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History and Texts
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Testis Unus, testis nullus
- a discussion of the sources
Robert Vermaat

Allright, as we ARE discussing history on this website, I'll stick my neck out and I'll try and define what history means, or rather, how serious are we to take the sources?

Whether we like it or not, this website and indeed the discussion about Vortigern, Arthur and the whole fifth century in Britain rests purely on what interpretation is given to the available sources. The sole reason for this is the exceptional absence of these sources concerning Britain, an absence that indeed gave rise to term ‘Dark Ages’. A historian discussing this period finds him or herself with a task both easy and difficult; easy because there is only a limited amount of sources to study, difficult because the picture that can be formed with these sources is bound to be scant, limited and subjective.

Relevant continental sources of the fourth to the sixth century include Eutropius, Ammianus Marcellinus, Claudian, Orosius, Salvian, Prosper’s Chronicle, the Querolus, Olympiodorus, The anonymous Chroniclers of 452 and 511, Eugippinus, Frigeridus, Sozomen, Marcellinus Comes, ConstantiusVita Germani and the sixth-century histories of Procopius and Zosimus. Although informative on continental matters, these sources mostly have very little to say about events in Britain during the fifth century and after. We can only form a subjective picture by comparing the political situation with that in Gaul, but that tends to be speculation in itself. For a true historical picture we can only look to the contemporary insular sources.

However, these relevant insular sources for this period are almost non-existent. Apart from the writings of St. Patrick (whose subjects are unfortunately far removed in location as well as relevance) no contemporary sources exist before Gildas, who was already writing towards the third decade of the sixth century and can for that reason hardly be considered a contemporary of, say, Vortigern. Other accounts are Bede’s De Tempore Ratione and Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, ‘Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Annales Cambriae and several later works, varying from Welsh genealogical material or poetry, up to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae.

All these other narrative accounts are, strictly speaking, at least secondary sources (or worse), separated by centuries from the events of the fifth century. Connecting them to Vortigern and the Anglo-Saxon invasions requires subjective and speculative inferences, stemming from a belief that although they were written down later, these narratives drew upon contemporary accounts or oral tradition. These inferences may appear plausible, but remain unprovable, as they rest solely upon the assumption that these oral traditions and now-lost sources survived. Though I would not dare to assume for or against the existence of these narratives at one time, it is clear that any invoked presence now usually sends shudders across the back of any modern medievalist. Testis Unus, testis nullus: unsupported evidence is as bad (or as good) as the complete absence of evidence.

In fact, how to use these later narratives, or even if or not to use them at all, has proved a growing divisive choice for more and more historians. Many scholars have used the later narratives as primary sources for their histories of the period, altogether overlooking any chronological difficulties, while others have used them to supplement Patrick or Gildas. Not surprisingly, a spectrum of opinions developed over the centuries, but the divisions between these opinions tends to grow deeper in recent years. During the sixties, historians were able to build theories that rested firmly upon the assumption that Nennius was a primary source, a phrase that would run the blood of a modern historian cold. Textual research of most narrative sources has deprived ‘speculative’ authors of any cover for such opinions. According to Christopher Snyder, "[David Dumville’s] thorough critique of the later narratives has left few brave souls [amongst them the present author] willing to sort through their chronological and methodological difficulties to find a way to incorporate them into the studies of the sub-Roman period."

Nevertheless, a spectrum of opinions and approaches still exists. At one end of this spectrum is the minimalist position, which is based upon the textual evidence only, and rejects everything except strictly contemporary primary sources. The result of such an approach (by historians like David Dumville and Molly Miller) is that the first half of the British fifth century is virtual prehistory, and that the historical horizon lies at the second half of the sixth century. Some historians have even expressed the opinion that the accounts of the fifth-century history and the Anglo-Saxon settlement are devoid of any historical detail! Nonetheless, these narratives can be used as a source for the study of change or stability of ideas and language in Britain after the sixth century.

At the other end of the spectrum is the ‘survivalist’ position, that is based upon a belief that narratives such as Bede, ‘Nennius’, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and later Welsh genealogical material preserve genuine, little-altered traditions of the fifth century. This approach (by historians like John Morris and archaeologists like Leslie Alcock, but also by many authors on the Internet), which is itself a ‘survival’ of the historical approach of the sixties, risks incorporating alterations, anachronisms, scribal errors and interpolations into modern historical reconstructions. If anything can be learned from the ‘minimalists’, it is that we should not underestimate the problems associated with oral traditions, the accumulated errors of textual transmission and the lack of understanding that still exists concerning the exchange of material between sources.

But is the ‘minimalist’ approach the best one to take? I wouldn’t say that. For instance, as the ‘minimalist’ is bound to be restricted to very few sources, there is a danger that ‘clutching at straws’ can be made into a serious method. As an example I can give the different approaches to Gildas and Geoffrey of Monmouth. Where the former is seen as an accredited source, the latter is usually discarded as a ‘writer of romance’ or a ‘re-arranger of historical facts’ (to name the more polite ones), whose personages unknown to us from other sources are condemned as ‘fictitious’. Yet some historians (Miller) don’t hesitate to rate Gildas’ fictitious events surrounding the building of the Roman Walls as true (if unsupported) history! Thus the barbarian attacks and the Roman relief expeditions, which are in all likelihood no more than explanations for the disasters that befall the Britons as a result for their abandonment of God, are made into the ‘Pictish Wars’, as if they were real events… Therefore, I would not automatically rate Gildas over Geoffrey (though this might result in an anathema from most collegues), for I don’t think of either as historians in the first pace.

But we should not forget that there is a middle ground between both ends of the spectrum. Evidence in accounts such as that of Bede, ‘Nennius’, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, later Welsh genealogical material or even Geoffrey of Monmouth cannot safely be simply ignored. Doing so risks the creation of distortions as well, for omissions of information can result in a picture that is as damaging as one that includes bogus material. Hector Munro Chadwick once remarked that "If one admits only evidence that is strictly first class.. and rejects all late or indirect evidence and that of records preserved by oral tradition, one cannot but get an entirely erroneous impression of the British –or any other- Heroic Age".

Too critical an attitude toward later sources can damage the process of discovery by excluding material that can in itself contain genuine early material, as I have shown elsewhere. My own position, I must admit, tends more toward the ‘minimalists’ as I seek to include material that is derived as closely from the source and in the strictest context with a text, keeping into account at all times that variant versions exist as well. Yet I have to accept the unavoidable risk associated with material such as from the later narratives, such as Bede and ‘Nennius’, indeed even from Geoffrey of Monmouth, which must throw me towards the other end of the spectrum! I believe with many other historians, that some genuine material can indeed be ‘hidden’ in later narratives (‘shadows of history’), preserved only through details such as e.g. early name-versions.

The danger presented by this use can only be diminished by using all later material hesitantly, and only in close connection with the continental sources and insular sources such as Gildas, but also in very close conjunction with modern archaeology. Though we should never let the one field be (mis-)used as proof of the other, we should never completely trust our sources either – they are not infallible. Archaeology is often ignored by historians (as history is generally abused by some archaeologists), but the last decades have yielded such a wealth of finds that the knowledge of the fifth century has grown enormously. We can now approach such sources as Gildas and Constantius anew and fill in some of the blanks, such as the continuity of most British civitates. This information, which is in complete contrast with Gildas’ view of the past, shows that we must look at these sources in their own age. With the fast rise of the Information Technology we can now facilitate our theoretical models of the past, thereby using this information to support or correct what authors in the distant past have written down as their view of the present.

Bibliography

  • Alcock, Leslie: Arthur's Britain, History and Archaeology AD 367-634, (Aylesbury 1971, repr. 1987).*
  • Bartrum, P.C.: A Welsh Classical Dictionary, (Cardiff 1993).*
  • Chadwick, Hector Munro: Vortigern, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 21-33.*
  • Chadwick, Nora K. (et al): Studies in Early British History, (Cambridge 1959).
  • Dumville, David N.: The Anglian collection of royal genealogies, in: Anglo-Saxon England V, 1976, pp. 2-50.*
  • Dumville, David N.: 'Nennius' and the Historia Brittonum, in: Studia Celtica X/XI, 1975-1976, pp. 78-95.*
  • Dumville, David N.: Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend, in: History CXII, 1977, pp. 173-192.*
  • Dumville, David N.: Kingship, genealogies and regnal lists, in: Sawyer, P.H.: Early Medieval Kingship, (Leeds, 1977), pp. 72-104.*
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe, (Penguin, St Ives 1966).*
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: Life of Merlin, Vita Merlini, ed. and trans. B. Clarke, (Cardiff 1973).
  • Jones, Michael E.: The End of Roman Britain, (Cornell 1996)*
  • Miller, M.: Shorter Article: starting to write History - Gildas, Bede and 'Nennius', in: The Welsh History Review VIII, 1976-1977, pp. 456-465.*
  • Miller, M.: Consular Years in the Historia Brittonum, in: Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies XXIX, part I november 1980, pp. 17-34.*
  • Morris, John: The Age of Arthur, a History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, (London 1973, repr. 1989).*
  • Snyder, Christopher A.: Sub-Roman Britain- an Introduction, (ORB 1997).
  • Snyder, Christopher A.: An Age of Tyrants, Britain and Britons AD 400-600, (Stroud 1998).*
  • Vermaat, Robert: Forty Years of Fear, Facts and Fiction in Chapter 66 of the Historia Brittonum, in: The Heroic Age II, 1999.

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