The Grail Code 
Arthur in Green’s History

(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.

7 Responses to “Arthur in Green’s History”

  1. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Green gives us the background for Arthur Says:

    [...] [In these two vary 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.] [...]

  2. Gretchen Says:

    Fascinating. Thank you for posting. This site is wonderful.

  3. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Where Arthur does appear in Green Says:

    [...] I said earlier that Arthur doesn’t appear in the obvious places in Green’s Short History of the English People. I should elaborate. Arthur does appear in the index under “Arthur, myths and legends of”—a reference that leads me to page 119, where the Norman Conquest has already happened and we’re talking about the flowering of medieval literature. If you’ve been hanging around in our neighborhood for a while, you can probably guess that Arthur’s name first appears in conjunction with Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose blockbuster History of the Kings of Britain was The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter rolled into one. [...]

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