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Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Corbyn and Nuclear First Strike: A little MAD logic

On balance I am not in favour of nuclear weapons.  I never have been (the first demo I went on was a CND one).  I was always of the opinion that the nuclear arms race was an offensive campaign to wreck the Soviet economy (and it worked - and perhaps that was for the best) rather than anything to do with defence against aggression, and I think they have become less relevant than they were.

Be all that as it may - and I accept that there are forceful arguments against that position - there has been much flak given to Corbyn for his evident refusal to be willing to launch a nuclear first strike.  A BBC Question Time audience seemed to be baying for someone ready to fire ballistic missiles at all and sundry.  By contrast, Theresa May and Michael Fallon have said they would launch a first strike.  This is apparently 'strong and stable' government to keep you safe.  It is of course nonsense and it actually shows how utterly irrelevant nuclear weapons have become.


Because the whole logic of nuclear deterrence relies upon a rhetoric of not being willing to launch a first strike.  Deterrence relies upon willingness to retaliate. (and that's where the tricky arguments actually start).  In other words 'if you shoot first, we will shoot back and everyone dies.'  That is the essence of 'mutually assured destruction' which - according to some people - prevented the cold war from becoming hot (unless you were unfortunate enough to live in, say, Korea, or Vietnam, or parts of Africa, the Middle East or Central America, of course).  The rhetoric relied upon a constant moral deterrence from using weapons, a moral weight placed upon the shoulders of those who might otherwise be willing to shoot first and start the war, a moral weight that said 'even if you win you lose'.  There was a very good and illustrative segment in 'Yes Prime Minister' in which (fictional PM) Jim Hacker was asked in various scenarios when he would launch the nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear Soviet offensive and was unable to answer positively at any point.

Think about it even for a moment.  If Cold War rhetoric had been a 'gunslinger's argument', about which side could, and was most prepared to, 'shoot first' the human race would have become radioactive toast by 1963 at least, or in the 1980s.

The fact that May and Fallon can broadcast a willingness to launch a first strike and deride those who maintain the moral reluctance to do so as being 'weak' only shows that nuclear weapons (and the geopolitical rhetorical and military value of nuclear weapons) have become quite irrelevant.  They have become a simple, meaningless football in macho internal political contests.  Corbyn may be against nuclear weapons but in fact his stance is the one that is most in line with the serious 'defensive' argument for their retention.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

From Group to Subject (and back again) : Rethinking Identity in Early Medieval Studies

[Here is the paper I gave at Kalamazoo the other week.  Thanks to Helen Foxhall Forbes for inviting me, to James Corke-Webster for exemplary chairing and to the audience for great questions.  I have reconstructed some ad libs in blue italics and another I wish I'd made in red italics!]

This paper weaves together several strands of my current work and – indeed – life. At one level I am continuing to ponder the role of the interplay of identities and groups in the political change of the fifth-century crisis and studying the renegotiation of identities around 600 as a motor of social and political change. At another I am possibly more interested in developing a philosophy of history as a mode of engagement with difference. It's that engagement with philosophy that provides the transformation – in my understanding of identity and difference – that is the subject of my paper: from thinking with social science to thinking with continental philosophy. The notions I will discuss are drawn from a battery of thinkers: Jacques Derrida above all, but also Judith Butler, Simon Critchley, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-Luc Nancy. Normally this seems to provoke a reaction on the lines of ‘what's he on about now?’, ‘he’s gone completely mad!’, ‘what is this bullshit?’ and ‘hey, that's not history!’ To the last of which my response is that no, maybe it isn't. I have become increasingly dissatisfied with what history is, and interested in what it could be, and that interplay between ‘is’ and ‘should be’, between the indicative and the subjunctive is a Leitmotif of this paper. Another is implicit in that very question: is this history?  What are the politics involved in accepting the authority that goes with a subject-position?

Identity is of course a timely topic. Analyses of the catastrophic votes of 2016 have sought explanation in crises of, or imagined threats to, straight white male identity. Even I, a liberal straight white male, have begun to feel threatened by seeing people of a particular non-white skin-colour in positions of authority, that skin-colour being orange.  Some work on late antique migration has fuelled these feelings of crisis and danger, through – to be generous – careless and unsubtle populist writing, from a particular view of what historical debate is about, and above all through a conceptual/intellectual indigence that has simply failed to engage with what the key terms of the debate might mean. One only needs briefly to inhabit the social media-verse to see the work by these writers cited as proving why immigrants need to be kept out. [You will also find me described as a ‘dripping wet progressive’ for dissenting from it. That’s far from the worst thing anyone has ever said about me on the internet. “Guy Halsall is kind of a dick” is a personal favourite – and that was from one of Mary Harlow’s PhD students!  I wouldn’t mind but ‘kind of’?  Once again my quest for authenticity falls short.] And far from decrying this citation or distancing themselves from it, the perpetrators of these works seem rather to have doubled down on them.  I have spoken out strongly against this. It was a wager – I’ll come back to wagers – and I lost.  It cost me a lot – in part precisely because of the discursive constructions of authority, identity and speech that I am going to discuss – but I maintain that it was my duty as a historian to speak out, to place that wager. I also want to stress that my intervention entirely recognised these people’s authority to speak and be listened to, a recognition that has been far from mutual in the debate, before or after.

Early medieval studies are all about identity: the material emanating from Vienna and elsewhere about ethnicity; the texts and identities project; lots of papers in this conference – the use of the past, landscape, etc and identity. And yet, it is hardly conceptualised at all. In the whole oeuvre of texts and identities there is, that I can find, no sustained or sophisticated discussion of how identity works, what an identity might be or how it is understood. Even in the classic works of the Vienna School there's no substantial theorisation of identity, and nor was there in my work.  I will address this by presenting a brief historiography before critiquing current thinking about groups and identities, discussing identity and subjectivisation, and coming back to groups at the end.

Leaving aside the influential but highly questionable notion that medieval people only ‘discovered’ the individual in the twelfth century and hitherto only saw themselves as members of groups, the discussion of early identity has focused on - especially ethnic - groups of people. This has reflected developments in anthropology and ethnography. The touchstone for much thinking about identity was the publication of Barth’s Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, which crystallised then developing thought about the mutability of ethnicity, later labelled the constructivist and situationalist approach.   In later ethnography an attempt was made to reintroduce a modified primordialism by eliding ethnicity with Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus, while extreme situationalist thinking developed into a rational choice theory of identity.  Both of these were problematic: the elision of ethnicity with the Bourdieusian habitus is illegitimate and rational choice fails to deal with affective and indeed subaltern aspects of identity. Most recently, ethnography has begun to question whether the group is the correct focus for analysis at all. [I am grateful to my PhD student James Harland for filling me in on developments in that area.]

In early medieval history, debates centred then on what defined groups, and how easy, or not, it was to join them, even if the focus sometimes shifted to the agency of particular actors. Groups and boundaries. You can see this tension in Barbarian Migrations from ten years ago, which I think contains the most sustained theorization of ethnicity in early medieval studies (ten whole pages). This pursued a strand of thought first tried out in Settlement and Social Organisation (1995), based around the contingent, active interplay of different identities and the stressing of links and barriers in social relations or encounters between different people.  And yet… It was still ultimately conceived around groups and group-membership.

Much of this model was sociological in its inspiration and formulation and was concerned with how people achieve aims vis-à-vis other people.  It was concerned with status and power and principally a theory of status, value, worth and social roles.  Following on from that, the model worked according to the idea that identity was a stable entity that could be communicated more or less unproblematically.  It implied that identities were not only things that you had but also things that you were in a straightforward way. This meant that there was a sense of free choice in the deployment of identity.  You picked an identity and invoked the power that went with to achieve your aims.  This implied limited thinking about what power was, restricted simply to inter-personal relations and with a strictly utilitarian focus, and above all, crucially, about what identity was. Given that it was explicitly claimed in Settlement and Social Organisation that social change was sought in the ‘interplay of identities’ this was quite a serious but not – I think – an untypical problem.

A major problem is the assumed ontological primacy of the group.  So much discussion concerns things that give an identity to a group, or forge an identity for a group. Look at the titles of papers in the programme, or books on the stands, that talk in those terms.  The questions which must be asked are how that actually works and, indeed, how identity itself works.

Group and identity are simultaneous creations. To exist meaningfully qua group, a group must have an identity. Logically, if not temporally, the identity must be prior to the group. To be Derridian about it, the first time anyone said ‘we are the Goths’ to someone else (and was understood), the term ‘Goths’ already had to have an iterable place in a signifying chain. That's elementary.

No identity is immanent. All are categories: means of organising the world. As such, they are constructed as signs or groups of signs. Even where those are based upon differences that are, or might be, naturally-occurring or visible regardless (hair-, skin- or eye-colour for example; or differences in genitalia; or physiological stages of ageing), the choice to use them as categories, their precise definition, the way in which they are employed and therefore the ways in which the people of the categories so created experience their lives, depend upon their position in a contingent system of signs. As such they function textually (in the Derridean sense), within chains of presence and absence, similarity and difference. Because no concept can be understood separately from those signifying chains, or comprehended apart from its relationship with other signs, there is always something of the ‘different’ within the ‘same’ and that is very important to remember.

All identities function in the imaginary as well as the symbolic registers. That is to say that there remained (as with all signifiers) a notion of the ideal member of the category. Normally that was structured by some of the aspects which helped define the category (social and ritual mores, etc.) to create concepts of the ideal member of a sub-group within it (young woman, male elder, monk, king etc.). This has two important implications. First, social identities are constituted by performance and citation. Second, if anything even more crucially, identity is itself a motion towards an ideal. The ideal can never be attained, because it never had a pure, originary existence. It’s a motion of desire: what do I want to be, but also, crucially, what do they want me to be? As Lacan famously said, a fool who thinks he is a king is no crazier than a king who thinks he’s a king [he might better have said 'a fool who thinks he's a president is no crazier than a president who thinks he's a president].  As stated,  it's fundamental that, in order to have been capable of communicating any sort of information, any concept had to be capable of iteration, that is it had to refer not simply and exclusively to that specific instance but rather had to have the capacity to be used in others too. It already related to an ideal, which was never coextensive with that which instantiated it, and to its constitutive outside (all the things which, ideally, it was not). This implies the ever-present chance of misunderstanding or miscommunication in the interplay of identities. The social performance or citation of an identity is always, to some extent, a risk, a wager.

Those ideals, moreover, are always themselves changing in the course of social practice. They can never be entirely recreated, not least because, as I have just mentioned, there was never anything there that was susceptible to pure recreation. It is thus critically mistaken to talk of the maintenance of a Gothic or Frankish identity by a particular group, whether the guardians of the Traditionskern or an equally mythical group of Gothic Königsfreie; no such thing had ever existed that was capable of maintenance in the first place. It may be argued that the only time when subject and identity are coextensive is in death: a point of considerable relevance to early medieval studies. Even the creation of an identity may be a misnomer.

I really want to underline the textual and discursive elements that are central to identity, and the inescapable fluidity that that implies. I also want to link identity to speech, subject and authority.  To deploy, perform or cite an identity is to give an account of yourself – to borrow a phrase from a recent book by Judith Butler – but it’s also, as I said, a wager on recognition: of the identity-ideal, the signifier, and of the right to speak/act from that subject-position.  It is in the element of risk or wager that I differ from Butler.  But that links identity to subject-position, and indeed to subjectivisation.  Two years ago I talked here about how the formation of the subject/socialization in the Roman Empire – even for people thought of as non-Roman – was critically entwined with the process of becoming a member of the Roman state, giving that polity a resilience that, possibly, allowed it to endure in crucial respects for up to a century after its political dissolution.  My current work explores what happened when that was no longer the case. I contend that the fragility or fluidity of post-imperial polities was linked to a failure to link group-membership to those processes of subjectivisation in the same way – but also, when thinking about the present – that that was by no means to be conceived of as a necessarily bad thing.

As promised, I return to the group. No group can be reified as a stable entity, not least because the identity that gives it meaning is itself a shifting, eternally renegotiated ideal, with no self-present identity.  At the heart of this conglomerate of ideas and signs, this ideal, as stated, is never reached and only exists extrinsically to the subject. Group membership is a discourse over what this ideal is and to what extent you approximate to it, or can approximate to it.  The ideal of what membership means is then always the object of a gaze, from without. To borrow a phrase from Jean-Luc Nancy, it is ‘an ethos, a habitus, an inhabiting’. No group can thus ever be a totality, it is always itself – in its idealisation - a libidinal motion towards, an unfinished project.

As I have argued before, what is at stake in many of the texts supposed to give identity to groups – the Franks for example – is not some sort of cosy unifying consensus but active attempts to control the discourse of identity. To define who’s in and who’s out. And note too that the discourse over who is or is not ‘in’ is by no means coextensive with the boundary between – say – Goths and non-Goths, about the exclusion of outsiders trying to get in. I would contend that it it is at least as much about  controlling who is, or is not, legitimately authorised to speak from the subject-position of Goth.

It's not difficult to find examples which this theorisation helps us think with. Panegyric for example: the holding up of the mirror of what it means legitimately to hold subject-position of king or emperor; it’s the means by which the king or emperor argues that doing X or Y falls within the sphere of legitimate royal/imperial activity. Both are wagers. I would also cite Michael Kulikowski’s recent discussion of Alaric as subaltern (it would work as well for Stilicho or equally many a Roman who fell from grace). From what subject position is Alaric allowed to speak and when?  Sometimes as Roman soldier, sometimes not. And when not, when he speaks as a Goth, the occupation of the Gothic position is similarly discursive.  What is going on in all those stories of Gregory of Tours about royal interactions with aristocrats? What is going on at the heart of sixth-century Gothic politics, or at its edges? What is wagered by the adoption of a certain costume, or the presentation of a dead relative in a particular way?

I’m not arguing that ‘we (let alone ‘you’) have got it all wrong’, that this is what identity is – not least because that would fundamentally contradict most of the points I have been making. Rather I want to suggest some points or – maybe – sites within or between which we can talk about identities and groups, and that might allow us to think whether or how we are talking about identity at all: some things that might both inflect discussion and in turn sharpen the conceptualisation. Or they might help retain the fuzziness, contingency, chance and indeed incompletion of identity.

When we talk about texts, brooches, monuments, latinity, are we helpfully discussing the construction or creation of identity, or rather identifiers? Sites of discourse or debate about authority, legitimation and recognition of subject-positions? Discourses of power and exclusion within group politics?

We have to keep risk, we have to keep dissent, we have to retain incompletion, the motion towards.  We must avoid the temptation to accept the totalising discourse of consensus and group-identity whether in our sources or in our historical practice. To accept the messiness and incompletion of identity and of the group allows us to listen to other voices and perspectives, past or present, and in turn, through our teaching, perhaps enable a more ethical engagement in the politics of our own day.

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Forgotten King Arthur

[I was commissioned to write an article for BBC HISTORY in connection with the new Guy Ritchie King Arthur film.  This is what I gave them. I was quite pleased with it but they didn't 'think it was right' so there you go. Another attempt to get past the gate-keepers of public history thwarted... I post it here instead and hope it entertains at least.]

As an academic historian of the early middle ages, obviously, a great deal of my time is spent concealing the truth about the real King Arthur.  Or so I am led to believe by the many books that claim to have unearthed the ‘secrets’ of the legendary ruler.  The real Arthur has, in the last year or two alone, been discovered to have lived in two different areas of Scotland, and in the Yorkshire Pennines, Shropshire and Wales, as well as – most fascinatingly of all – being revealed to have been Jesus (albeit not the Biblical Jesus, but the real Jesus, who was a King of Edessa – confused yet?).  Even this is to ignore the sadly as-yet unpublished discoveries, vouchsafed to me in an anonymous letter a couple of years ago, that there had really been three king Arthurs, one of whom was killed in Kentucky.  When I wrote Worlds of Arthur I rashly described the argument that you could plot the movements of the historical Arthur from the distribution of pubs called The Black Horsemen as ‘the craziest’ Arthurian theory but it’s now clear that its originator was a mere tiro in the world of pseudo-historical lunacy.

‘Post-truth’ ‘alternative facts’ and a disregard for wicked so-called ‘experts’ are nothing new to academic historians.  While Holocaust-deniers are the most serious, dangerous and downright wicked practitioners of the fake history genre, the mental gymnastics involved in their fabrication of alternative histories and the scale of the requisite truth-concealing conspiracy are as nothing compared to those of the people who want to claim that the entire second half of the first millennium was fabricated by the Emperor Otto III [the fact that it was Otto the Third always seemed to me to be a bit of a fly in the ointment for this theory]or that neither the Romans nor Charlemagne ever crossed the Rhine, or that Jesus grew up in Somerset … or even of those who wish to argue that King Arthur  lived in Edinburgh and knew Beowulf (I am not making any of this up by the way, I promise you).  Sadly, closer inspection sometimes also reveals the proponents of these pseudo-histories not to be harmless cranks but people with unpleasant nationalist and even islamophobic agendas.

Fortunately for me, the effort required to cover up the truth about Arthur is minimal.  There is no truth about Arthur that anyone can reveal.  That is not – let’s be clear – to say that there never was a real Arthur: simply that it’s impossible to know.  The flaws of the surviving evidence are certainly insufficient to prove that there was no historical Arthur, that there was no ‘fire’ behind the ‘smoke’ of legend, but nor are our sources good enough to prove that a real Arthur existed either and therefore – logically – they can tell us nothing about that figure if he did exist.  There might have been a prototype for the legendary Arthur; or there might not.  And that is that.  Anyone who claims to have proven the case either way, let alone who claims to have proved that Arthur lived in such and such-a-place at such-and-such a time and that his battles occurred at specific places, is trying in effect to pull the wool over your eyes, even if they have managed to convince themselves.  The fact that the wildly different theories above (even the Arthur-Jesus one, though probably not the Kentucky Arthur thesis) all base their arguments upon exactly the same ‘evidence’ proves my point.

Only three sources from before (or in one case probably before) 1000 mention Arthur.  They are the History of the Britons attributed in some manuscripts to one Nennius (composed in 829-30), the Welsh Annals of the late tenth century and the epic poem Y Gododdin written down some time before the twelfth century, although quite when is debatable; it could have been as early as the seventh century or it could have been much later though on balance probably still before 1000.  That’s it.  Three sources.  Not only that, but it must be remembered that the so-called Dark Ages, while certainly very dark in Britain between c.400 and c.600 in terms of written accounts, are nowhere as dark as people might think.  We have one vaguely historical account of this era, the On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain by Gildas.  Gildas is unfortunately undatable and unlocatable with any precision and his work was a sermon largely addressed to the British clergy.  He did include an allusive account of recent history but it is very vague and highly stylised.  Arthur makes no appearance there, but that is not decisive (for one thing, Gildas might have been writing before Arthur lived).  There are, however, many, many other sources that originate in Britain between c.600 and 1066.  Other than the three mentioned earlier, none of them has anything to say about Arthur, whether as a historical or a legendary figure.  Furthermore, some of them, such as the tenth-century Welsh poem Armes Prydein (The Great Prophecy of Britain) are precisely the places where you might expect to find a reference to Arthur.  Armes Prydein is all about the Welsh and their friends uniting to push the English back into the sea whence they came.  Given how Arthur is deployed as the pan-Welsh anti-English ‘leader of battles’ in the History of the Britons, you’d think that this poem’s argument made it the ideal place for him to feature but he is entirely absent.

The silence about Arthur is deafening. Not only that; these documents contain the names of hundreds of people who lived in Britain between 600 and the eleventh century.  After three Arthurs who occur in Welsh king-lists and who all seem to have lived around 600, not one of these people is called Arthur.  All this suggests strongly, and I would say conclusively, that if there was a historical Arthur figure, or even if there was an Arthurian legend, he (or it) was hardly known in Britain before 1000.  The people who knew about it were limited to Wales and possibly to a smallish circle even there.  After all, the Welsh author of Armes Prydein seems not to have heard of him or, if he had, didn’t think he was worth using as an example or rallying cry.

The problem with the sources for British history between 410 and 597 – those that mention Arthur and those that don’t (Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, etc.) – is not that almost all were written centuries later.  Writers wanting to believe their account have attempted to circumvent that problem by adducing ‘oral tradition’ or ‘lost sources’.  Superficially these look like fair points.  Certainly, there are many accounts of historical events which seem to be trustworthy despite their late date, because of these kinds of factor (most of the surviving accounts of Alexander the Great, for xample).  Sadly for the romantics, the argument doesn’t work for early medieval Britain.  It’s clear, for example, that Bede knew as little about this period as we do.  Apart from where he obtained the names of some of his protagonists, such as Hengest, Horsa and Vortigern (which, let it be noted, he simply adds into the story he drew from Gildas), all the sources for his narrative are known; they still exist.  Consequently, we can also unravel what he has done to their accounts, and why. We can suggest that, like Bede, sources like the History of the Britons drew upon stories, legends and traditions – oral and written – but it is impossible to know when they originated during the centuries between the late fifth century and the time of composition (some might indeed pre-date the ‘Arthurian’ period), or how reliable they are. Given that they seem pretty wild, legendary and – where they can be checked – usually erroneous, it is quite a reach to argue that they must be accurate contemporary records.  It is impossible to identify any passages from lost sources that have been simply incorporated into, or fossilised within, later accounts. Put another way, if such accounts have been used, the author of the surviving work has woven them seamlessly into his account.  It's therefore impossible to know what he may have done to them in the process.

This is clear with the most famous candidate for being a ‘fossilised’ ‘lost source’: The History of the Britons’ list of Arthur’s battles, once thought to represent an earlier heroic poem.  Close study shows how the History’s author, whether Nennius or not, constructed the passage – in Latin – in an elaborate way and how it and (crucially) the surrounding passages about the origins of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms function as a hinge between his account of the south and his history of events in the north of Britain.  The ‘battle-list’s’ references to icons and the cult of the Virgin Mary also make far more sense in an early ninth-century context than a sixth-century one.  Wherever the author got his information from, the story of Arthur's battles that he gives us is his Latin composition of 829-30, and not a fossilised fragment of a sixth-century Welsh heroic poem.  Arthur, it is also worth saying, was a legendary figure even by the date of this, his first definitely-datable appearance; the author of the History mentioned him twice in his list of ‘the wonders of Britain’.

That raises a crucial point. These authors did not write simply to preserve a value-neutral record.  They had specific agendas.  Gildas, our only contemporary author, was composing a sermon, as we have seen.  Bede, writing in the 730s, painted a picture for contemporary kings and churchmen of an ideal past wherein his people, the English, seized the green and pleasant land of Britain from the sinful Britons, punished by God for their wicked backsliding.  For him, if the English of his own day did not mend their own ways, they too would be punished similarly (when the Vikings turned up sixty years later his status as a prophet was only enhanced).  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle constructed a demonstrably artificial account of the fifth and sixth centuries (and, in part at least, of the seventh, eighth and early ninth centuries too) to justify the dominance of Wessex and specifically of the House of King Alfred.  The West Saxons’ conquest of the land from pre-existing British kings and their followers (most of whom were simple inventions) justified this; disputed portions of this land could not possibly, therefore, have ever belonged to the rival Mercian kingdom (although – clearly – they had).  As the Chronicle continued into the age of Æthelstan and his successors, the West Saxon conquest of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria and the establishment of a kingdom of All England with dominance over neighbouring Welsh and Scots, this narrative of the conquest of Britain became more pronounced: see, for example, the heroic Song of Brunanburh incorporated into most manuscripts of the Chronicle under 937.

That narrative mattered, albeit for opposite reasons, to the Welsh.  The History of the Britons was written at a time of English (West Saxon and Mercian) military aggression into the Welsh kingdoms.  Its argument was that exactly 400 years had passed between the crucifixion of Christ and the arrival of the Saxons, and exactly 400 years had now passed between the arrival of the Saxons and the present.  Now was the time for the king of Gwynedd, Merfyn ‘the Freckled’, to lead his fellow kings to drive out the English, fighting like ‘Arthur the soldier’.  And if Merfyn’s royal credentials were less than ideal (and they were), not to worry; so were Arthur’s.  The next appearance of Arthur in Welsh historical sources underlines the point.  The Welsh Annals were written at the time of the English kingdom’s apogee, with its tribute-taking from Welsh rulers and imposition upon them of humiliating rituals of submission.  It was written at about the same time as Armes Prydein with its furious resentment of English arrogance – and as The Song of Brunanburh, which celebrated it.

Our historical narratives, then, make use of a shared, politically usable vision of the fifth- and sixth-century past, where one ‘people’ (the Anglo-Saxons/English) gradually conquered the land from another (the British/Welsh).  This circumvents none of the problems of knowing whether Arthur existed but it just might provide a clue as to why, if he did exist, he seems to have been so thoroughly and – let’s repeat – irretrievably forgotten.

The idea that the fifth century saw the conquest of land from Romans by the invading barbarian tribes from whom later rulers claimed descent was common by the early eighth century when Bede, our earliest historian, wrote. Four years before Bede finished his Ecclesiastical History, an anonymous writer in the north of France composed the Book of the History of the Franks.  He saw the establishment of Frankish rule in Gaul in similar terms to Bede’s image of the English take-over of lowland Britain: a steady conquest of land and the displacement of its inhabitants.  This was, as in Britain, a ‘usable past’.  Yet, because we have many contemporary sources for the fifth- and sixth-century history of mainland Europe, we know this image was wide of the mark.  Far from the common image of barbarian invasion, the history of the last seventy years of the western Roman Empire was one of faction-fighting and civil war.  Actual barbarian invasions were not especially common and rarely successful.  Most wars were between regionally-based alliances of provincial Romans (especially aristocrats) and soldiers of barbarian descent (or who adopted their identity).  All this faction-fighting was indecisive but it tore the western Empire apart until the different regional factions settled down into the various kingdoms more or less recognisable in medieval history.

‘Roman’ generals led ‘barbarian’ armies and vice versa and some of them very nearly disappeared from history altogether.  In the late 470s or 480s a Roman general, Syagrius, competed with Clovis the Frank for the control of the Paris basin (an area the size of much of southern England) and its largely-Frankish army.  Syagrius’ father, Aegidius, had, for eight years, apparently even called himself King of the Franks.  Yet Syagrius would be unknown to anyone had Gregory of Tours, writing in the late 570s, not encountered him in a miracle story, probably in a now-lost life of Saint Remigius of Reims.  It is clear from the origin-stories of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that there were, similarly, Romano-British elements in their early histories.  A historical Arthur could – like Aegidius – have been a ‘Roman’ leader in command of a ‘barbarian’ army, or – like Syagrius – have competed for control of a realm that later became ‘barbarian’.  He could have been part of a confusing whirl of factional politics, such as may be glimpsed in Gildas’ account (if we stop viewing that through the prism of Bede’s later reworking), fighting other Romans and other barbarians.  Especially if such a figure, like Syagrius, left no dynasty, he would similarly serve little purpose in the histories needed by eighth-century kings.  In that context, our (possible) Arthur was left with nowhere to go except legend and it is probably only by chance that a couple of fragments of his legend survived to be blown up, after the Norman Conquest, into the wonderful tales of the Once and Future King.