The Grail Code 
Looking for Arthur in Nennius, Part 1

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.

2 Responses to “Looking for Arthur in Nennius, Part 1”

  1. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Geoffrey and the Very Old Book Says:

    [...] From Brutus to Cadwallader is exactly the range of Nennius’ History of the Britons, so it’s remarkable that Geoffrey doesn’t mention Nennius at all—especially since the number and variety of the manuscripts suggest that Nennius was very popular. It’s more remarkable when we find that parts of Geofrey’s book parallel Nennius very closely. Did Geoffrey really not know about Nennius? And, if so, was this “very ancient book written in the British language” a translation of Nennius? Or was it one of Nennius’ sources? [...]

  2. Beverley Negreta Says:

    I found some pretty cool greek recipes here , if you want to take a look.

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