Friday, February 19, 2010

AtF: Sins of Omission, a Follow-Up to a Follow-Up

So what might be the worst, most convoluted AtF post ever (I almost said “possible,” then I realized that I was dealing with AtF) has now spawned three really interesting questions, a follow-up post, and that in turn, has created this other post. First, there was this question from Chris:
So Tysilio is about as creditable a source as any other early mediaeval chronicler, is what your saying? Is there a translation available? I'd love to read it. The only context I've ever heard of him before was this one - Tysilio appears about 15 characters from the end.
Sadly, the only easily accessible version of Tysilio I know of is the one translated by one Bill Cooper. I’m willing to guess the original text is accurate, while the footnotes are…somewhere between pointing at inaccurate sources and just plain laughable. But they are bounteous and functional. I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that Tysilio is flat wrong about everything from the original colonization of England to Julius Caesar. He starts with Brutus the Trojan and goes through an epic series of kings, including a fellow named Lear who split his kingdom between his two daughters. The stories are interspersed with tales of dragons and a warlock who put people to sleep then stole their stuff (or something, I was skimming…). There was even a brief interlude under a king named Brennius when the Britons conquered and ruled Rome, much to the surprise of the early Republic, who probably would have been fighting the Carthaginians at the time. It’s hard to tell, though, since the account isn’t really heavy on dates. This, meanwhile, is Tysilio’s account of Caesar’s initial decision to invade Britain (page 33):
And in his days came Julius Caesar, emperor of Rome, who was then conquering [diverse] lands. And after he had conquered Gaul, from whence he espied the land of Britain, he enquired what land it was that lay opposite to him. And certain men told him that it was the island of Britain. And when Caesar perceived the greatness of the place, and what people they were who dwelt there, he said, “Men of Rome, those who dwell [in that land] are our kin, for the people of Rome and the Britons are both descended from Trojan stock. Aeneas, after the fall of Troy, was forefather to ourselves and to them. [Their] Brutus was the son of Silvius, [who was] the son of Ascanius, the son of Aeneas. And Brutus was the first to settle yonder island. But I perceive that it will not be difficult for me to make yon island subject to the Senate of Rome. They are girt about with water, ignorant of warfare, the use of weapons and of fighting. But we must first send ambassadors to warn them not to resist the will of Rome, but to pay tribute, as have all other nations before them. And to do this without warfare, lest they should compel us to spill their blood who are our kin, and who trace their lineage [with us] to our forefather, Priam!”
Caesar’s commentary on the whole enterprise begins somewhat differently (Book IV, Para XX):
During the short part of summer which remained, Caesar, although in these countries, as all Gaul lies towards the north, the winters are early, nevertheless resolved to proceed into Britain, because he discovered that in almost all the wars with the Gauls succours had been furnished to our enemy from that country; and even if the time of year should be insufficient for carrying on the war, yet he thought it would be of great service to him if he only entered the island, and saw into the character of the people, and got knowledge of their localities, harbours, and landing-places, all which were for the most part unknown to the Gauls.
The whole thing is really friggin’ long. Start with paragraph XX of Book IV and just skim through to the end (of Book IV…). Then compare it to pages 33-36 of the Tysilio .pdf I linked above. The accounts are quite different. And although Caesar’s Commentaries were self-aggrandizing bombast, the fact is that he was an eyewitness to his own campaigns and a military genius who was reasonably honest in his reports. It’s also important to realize that all of this happens about a century before the foundation of Londinium as a minor Roman outpost. But as far as Tysilio is concerned, London’s been around forever by this point. After that comes a confusing orgy of rebellions that I strongly suspect never happened. And at one point Tysilio says that the Romans conquered the Orkney Islands, which I strongly doubt, since they’re way in the north past Scotland (which I know because of Top Gear, thankyouverymuch). The whole Hadrian’s Wall thing pretty much throws that idea out. Then, of course, Uther Pendragon steps in to the story. And we find out that Merlin was actually Jesus II, in that he had no father. And he tossed in the story of the Red Dragon and the White Dragon (which I dealt with back in September). And Arthur shows up and we all know how that turns out.* Also, apparently Arthur fought against the Romans and conquered Paris, which seems a little odd. I mean, no more odd than the rest of it, but odd nonetheless. After that there’s a bit more, but the death of Arthur comes at page 66 and the end of Cooper’s translation is on page 75 and a lot of that is footnote (I’m actually shocked at the number of footnotes in this and their relative quality, considering the utter crapfest that is the footnoting in After the Flood. The weird thing is that, as far as I can tell, at least, Tysilio is about as accurate as any medieval account. The reason for this is simple, though. Many of the standard medieval British accounts are based off of Tysilio. The thing we must keep in mind is that we know Tysilio is wrong about, well, pretty much everything from page 1 to the death of Arthur. And it’s probably wrong about the final nine pages, since it ends with a 250 year jump to the present time as of the writing where there was nothing. The thing to keep in mind is that medieval historians weren’t researchers. They were scribes. So what they did was take a source considered authoritative, copy it, then add to the end the events of their own lifetimes. As such we can say with a certain degree of accuracy that the accounts and lineages added to Tysilio by, say, Nennius or Geoffrey of Monmouth were good history. They might not have been the best history, but there’s a good chance that the kings and events they recorded did, in all actuality, exist. Their foundation, though, was one built of non-copyrighted gelatin-based dessert food. This, then brings us to question two from The Woeful Budgie:
I don't know if this is the same thing, but it reminds me of something I was taught in one of my high school Bible classes, when we were being fed all the big-gun arguments for the authority of Scripture. One of them was "manuscript evidence", which I never felt like I understood properly, because the teacher seemed to be making the point that because there were just so damn many copies of the Bible out there, that right there proved it was reliable. That never did compute for me. I still think I might be misunderstanding the argument, but now I'm wondering if it's because evangelical scholars misrepresent what "manuscript evidence" actually is. Unfortunately, all my searches lead me to apologetics sites, which leads me to believe I was (unsurprisingly) fed a load of crap. I guess what I'm asking here there something historians actually do that's just being misrepresented here? Or did Josh McDowelly types just make this up wholecloth? (And yes, I feel stupid for even having to ask...)
To begin with, I had never heard the term “manuscript evidence” before this question. Or, if I had, I’d pretty much forgotten about it. But I know what it is in broad strokes. And I’ve managed to find those same apologetics sites to which the Budgie refers. As best I can tell, “manuscript evidence” is a bastardization of textual criticism. Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus is basically a book about textual criticism applied to the Bible. That’s not the entire story, though, as textual criticism has its own problems and, when it gets right down to it, manuscript evidence is little more than counting. The thing is, manuscript evidence is a completely worthless. Imagine there are only two fiction books in the world, say Kit Whitfield’s Benighted and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. Both books operate under a similar premise: mythical creatures of horror actually exist. The protagonist is a female who falls in love with one. 17 million copies of Twilight have been sold. It was turned in to a blockbuster movie. Benighted has sold…rather less well (the quick and lazy comparison: Twilight is # 102 on Amazon’s best seller list and has 4078 reviews. Benighted is #251,646 and has 28 reviews). This means Twilight is the better book, right? In a word, no. In two words, fuck no. In a Dr. Cox style two words, fu-hu-hu-hu-huck no. Kit’s book is amazing, insightful, and beautifully written. Twilight is garbage and I’d rather claw my own eyes out than read it. Popularity does not quality make. Similarly, the fact that there are a lot of manuscripts of the Bible out there is a function of the fact that it was considered the most important document in the world by Europeans for a thousand years or so and putting out new books was so prohibitively expensive and time consuming that there just weren’t that many books, period. Moreover, as I’ve already said, the huge number of manuscripts actually causes problems for the honest scholar. Prior to the printing press there were as many variants of the Bible as there were Bibles due to scribal tampering, wear, and honest mistakes. That’s where textual criticism comes in to play. But what I’m doing isn’t actually textual criticism. What historians use is a set of variations on source criticism when working with, well, sources. The most commonly used variety (at least in America) is a process known as historiography. In broad strokes, what source criticism does is compare texts via a series of questions. I had to run through this process in the run-up to my research paper to get out of the history program at Western, so I know it pretty well. Every week for the first six or so weeks of the seminar the prof assigned us various projects that basically amounted to writing long-ass bibliographies of books we weren’t actually going to read, evaluate thesis statements, and place two texts on the same subject side-by-side and figure out where and why they differed. It seemed like busy work at the time, but it was a key part to understanding what I’m currently attempting to explain. It apparently worked, too, as I reflexively used source criticism in this very post. In the bit where I placed Tysilio and Caesar side-by-side, then said that I was going to side with Caesar, that was historiography. The Commentary is a primary source document by an eyewitness and, as such, holds sway over a document written a thousand years later.** Historians seek a consensus on what actually happened. They do so by attempting to discern which accounts are the most reliable and realistic. Bill Cooper is doing the opposite of historiography by declaring his preferred version the accurate one and then attempting to belittle anyone who disagrees. For that matter, W.M. Flinders Petrie did much the same thing. Again, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, as he seemed to be genuinely seeking an original source document in an attempt to better understand history, but to Cooper I extend no such charity. The simple fact is that there are thousands of manuscripts of the Christian Bible floating around out there and a whole lot of copies of the Jewish Bible that in the book of Daniel claim that Darius conquered Babylon for the Persians and then Cyrus took over when he died. We could find a million copies of the Bible that say that and it still wouldn’t be right. A billion copies wouldn’t make it right. Persian stele and records preserved by the Greeks tell us that Cyrus conquered Babylon and that Darius was two kings later after a crazy bit of civil war. Similarly, the Romans did not record Augustus Caesar calling a census that required a guy named Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary to travel to Bethlehem to be counted in a census. I’ll take the Roman sources over the Bible any day of the week. So I hope that answers the question… ------------------------------------ *Meanwhile, the storyteller side of me LOVES this. I mean, not a word of it is true, but as story it’s amazing. I totally want to actually tell this stuff. **Also, I might have to follow up on this follow up of a follow up. The timing of Nennius, Tysilio, and Geoffrey of Monmouth are deeply suspect and the deeper I dig the harder it is to reconcile the three.


Adrenalin Tim said...

I'm curious about the Darius/Cyrus bit in Daniel. What do you think happened to make the author(s) report such an error? Is it that they didn't care, but were more interested in creating a mythologized account of a 'hero', and just needed plausible-sounding backdrop? Were they ignorant, stupid, or lying, (or something else?) in your estimation?

I enjoy these posts. Cooper's a trainwreck, and it's educational to see what doing history is really supposed to look like.

Rhino of Steel said...

Then again, you even have to take Caesar with a grain of salt since he had his own reasons for justifying his invasion. Generally the Roman people and especially the Senate, whipped as they were at this time, were not keen on wars without their explicit approval. Since Caesar wasn't about to head back to Rome for that he simply made up a reason that would sound plausible enough.

I translated that section of De Bello Gallico last term and Caesar ends up being inconsistent enough in several places that it calls his reasoning into question. He more likely than not went to Britain simply for the glory involved with going beyond the edge of the world.

Of course that makes what Cooper is doing even worse since you always have to consider the biases of your sources when reading them.

Geds said...

Adrenalin Tim:

Short answer, I think, is that whoever wrote Daniel didn't care who the king of Persia was at the time. Biblical scholars separate Daniel in to two separate books, one of which was theoretically written at the time of the Babylonian Captivity and the other probably around the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (as I recall. At the very least, when the Greeks were in charge, so a couple hundred years later). The point of the books was that god was bigger than any earthly king, no matter how powerful said king seemed to be. In antiquity for anyone from the Middle East the Persians were the ones to beat. So any story about overcoming a great earthly power would have required going against the Persians (see also Esther).

Whoever wrote Daniel, however, probably didn't care about the details, only the broad strokes.


I heavily glossed over the problems with Caesar, since the post was already way longer than I'd intended. But, yes, Caesar's reasons for going to Britain were suspect. The general point I was going for, though, was that he didn't pop over there and say, "Hey, we're all descendants of Aeneas, let's be friends!"

For, really, the simple fact of the matter is this: even if it was the case, how would Caesar have known? I'll take Caesar coming up with a flimsy excuse to invade Britain for more glory any day over the "reasoning" used by Tysilio to show that the Romans knew the Britons were their brethren any day of the week.

Chris said...

Yeah, your account of Tysilio is much what I'd have expected. Presumably this Brennius is cognate with the Brennus who sacked Rome in Livy and the other one who attacked Greece in Pausanias - I gather it's generally supposed to be a title or epithet rather than a name, anyway - but it sounds like the post-Roman British chroniclers wanting a piece of the action retrospectively.

Does anybody know anything about the origin of the Brut myth? It must have been made up out of whole cloth at some point, but it must have taken some cheek.

Adrenalin Tim said...

That makes sense re:Daniel. It "fits" a lot better to regard it as a post hoc insertion of a Hero into the Storyline of the People of God.

I didn't know about Darius and Cyrus (the things they omit to teach at Bible College...), but I guess I've always been suspicious of the whole "Hey God, it's been 70 years since Jeremiah (?) said that the exile would end in 70 years! How about a little help down here?"

GailVortex said...

"(see also Esther)"

Hey, as long as you're taking requests, I'd love a little detail on What Real Historical Thought is on this.

For, ummmm, a Purim gift? ;)

[Why, yes, I would be necrocommenting. I go on vacation for a week, and your posting frequency rockets. Note how I'm still not caught up.]