‘What Is History?’ E. H. Carr asked in the title of his famous book. Nothing objective, he argued, saying, “The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.” Several decades later, Richard J. Evans responded with ‘In Defence of History’ and argued the opposite.
It’s not taking sides in this ongoing debate to say that once upon a time, what we now know as history – a lineal narrative of cause and consequence consequence – didn’t exist. When Thucydides sat down about 400 years before the birth of Christ to write his ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’, his chronological ordering of events was a radical break with what had gone before. There was a city called Troy and there was certainly some fighting around it but the account of the Trojan War given by Homer in ‘The Iliad’ was mostly myth. Even the ‘Histories’ of Herodotus, written about 40 years before Thucydides put quill to parchment, have a confusing, scattergun approach with chronology largely absent. Quite simply, Thucydides marked a quantum leap in the documentation of experience: the birth of history.
To see how unusual this chronological approach to history remained, consider that much of the history of entire swathes of the planet remains a mystery. The concept of time as cyclical which prevailed among Mayan or Buddhist cultures, for example, means that we have very little idea of the path of their development prior to their contact with the west and its lineal time.
We see this in England. There was settlement before the last Ice Age rendered the place uninhabitable around 100,000 BC. The end of the Ice Age around 10,000 BC saw people return to England by land from modern day Europe and begin a period of settlement unbroken to this day.
But of these 12,000 years we actually know very little about 10,000 of them, about 80% of the period. The inhabitants of these islands apparently didn’t possess a lineal conception of time. And, crucially, it wouldn’t have been much use to us if they had as they still lacked another Mediterranean import: writing. So English history begins from the outside, viewed by visitors beginning with Pytheas, a Greek sailor who travelled to England in 325 BC and wrote an account of his journey.
Eventually, less welcome visitors and imports came from the Mediterranean. Julius Caesar’s unsuccessful invasions of 55 and 54 BC were followed by the successful invasion of Claudius in 43 AD and Britain came under the jurisdiction of Rome’s historians as well as its governors. It was Cassius Dio who chronicled the guerilla campaign of the British chieftain Caratacus against Roman rule in the 40’s, Tacitus who recorded the rising of the Iceni under Boudica in 60 and 61 AD and Herodian who described the growing anarchy of the late second century.
By the later fourth century, the Empire found its extended borders increasingly hard to defend. Barbarian invaders from Germany attacked Britain, causing the Romans to build a series of coastal forts which took their name from the invaders: the Saxon Shore. In 387, Rome was sacked by the Gauls and Rome gave up on Britain, withdrawing its troops in 410 and telling the British to fend for themselves.
Rome’s replacements were drawn from the largely illiterate tribes of Germany, Jutland and the lower Rhine; the Saxons, Jutes and Angles who gave their name to England. What a break this was can be gauged by how quickly the Saxons became baffled by the deserted stone ruins of Roman Britain. As one Anglo-Saxon poet wrote:
Cities are visible from afar, the cunning work of giants, the wondrous fortifications in stone which are on this earth.
The illiterate Anglo-Saxons retreat from recorded history and into archaeology and rarely emerge until 731 when Bede wrote his magnificent ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ and it was another Mediterranean arrival that made this possible: Christianity.
In 597, Pope Gregory sent Augustine to England to convert the pagan English and early successes were had in the south-east. But there was already Christianity in Britain. Constantine, who had been proclaimed emperor in York in 306, was a convert to Christianity himself and ended the periodic persecutions of Christians by the Edict of Milan in 313. Christianity became officially favoured throughout the empire, including Britain. The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons pushed Christianity back to the remaining British areas, Wales, the north east and Cornwall, where, disconnected, they developed in a rather different way from the Roman church Augustine represented.
Augustine’s arrival started, quite literally, a struggle for the soul of England; the peculiar, mystical Christianity of the British versus the official faith of Rome. It was eventually settled in 664 at the Synod of Whitby where the British accepted the Roman practices. But the competition between religious men, the only literate section of the population, and the simultaneous replacement of illiterate paganism by literate Christianity through the seventh century led to an early flowering of English writing. It was the Anglo-Saxons, wrote Dorothy Whitelock, the great historian of the period:
who in the eighth century led the scholarship of Western Europe, who were mainly responsible for the conversion to Christianity of the of the German and Scandinavian peoples, and who, alone of the Germanic races, have left behind from so early a date a noble literature in verse and prose.
Bede, a monk who spent most of his life in a monastery at Jarrow in the north east, was part of this. In a long career he wrote books on subjects as diverse as orthography and the life of St Cuthbert. In his history he aimed to “transmit whatever I could ascertain from common report for the instruction of posterity.”
Bede matter-of-factly describes how, in 449, the British King Vortigern, plagued by barbarian raids, invited Anglo-Saxon mercenaries from Germany to protect Britain. “Nevertheless,” writes Bede, “their intention was to subdue it.” Under their chieftans Hengist and Horsa, the Anglo-Saxons arrived:
…in three longships, and were granted lands in the eastern part of the island on condition that they protected the country…They engaged the enemy advancing from the north, and having defeated them, sent back news of their success to their homeland, adding that the country was fertile and the Britons cowardly. Whereupon a larger fleet quickly came over with a great body of warriors, which, when joined to the original forces, constituted an invincible army.
In a similarly matter-of-fact way, Bede describes the fighting between the British and the Anglo-Saxons in the sixth century and the internecine fighting between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria, Kent and Wessex and the spread of Christianity in the seventh century. Bede’s book is rather dull at times; lots of it is taken up with reproductions of letters from one churchman to another and accounts of various miracles. But it is riddled with colour particularly when Bede is writing about the saints who inspired him.
More importantly, like Thucydides, who had been a general in the Peloponnesian War, Bede was working mostly with first or second hand information. He culled information from a wide range of primary sources such as church documents, interviews with witnesses and, for things beyond living memory, secondary sources like the lurid ‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’ written by a monk named Gildas in 540. Bede was England’s first historian in the true sense. The historian Frank Stenton wrote:
the quality which makes his work great is not his scholarship, nor the faculty of narrative which he shared with many other contemporaries, but his astonishing power of co-ordinating the fragments of information which came to him through tradition, the relation of friends, or documentary evidence. In an age when little was attempted beyond the registration of fact, he had reached the conception of history.
As importantly perhaps, Bede called his book a ‘history of the English People’. At a time when the Anglo-Saxons were still divided into often warring kingdoms, Bede had a conception of them as a common English polity.
The eighth century flowering of which Bede was a part soon withered. In 789 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded:
…came the first three ships of Norwegians from Horthaland: and then the reeve rode thither and tried to compel them to go to the royal manor, for he did not know what they were: and then they slew him. These were the first ships of the Danes to come to England.
After a respite, these Viking raids resumed with new intensity in the 830’s. One by one the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fell to the Vikings until only Wessex remained. Here the Vikings would founder on the rock of one man: Alfred the Great.
Alfred succeeded his brother as king in 871 and after initial defeats was forced to buy the Vikings off. The invaders attacked Wessex again in 878 and forced Alfred to flee to the Somerset Marshes to regroup, famously burning the cakes along the way. But Alfred emerged with a rebuilt army and shattered the Vikings at the battle of Edington.
Much of what we know of the life of arguably the greatest Englishman who ever lived comes from ‘The Life of King Alfred’ written in 893 by Asser, a friend of Alfred’s who, showing again the link between Christianity and history, was a Bishop. But Asser was just one of many learned men Alfred surrounded himself with. Alfred encouraged learning and literacy and established schools to educate the sons of nobles and bright children “of lesser birth.”
Another fruit of this second Anglo-Saxon flowering was ‘The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ which, building on earlier work, was organised by Alfred. Listing chronologically the major events of every year the Chronicles, the work of many anonymous scribes, were being compiled into the twelfth century. Here the Anglo-Saxons recorded the consolidation of the English nation asserted resoundingly by the victory of the English King Athelstan over a combined army of Vikings, Scots and Welsh at Brunanburh in 937, the successful Danish invasion of 1016 and the re-establishment of an Anglo-Saxon monarchy with the crowning of Edward the Confessor in 1042. It is one of the most extraordinary documents in English history.
If Bede’s work was important for its identification of an English people with a shared identity Geoffrey of Monmouth in his ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ sought to tell the other side of the story. Geoffrey was, after all, a Briton from south east Wales who called the Anglo-Saxons “the odious race.” Where Bede told the story of the birth of England, Geoffrey’s story was the death of Britain. His problem was that of all historians of illiterate societies: a lack of information.
This partly explains why, despite being written around 1136, 400 years after Bede, Geoffrey’s book, replete with giants, dragons and wizards, represents a regression in historical writing away from Thucydides and towards Homer. Geoffrey claimed to have based his work on “a certain very ancient book written in the British language” and just because no such book, other than that compiled under the name Nennius, has come down to us doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. However, Geoffrey may be more truthful when he says “these deeds were handed joyfully down in oral tradition.”
Whatever his sources were, how much is history? As Lewis Thorpe wrote:
the History of the Kings of Britain rests primarily upon the life-history of three great men: Brutus, grandson of Aeneas; Belinus, who sacked Rome; and Arthur, King of Britain. This particular Brutus never existed; Rome was never sacked by a Briton called Belinus; and Geoffrey’s Arthur is far nearer to the fictional hero of the later Arthurian romances…than to the historical Arthur.
Geoffrey’s book gives us much more detail on the lives of, say, Hengist and Horsa than Bede does, but then most of it is made up or probably taken from something made up. The book got bad reviews at the time. In 1190 William of Newburgh wrote, “It is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors, or indeed about his predecessors from Vortigern onwards, was made up, partly by himself and partly by others, either from an inordinate love of lying, or for the sake of pleasing the Britons.”
And yet we cannot say that Geoffrey has no contribution to make historically. When literacy is absent word of mouth can preserve something at least. As Thorpe writes:
In v.4 Geoffrey tells us how the Venedoti decapitated a whole roman legion in London and threw their heads into a stream called Nantgallum or, in the Saxon language, Galobroc. In the 1860’s a large number of skulls, with practically no other bones to accompany them, were dug up in the bed of the Walbrook by General Pitt-Rivers and others.
The question of how much lost history there is hiding in plain sight in Geoffrey’s book is fascinating. But, as the archaeologist Acton Griscom wrote, “How much allowance must be made for expansion and embellishment is admittedly hard to determine, because, first and foremost, Geoffrey was bent on turning chronicle history into literature.”
And Geoffrey’s book is wonderfully entertaining. A dizzying array of Kings, Queens, soldiers and wizards, including an early appearance by Merlin, are all sharply drawn. Shakespeare found Cymbeline and Lear here. There is King Bladud who:
constructed a pair of wings for himself and tried to fly through the upper air. He came down on top of the Temple of Apollo in the town on Trinovantum and was dashed into countless fragments.
There is Tonuuenna who reasserts matriarchal discipline over her son Brennius by ripping her top open in front of his army and declaring, “Remember, my son, remember these breasts which you once sucked!” Armies invade, repel, attack and counter attack. Geoffrey’s book is nothing less, or perhaps little more, than Britain’s own home grown Homeric epic and it is tinged with schadenfreude. By the time he wrote, the Anglo-Saxons themselves had been conquered by the Normans.
What is history? It is inspiration, homage, tool and entertainment. Its father, Thucydides, had modest ambitions; if anyone “shall pronounce what I have written to be useful then I shall be satisfied,” he wrote. This would have pleased Bede. Geoffrey, perhaps, would have been happy to entertain.
This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine