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.