Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why not write about Sixth Century Britain? I said.

I'm delighted to welcome David Ebsworth to my blog. David Ebsworth is the pen name of writer, Dave McCall, a former negotiator and Regional Secretary for Britain's Transport & General Workers’ Union. He was born in Liverpool (UK) but has lived in Wrexham, North Wales, with his wife, Ann, since 1981. Following his retirement, Dave began to write historical fiction in 2009. His latest and fifth novel, The Song-Sayer's Lament - published earlier this year - brings to life a tale of warlord rivalry, betrayal, plague, heartbreak and famine in a detailed re-imagining of post-Roman sixth-century Britain.

So, I thought, here’s the great thing for historical fiction writers wanting to use sixth-century post-Roman Britain as a setting for their novels – that we really only know four or five things about that entire missing hundred years of our history. But did that mean I didn’t need to do normal levels of research to make sure the settings were authentic in my latest tale? Sadly not. Because, in place of primary source fact, there was a mountain of myth to be overcome before I could start creating a properly realistic background.

Many of our views of Roman and sub-Roman Britain still derive from the antiquarians of the eighteenth century – studies such as William Roy’s Military Antiquities (1793) or William Stukeley’s Account of Richard of Cirencester, Monk of Westminster (1757). These were based on allegedly “lost” original sources, which give us names we still use today – the Grampians, for example, and the Pennine Chain, among many others. Much of the etymology for Roman and post-Roman place names undertaken by eighteenth-century antiquarians was based on those “lost” original sources. But, sadly, it took until the mid-nineteeth century before it was established that those sources were, in fact, forgeries, concocted in the 1750s by a man called Charles Bertram for his book Description of Britain. For more details, see Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins. Yet it was Stukeley, along with seventeenth-century antiquarian, John Aubrey, who also gave us the view of Celtic Druids that still persisted even when I started learning history in the 1950s and which, I believe, remain very strong in popular imagination.

And then there was the vexed question of “Arthur.” Some of the post-Roman and Arthurian websites have tried to use Dark Age literature to prove the existence of such a person – and particularly Y Gododdin. This may (or may not) have been written at the start of the seventh century by a northern poet-prince called Aneirin. The poem contains the Old Welsh half line bei ef arthur, variously translated as “he was an Arthur”; or “he was no Arthur”; or “he blamed Arthur”; or even one assertion that the word arthur is not a name at all but, rather, an obscure noun. There is no doubt, however, that the name Arthur appears in later literary manuscripts – those that are now frequently described as The Four Ancient Books of Wales. But these documents date from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, allegedly containing copies and versions of texts that may have been set down originally in the sixth or seventh centuries. But that means 800 years of copying errors, fashion and culture changes, political and religious tampering, literary adaptation, or simple grapevine misinterpretations that make them priceless as historical artefacts but entirely unreliable as historical sources for the period. Worse, they are all versions from after the “Arthur” myths were already established in popular literature.

Gildas and De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae

The trick for me, therefore, was to try and set aside the “myths” and the “received wisdom”, then go back to whatever may be available as genuinely primary sources to create that realistic setting. That was the approach I took when I was researching my fifth novel, The Song-Sayer’s Lament to look afresh at the years we would now call 540-550 AD. We can be reasonably certain that, from the third century onwards, there had been increasing numbers of continental migrants settling mainly in the south and east of the Britannia provinces. We speculate that some of these may simply have been auxiliaries in the Roman army. Or that they were mercenaries, foederati, employed to fight in the various conflicts that beset the period. Or that they were simply economic migrants: Angles, Saxons and Jutes. This is often portrayed as an “invasion”, but there’s little hard evidence for this. And no evidence whatsoever that these incomers or the indigenous populations even thought of themselves as distinct racial groups or “nationalities” – that was all to come much, much later. In fact, far more pointers to the likelihood that conflicts, where they existed, were inter-tribal, Briton versus Briton, or Angle versus Angle, etc. Yet, even here, all the sources are questionable, to say the least.

The documents normally taken as “primary sources” for this period, apart from the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae of Gildas, may be priceless as historical artefacts but entirely unreliable as historical sources for the period. Only the De Excidio is contemporary and, after that, we have maybe five or six documents, scattered over the next 600 years and subject to all manner of copying errors, fashion and culture changes, political and religious tampering, literary adaptation, or simple grapevine misinterpretation. For those writing about the early Anglo-Saxon era of the late sixth century onwards, all of the manuscripts detailed above may provide something upon which to bite. But for those writing about the hundred preceding years, and about the very uncertain fate of the Romano-British population, they hold little of real value.

And I remained even more intrigued by the lack of primary sources for the period from a “Celtic” viewpoint, and the old myth that indigenous Britons must have only kept their lore, traditions and genealogies orally. Yet there are literally hundreds of inscriptions, revealed by archaeology, dating from around 500 BC onwards, in their own Celtic languages, though using Etruscan, Greek or Latin alphabets. These include entire poems, such as that found by somewhat later antiquarians, in 1887, at Deux-Sèvres: a hymn to the goddess Epona. So, literate Celtic Britons, who then lived alongside the literacy of the Mediterranean world for 400 years, and it seemed entirely inconsistent to me that Romano-Britons should have written no texts on their own history, philosophy and beliefs. And is it pure coincidence that the only fragments of Celtic language texts from the sixth century are Christian documents, such as the famous An Cathach, attributed to St Columba? Peter Berresford Ellis, in his excellent study, A Brief History of the Celts, provides an entire chapter on Celtic literacy, and cites the references which imply that Saint Patrick, “in his missionary zeal”, burned hundreds of non-Christian texts. If true, then how widespread was the practice of Christians burning “pagan” texts?
My conclusion, of course, is that the period between 500 AD and 600 AD is effectively a “lost century” in British history. We know with more certainty what happened next. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and other sources confirm the way in which Angles, Saxons and Jutes eventually consolidated territory into the Kingdoms of Northumbria (most of what we now know as northern England), Mercia, Anglia, Wessex, Essex, Sussex and Kent, with the more specifically “Celtic” folk confined to the south west, Wales, Cumbria and the lands north of Hadrian’s Wall. According to the Chronicles, there were one or two more battles in the period, like that at Deorham around 577 AD.

But all of the foregoing contrived to give me an intriguing premise. What if these things together – the hoax-based conclusions of the eighteenth-century antiquarians; the obsession with Arthurian myth; the paucity of reliable “primary sources”; and a lazy acceptance of that old chestnut about Celtic reliance on oral tradition – conspired to “steal” Britain’s sixth century from us?

Find out more about Dave's exciting historical fiction:-

Twitter: @EbsworthDavid

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting the piece, Lucienne, and happy to pick up any questions or comments