Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

The Historical Arthur and The Historical Jesus

Posted by NT Wrong on August 29, 2008

King Arthur has a big place in British history-writing. The Historia Brittonum (AD 829/830) by ‘Ninnius’ tells the story of how the Anglo-Saxons dispossessed the native British (Welsh). A section on Arthur relates twelve of Arthur’s victories, including Castle Guinnion and Badon Hill. Arthur is described as dux bellorum (“commander in the battles”). In addition, the Annales Cambriae (AD 953-954) chronicles events from the fifth century onwards, and is sourced in Irish chronicles, yet interweaves seven events about Arthur, which are presented as historical. Arthur is also central to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s famous early history of Britain, The History of the Kings of Britain (ca. 1136).

But the earlier De excidio (ca 450-560), penned by Gildas, provides a narration of the same Saxon-Briton wars mentioned in these later texts. The battles climax with the famous battle at Badon Hill, which the later histories describe as Arthur’s great victory.

However, there is no mention of Arthur whatsoever by Gildas.

Today, it is widely agreed that there was no historical Arthur who in any way corresponds to the Arthur of later myth-historiography. That is, even if there were a person named Arthur who fought in the Saxon-Briton wars, we just don’t know anything about him.

As Ronald Hutton summarises:

“The most rational conclusion to be drawn from them, perhaps, is that there is some slight reason to believe in a historical Arthur even if very little can be said about him.”
Witches, Druids, and King Arthur 2003: 42

The lesson here for those who approach the stories of ‘David’ or ‘Jesus’ as ‘historical’ texts is clear. We shouldn’t be accepting stories which have a dominant interest in theological-religious viewpoints as ‘historiography’ in the first place. If there’s any historical elements in the stories, these need to be appraised in light of a careful evaluation of the facts, according to modern historical standards. Now, the best explanation of the facts might well be that aspects of the stories are factual. But, as Arthur historiography demonstrates, it is most unwise to proceed with an assumption of historicity.

Even when the Arthur stories had been proved to be entirely, or almost entirely, legendary, some popular historians continued to ignore it. Such scholars are the ‘Provan, Long & Longmans’ of Arthurian scholarship. One famous Arthurian scholar, who steadfastly defended the historical Arthur in the face of infidels was a modern druid — by the name of Winston Churchill. Here’s what Churchill says about the Arthurian legends:

“True or false, they have gained an immortal hold upon the thoughts of men. It is difficult to believe it was all an invention of a Welsh writer. If it was he must have been a marvellous inventor.”
– Winston S. Churchill. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Vol 1: The Birth of Britain. London: Cassell and Company Ltd, 1956: 46.

Churchill makes the classic argument of the believer-historian: ‘I just can’t see how it can’t be true’. Or ‘if you don’t believe this, you must be mad‘. The following evaluation from Churchill well demonstrates how a believer-historian can be carried along by his own beliefs (in his case, jingoism) so as to disregard the facts:

“In this account [Churchill’s] we prefer to believe that the story with which Geoffrey delighted the fiction-loving Europe of the twelfth century is not all fancy. If we could see exactly what happened we should find ourselves in the presence of a theme as well founded, as inspired, and as inalienable from the inheritance of mankind as the Odyssey or the Old Testament. It is all true, or it ought to be”
– Winston S. Churchill. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Vol 1: The Birth of Britain. London: Cassell and Company Ltd, 1956: 46.

Damn, that’s a funny quote.

Although I won’t go into my reasons here, I disclose that I think there is practically nothing about the biblical David which corresponds to any real person in the past. I also think that some of the ideas about Jesus in the canonical gospels and other early Christian writings correspond to some real Galilean apocalyptic-Enochian religious leader. For various reasons, I consider a historical figure called Jesus best and most economically accounts for the complex data in the Gospel. But, at the same time, I reject any claim that any such historiographical conclusion is ever “100% undeniable”. The historicity of works which are overtly religious, such are the Gospels, are unlikely to get anywhere near 100% reliable (generally speaking from my reading of religious texts). Moreover, in the specific case of Jesus, there is much which is untrue, unhistorical, false, etc. Ask any resurrected saint, and he’ll tell you most of the stuff is made up. Hutton’s estimation of the historicity of King Arthur materials holds also for King David, and I conclude that a few more basic facts can be established about Jesus.

There is one more lesson to be taken from Arthurian scholarship, again from the words of Ronald Hutton. He comments that the earlier, less critical historians and archaeologists chose to follow the legend of King Arthur. In so doing, they created:

“an enormous bubble of mythologizing. When this burst it was replaced by a triumphant scepticism which itself looks suspiciously like an emotional reaction.”
Witches, Druids, and King Arthur 2003: 43

So, there’s a stab both at the gullibility of the Provan, Long & Longmans of this world and the easy scepticism of Wells & Dohertys as well. Although scepticism is sometimes quite warranted (and open-minded questioning is always warranted), the nature of the particular text must be carefully evaluated for its historical value, if any.

7 Responses to “The Historical Arthur and The Historical Jesus”

  1. Jim said

    thought you were dead! nice to see that you can be provoked to return.

  2. ntwrong said

    Yeah – ‘provoked to return’ is right. I just couldn’t keep away.

  3. Duane said

    I always find it, well, an extremely high percentage of the time, I find it amazing that anyone can claim that some one answer to a severely underdetermined problem is “100% undeniable.”

  4. ntwrong said

    It’s astounding. And I liked your nice qualification.

  5. Bill said

    Everything is deniable.

    No, wait. I doubt that’s actually true. 😉

  6. James C said

    You aren’t…one of the resurrected saints…are you?

  7. ntwrong said

    I think you already know the answer to that, James.

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