Sunday, August 2, 2009

AtF: Those Stupid Brits...

Tonight’s installment of After the Flood is brought to you by Lagunitas [Censored]. For without alcohol I don’t think I’ll be able to do this. If I have to I can also get reinforcements from Glenlivet 18, but I’d rather not break out the good scotch just yet. Actually, here in Chicagoland we have two main alcoholic beverage selling chains. Think of them as the Target of drunkenness. There’s Sam’s Wine & Spirits, which is excellent in all ways except for their hours of operation. And the fact that the closest one to me isn’t in a direction I usually drive. The other one is Binny’s Beverage Depot. I’ve been saying many disparaging things about the beer selection of Binny’s, but I was forced to take that back last night when I wanted beer but Sam’s was closed. I reluctantly went to Binny’s, knowing I’d at least be able to get something from Big Sky. Somehow, though, I thought that was all I’d be able to get. Holy crap does Binny’s have a beer selection. About the only thing they didn’t have that I wanted was Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, but that’s because they were out. So I ended up with Lagunitas [Censored] and a mix-n-match that consisted of Big Sky Scapegoat, Big Sky Trout Slayer, Brooklyn Ale, and, um, some sort of Arcadia Ales something or other. For the record, Lagunitas [Censored] is an excellent copper ale. I prefer Metropolitan Copper Dynamo (which is actually a lager, I think), but not by much. Also, to the uninitiated, copper ale has an interesting aftertaste. I actually find it’s better if you don’t let it touch the back of your tongue. If you arch your tongue and force the beer across the palate, then straight down the throat it’s an incredibly smooth beer. If you let it hit the back of your tongue you get that aftertaste. Then again, maybe that’s part of the pleasure of a copper ale. I’m not entirely sure. Still, I discovered that there are two very different tastes completely by accident and thought I’d share.* I’m just telling you this because it’s the last pleasant subject I’ll discuss for about three pages. Because now we must leave behind the enjoyable topic of microbrews and move on to After the Flood. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Cooper begins the third chapter with a tired refrain. Actually, he began with a quote from Nennius’ Historia Brittonum. But I want to start with Cooper’s tired refrain.
It would be difficult to overstate the immensity of Nennius' achievement and his contribution to our understanding of ancient history. And, were we not familiar with the fashions of today, it would be equally difficult to account for the disparagement that his name has suffered amongst modernist scholars in ungrateful return for his labours.
There’s a rhetorical device that Cooper is using here and that he’s been overusing throughout After the Flood. I spent a good chunk of the afternoon trying to figure it out. I finally concluded that he’s begging the question. Cooper assumes Nennius is correct, then disparages all the scholars who say otherwise because they know Nennius was right. This is circular logic and a form of question begging. I think. If anyone has a better idea, please let me know. It’s been bugging me. Anyway, here’s the problem with Nennius: he spent a lot of time on King Arthur. Actually, since I’m tired of explaining why Cooper’s historians probably didn’t know their shit from shit, I think I’ll take a slightly different tack this time around. The three places I’ve found where Arthur comes up as a pseudo-historical figure are in Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittanae, which we looked at last week, and Goeznovius’s Legenda Sanctii Goeznovii. Geoffrey of Monmouth, as we’ve discussed, cribbed from Nennius. At least, I think it came up. If it didn’t, pretend like I got around to mentioning that last week or at least used one of Cooper’s quotes where it came up. I’ll feel so much better. Goeznovius, however, didn’t borrow from either one as best we can tell. In Nennius Arthur seems to be a commander of troops under the command of kings. In the works of Geoffrey and Goeznovius, however, he’s become a king. This is an interesting metamorphosis. Meanwhile, in Goeznovius the king Vortigern invites the Saxons in, then Arthur takes over and drives them back before his death. In Nennius’s account Vortigern is replaced by Ambrosius Aurelianus, then Arthur. In Geoffrey’s account Vortigern is replaced by Ambrosius Aurelianus’s brother, Uther Pendragon, who is then replaced by his son, Arthur. Geoffrey also seemed to think that Ambrosius is just another name for Merlin. Are you with me so far? Good. The Legenda Sanctii Goeznovii, meanwhile, places Arthur in combat in Gaul. Modern scholars (those horrible, horrible modern scholars) think that this might mean Arthur is actually a late Roman leader of the Britons named Riothamus, a name that might simply be a title, as it could be a bastardization of a word for high king or something similar. Riothamus also hung out near Avallon, a town in Burgundy. Scholars have also argued, however, that Riothamus was actually the title given to -- get this – Ambrosius Aurelianus. Now remember, in Goeznovius’s account there was no Ambrosius Aurelianus. In Nennius’s account there was. He showed up Geoffrey’s account, too, but as Merlin, while his brother, Uther Pendragon, was the king. My main goal here isn’t to confuse you, surprisingly enough. It’s to point out that Cooper is insane for thinking that there’s a cut and dry way to use Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nennius for much of anything. Meanwhile, those horrible modernist scholars aren’t trying to undermine the theory that the universe popped in to being six thousand years ago. Actually, that’s probably a good point of discussion. See, historians aren’t trying to undermine the Biblical account. They’re attempting to create an accurate account of the history of the world. What we find when we attempt to combine the various histories of the world is that the planet has existed for more than six thousand years. This is a problem for Cooper. He doesn’t quite understand, though, that his version of world history isn’t a problem for real historians. They don’t care. If it had actually turned out that there was a giant flood that wiped out all but one family some 4500 years ago, that’s what would be in our history books. The simple fact of the matter is that the Biblical account of history is impossible. If we reduce it to a possibly accurate local account from the assumption that the ancient Israelites simply didn’t know much about the world we can upgrade the account from “impossible” to “implausible.” But Cooper’s approach is all-or-nothing. The actual point here isn’t that historians have been lying. The point is that Cooper’s faith is so brittle that it shatters upon impact with anything in reality that might prove his agonizingly literalist interpretation of the Bible wrong. The problem, in short, isn’t me. It’s him. And there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s sad, but it’s sad in an instructive way. If a map says there’s a bridge ahead but the driver of a car sees a sign that says, “Bridge Out,” the driver will generally stop. It’s a weak mind that continues doggedly forward, only to end up falling in to a crevass because the map says there’s a bridge. That, of course, is the overall problem and the reason that there’s a fight between Biblical literalists and, well, everyone else. The reason they’re trying to push history and science out of schools is because history and science prove their literal interpretations wrong. We can’t change reality, so if reality frightens them, they have to make sure reality doesn’t get taught. Otherwise it might ruin their precious, literal interpretations of Scripture. If we take away Genesis we have to take away the Gospels and Revelation and they can’t stand that thought. Of course the joke they don’t seem to get is that all they’re doing is coming up with their own interpretations that aren’t literal in the least. But, of course, that’s too much to think about. Anyway, Cooper gave us this neat little quote from Nennius:
I, Nennius, pupil of the holy Elvodug, (1) have undertaken to write down some extracts that the stupidity of the British cast out; for the scholars of the island of Britain had no skill ...I have therefore made a heap of all that I have found...
Then tries to go on and explain it.
His achievement was the gathering together of all the extant records touching on the origins of the Britons that he could find and which he then set down into one booklet was a time of danger for the Britons as a nation and for the records themselves, and were it not for his labours, the immensity of which we can only guess at, records that were irreplaceable would have been lost to us forever. Morris' translation of Nennius, which opens this present chapter, implies that the British of the time were stupid in the sense of being intellectually dull. But in this context, the word hebitudo which Nennius used, suggesting something that has been made blunt or dull and which Morris renders 'stupidity', would perhaps better be translated as complacency or lethargy, the mood of the Britons that followed in the wake of the massacre of the monks at Bangor. 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, and it is this state of mind amongst the Britons or Welsh that Nennius laments and which led to the neglect and loss of many records and books. They 'had no skill' (nullam peritiam habuerunt), because learning had practically ceased amongst them. Hence Nennius' sudden and urgent gathering together of all that remained.
Everything about this is wrong. I repeat, everything about this is wrong. Absolutely everything. It’s too long to quote, but the quote Cooper used is part of a much larger Prologue and Apology that starts the Historia Brittonum.** Nennius starts his tome with “[b]e it known to your charity, that being dull in intellect and rude of speech, I have presumed to deliver these things in the Latin tongue, not trusting to my own learning, which is little or none at all.” We’re already seeing a slight difference between Nennius’s account and Cooper’s. The dullness and rudeness of Nennius’s speech is because he’s not a native user of Latin. Remember, Latin was the high tongue. It indicated education and class during the Medieval period. So the comparisons for education were between Latin and the vernacular. In his Apology, Nennius declares, “I, Nennius, disciple of St. Elbotus, have endeavoured to write some extracts which the dulness of the British nation had cast away, because teachers had no knowledge, nor gave any information in their books about this island of Britain.” He elaborates a bit later with, “[m]ay [sic] teachers and scribes have attempted to write this, but somehow or other have abandoned it from its difficulty, wither on account of frequent deaths, or the often recurring calamities of war.” The dullness has nothing to do with the slaughter at Bangor, which we learned last week was the work of a Pagan king, anyway. It’s because Nennius believed that when compared to the Romans the Britons were stupid. They had no written history. They also didn’t know the Bible, which shouldn’t surprise us, but when you consider that Nennius starts everything from the Bible, that’s kind of a big deal to him. In fact, you'll notice that if you look at entire quotes that the disparaging nature of the comments of Nennius were directed at Nennius himself. Perhaps this was a common way to introduce histories. Perhaps he was just a passive-aggressive jackass. I really don't know. Either way, Nennius would have wanted to record the history of the Britons, but not for the reasons that Cooper lays out. It was simply in danger of being lost. This was, after all, the period that's often (inaccurately, oddly enough) called The Dark Ages. Learning and culture were on the downswing. Viking raiders were hitting all over Britain and destroying monasteries, where most records were stored. It was kind of a bad time for scholarly works. Of course what Nennius wrote wasn’t much better than if no one had written anything at all, but that’s splitting hairs. He certainly didn’t know that. Either way, Historia Brittonum is actually kind of an interesting document. Read it if you have time. Just don’t bother believing any of it. -------------------------- *Eh, fuggit. I’m going to tell more beer stories. I actually met Tony McGee, the owner of Lagunitas, completely by accident. My personal bar, inasmuch as I have one, is a place called Brixie’s, which is a fantastic neighborhood beer bar. There are 32 handles on the wall and several convenience store-type glass doored coolers on either side. I wandered in one night because I wanted to try some new beer and there was a guy playing a pretty decent blues guitar over in the corner. I sidled up to the bar and ordered something. Probably a Founder’s or a Surly. Perhaps a Two Brothers Cain and Ebel. Who knows? I asked the bartender what was up with the guy with the guitar. He told me it was the owner of Lagunitas and he was giving away free beer while he was playing. So I took Mr. McGee up on his offer and had an IPA, which is weird since I usually don’t like IPAs. However at this point in my life I’m willing to say I like Lagunitas IPA, Big Sky Brewing’s IPA, and I really want to try Dogfish Head’s 120 minute IPA. I’ve had their 90 and it’s good, but it’s hard to find the 120. Either way, afterwards the music was over I wandered over to say hello to Mr. McGee. At that point I was drinking a Two Brothers Northwind Imperial Stout. He said, “That’s not one of ours, is it?” I said it was a Two Brothers and he said, “Oh, they handle all our distributing in the area.” I thought that was pretty cool. The next weekend I was on my way over to my sister and bro-in-law’s place for something. I decided to stop by the Two Brothers brewpub to get a six-pack of Ebel’s Weiss. The Two Brothers brewery is tucked back on a back road in Warrenville and there really isn’t a sign anywhere. It’s the quintessential, “You have to know where it is to find it,” sort of place. Lots of people do know where it is, though. It’s a good place. Either way, I’d never been before. I drove past it. But I realized my mistake when I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a truck with “Lagunitas” on the side. Also, I think I’m going to put a beer sidebar on my blog. That seems like a good use of real estate. **Seriously. The real thing, not the version Cooper read about in somebody else's book. Right here, bitches.


El Borak said...

"Anyway, here’s the problem with Nennius: he spent a lot of time on King Arthur..."

Oh, I don't think that's the problem at all. Nennius spends, what, half of Chapter 50 and Chapter 56 on Arthur? And all it is is a list of battles. Then chapter 73 mentions Arthur's dog, but that's not even in the popular* translations at all. Nennius spend far more time on Germaine, Patrick, Hengist, Vortigern, and Ambrosius, though I suppose the last could be tied in with Arthur.

If Cooper is correct that Nennius collected everything he could find and then just threw it in a pot, then we ought to expect to find a few Arthurs floating about. And Cooper does admit that some of Nennius is of doubtful historicity, though he insists that it is very little. I don't think you can throw out Nennius for including too much.

But you do have to throw out Cooper's reliance on Nennius, and here's why: Cooper relies on Flinders Petrie who makes a two-fold argument concerning the antiquity of Geoffrey, and by extension Nennius (in the next Chapter, so yes, I'm working ahead here). The first is that there is an independent British tradition regarding Caesar, and the second is what I call "The Itinerary," that list of place-names that causes Flinder-Petrie to conclude that the geography of the Brut to pre-date Claudius. Cooper, of course, insists that the sources go to the 12th Century-BC.

Now, it's not hard to imagine a native British source on Caesar. After all, the British were there and the Romans would have schools on the island in the next century. Even assuming no one could write (which I think a bad assumption, but whatever), an oral tradition that lasts one century is not too much to ask an historian to consider. I mean, somebody had to tell the Venerable One what to put in his own book about this.

But on the matter of The Itinerary, Flinders Petrie, and therefore Cooper, was flat-out incorrect. Cooper adds an error of his own to that.

We have that lovely list of places (Altars of the Philaeni, Salt Lakes, Rusicada, et al) which Cooper will use to build his case for the Brut. But they are not original to the Brut, they belong to Orosius - every one of the points is included, in order, in his Fourth Century "History against the Pagans," immediately before he starts talking about Ireland and Britain.

Therefore the Geography of the Brut need be no older than Nennius himself, since he could have read Orosius. But I'm betting he didn't, and Cooper's mistake will help explain why.

Cooper uses The Itinerary as proof that Geoffrey was correct about Brutus. But Nennius didn't get The Itinerary from his Bruts, of which he has two, he got it from "the learned of the Scots," where it is attached to "a Scythian of noble birth." So how does the combination of the Brut with The Itinerary centuries later support Geoffrey? It can't, of course. Cooper has some 'splaining to do.

Not to mention (even as I do) that Nennius' "Table of Nations" is not British at all, but Irish (Book of Invasions, Ch 9).

Nennius got almost nothing** from Native British sources and nearly everything from Roman and Irish ones. I think he still has value***, but I don't think he can tell us anything about Brutus.

Or Arthur.

* Well, as far as 19th Century translations of obscure medieval works can be popular.

** Caesar's Invasion, Hengist, and maybe some genealogies.

*** His tale of the Irish attacking an iceberg is very cool, much better than The Legend of Conant's Tower it later becomes.

Geds said...

You really, REALLY like jumping the gun on me there, don'tcha?

I built that entire post around a single paragraph and you're all, "What about this thing that's coming up in the next chapter?"

I'll get there when I'm good and ready, dammit. And chances are I'll just be re-treading the ground upon which you commented already.


I wasn't actually worried too much about Nennius's work with Arthur. It was simply an attempt to tie him back with last week's discussion of Geoffrey of Monmouth. My main goal in this project still isn't actually to disprove Cooper's arguments (which are pretty self-evidently disproved), it's a discussion of the nature of history and historiography with an absolutely vapid book as its example of how not to do things. Kinda like how Slactivist uses Left Behind to talk about theology, hermeneutics, and philosophy.

Cooper is just a prop. Everyone knows King Arthur and a few people know that King Arthur didn't start as a Medieval myth but was built on a deeper, possibly historical account from the tail-end of the Roman Empire. So the comparison of Geoffrey, Nennius, and Goeznovious is far more interesting and, I believe, informative, than anything Cooper can say about anything.

The other part of the issue is the attempt to tear apart the controversy Cooper is inventing between scholars and people who really know what's what. It's the historians' version of science v. creationism. Creationists and Cooper want to "teach the controversy," but first they have to create a controversy.

I will eventually get to your points in one way or another. And it's actually nice to have someone jumping ahead (seriously, when I got to Bangor last week the fact that you'd already hit upon it in the comments meant I was free to dig in to the historiography of Geoffrey of Monmouth and generally beat down Cooper's invented conflict between the Brits and the RC Church). It means when certain things come up I'm probably more aware of them than I would have otherwise been. I tended to focus on American history and ancient Greek and Roman history, so the early days of Britain after the fall of Rome and the early Medieval period really weren't my thing.

I'm getting a better understanding of why historians end up having to specialize, though...

El Borak said...

"you're all, "What about this thing that's coming up in the next chapter?""

Well, I guess in my roundabout, long-winded way I was trying to answer your question about whether Cooper is arguing in a circle. He relies on Nennius because there are certain things in there that "prove" its antiquity, but he spreads that over several chapters, and so in order to explain where he is wrong on Nennius, I had to bring in Petrie and the rest. I shall try to be a better guest henceforth.

But I don't think he's arguing in a circle, or at least he's attempting to show that Nennius contains reliable BC data, from which he will build his case for Tysilio (and I have to give Cooper Credit, he's produced a very nice translation of Tysilio, but his notes are well, you know). If Nennius can be proven to rely on detailed written, native, British sources, Cooper's assertion that those sources mention post-flood biblical patriarchs is somewhat strengthened.

At least it would be if his table of nations was British, anyway.

Geds said...

No, seriously, you're fine. I was just messing around. That was the point of the ":D," since I rarely ever use emoticons.

Although I think part of the problem is that you were trying to answer a slightly different form of the question I was asking. I was specifically focused on the issue of Cooper's attacks on scholars. His support of Nennius may or may not be circular (and you may have amply proven it's not exactly that way), but his assumption that everyone who disagrees with Nennius, Geoffrey, the Bible, etc. is lying is built on a framework that everyone knows the Bible is right, therefore anyone who disagrees with an account drawn from the Bible is lying.

I think that's begging the question. It goes:

1. The Bible is literal history,
2. Anyone who says otherwise is lying because,
3. They know the Bible is true because,
4. The Bible says so.

He then projects this proof on to Nennius, Geoffrey, et al because those accounts use Biblical "history" to tell the story of Britain.

Therefore anyone who opposes Nennius is lying because we know Nennius is true because Nennius uses the biblical account (plus Homer, plus Virgil) to explain the founding of Britain. So I think we're forced to run around several circles in order to get to the big question.

However it's interesting that he ends up begging the question based partially on The Illiad and The Aeneid, when it's a known fact that those are epic poems with mythic backing.

He, therefore, forces the acknowledgment of the existence of the Greek (and probably the Roman, but although I own a very nice copy of The Aeneid I've never actually read it) Pantheon. Talk about an unintended consequence.

Of course he'd shrug that off by saying the Greco-Roman gods were simply their interpretations of the one, true god. The poetic justice (no pun intended) is still pretty sweet, though.

ExPatMatt said...

Hey, we know that Arthur was actually the one true king of all England from the documentary; "The Sword in the Stone".

If you've not seen it I suggest you rent it, it will set you straight on a lot of things. Cooper has clearly seen it and took a lot of the historical facts that are presented and reworded them in his book, which is fair enough.

I'm surprised there's no mention of the wizard's duel though.....

Keep it up Geds, I'm enjoying this!
(and learning too, which is weird, considering the source material!)