Sunday, February 21, 2010

AtF: Rejecting Historiography

We begin tonight’s AtF post with a shocking revelation. I’ve never bothered to look at the cover art of After the Flood before, due to the fact that I really didn’t have to (internet, y’know…). According to the cover, After the Flood was written by “Bill Cooper, B.A. Hons.” Far be it from me to say that the level of education is the only thing that matters. But there’s a reason that people with a Bachelor’s in Arts who graduated with honors aren’t exactly considered subject matter experts and getting published left and right. There’s a reason that I’m writing a blog and not books. My B.A. with a 3.66 GPA from Western Illinois University is a ticket to the next level of education, not an indication that I have arrived. Of course, the fact that I actually paid attention in class and know what this whole history thing is about helps. Add to that the fact that I don’t look at history dogmatically and, well, I’d say that I’m getting more value out of my B.A. in history than Bill Cooper ever has or will. But I digress. Tonight, for the record, AtF is brought to us by Local H and gin and tonic, specifically Tanqueray Rangpur. And the generic tonic water from Kroger. Is there a qualitative difference between, say, Big K tonic water and Schweppes? I suspect not, but it’s not really worth the 20 cents or so it would cost to find out. Anyway, what we’re looking at tonight is the fallout from last week’s Flinders Petrie[1] quote. It’s here that Cooper’s complete lack of understanding of historiography really, truly shines through. Also, I’d try to make that less insulting, but, well, I don’t wanna.
However, this is not the only light that the Welsh chronicle was to shed, for it was to address matters of far greater import and relevance than the mere vindication of Geoffrey's good name. Indeed, it contains historically verifiable accounts that overturn many modernist assumptions and teachings about our past.
Um, speaking as someone who is apparently a modernist (seriously. Dumbest. Epithet. Ever), no. No it doesn’t. At the absolute best Tysilio shows that there was a non-Roman account of Caesar’s invasion of Britain that was then cobbled together with existing British myth and, hey, here we go. At the absolute worst, Tysilio was invented whole-cloth some time between the 5th Century and the 8th. I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The parts from Brutus of Troy up through Caesar were most certainly legend. Although, again, Welsh legend is fascinating and the storyteller in me loves it. The historian, though, sees red dragons and warlocks and Trojans and thinks, “Ehhhh, not so much.” This, though, illustrates a point of departure between the historian and the Biblical literalist. The historian reads ancient accounts and automatically rejects any non-naturalistic explanation for an event. If a god or a giant or centaur or other such creature arrives to change the events then we can say that those things didn’t happen. There might be a reasonable explanation, such as a freak weather event resulting in an army deciding that the gods had intervened, but we cannot take a story like that at face value and must instead suss out some other, more reasonable explanation. The Biblical literalist, on the other hand, is perfectly willing to believe that if the Bible says that donkeys talked, large bodies of water split, and the dead rose and walked, that means that those things happened. As such, the addition of a dragon or a powerful sorcerer to an otherwise supposedly historically accurate story won’t invite skepticism. It instead invites questions of whether god or devil was behind the event. Or, at the very least, it gets ignored as a bit of good, old fashioned storytelling. The historian will often do this, too, when an otherwise reliable manuscript wanders off in to the weeds. But there is still a distinction that can be drawn between history and legend. When your guidepost for everything is the Bible, however, that distinction is blurred to the point of uselessness. But that brings us back to Tysilio. I have, admittedly, only skimmed it, but I am not exactly impressed with it. The entire account rings of legend with just enough history mixed in to seem somewhat believable to the credulous, uneducated, or anyone looking to find support for a British history that’s clearly impossible. What I suspect is the case is that the parts between Brutus of Troy and the coming of Caesar are pure legend. There may well have been rulers upon which the whole thing was loosely based, but the overall story just doesn’t work. The weird thing is that, as much as I’ve harped on the Brutus of Troy legend and the founding date for London as evidence that it’s all a load of crap, the biggest point of contention I have is actually with the tale of King Leir. If you know King Lear, then you know the broad strokes of the story. But the basic idea is that when Leir took the throne, Britain was united. He had no male heirs, but three daughters, so he married his daughters off to the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany, Albany being the ancient name for northern Britain, more-or-less specifically Scotland. The problems with this account are manifold, however. First, all the titles used by Tysilio are medieval concepts. This can easily be explained by the idea that there weren’t actually dukes and knights at the time of Leir, but Tysilio was using the terms for an audience that wouldn’t otherwise understand. The bigger problem, though, is that there wasn’t anything close to the feudal system in pre-Roman (or, for that matter, Roman) Britain. The leaders of the Britons would have been, basically, warlords and Leir, had he existed, would have probably been in competition with Albany and Cornwall (Cornwall, at the very least, has its own pre-Roman identity, as does Albany, but, of course, those weren’t their names in pre-Roman times. Cornwall was post-Anglo-Saxon and Albany was either Alba or Albion in the Roman histories). Of course, the idea of a united Britain from Cornwall all the way up to Alba is also a little nutty. I’m not going to say it would have been impossible, but I’ll definitely say massively, massively improbable. But what of the crux of Cooper’s argument?
Among the points he mentions is the account contained both in Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Welsh chronicles of the attempted invasions of these islands by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC. Caesar, of course, has left us his own account of this, and it is tempting to think (and is often stated) that the Welsh chronicles (and hence Geoffrey of Monmouth) contain nothing more than a rehashed version of Caesar's account. But close examination reveals a different story. The account in Geoffrey and the Welsh chronicle turns out to be nothing less than the Julian invasion as seen through the eyes of the early Britons themselves.
The problem, of course, being that this requires us to reject Caesar’s account and believe, among other things, that the invasion of Britain started with Caesar acknowledging they were all the descendants of Aeneas, that the invasion ended with Caesar getting kicked out of the Britain, and that the British king spent a whole bunch of time in London during this interlude. This I find to be hardly believable. Charitably, I suspect it’s a combination of re-hashed Roman account and a bunch of British legend about the whole episode. Oh, also, a healthy collection of things that count in the “shit that got made up” category. We can never forget that aspect, seeing as how Tysilio is a manuscript that claims to be an 8th Century translation of a 5th or 6th Century account of stuff that stopped about 250 years before the time of its writing. This happens a lot in history, and the farther we get in to antiquity the more likely we are to have to rely on accounts that are copies of copies, but the primary difference between a Tysilio and, say, Diodorus Siculus,[2] is in the quality of the work. Tysilio simply doesn’t pass muster. There’s a difference between being shut out due to a vast conspiracy history and getting shut out because what you’ve got doesn’t actually look like history to a vast percentage of historians. Cooper is a bit more credulous, though.
An eyewitness account in fact, which dates this part of the material to the middle of the 1st century BC. This, of course, is far too early for most modern scholars to accept for Celtic literacy, and it also sheds a somewhat unfavourable light upon Julius Caesar, himself the hero of many a modern book on the history of early Britain. But how, exactly, do the British and Roman accounts compare?
Um, first of all, it is too early for an acceptable account of Celtic literacy. Second, the idea that it’s an eyewitness account is…suspect. At best. That last question, though, is interesting. And it shall have to wait for later. For although I’ve already touched on the differences, there is undoubtedly a lot of benefit in digging deeper in to them. Because while Tysilio is not a reliable source, we can’t consider Caesar entirely reliable, either. The reasons why, however, are quite different. As such, understanding the differences and why an unreliable account is not the same as an unreliable narrator would be quite helpful. ----------------------------- [1]Still love that name. I had a long-standing joke I was going to name my children after major league pitchers and always picked the awesome Hispanic names. Nardi, Octavio, Hipolito, and Livan were always the front-runners. When you consider the fact that I am extremely white and my last name is extremely Welsh, just makes for a bad combination. I am now, however, leaning towards the names of late 19th Century archaeologists. Flinders would be a good first step. And, actually, Petrie flows really well with my last name, which isn’t something I can usually say. Hmm… Okay, I’m thinking about this too much. Before I can have a firstborn named Petrie I think I have to, y’know, have sex. One step at a time. [2]Diodorus Siculus is one of the Vulgate authors we have for Alexander the Great. No direct accounts of A the G remain, but we have several later histories. All purport to draw on many accounts and there is a certain amount of agreement between them. As such, we can say that we know pretty well what Alexander was about and, therefore, we have a much more reliable set of accounts than Tysilio, and, by extension, Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth offer. Basically, by rejecting the Roman accounts in favor of suspect “British accounts,” all Cooper does is offer the reassurance of the kook. His version is right because he says so and everyone else is trying to stop him from telling the truth to save their own skins.

1 comment:

Adrenalin Tim said...

You know what is worthwhile? Store-brand tonic from Whole Foods. It's the only reasonably-priced one I've found (contra Fever Tree and whatnot) that is made with sugar instead of HFCS.

I'm surprised at what a difference it makes.