The Grail Code 

Archive for May, 2007

Green gives us the background for Arthur

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

[In these three very long paragraphs, J. R. Green gives us a very good account of the end of Roman Britain, up to the arrival of Hengist and Horsa, the traditional leaders of the Saxon invasion, which forms the backdrop for the traditions of Arthur.]

The island of Britain had for nearly four hundred years been a province of the Empire. A descent of Julius Caesar revealed it (b.c. 55) to the Roman world, but nearly a century elapsed before the Emperor Claudius attempted its definite conquest. The victories of Julius Agricola (a.d. 78-84) carried the Roman frontier to the Firths of Forth and Clyde, and the work of Roman civilization followed hard upon the Roman sword. Population was grouped in cities such as York or Lincoln, cities governed by their own municipal officers, guarded by massive walls, and linked together by a network of roads, which extended from one end of the island to the other. Commerce sprang up in ports like that of London; agriculture flourished till Britain was able at need to supply the necessities of Gaul; its mineral resources were explored in the tin mines o Cornwall, the lead mines of Somerset and Northumberland, and the iron mines of the Forest of Dean. The wealth of the island grew fast during centuries of unbroken peace, but the evils which were slowly sapping the strength of the Roman Empire at large must have told heavily on the real wealth of the province of Britain. Here, as in Italy or Gaul, the population probably declined as the estates of the landed proprietors grew larger, and the cultivators sank into serfs whose cabins clustered round the luxurious villas of their lords. Town and country were alike crushed by heavy taxation, while industry was fettered by laws that turned every trade into an hereditary caste. Above all, the purely despotic system of the Roman Government, by crushing all local independence, crushed all local vigor. Men forgot how to fight for their country when they forgot how to govern it.

Such causes of decay were common to every province of the Empire; but there were others that sprang from the peculiar circumstances of Britain itself. The island was weakened by a division within, which arose from the partial character of its civilization. It was only in the towns that the conquered Britons became entirely Romanized. Over large tracts of country the rural Britons seemed to have remained apart, speaking their own tongue, owning some traditional allegiance to their native chiefs, and even retaining their native laws. The use of the Roman language may be taken as marking the progress of Roman civilization, and though Latin had wholly superseded the language of the conquered peoples in Spain or Gaul, its use seems to have been confined in Britain to the townsfolk and the wealthier landowners without the towns. The dangers that sprang from such a severance between the two elements of the population must have been stirred into active lie by the danger which threatened Britain from the North. The Picts who had been sheltered from Roman conquest by the fastnesses of the Highlands were roused in their turn to attack by the weakness of the province and the hope of plunder. Their invasions penetrated to the heart of the island. Raids so extensive could hardly have been effected without help from within, and the dim history of the time allows us to see not merely an increase of disunion between the Romanized and un-Romanized populations of Britain, but even an alliance between the last and their free kinsfolk, the Picts. The struggles of Britain, however, lingered on till dangers nearer home forced the Empire to recall its legions and leave the province to itself. Ever since the birth of Christ the countries which lay round the Mediterranean Sea, and which then comprehended the whole of the civilized world, had rested in peace beneath the rule of Rome. During four hundred years its frontier had held at bay the barbarian world without—the Parthian of the Euphrates, the Numidian of the African desert, the German of the Danube or the Rhine. It was this mass of savage barbarism that at last broke in on the Empire as it sank into decay. In the western dominions of Rome the triumph of the invaders was complete. The Franks conquered and colonized Gaul. The West-Goths conquered and colonized Spain. The Vandals founded a kingdom in Africa. The Burgundians encamped in the borderland between Italy and the Rhone. The East-Goths ruled at last in Italy itself. And now that the fated hour was come, the Saxon and the Engle too closed upon their prey.

It was to defend Italy against the Goths that Rome in 410 recalled her legions from Britain. The province, thus left unaided, seems to have fought bravely against its assailants, and once at least to have driven the Picts to their mountains in a rising of despair. But the threat of fresh inroads found Britain torn with civil quarrels which made a united resistance impossible, while its Pictish enemies strengthened themselves by a league with marauders from Ireland, (Scots as they were then called), whose pirate-boats were harrying the western coast of the island, and with yet a more formidable race of pirates who had long been pillaging along the British Channel. These were the English. We do not know whether it was the pressure of other tribes or the example of their German brethren who were now moving in a general attack on the Empire from their forest homes, or simply the barrenness of the coast, which drove the hunters, farmers, fishermen, of the English tribes to sea. But the daring spirit of their race already broke out in the secresy and suddenness of their swoop, in the fierceness of their onset, in the careless glee with which they seized either sword or oar. “Foes are they,” sang a Roman poet of the time, “fierce beyond other foes, and cunning as they are fierce; the sea is their school of war, and the storm their friend; they are sea-wolves that live on the pillage of the world.” To meet the league of Pict, Scot, and Saxon by the forces of the province itself became impossible; and the one course left was to imitate the fatal policy by which the Empire had invited its own doom while striving to avert it, the policy of matching barbarian against barbarian. The rulers of Britain resolved to break the league by detaching from it the freebooters who were harrying her eastern coast, and to use their new allies against the Pict. By the usual promises of land and pay, a band of warriors from Jutland were drawn for this purpose in 449 to the shores of Britain, with their chiefs, Hengist and Horsa, at their head.

Arthur in Green’s History

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

(Don’t bother looking—he isn’t there)

I’ve been reading J. R. Green’s Short History of the English People, and I have a couple of observations.

The first is that only a Victorian scholar could call 844 pages of very fine type “short.”

The second, and far more interesting, is that Arthur’s name does not appear in any of the obvious places.

It’s not an oversight, and it’s not just that the opportunity never came up. If you mention Badon without mentioning Arthur, it’s pretty clear that you’re avoiding the subject.

For readers who, by some unaccountable quirk of fate, haven’t read The Grail Code yet, I should explain that the battle of Mount Badon was a famous victory of the Britons against the English invaders, and that very old chronicles name Arthur as the victorious leader. If there was a historical Arthur, which seems more likely than not, then the one fact we know about him is that he won the battle of Badon.

Now, why would an unusually careful historian (and Green is unusually careful even for a Victorian) simply omit Arthur? You’d think he would take the opportunity to express an opinion, either that Arthur was probably a historical figure or that he was probably a myth. The puzzle is even more puzzling when we remember that 1874, when Green’s history was first published, was right in the middle of the great Arthurian revival. The Poet Laureate, Tennyson, was making a handy living off his Arthur stuff. Arthur was everywhere; you couldn’t just ignore him. Except, of course, that Green did. What was going on in his head?

The answer probably has to do with the kind of history Green thought he was writing. In many ways Green is as Victorian as you expect him to be: his neatly constructed sentences, with dependent clauses arrayed in perfect order, form themselves into long paragraphs that can easily go on for a page or two. But in other ways his book seems surprisingly modern. You can see it, for example, in the names of the characters. Do you recognize the name “Æthelberht”? You probably would if I spelled it “Ethelbert,” but Green doesn’t; he doesn’t even give you a hint, like “commonly spelled ‘Ethelbert,’” to help you recognize the name. Bede is Baeda; Edwin is Eadwine. Green is consciously rejecting tradition, taking all his history from original documents, and giving us original spellings to show us what he’s done.

Green also isn’t interested in great heroes of history nearly as much as he is in overall social trends. Even if you could convince him that there was a real Arthur who was the greatest opponent of the English invaders, Green would be much less interested in him than in the emerging social and political structures of the English tribes.

In all these things, Green was in the vanguard of some of the most important intellectual trends of his time. It was an age when some of the best minds hoped for a scientific solution to every problem. The Bible, for example, could be analyzed scientifically, and the result was the era of biblical criticism, during which scholars determined that most of the Old Testament was almost completely ahistorical. Since then, of course, archaeology and other disciplines have inconveniently confirmed the historical truth of most of the Old Testament; but it was a gloriously optimistic era for science, and Green was doing his best to build a science of English history.

Part of that scientific outlook was a rejection of all tradition. If you couldn’t prove it scientifically, by referring to a contemporary or at least near-contemporary document, then it probably never happened. This rejection of tradition is the reason behind the unfamiliar spellings in Green: by giving us Baeda instead of Bede, Green shows us that he’s gone right back to the sources and rejected all the centuries between them and us.

The slope is slippery and the descent almost imperceptible. We begin by setting high standards for ourselves as historians, which is laudable; we go back to original sources, which is essential; we point out that tradition is unprovable, which is true enough; we reject tradition as a basis for scientific history, which leaves us with a comforting certainty; and we persuade ourselves (without thinking much about it) that what we’re left with is the whole of history, which is a demonstrably false and unscientific assumption.

In our age (and the same was true for the Victorians), every important event is recorded in documents of one sort or another. But that has not been true for most of history. In the time of Arthur—around the year 500—literacy was a rare accomplishment in most of Europe. Even the little that was written down would still have to make it through a historical minefield of wars, invasions, and general barbarism before it arrived, centuries later, at an age where literacy was more generally diffused and there was a demand for copies of old documents. Most of what happened in the Dark Ages is not reliably documented; that’s why we call them the Dark Ages.

But there’s a general law in human society: the weaker literacy is, the stronger and more accurate oral tradition will be. Tradition can preserve information for generations with astonishing accuracy.

My favorite example is the kindergarten playground, because it’s an example we’ve almost all seen first hand. Children on playgrounds sing the same jump-rope rhymes and the same insulting little ditties we sang when we were children, and when our parents were children, and doubtless when Queen Victoria was a child. They don’t learn these rhymes from a book, but they learn them with perfect accuracy, because the penalty for the slightest deviation is instant public humiliation.

In exactly the same way, people whose history is not written can nevertheless preserve astonishingly accurate traditions about what happened generations before them.

When we find that the first written record of an event comes generations after the event itself, therefore, we cannot simply reject the generations of tradition between the event and the record of it. That would be simply unscientific. And that’s why history, especially the history of ancient and largely illiterate times, can never be really scientific: because a purely scientific history, paradoxically, would be dreadfully unscientific.

And all this is why, in spite of the meager documentary record, I still think of Arthur as part of history. There probably was such a person, and he probably did what the oldest traditions say he did. I can’t say anything more definite than that, but perhaps truly scientific history is a science of probabilities rather than certainties.

If you’re interested in the question of the historical Arthur, we’ve spent quite a bit of time on this site looking for him. Here are some of the articles:

But what about the real Arthur?

Looking for Arthur: St. Gildas the Wise

A bit more about Gildas

Looking for Arthur in the Annals of Wales

Looking for Arthur in Nennius, Part 1

Looking for Arthur in Nennius, Part 2

Introducing Arthur the tyrant

What we think we know about Arthur in history

The historical Merlin?

The Case of the Fatherless Boy

Battle of the Dragons

Ambrosius the Wizard

Introducing Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey and the Very Old Book

The genesis of Arthur in Geoffrey

Arthur conquers Rome

Arthur’s continental adventures

The Madness of Merlin

Geoffrey and the Breton Minstrels

Meanwhile, in spite of my criticism of his method, I find Green’s history fascinating and in most places very useful. Since I can’t find it anywhere on line, I’ll be posting a few extracts over the next few days.

Mike Aquilina’s new book

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

Just in case you haven’t heard the blasting of trumpets and the beating of tympani, Mike Aquilina has a new book out called The Resilient Church. That’s what the publisher decided to call it. I had suggested We’re All Rubber and You’re All Glue, but apparently the marketers toned down my suggestion a bit.

But “resilient” seems like exactly the right word, now that I’ve had a chance to think it over calmly. The Church always bounces back. Christianity has been through some dark times in the past twenty centuries, but the Christian Church has always emerged from the darkness and flourished. Even the Church’s worst enemies–our own sinful selves–haven’t been able to kill it.

That’s what Mike’s new book is about. Without sentimentalizing history,  Mike shows us how even the darkest times brought forth holy men and women who risked everything to hold up a lamp in the darkness.
These days almost every day brings a new headline that sounds something like “Latest Scandal Will Scuttle Christianity for Good.” And the next day there are always more Christians in the world than there were the day before. The Church grows and thrives, in spite of the fondest wishes of the pundits. A disinterested outside observer might almost be forgiven for thinking there must be something supernatural about it.

Speaking of books, don’t forget that The Grail Code is still on sale until May 27. After that, you’ll have to pay full price–which is still a bargain for a life-changing experience, but why not get a head start on changing you life and save 30% at the same time?

More about coded music

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

Well, I’ve had my fun with the story about the coded music in Rosslyn Chapel, and now I feel a little bit ashamed of myself. Not a whole lot, but a little bit.

While I was dripping sarcasm yesterday, I really did believe that the Mitchells, who are peddling this supposed discovery, were perfectly aware of what they were doing. I had assumed that they were willingly pulling the wool over our eyes—or at least over other peoples’ eyes, since you and I obviously have wool-proof eyeballs—in order to sell a few copies of an otherwise unsalable CD of pseudo-medieval music.

But now, having had a good night’s sleep, I’m feeling more charitable. I’m willing to believe now that the Mitchells are sincere, and that they really do believe they’ve found a coded musical composition in some carvings from the 1400s.

Given any suitably complex system and a willingness to fudge the data a bit, you can discover a code. The various “Bible codes” that pop up so regularly are a good example. Yes, you can find coded messages in the Bible. You can also find coded messages in Gray’s Manual of Botany. You can find coded messages in War and Peace. As long as you have lots of words to work with, and you don’t have any unreasonable expectations that the coded message will be crystal-clear when you decode it, you can find a coded message in any big book.

I don’t know how the results of the decoding were turned into music. But I have heard a snatch of the music on the Mitchells’ Web site, and I can make some guesses from what I hear. If, as I suspect, the soprano part is the supposedly decoded melody, with the other parts being counterpoint added by the Mitchells, then I can believe they actually took the music from the results of their decoding efforts. The melody has a peculiar randomness to it that doesn’t sound at all medieval to me. (I’m not a trained musicologist, but I am a big fan of Guillaume de Machaut—the early Guillaume, of course, before he sold out and went mainstream.) It may well be random; that is, it may be the result of taking non-musical data and attempting to turn them into music. Once that’s done, a skillful musician can add counterpoint, and pretty soon you have real music.

So I apologize if I portrayed the Mitchells as nothing but cynical opportunists.

On the other hand, I see they’re perfectly willing to cash in on some of the mythology of the moment. Why, after all, would someone go through all the bother of coding a musical composition in the decorations of a chapel?—“Unless it was very special piece that contained magical, harmonic and resonant properties that resonated in sympathy with spiritual beliefs. Was this music ‘outlawed’ by the Catholic church for some reason?”

I’m almost positive that the Mitchells are smart enough not to believe this new-age nonsense. That’s why I don’t really feel as much ashamed of myself as I might have otherwise. And another big fat raspberry to the Reuters news agency for making me do their work for them.

Wire Services Will Swallow Anything in a Press Release, Experiment Shows

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

LONDON, England (GC) — Wire services will swallow anything in a press release, a new experiment shows.

The researchers, Thomas Mitchell, a retired Air Force codebreaker, and his son Stuart, a composer, announced their findings after a press release they had prepared ran as a Reuters story. The news service had made no attempt to check the facts.

“Our research shows that worldwide news organizations are easier to fool than even I had previously suspected,” Thomas Mitchell said.

“Even made-up quotations will be reprinted verbatim,” he added.

For their experiment, the Mitchells created a press release announcing a bogus “discovery” of a secret musical code in Rosslyn Chapel, the 15th-century Scottish church that figures prominently in The Da Vinci Code and other Grail-conspiracy literature.

The press release explained that carvings and decorations in the chapel were actually a secret code that hid a musical composition.

“Years of research led the Mitchells to an ancient musical system called cymatics, or Chladni patterns, which are formed by sound waves at specific pitches,” the press release read, in a paragraph that Reuters picked up word for word.

“It’s not as though we made their work hard for them,” the elder Mitchell told a GC reporter. “For the purposes of the experiment, we deliberately made outlandish misrepresentations that anyone could detect with less than two minutes’ work.”

“Cymatics” was a term invented by Swiss scientist Hans Jenny in 1967 to describe a science of wave patterns, especially the visual representation of sound. He was inspired by the work of Ernst Chladni, who, in 1787, published a method of showing the modes of vibration in a mechanical surface.

Neither Chladni’s nor Jenny’s techniques would have been available in the fifteenth century, when the Rosslyn Chapel decorations were sculpted.

“It’s not like this information is a big secret,” Mitchell said. “I mean, it’s in the Wikipedia, for Pete’s sake.”

In another related experiment, the Mitchells have released a CD recording of the supposed medieval composition, in order to determine whether bogus press releases can lead to profitable CD sales.

“I’d have to say early indications are pretty good,” Stuart Mitchell said in another completely made-up quotation.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey