Sunday, July 26, 2009

AtF: Down the Rabbit Hole

We begin this week with the option of taking the red pill or the blue pill. And I’m talking about Morpheus’s red and blue pills, not Obama’s red and blue pills. So there’s still no government health care option for you. Well, unless you happen to live in not the United States or can be addressed as “Congresscritter.” Either way, Cooper coins a word. Or, at least I’m assuming he’s coining the word, since I can’t imagine anyone else on the planet being dumb enough to say this: “By way of a refreshing change, we cannot lay the blame entirely at the door of those evolutionary Victorian and later educationalists and philosophers who laid the foundations of our modern curricula.” Really? “Educationalists?” WTF is an “educationalist?” Wait, what’s that? It’s actually a British word for a certain kind of educator? Stupid Queen’s English. Okay, so I can’t go off on my rant about how Cooper just alienates anyone who disagrees with him by throwing an “-ist” at the end of any noun. Crudstunk. I’m stuck with mocking his attempts at scholarship yet again. Fortunately the deeper I dig* the loamier the soil gets. I’ll bet there’s no nickel core at the center of Planet Cooper, just another place where I can plant the seeds of sarcasm and harvest a crop of sweet, sweet mockery. It tastes kind of like good Illinois sweet corn on a hot summer night. At the moment I’m drinking Big Sky Brewing IPA and eating pita chips and hummus. I gotta tell you, I’d much prefer that sweet corn. Not that there’s anything wrong with hummus and pita chips. I mean, I bought it at Trader Joe’s a couple hours ago. I’m just thinking, “Mmmm, sweet corn.” Anyway, ol’ Bill gets in to some sweet, sweet history.
They are surely to blame for much else that is amiss, but this time the story begins long before their age and influence. It begins, in fact, with the closing years of the 6th century AD and the arrival on these shores of Augustine, the Roman Catholic bishop whose job it was to bring the British Isles under the political sway of the Roman pontif. The story is well known from Bede et al how the British Christians who were here to greet Augustine declined his demand that they place themselves under the Roman authority, and were later massacred for their refusal at Bangor, twelve hundred of the finest scholars and monks of their day being put to the sword.
Wow. That’s quite the story. It would certainly explain why the British hated the Pope. What more can we learn from this story?
From that day on there existed an animosity between the Britons (Welsh) and the papacy that was to ferment throughout the early to late Middle Ages, only to culminate in the eventual expulsion of the papal authority from the realm of England under king Henry VIII, who was significantly himself of Welsh Tudor stock.
That, right there, is an unassailable story of how the Brits created their own rule. They were held under the heel of the Romans until the noble and pure Henry VIII finally threw off the papist shackles. But that still doesn’t tell us how the British historical record was ruined for us. Hopefully Cooper will offer some insights in to that, too. Oh, joy, he does.
But the early ascendancy of the Saxons meant that all recorded history of the Britons was consigned to oblivion as far as historians and chroniclers were concerned, with only Roman, Saxon and, later, Norman accounts of events being taught and promulgated in schools throughout the land. The recorded history of the early Britons was to remain in oblivion for the five hundred years that followed the massacre at Bangor.
Surely there must be some amount of truth in Cooper’s version of history. I mean, it all makes so much sense. Okay, fine, the reason Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church was because he wanted an annulment and the Pope wouldn’t play ball. And, sure, the reason that the Romans, Saxons, and Normans had all the historical records was because they were the ones who wrote it down and the reason the Britons didn’t is because, well, they didn’t write. But surely there has to be some truth to that story of Augustine killing off a bunch of monks at Bangor. I mean, Augustine was a total jackass, right? And, for the record, we’re not talking about Augustine of Hippo, here. He died 200 years before Chester. We’re talking about Augustine of Canterbury, who was sent by the Pope to convert the British. Oh, wait. I think he’s talking about the Battle of Chester. It took place in 615 and Augustine really didn’t have anything to do with it. Basically, King Aethelfrith of the Northumbrians took on a couple other kings and won. A bunch of monks gathered to pray for the losing side and ol’ Aethelfrith, being a kind and forgiving sort of king, decided that their prayers were the equivalent of raising arms against him and had them all killed. It's also entirely possible that it was a tactical move, and Aethelfrith figured he'd be able to break his enemy's lines if they saw the defenseless monks getting slaughtered. But we don't really know how it went down. The Venerable Bede would claim about a century later that the monks were killed as vengeance against their refusal to join Augustine. However, this is all wrong. Far be it from me to challenge the Venerable Bede, for, after all, no one is calling me the Venerable Geds (however should anyone choose to, well, I won’t complain), but the story isn’t at all what gets played out in the annals of Bede. See, the monks in question came from the monastery at Bangor-on-Dee. Bangor-on-Dee was founded by one Saint Dunod, who met with Augustine when Augustine was attempting to bring Wales in under the control of the Church. Augustine screwed up the negotiations and the Welsh bishops went on home. Aethelfrith later wiped out the monks, but the king was quite pagan. Meanwhile, as I said, Bede wrote about it about a hundred years later. He most certainly wasn’t at Chester. So here Cooper has taken two unrelated events and a bit of speculation on the part of a much later historian and turned those three things in to part of an invented history where the massacre was an actual revenge for the actions of the Catholic Church. Of course the simple fact is that if the British as a whole hadn’t liked the Catholics, they could have simply expelled Augustine or gathered their forces to demolish the Kingdom of Kent, which was the only place that received Augustine in the early days. Henry VIII, meanwhile, brutally suppressed the Protestant Reformation and joined with Spain and the Hapsburgs against France at the behest of the Pope. He certainly wouldn’t have been called the “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope if he’d been so anti-papist, either. And, chances are, if Henry VIII was extremely anti-Catholic he probably wouldn’t have basically made the Church of England in to the Roman Catholic Church Lite. Also, the fact that Mary I managed to re-convert England to the RC Church briefly and fact that there were always plenty of papists to kick around kind of puts the lie to Cooper’s theory. But he kind of needs things to work that way in order for his next point to make any amount of sense.
But then an incident occurred that ensured its revival and survival to the present day, even though that revival was itself to last only a matter of a further five hundred years or so.
Oh, this should be good.
The incident, which occurred sometime in the 1130s, was the presentation of a certain book to a British (i.e. Welsh) monk by an archdeacon of Oxford. The monk's name was Geoffrey of Monmouth, the archdeacon was Walter of Oxford, and the book was a very ancient, possibly unique, copy of the recorded history of the early Britons, written in language so archaic that it needed to be translated quickly into Latin before either the book perished or the language was forgotten. Now, one would think that such a rare event would generate great interest amongst scholars of all hues. Yet even today, in our supposedly impartial and inquiring age, the mere mention of Geoffrey of Monmouth will usually bring an academic smirk to the face of scholars. Read any article today about him and you will be sure to come across statements to the effect that his great work, Historia Regism [sic]Britanniae, or History of the Kings of Britain, is at best unreliable fiction, and that Geoffrey himself is an unscrupulous liar and forger. (2) We would do well to ask ourselves what it is that could provoke such unscholarly language.
First of all, what’s so unscholarly about calling Geoffrey of Monmouth an “unscrupulous liar and forger?” Is this an attempt at a tu quoque argument or something? Because, believe me, there’s absolutely nothing about those words that are “unscholarly,” especially since Geoffrey of Monmouth was probably an unscrupulous liar and a forger. Cooper obviously hasn’t bothered to actually study much history. Historians may tend to follow certain conventions, but they’re also quite willing to use strong language to get a point across. It's vulgar language, slang, and contractions that they usually avoid. Either way, here’s the primary reason why there’s absolutely no reason to trust Geoffrey of Monmouth: his book includes Arthur as one of the kings of England. In fact, the only person that really got good use out of the Historia Regum Britanniae was Shakespeare, who probably based King Lear off of the old Irish myths that Geoffrey turned in to history and probably grabbed Cybeline out of it, too. Oh, and on top of King Arthur, Geoffrey also turned the French Gallic leader named Brennus in to a Northumbrian king named Brennius who sacked Rome. One of those guys was real. The real one sacked Rome in 390. And, just in case you need any more evidence that Geoffrey of Monmouth was not telling the truth according to any definition of the word, he argued that the British Islands were settled by Brutus, a grandson of Aeneas. This came after Aeneas escaped the destruction of Troy and headed to Italy to found Rome. So we basically have to believe that Homer and Virgil were telling accurate histories in the Illiad and the Aeneid in order to believe that Geoffrey of Monmouth was giving us an accurate history in his book. Even if we believe that Geoffrey wasn’t an unscrupulous liar and forger, we cannot believe that he was giving an accurate accounting of history. Even if King Bladud really could use magic and really did attempt to fly. There’s a reason that historians discredit certain histories. It’s generally because there’s nothing realistic about them. Inconvenient accounts of a version of history that makes historians uncomfortable rarely offers a compelling factor to say we won’t pay attention to a certain account. Generally, too, there will be historians who champion the accurate but inconvenient accounts. This is why there are things like peer review. The fact that the only historians who offer any credit to Geoffrey of Monmouth are guys like Cooper who don’t actually count says a lot about the veracity of Geoffrey’s claims. Cooper then makes a specious claim:
It is often claimed, in dismissing Geoffrey's work, that it contains errors. Yet, as any historian worth his salt will tell you, if we rejected histories in general on that account, we should soon be left without any history at all. But it is then claimed that Geoffrey's supposed original book no longer exists and that therefore Geoffrey must have been lying when he claimed to have translated such a book. However, it is exceedingly rare for the original manuscript or source-material of any early historical work to have survived.
No. The problem isn’t that Geoffrey’s work contains errors. It’s that Geoffrey’s work contains blatant fabrications. How can we possibly trust a historical work that begins with Homer and Virgil? Sure, maybe, just maybe, Geoffrey got it right with the later stuff (although apparently he didn’t get much of anything from the Roman period right and we do have other historians to test that), but our concerns for the sake of the project are based on the events that would have been happening around the time of the Trojan War and earlier. So if Geoffrey’s account supports Cooper’s theory that the Bible was absolutely accurate, we have to look at the early stuff. And we know that the Trojan War was not a ten-year conflict involving mythic heroes and gods. We know that Aeneas didn’t escape from Troy, sail west, and found Rome. Since we know that, we know that his grandson didn’t set foot on British soil. Therefore, Geoffrey of Monmouth is a useless source and the only one who doesn’t realize this is Cooper.
It is further claimed, and this claim is significant inasmuch as it can at least be tested, that nothing like Geoffrey's Historia is to be found amongst the surviving corpus of medieval Welsh literature. (3) The surprising answer to this is that not only does the same historical material survive in Welsh from medieval times, it survives in no less than fifty-eight manuscript copies. These are listed in Appendix 4, but we may note here that there are not very many medieval Welsh manuscripts in existence and fifty eight of them does constitute a rather large percentage of the surviving corpus. The claim is therefore suspicious as it is hardly likely that scholars who have made this field their life's work could have missed them or have remained for long in ignorance of their existence or contents.
This claim is fascinating. All of the manuscripts Cooper lists in Appendix 4 are dated after Geoffrey’s Historia. In fact, The Black Book of Basingwerk Abbey, which was the easiest one to track down, is a manuscript entitled Brenhinoedd y Saeson. That particular manuscript accounts for six of Cooper's 58 manuscripts from Appendix 4. The earliest of the manuscripts in question dates to two hundred years after the Historia and used it as a source, since it was considered credible at the time. Oh, and Brenhinoedd y Saeson only covers a period from 682 to 1332 CE, except for two which then go on to about 1440. So they’re not exactly useful to Cooper, anyway. These are the things you can find out if you have Google and know how to use it. I can also extract from what I know that the dates Cooper uses in Appendix 4 are more or less accurate and each and every one of those dates comes after Geoffrey’s original Historia. Therefore the reason they’re ignored by historians is because they are just as suspect as the manuscript they originally cribbed. History then didn’t work the way it does now. A single source was generally considered good enough and wholesale copying wasn’t exactly unknown. And there were no trade journals, no systems of peer review, and no methodology to separate myth from fact. It’s actually a wonder that we know much of anything about our past when it gets right down to it. Either way, we’ve now come to the end of Chapter 2. Cooper tosses more histrionics at us with “As we shall see, it is an account that flies entirely in the face of everything that we are taught nowadays about where we come from, and it makes fascinating reading[,]” then promises that we’ll get to start our British invasion with Nennius. Oh, joy. I am looking forward to that. -------------------- *For some reason the first version of this sentence had the words “the digger I deep.” Just thought you should know.


El Borak said...

Far be it from me to challenge the Venerable Bede, for, after all, no one is calling me the Venerable Geds...

Well, I shan't start, because that's Bede's trademark and it's only fair that he get to keep it. After all, he had to write everything out longhand and we get to type.

It's actually worse for Cooper than you state, for he states* that "The profound cultural shock of seeing their finest scholars and spiritual leaders massacred by supposedly fellow Christians at the instigation of a Roman bishop no less, would have left a very deep wound indeed..."

Cooper has A) the finest scholars in the land, B) massacred by supposedly fellow Christians, and C) at the instigation of a Roman Bishop.

Well A may be true. Maybe they were the best and the brightest, I don't know.

But B is not true, for Bede calls the soldiers "barbarians," which he would likely not do if they were Christians. Plus Bede had previously stated (Book I/34) that Ethelfrid "was ignorant of the true religion." So there was no slaughter by supposedly fellow Christians.

And C is even less true, for Bede tells us that Augustine "had been long before taken up into the heavenly kingdom" (Book II/2). Augustine was not just mostly dead, he was long dead and so was not in much of a position to instigate anything.

It's stuff like this that makes me wonder if Cooper ever really read Bede at all.

* This is a recap from Chapter 3, so I'm sneaking ahead, sorry.

El Borak said...

Addendum: I personally give Bede the benefit of the doubt in making the connection here.

To him, the slaughter of the Bangor Monks (he notes that while the monks were from Bangor, the fight was at The City of Legions, a distinction Cooper does not make, I think) was a spiritual consequence of their prior disobedience. That is of course arguable, but it fully in line with his purpose, which is ecclesiastical.

Cooper, on the other hand, makes the consequence both direct and political in addition to getting two of his three facts wrong.

That Bede is incorrect in making that connection is arguable; that Cooper is incorrect is not, I think.

The Woeful Budgie said...

It's vulgar language, slang, and contractions that they usually avoid.

Which is why I prefer to get my history lessons from a pretend internet historian instead. :)

P.S. Cymbeline.