The Grail Code 

Archive for May, 2006

Looking for Arthur in Nennius, Part 2

Monday, May 29th, 2006

The Twelve Battles

Arthur shows up quite suddenly in Nennius. Nennius hasn’t all that much to say about him, but he does give us a tantalizing list of twelve battles:

At that time the Saxons were strengthening in multitude and increasing in Britain.

Now after the death of Hengist, his son Octha crossed from the left-hand part of Britain to the kingdom of Kent, and from him arose the kings of Kent.

Then Arthur used to fight against them in those days along with the kings of the Britons, but he himself was the commander-in-chief [dux bellorum].

1. The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein.

2. The second,

3. third,

4. fourth, and

5. fifth were on another river, which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis.

6. The sixth was on the river called Bassas.

7. The seventh was the battle in the Celidon forest; that is, Cat Coit Celidon.

8. The eighth was the battle in Castle Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of St. Mary Ever Virgin on his shoulders, and the pagans turned in flight and there was a great slaughter among them by the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and by the power of St. Mary the Virgin his mother.

9. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion.

10. The tenth battle he waged on the shore of the river called Tribruit.

11. The eleventh battle happened on the mount called Agned.

12. The twelfth was the battle at Mount Badon, in which 960 men fell in one day by Arthur’s single assault, and no one struck them down except himself alone.

Here Arthur is set in history some time around the death of Hengist and the rise of Octha, but vaguely “in those days,” when he fought in the imperfect tense (“pugnabat”). It looks as though Nennius had an entirely different source for the history of Arthur from the one he had been using before, and he pasted the two sources together with only the most desultory sort of transition.

Was Arthur a king? Nennius has been interpreted as saying that he wasn’t, but I think that’s reading too much into what he wrote. Arthur fought “along with the kings of the Britons, but he himself was the commander-in-chief.” That could mean either that he was not a king but fought along with kings, or that he was a king, and the preeminent one.

Nennius may also be using the term “kings” loosely or anachronistically; there hadn’t been much time since the end of the orderly Roman provincial government for legitimate hereditary monarchies to form. We’re probably talking about a loose association of normally feuding warlords who put aside their differences to fight the Saxons, and since none of the others are named we can take it that Arthur was preeminent among them.

Some take “dux bellorum,” which I’ve translated as “commander-in-chief,” as a memory of the old Roman imperial title by that name, and go on from there to imagine Arthur as trying to restore some shadow of the old Roman imperial government in Britain. I won’t draw that conclusion, but I will remember an interesting fact I mentioned earlier: that medieval Welsh legends often call Arthur “emperor.”

As we mention in The Grail Code, whole academic careers have been spent trying to identify the locations of the twelve battles in Nennius. I won’t get into that, either. Instead, I’m more interested in the eighth battle, the one at Castle Guinnion. Once again we see Arthur carrying an image on his “shoulders.” (Some historians suspect that “shoulders,” both here and in the Annals of Wales, may be a mistranslation of “shield,” which was almost identical to “shoulders” in the old British or Welsh language. If that’s true, it’s evidence that there was an ancient written source for the Arthurian traditions.) Here the image is of the Blessed Virgin, rather than the Cross. But once again the implication is the same: Arthur won because he fought on the side of God.

But if he won by divine assistance, how did he lose God’s favor? That’s an interesting question that will send us looking into all sorts of obscure local traditions.

The Grail takes wing

Friday, May 26th, 2006

I’ve been suffering from one of those arcane diseases the cure for which would qualify, according to the Wikipedia list, as a “Holy Grail”: namely, the common cold. Illness alone could explain my prolonged absence from the fascinating world of Nennius. Meanwhile, while I was wallowing in my misery, somebody pointed out to me a book called The Grail Bird by Tim Gallager, which is about the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker.

If you’ve ever seen a pileated woodpecker, you have some idea of what a magnificent bird the larger and showier ivory-billed must be. When I was a boy, I used to imagine myself finding the last stand of the ivory-billed woodpeckers; the fact that I lived inside the Beltway in the suburbs of Washington didn’t discourage me at all. (After all, we had pileated woodpeckers coming through our woods often enough, so what was to prevent an ivory-billed from moving in?)

So I can certainly see why North American birdwatchers would consider the ivory-billed woodpecker the Holy Grail of birdwatching, and I’m delighted to add the bird to my collection of Holy-Grails-of.

So dork the can of man

Monday, May 22nd, 2006

A trip to the supermarket has taught me the true meaning of The Da Vinci Code. In the checkout line, I spotted one of those weekly women’s magazines that prey on the gullible, and of course the cover story was “Lose a Pound a Day with The Da Vinci Code Diet!”

Apparently the novel reveals the secret scientific principle behind the Holy Grail of effortless weight loss. All this stuff about secret societies and two-thousand-year-old conspiracies was just a cover for the real message, which is that you can lose inches quickly without breaking a sweat.

There’s already a Da Vinci Code Diet book out; I don’t know whether this magazine article deals with the same diet or whether two people, incredible as it sounds, independently hit on the same idea for cashing in on Dan Brown’s success.

Looking for Arthur in Nennius, Part 1

Monday, May 22nd, 2006

Discovery of the True Nennius

The Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who was not as stark raving bonkers as he seems at first glance, wrote a long “Discovery of the True Homer” (it appeared in the 1744 edition of his New Science), in which he concluded that Homer was really the common sense of the Greek people. In other words, Homer’s works are a repository of everything the ancient Greeks believed about themselves and their world. (In Vico, “common sense” means not practical prudence but rather the shared assumptions and beliefs of an entire culture.)

In Vico’s interpretation, it’s useless and irrelevant to look for a particular author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In effect, the entire Greek culture was the author of the Homeric epics.

By now you’re probably wondering whether you’ve accidentally stumbled into one of those disreputable Vico blogs that infest dank corners of the Web. No, we’re still looking for the historical Arthur, but now we’ve come to Nennius. And Nennius’ History of the Britons is such a strange production that we might want Vico’s help in accounting for it.

We don’t know much about Nennius, and in fact there is considerable doubt as to whether Nennius was Nennius. Some historians are convinced that the author of the History was only pretending to be Nennius, wearing a pair of Groucho glasses to hide his anonymous face from the prying eyes of literary history.

It’s even harder to pick out who Nennius was when you look at the crowd of different and widely divergent manuscripts. (I haven’t looked at the manuscripts myself, of course, but Theodore Mommsen’s critical edition has to resort to multiple columns and rules and italics and other unusual typographical equipment to sort them all out—and even then the footnoted variations take up half of each page.)

Where in this cacophony of variant readings is the original author?

Or are we asking the wrong question?

Monkish copyists of the Dark Ages varied widely in their competence, but they did usually make a serious attempt to preserve the words of the original author. For Nennius, however, the rules seem to have been suspended. Every copyist felt free to correct and add to the History from his own store of traditional knowledge.

Why this strange difference of standards? The only explanation that occurs to me is that the Welsh monks didn’t regard Nennius as an author whose words were to be preserved. Instead, they saw the History of the Britons as a repository of Welsh tradition, where everything the Welsh knew about their history was deposited. When they found another valuable nugget of tradition, they carefully deposited it in their History for safekeeping.

Thus we might say that the true Nennius was the common sense of the Britons, and that instead of trying to figure out who wrote the History, we should regard the Welsh people themselves as the authors.

Does this way of looking at Nennius get us any closer to the Arthur of history? Perhaps it does. We’ll find, at least, that it gets us much closer to the Welsh of the Dark Ages, the descendants of the Britons who held off the Saxons for a century but finally lost most of their island to the invaders. They had a particular way of looking at history; and if you’ve been following our quest for Arthur so far, that way will be very familiar.

Dealing with the Da Vinci Code movie

Sunday, May 21st, 2006

The long-awaited Da Vinci Code movie is out, and a lot of people have been turning purple and shouting “Blasphemy!”

It’s an understandable reaction, but I think a wrongheaded one. Going all purple in the face makes people think Dan Brown is somebody important, like Voltaire or Salman Rushdie.

No matter how many people have read the thing, The Da Vinci Code is just a silly novel. The impression we need to convey to the world is that Dan Brown has no effect on the confidence of a Christian. The truth was here before Dan Brown and will be here long after. That’s why I think the best thing to do with the book is laugh at it.

And don’t think Dan Brown isn’t in on the joke. Did you read the book? Did you notice that, in a novel saturated with anagrams, the keystone that unlocks the mystery of the Grail is located on a street called Haxo? It doesn’t take a cryptologist to unscramble that Junior Jumble.

Other writers have spent a lot of time refuting the novel’s fictional history point by point. (Once again, let me point out Fr. John Wauck’s admirable “Da Vinci Code Catechism,” which does the job quickly and charitably.) It has to be done, I suppose, but it’s not very entertaining. Those fish are too easy to shoot. I want a bigger barrel.

Anyway, point-by-point refutations always make the book seem more important than it is. I still think the best way to confront The Da Vinci Code is with amusement, not with anger.

Christianity is not in danger of smashing to bits because it ran up against a piece of fluff entertainment. No one should have the impression that we’re afraid of Dan Brown, who always looks in his photographs like the most harmless individual you could possibly meet. You can’t bring down a cathedral by throwing marshmallows at it. Our faith is a bit stronger than that.

Looking for Arthur in the Annals of Wales

Friday, May 19th, 2006

Probably the oldest source that gives us any details at all about Arthur is a brief entry in the Annals of Wales:

Bellum Badonis, in quo Arthur portavit crucem Domini nostri Jhesu Christi tribus diebus et tribus noctibus in humeros suos et Brittones victores fuerunt.

The battle of Badon, in which Arthur bore the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights, and the Britons were the victors.

Here at last we have Arthur named as the hero of Badon, and if we were certain when the Annals were written down, we might be much more certain that Arthur was a real figure in history. But no one is quite sure when the Annals were written; or, rather, everyone seems to be absolutely positive, but they all come up with wildly different dates.

Medieval Welsh stories often call Arthur Emperor, and it is tempting to take that title as evidence that Arthur’s own people preserved the memory of some historical fact—that “Emperor” was Arthur’s proper title. From that we might deduce that it was his mission to preserve and restore Roman civilization, and we could go on to draw a vivid picture of Arthur as a last flickering flame briefly holding off the inevitable darkness.

But the Welsh legends are too fragmentary to give us a coherent picture of Arthur’s world. Like the Holy Grail itself, the legendary Arthur is woven together from multiple strands, and it’s very hard to argue backward from legend to history.

In the Annals of Wales, there is only one other mention of Arthur:

Gueith Camlann in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt, et mortalitas in Brittannia et in Hibernia fuit.

Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell; and there was plague in Britain and in Ireland.

There is a space of 21 years between Badon and Camlann. That space could have been the age of order that Gildas remembered. The Annals of Wales put Camlann in the year 537. Or somewhere around there: other historians, making various assumptions about the inaccuracy of the Annals’ chronology, give wildly different dates.

Presuming, then, that there was an Arthur, and that these two entries in the Annals of Wales are accurate, these are the things we know about him:

1. He was a Christian leader fighting pagan invaders.

2. He was successful against those invaders.

3. He fell in battle with Medraut (which is obviously the same name as Mordred). We don’t know, however, whether Arthur and Medraut were fighting each other or were allies against a common enemy.

4. He was memorable enough that his name, alone of all the British leaders of his time, was preserved forever in legend.

That last point is the most important. Whoever the real Arthur was, his legend has had a far greater effect on civilization than he himself ever had.

The Annals of Wales give us one more tantalizing glimpse of the world of Arthur. Thirty-six years after the fatal battle of Camlann (and three years after the death of Gildas), we find this startling entry for the year 573:

Bellum Armterid inter filios Elifer et Guendoleu filium Keidiau; in quo bello Guendoleu cecidit; Merlinus insanus effectus est.

Battle of Armterid between the sons of Elifer and Guendoleu son of Keidiau, in which battle Guendoleu was killed; Merlin was driven mad.

The entry is startling because that name Merlin jumps off the page at us. The Annals have not introduced him before, and we hear no more of him after this. But there must have been a well-known story of Merlin’s madness. Was this the same Merlin the enchanter who guided the young Arthur in all the stories we heard when we were children?

Those are all the details the Annals give us, except that an entry seven years later recording the death of the sons of Elifer gives their names: Guurci and Peretur. Peretur, or Peredur as it would be spelled in Welsh, is a name we’ll hear again in a while.

A bit more about Gildas

Friday, May 19th, 2006

It struck me that what I said about Gildas didn’t mention one interpretation of his history that I’ve sometimes heard from good historians.

We sometimes read that Gildas names Ambrosius Aurelianus as the hero of Mount Badon. In fact Gildas is ambiguous. Since he does not tell us how or when the career of Ambrosius ended, we cannot say with certainty whether he was still leading the British by the time of Mount Badon; but it seems most likely that he was not, and that Gildas has simply reverted to his usual habit of giving us a vague outline of history without naming any of the participants.

Indeed, the best argument against the idea that Gildas names Ambrosius as the hero of Badon comes not from Gildas but from the later writers Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth, both of whom were much closer in time and in spirit to Gildas than we are. Both made Arthur the hero of Badon; both made extensive use of Gildas as a source; both freely acknowledged their debt. But neither felt compelled to explain why Gildas had Ambrosius rather than Arthur as the hero of Badon. On the contrary, they both took it for granted that Gildas corroborated the stories they were telling.

The question is important because whole theories of the origin of the Arthurian legends have been based on the assumption that Gildas names Ambrosius as the hero of Mount Badon.

William of Malmesbury, who wrote in the early 1100s (six hundred years after Arthur ’s time), tells us that Ambrosius “quelled the presumptuous barbarians by the powerful aid of warlike Arthur.” That would make Arthur contemporary with Ambrosius—one of his generals, apparently. But William’s chronology is too demonstrably mixed up for us to rely on his word. It is not even clear whether his information comes from a lost source, or simply from a misreading of Gildas, Bede, and Nennius.

Enquête sur le mystère du Graal

Friday, May 19th, 2006

Well, we haven’t quite caught up to Dan Brown—not yet, anyway—but in June, The Grail Code will be available in a Canadian French edition from Novalis.

“Ce livre,” says the Novalis site, “ne se présente pas comme une nouvelle critique du livre de Dan Brown. Il propose plutôt de comprendre ce qui fascine les hommes dans la quête du Graal.” In other (more English) words, “This book doesn’t offer a new critique of Dan Brown’s book. Instead, it sets out to understand what fascinates people in the quest for the Grail.”

And there you have a measurement of the immensity of the Da Vinci Code industry. You can’t offer a book about the Holy Grail without telling people where it stands in relation to Dan Brown’s book. I’d hardly be human if I didn’t envy Dan Brown’s billion-dollar success once in a while, but I’m happy that Mike and I have more to offer than just another study guide to a popular novel.

Our book is, of course, the best way to counter the historical bloomers in The Da Vinci Code, but we hope readers will still enjoy our book when all the Dan Brown hype has died down. The world of the great Grail romances is much more interesting than the world of paranoid conspiracy theories.

I hear rumors that more languages are on the way. Today, Montreal—tomorrow, the world! (You may imagine a few seconds of unhinged maniacal laughter if you like.)

Now back to Arthur in history.

The Holy Grail of Stamp Collecting;

Thursday, May 18th, 2006

Or, Philately Will Get You Nowhere 

A brief break from our search for the historical Arthur to talk about stamp collecting.

I’m not a stamp collector myself. I’m not really much of a collector of anything; I accumulate things like old cameras and shellac records at an alarming rate, but “collecting” implies some sort of ordering principle in the accumulation.

But if you are a serious stamp collector, you probably read Linn’s Stamp News. In the issue dated May 22, 2006, there’s a whole page devoted to the fascinating idea of building a Da Vinci Code topical collection. Rick Miller, the author of the piece, didn’t find the Holy Grail per se on a stamp, but he did assemble an impressive collection of stamps related to things you can read about in the novel.

There are several Da Vinci stamps—a Last Supper from Italy, a Mary Magdalene from Monaco, and a Vitruvian Man from the United Nations, along with a portrait of Da Vinci from France.

You can also find a Tribe of Benjamin stamp from Israel. In the novel, coming from the tribe of Benjamin made Mary Magdalene royalty; I suppose St. Paul must be equally royal for the same reason.

Perhaps the most surprising was a pane of ten stamps from Venezuela commemorating the beatification of Father Josemaria Escriva in 1992. Could you ask for clearer evidence of the power of the vast Opus Dei conspiracy? (Ten years later, Escriva was canonized as a saint—more evidence of the power of the conspiracy, if any were needed.)

The article is on page 48 of the print edition; I don’t think you can get it on line without subscribing. I ought to read Linn’s more often: it almost makes stamp collecting look like fun.

Looking for Arthur: St. Gildas the Wise

Wednesday, May 17th, 2006

Kings Britain has, but tyrants; judges she has, but impious ones: often arresting and examining, but examining innocent men; protecting and defending, but defending criminals and bandits; with wives in droves, but whoring and committing adultery; always swearing oaths, but perjuring themselves; making vows, but lying almost at once; warriors, but waging civil and unjust wars… [De Excidio, 27.]

This is Britain according to St. Gildas, who wrote sometime in the middle of the 500s. He doesn’t think much of the civil government, does he? But Gildas thinks even less of the British church: many pages later, he overwhelms the British ecclesiastical establishment with a flood of rhetoric that deliberately echoes and intensifies what he said about the kings and judges:

Priests Britain has, but foolish ones; ministers in droves, but shameless ones; clerks, but crafty robbers; pastors so called, but wolves all ready to slaughter souls: certainly not looking out for the interests of the people, but seeking to fill their own bellies… [De Excidio, 66.]

Well, Britain must be in sad shape, then. How did things get so bad? Gildas answers that question by giving us a history of Britain up to his own time. It’s a good history, too, all filtered through Gildas’ burning indignation, which makes it lively reading.

But for the historian, Gildas has one infuriating habit. He doesn’t mention names.

I remarked earlier that Gildas doesn’t mention the name of Arthur. That silence would be very informative if Gildas were an ordinary historian, but he’s not. He’s writing a sermon to all the Britons, and the calamities that befell the nation are the fault of everyone. Later in the sermon, after he’s through with the history, he’ll have some choice words for a few specific contemporaries. But in the history itself, I count exactly three actors named in more than five hundred years of events. Two of those names belong to execrable villains.

There were some memorable characters in those centuries. Boadicea, for example. Gildas doesn’t name her; he speaks of “the cunning lioness” and assumes we’ll know who he’s talking about. (And we do, because the story of Boadicea’s rebellion is well known from other histories.)

Constantine the Great, who made Christianity the favored religion of the Empire, was in Britain when he was proclaimed emperor. Surely that would be one of the proudest moments in British history, but Gildas doesn’t mention his name. He does, however, mention Maximus, who, in his mad grab for the throne, took away most of the Roman soldiers who protected the island. That’s name number one.

After the Romans left Britain for good, Gildas tells us, the wicked tyrant Vortigern - name number two - brought in Saxon mercenaries to fight the marauding Picts. In The Grail Code we quote Gildas’ description of the result: a Saxon massacre that left the island devastated.

Name number three is Ambrosius Aurelianus, the only admirable Briton mentioned in all those centuries of history - “a modest man, who, by chance, alone survived of all the Roman race.” Ambrosius rallied the British, and saved them from complete obliteration. Gildas must have thought very highly of Ambrosius: his is the only name in all British history that Gildas mentions as admirable.

That’s the last name we get (at least until the body of the sermon, when Gildas singles out contemporary rulers for special vituperation). Gildas tells us what happened next: sometimes the British prevailed, sometimes the Saxons, “until the year of the siege of Mount Badon,” which by coincidence happened in the year Gildas was born. It was the last great battle; the Saxons were still kept in check when Gildas was writing.

Badon is a name we recognize: tradition tells us it was Arthur’s great victory. If we hadn’t read the rest of Gildas’ history, we might be surprised that he doesn’t name the great leader who won the battle of Mount Badon. But now we know that it’s not Gildas’ style to name names. With the single exception of Ambrosius Aurelianus, there are no heroes in British history as far as Gildas is concerned.

Though he doesn’t give us names, Gildas does give us a rough outline of what was for him recent British history:

1. The warring Britons were finally united against the Saxons.

2. The Saxons were defeated at the famous battle of Badon.

3. After that, there was peace and security for some time.

4. Then the British relapsed into civil war.

Now, compare this outline with the outline of Arthur’s life we came up with before. I admit that I have deliberately accented the resemblances, but I do think the resemblances are there.

If Gildas, the only British historian of Arthur’s time, had mentioned the name of Arthur, we would be certain that Arthur had existed. But what Gildas does give us is very much an Arthur-shaped hole. The Arthur of tradition is an extraordinarily good fit.

The other thing Gildas gives us is an interpretation of British history - and that’s really the more important thing from our point of view. All the disasters and calamities were God’s judgment on “his Israelites.” Gildas interprets history exactly the way the Old Testament historians interpreted the history of Israel and Judah.

This is the interpretation that would stick with the British through the centuries of the Dark Ages. Even in the most colorful medieval romances, we find that the world of Arthur works according to the rules set down by Gildas. Wickedness brings a curse on the land; only repentance can lift it.

But if Gildas won’t give us Arthur, where can we find him? In the next installment, we’ll look for the very earliest references to Arthur, and we’ll see whether they tell us anything about him.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey