why his sources might have stressed the year 400/401 (AP) as a fateful year, and this might have helped convince the author that this was when the Saxons arrived in Britain.

There are other possibilities of course. One can read the HB-author’s calculations to see that the year of composition (828-9) was the 401st year since the arrival of the Saxons (428) and that the arrival of the Saxons took place in the 401st year since the Passion of Christ. This would be a good year to present a case for militant opposition to the English, perhaps suggesting that this would be the year of their expulsion. 400 years before their arrival; 400 years before their being driven out: a neat symmetry. This might suggest that the author of the HB already had reason to think that the adventus occurred in 428, although he could just as easily have placed it in that year for rhetorical purposes. This would be a very attractive idea were it not for one thing. On the one occasion when he makes a calculation of the number of years between the adventus and the present day the author gets his chronological systems confused, deducts the AP date from the current AD date and gets 429, suggesting that the 401st year since the coming of the Saxons cannot have been uppermost in his mind at that point at least! This highlights the inherent difficulties in any argument based upon assertions about what the HB author ‘would have’ known or what inconsistencies he ‘would have’ appreciated.

All that, however, leaves unexplained the HB’s other date for the adventus saxonum, in the reign of Gratian, and why he thought that the adventus took place in Vortigern’s fourth regnal year. The ‘Gratianic’ date results from another error. We have seen how he could slip from one dating system to the other. If he counted back 229 years from the current year he would end up in 400 AD. He seems to have then confused his dating systems and deducted twenty-seven (twenty-eight as he saw it) from this date (or counted twenty-eight years up the page of his copy of Prosper or Victorius) instead of adding twenty-eight to it (and counting down the page), to arrive, as he thought, at the AP date and find the consuls for the year. This would bring him back to AD 373. The date he gives is 374, AP 346 in his source, with the consuls correctly listed as Gratian and Equitius (the author wrongly thought that this was Gratian’s second consulate; it was actually his third). This is probably within an acceptable margin of error, especially if we remember that the fourth year of king Merfyn spanned AD 828-9, and that the author’s own calculations of the ‘present year’ were inconsistent! The late fourth-century date for the adventus saxonum is therefore a simple error in calculation.

The statement that the Saxons arrived in Vortigern’s fourth regnal year is, I propose, included to introduce a resonance with the present day. The author was writing in the fourth year of king Merfyn of Gwynedd. The early ninth century was a period of Mercian and West Saxon aggression against the Welsh. According to the Welsh Annals, the Saxons burnt the Gwynedd stronghold of Degannwy in 822 and took the kingdom of Powys (the realm that claimed to be founded by Vortigern) under its control. In chapter 7 we saw that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes the admittedly unverifiable claim that in 830, the year after the HB’s composition, all the Welsh kings submitted to Ecgberht of Wessex. This seems like a very appropriate context for a North Welsh writer to present his king with a history showing just what came of making deals with the English. No surrender! In chapter 7 I argued that this also explains his composition of an elaborate passage about Arthur, smiting the Saxons left, right and centre. The HB was a highly political response to a very specific set of circumstances. Its author cannot have been very pleased with the outcome!

We can therefore conclude pretty safely that each of the HB’s two dates for the adventus can be explained as a calculation dating to 828-29, made by its author from the different sources available to him – Prosper and Victorius and the hagiography of St Germanus – and by simple human error. No significance can be attached to the fact that the HB records two very different dates. Its author clearly envisaged a single event. The HB’s dating of the Adventus Saxonum to 374 is not significant. This is a shame – not least because, if the author used the thirty-six year difference between AP and AD that he employed in HB 4, rather than the usual twenty-eight years, this year would work out as just before Maximus’ usurpation!

Other Traces of the ‘Lost Annals’?

This nevertheless leaves to one side the conflict between Ambrosius and Vitalinus and the sixty-nine years from the coming of the Saxons to the consulate of Valerian and Decius. Do these features indicate a lost set of fifth- or sixth-century British annals? These are conundrums to be sure. The strife of Ambrosius and Vitalinus, the battle of ‘Guoloph’ and its distance of twelve years from the reign of Vortigern (thus c.436 by the author’s reckoning) are very difficult to account for except by assuming that this was something that the HB’s author found in the sources he was using. One can suggest various ways in which the author (or his source) might have been confused with other events and people under those years in Prosper’s Chronicle (such as the fighting between Aëtius and Litorius and the Goths) and corrupted the names but it is difficult to make such propositions carry conviction. Given that Ambrosius is mentioned by Gildas, the safest and simplest solution might be that a British event had indeed been entered into the chronicle around 435. What the strife was about, who Vitalinus was, where Guoloph was (Wallop in Hampshire is usually proposed) and who won are all things we can no longer know. There is, however, another faint possibility, to which we will return.

That leaves the sixty-nine years from the imperium of Vortigern to the consulate of Valerian and Decius. There is no simple solution here. Working forward sixty-nine years from 428 brings us by antique reckoning, to 496. No Decius or Valerian held the consulate in that year. Indeed no one did. One can scurry about in the annals looking for people with similar names. Various members of the Decii, one of the great senatorial Roman families, held the consulate in the late fifth century: Flavius Caecina Decius Maximus Basilius in 480, Decius Marius Venantius Basilius in 484, Caecina Mavortius Basilius Decius in 486, and Decius Iunior in 529 (not to mention their relatives Basilius Venantius Iunior in 508, Vettius Agorius Basilius Mavortius in 527, and Paulinus Iunior in 534!). None of these is very close to the right year, though, and none had a colleague called Valerian or anything similar. More to the point, even those called Decius are usually called by one of their other names in the consular annals (e.g. Basilius in 480; Venantius in 484). If one looks for consular names that might have been corrupted into Decius and Valerian at about the right time, the closest one can get are the Volusianus and Dexicrates who held the office in 503. However, Dexicrates does not appear in western sources so the HB-author would not have known about him. None of this looks very convincing. Nor can one go back instead of forward from 428 to solve the riddle with any interesting results.

Various even less plausible alternatives have been proposed such as a later editing out of what the HB-author really mentioned. One candidate for the latter has been suggested as the battle of Mount Badon – the date of which happens to come out at 496, if you assume Gildas was writing in 540 exactly and if you assume that he meant that the battle occurred forty-four years before his writing; neither assumption is secure.

The most scholarly solution advanced to date, presented by David Dumville in 1976, was to assume that the manuscript was corrupt and that the scribe had made an error in jumping from one bit of text to another. He suggested that Decius was an error for Aecius, a variant spelling of Aëtius. He then proposed this ingenious reconstruction, which I have translated (the bit of text skipped over by the scribe is italicised): ‘From the year when the English came to Britain and were received by Vortigern to [A]ecius and Valer[ius four years and from Aecius to Valer]ian are lx[xx]ix.’ Aëtius did hold the consulate with Valerius in 432 and another Valerius, sometimes Valerianus, held the consulate in 521, 89 years after Aëtius and Valerius. A corruption of lxxxix (89) to lxix (69) is easy enough to envisage. It is a very clever solution but there are problems. Why did the consulate of Aëtius and Valerius in 432 matter to the HB-author or his source? Actually there are, by the author’s calculations, five years between 428 and 432, but that can easily be incorporated in Dumville’s reconstruction. A bigger problem is that in fact there are ninety (xc) years between 432 and 521 by his method of counting. One can assume that the author counted incorrectly (as he demonstrably did elsewhere) but then the explanation starts to look a bit too clever.

I have only this conjecture to offer, which may be no more satisfactory than the others. There was no consul in 496, but in a source called the Campanum Paschale (an Easter Table from Campania in Italy) you will read that in this year many people feared that Antichrist would appear. This was because they worked it out as 6000 years since Creation. Decius and Valerian were two of the great persecuting emperors in the mid-third century. The HB’s chronicle source, which I suggested might have been a version of Prosper continued to 457, might have prophesied or, with more likelihood, reported the prophecy that in 496 would come (or return) Decius and Valerian, as Antichrist. This calculation of the date of Antichrist, and this fear, were not uncommon in the later fifth century. In the ninth century, the HB simply read this reference to a prophecy as the record of a past consulate.

There are problems for this idea. Why should the HB have calculated this date from 428 rather than 457? One reason might be the stress he lays on that year as a turning point. But if that were the case then he must have known that Decius and Valerian were prophesied as Antichrist and that, obviously, they hadn’t turned up. However, it might be that, rather than being under its last year (457) the prophecy was mentioned under Felix and Taurus’s consulate in the HB’s source. This was reckoned as AP 401, the first year of the fifth century since the crucifixion. As we have seen, the year 400/401, whether expressed as Stilicho’s consulate (AP 400) or as Felix and Taurus’ (AP 401), seems to have been stressed in the HB-author’s sources. This might have been a further reason for the author to place the arrival of the Saxons in that crucial year.

What might seem to be another problem is the fact that his computation of the years of the world comes nowhere near 6000. However, most of the HB’s numbers for the years since Creation are taken from Victorius and Prosper. They were, then, current even in the fifth century when this belief in the imminent appearance of Antichrist was common. Furthermore, if his source simply reported the prophecy rather than subscribing to it, the discrepancy between the present year’s date, worked out since Creation, and its proximity to a ‘Year 6000’ apocalypse in 496 would not matter. A more serious problem would be that, since this prophecy is not entered under 428 in any surviving manuscript of Prosper or Victorius, it would have to have been entered into the manuscript (whether under 428 or 457, or under 496 in a manuscript of Victorius) very early on, between 457 and 496. This is not a fatal objection as plenty of other people were adding entries to both sources across the fifth-century West. This solution might now seem, like Dumville’s, to be a little over-elaborated. Nevertheless it retains the important advantage over all those suggested to date that it requires no change at all to the text, whether in the vocabulary, orthography or syntax, or in the names or numbers mentioned, and presumes no later censorship or missing phrases. The HB’s statement remains puzzling.

We need not, and probably should not, assume that the HB had access to a now lost set of British annals, whence came the references to Ambrosius, Vortigern, Vitalinus and ‘Guoloph’, even if there is a reasonable likelihood that the author came across these in the source he was using. That these entries and the other information I have postulated do not appear in any extant text of Prosper’s Chronicle or Victorius’ Cursus does not compel us to envisage another source. We should not think of late antique and early medieval texts as having a ‘correct’ or canonical form. Prosper’s and Victorius’ work circulated in numerous manuscripts, many of which contained additions and insertions relating to local events, sometimes drawn from other surviving sources such as Rufinus of Aquileia’s Ecclesiastical History. Between their composition and the HB-author’s use of them, there were 350 years for scribes to add events and other entries to these texts in a way that was absolutely typical for writers in this period. This is also ample time for a manuscript to enter Britain with various additions made, to be copied and for the copyist to misunderstand the insertions, as well as for that process to be repeated more than once.

We can, therefore, as a result of these perambulations, draw some important conclusions. Where we can identify sources for the HB that are otherwise lost for the period before about 600 these are almost entirely legendary. If the HB’s statements about fifth-century chronology came from one of these sources there would be no reason at all to assume that they were any more trustworthy. There is, however, no need to assume that they came from a separate lost source as they could derive from comments in the manuscript of his identifiable, surviving sources. If this is the case there is, again, no compelling reason to suppose that these entries were more reliable by modern historical standards than the legends about Maximus, Vortigern, Emrys, Germanus or Patrick. The entry about Decius and Valerian might be a fifth-century entry but need by no means be British (indeed, however one understands it, it need not be British) and the entry about Ambrosius, Vitalinus and ‘Guoloph’ had over three hundred years in which to be written into the manuscript of Prosper or Victorius. The dates assigned to Vortigern and to the adventus saxonum are calculations by the HB’s author. In the next section we will look at possible confusions contained in these and other entries. Overall, then there is no reason why we should place any trust in, or weight upon, the HB’s British chronology for the fifth century.

* The Romans and their heirs counted the numerical difference between days and years differently from modern westerners.  They counted the first and the last numbers inclusively, rather than simply deducting the start date from the end date.  The day after the Kalends of March (2 March) was counted as the sixth day before the Nones of March (7 March) rather than the fifth as one might expect.  Thus the HB counts the difference between the consulate of Valentinian and Theodosius (425) and that of Felix and Taurus (428) as four years rather than three.  It is also why he calculates twenty-three nineteen-year cycles as 438 rather than 437 years.  When looking at Nennius’ calculations it is important to remember this and not to slip back and forth between modern arithmetic and antique ‘inclusive’ counting to suit one’s argument.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Brokeback Cartulary: Thoughts inspired by Queer History Month. 1: 'Politically Correct' and Proud

It is Queer - or LGBT - History Month, an umbrella for a series of events established in (I think) 2004 or 2005 on the model of Black History Month.  As a politically committed historian and - as I firmly believe - because the politics of good history, embedded in its very methodology, are inescapably those of the secular, humanist left (I have given a paper on this topic - see my CV - and some day I will write something up about this, but for now you'll just have to bear with me) I thought I would pen a few pieces in support.

The first thing I wanted to say - which is not entirely on-topic but it'll serve as an introduction because it's something I've been meaning to write for a while - is that it is important for historians to be 'politically correct'.  I hate the fact that the term 'politically correct' has become a term of abuse.  One only needs to read (if one can stomach it) the odious Richard Littlejohn in The Daily Mail* or watch the only marginally less odious Jeremy Clarkson and his slimy sidekick on Top Gear (watch this clip because it's brilliant, but watch the whole clip or you'll miss the point, just like the Daily Mail - unsurprisingly - did) to see how this is.  Tragically, one can all too often hear university history students in seminars starting comments with 'I know it sounds a bit politically correct but...' (just like the girls say 'I'm not a feminist but...', because they don't want to put the boys off**), or saying 'but isn't that just 'political correctness'?

So what exactly do we mean by 'politically correct'?  We mean this.  We mean avoiding vocabulary that will cause unnecessary offence to particular groups within society, especially groups who lack the institutionally-ingrained levels of power (social, cultural, formal political) that dominant groups have and are thus likely to suffer casual discrimination, abuse and violence as a result.  Now, as an historian it is my job to try and project myself into other ways of seeing the world, to try and explain and understand (if not to excuse them) but try as I might I do find it hard to find any even remotely cogent or humane reason why political correctness so defined should be viewed as a bad thing, as something to be mocked.  Indeed, trying to project yourself into other world views to attempt to understand and explain them and see that there isn't just one way of seeing the world (even if they aren't all necessaily equally valid) - something I would see as one of the Two Really Important Things about being an historian - lies fundamentally at the core of what is denigrated as 'political correctness'.  Therefore, I would say that good history is, by its very nature, politically correct.

Sometimes I hear it said that 'political correctness' is something new. A case in point is the furore, led naturally by the right-wing press, about the desire to change the name of Guy Gibson's dog, 'Nigger' in a remake of the film The Dambusters. The issue I raise does not concern whether or not this would be the right thing to do, historically, or indeed the ethics of celebrating a raid that was extremely destructive of civilian lives (and cost the lives of over 50 RAF/RCAF crew) and made little or no difference to the course of the war - tricky issues - but simply the idea I heard expressed, in a 'Today' programme interview with Richard Todd (who played Gibson in the original) and one of the last surviving crew-members (perhaps the last surviving crew-member), that 'we didn't have political correctness in our day'.

Actually, of course you did. It wasn't called 'political correctness' then but it was just as political. In the 1954 film's portrayal of the event we are expected to believe that a squadron of specially-designed Lancaster bombers flew low over the Netherlands and Germany, dodging night-fighters, heavy flak and obstacles like trees, hills and power-cables (no one's saying they weren't brave!) and yet, throughout the entire operation, not one of the crews uttered a single expletive.  At all.  Ever.  Why was the swearing that doubtless went on edited out?  Because changing it made little difference to the film and leaving it in would offend people.  Superficially, that looks like the same fundamental principle as 'political correctness', doesn't it?  I wondered at the time whether Richard Todd thought that, if Guy Gibson's dog had been called 'Fucker', the name wouldn't have been changed in 1954*** to avoid offending people.  Of course it would.  It'd have been offensive not to.  No question of tampering with history, or of being 'politically correct' there!

The irony is that the people who would fulminate against 'sex and bad language' on TV, because of the offence caused (to them) or who rail against those who insult the royal family (sorry, the Royal Family, Gawd bless 'em) are often the very same as those who launch their diatribes against 'political correctness'.  If one looks at the buffoons who comment on this site here, you'll see that 'politically correct', 'multi-faith, multi-ethnic, tolerant Britain' is 'a Bad Thing but woe betide anyone who speaks out against the royal family (sorry, the Royal Family, etc.). 

I wonder if they realise they are demanding everyone's subscription to their own 'political correctness'.  I doubt it.  Now, I'm not in favour of the needless belittling or offending of anyone.  The problem is that by saying that these people can be insulted but these can't, you eventually start forcing prejudice and cheap 'bad humour' into other outlets.  For example, it now seems to be acceptable to make pretty nasty jokes about ginger-haired people.  Can't make jokes about people with funny-coloured skin anymore (political correctness gone mad, eh?) but we can make jokes about people with funny-coloured hair.  I'll admit that if I had to choose between the regulation of speech to avoid insulting the wealthy, the over-privileged, the members of the dominant social groups with little really to fear, and regulation of speech to avoid offending people who have to cope with legal disadvantage, regular verbal abuse in the institutionalised press (TV and print: see above), institutionalised prejudice, physical violence, even bombings of gatherings (it's not so very long since The Admiral Duncan bombing), then I think I know which I would prefer.  I'd rather not have to choose.  The humane solution, and the more in line with the ethical demands of history, would simply be to try and understand other people.  A simple application of Kant's categorical imperative.  After all, that is all 'political correctness' really is.  Is that something to mock, or to feel one has to apologise for?


* Something that delights me is that York's (sadly but probably unsurprisingly) only gay bar is called The Little John.  Something that I would dearly love would be for them to put Richard Littlejohn's smug face on the pub sign.  A picture of his face, that is, because - obviously - flaying his nasty, empty, prejudiced head and draping the bloody, eyeless skin over the sign like a sort of grotesque pillow-case would be just so very wrong.

** I know it's demeaning to infantilise adult women by calling them girls but hey, that's OK with you, isn't it?  After all, you're not a feminist.
*** Maybe to 'Foxy' - David Frost cannily wants to change Nigger's name to 'Nigsy', a form which Guy Gibson did apparently use.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Northern Britain and the Fall of the Roman Empire

[The text - of my Anderson Lecture, delivered at the University of Saint Andrews, on 18 February has now been published (you can read it here) so I have removed it from the blog, except for the piccies. 

The argument in the article goes essentially as follows: we ought to think about Roman-barbarian relations in the north of Britain more in the context of those on the other frontiers, African as well as Rhenish; we ought to think about Roman-barbarian relations much less exclusively in terms of conflict and confrontation - the two worlds were inter-twined; on the Rhine frontier it is possible to suggest a rough three-band conceptualisation of barbarian polities, with those in the middle, intermediate band most affected by the imperial crisis around 400 AD; the North Sea should be seen as a cultural zone of two-way interaction and not just as a frontier across which one-way 'migration' or invasion took place; the 'Pictish' confederacies discussed by late Roman sources started at Hadrian's Wall, not the Forth - the rough frontier of the seventh-century Pictish kingdom; a military reorganisation of Britain took place in the reign of Magnus Maximus which involved a movement of regular troops away from the line of the Wall and the (probably only temporary, at least as initially envisaged) handing over of authority in the highland  zone to local military leaders and 'irregulars'; this affected the southern Pictish areas between the walls and perhaps areas further north too; by the middle of the fifth century it produced crisis in that area and a fragmentation of an earlier extensive but weak confedearcy into smaller competing units; it might be that the British on the wall expanded north and became a dominant power; in the period around 600, crucial changes led to a shift in the balance of power towards the English in the south-east (the Scottish east coast should be seen as in the North Sea cultural zone) and the Scots and other powers on the west coast; the British in the intra-mural zone might have been squeezed militarily from both sides and an English political identity might well have become more popular in local competitions for authority; shifts in these years produced change and perhaps political crises in the Pictish areas north of the Forth; it might be to this period that we should trace the creation of the Scottish and indeed other kingdoms, such as Bernicia; internal Pictish strife might explain why the Picts do not seem to be a very active player in the early seventh-century politics that are visible to us.]

Major Barbarian groupings
in the fourth century
The structure of Gildas' historical

Late fourth-century Roman
 military metalwork in Britain
(from a 1986 article by H.-W.

The Traprain Law Treasure
Traprain Law

Thursday, 17 February 2011

'Historical' Web Treasure of the Month #1

Ambrosius Aurelianus, apparently
I post this with no little trepidation, as I'm afraid I'll be bombarded with hostile messages accusing me of taking part in the Great Academic Conspiracy (GAC), but while I'm on the subject of resources on the web, those of you who aren't New Age crackpots will find hilarious entertainment and annoyance in equal measure at this site, the website of a man called - like the anarcho-syndicalist in the Holy Grail, appropriately enough - Dennis, who has, via "meticulous" research, discovered that Jesus grew up in Somerset. I kid you not.  Ever since, I have imagined the Sermon on the Mount delivered in a West Country accent.

I'm ever on the look-out for mad stuff on the web related, however tangentally, to King Arfer, but I chanced upon this treasure because a web search (to confirm that St Ambrose's name was Aurelius Ambrosius, which, because it isn't mentioned in the PLRE entry, I had suddenly doubted) turned up this beauty, in which we learn that the subject of a prehistoric burial with an amber necklace by Stonehenge is none other than Geoffrey of Monmouth's Aurelius Ambrosius, whose name, apparently obviously, means The Golden Amber One (which I thought was a beer).  And Geoff tells us that Aurelius Ambrosius built Stonehenge.  And what Geoff says must be true because he tells us he read all this stuff in 'an ancient book'.

I did consider posting a comment setting out how Geoffrey's Aurelius Ambrosius is a corruption of the (surely) indubitably historical Ambrosius Aurelianus mentioned by Gildas as a fifth-century war-leader [incidentally I wonder whether Geoffrey's surely knowing corruption of that name into the same name as Saint Ambrose's isn't a wry gag on his part], that Aurelius and Ambrosius are perfectly commonplace late antique names (cp. St Ambrose), that Geoffrey's 'ancient book' - if it really existed - is unlikely to be older than the ninth century, and that he doesn't actually tell us that this bit about Stonehenge and 'Aurelius' was in that book, etc.  But a closer look at the original post and the rest of the site suggested that it would only fall on stony ground.  I've got burnt on that score before with the likes of Dennis.  I also read the posts by an acolyte called 'Frank' whose sheer vitriol against qualified people who actually know what they are talking about is highly instructive (check them out) in thinking about what I call 'the siege'.  Ho hum.  All par for the course in what Charlie Brooker has called 'the Unenlightenment'.

Why was I checking out Saint Ambrose, you might be wondering.  Because I'm off to Saint Andrews tomorrow to give the biennial Anderson Lecture, which is a great honour, and I've been doing some more thinking about Gildas and his 'Proud Tyrant'.  I'll post that up next week.

*By the way, if you are thinking of sending in a rambling denunciation about my involvement in the GAC against The Truth about The Ancestors, please don't, because I really can't be bothered...

Friday, 4 February 2011

An important resource newly available on the Web

I have just been informed that some pretty useful York Archaeological Trust fascicules, now out-of-print, are available for download on the Internet: