(The following series of notes is to ‘The Great Course’ offering titled King Arthur: History and Legend. Taught by professor Dorsey Armstrong, the course covers close to twelve hours of content. Each entry until the concluding of the course will focus on the notes I took for each of the 30-minute lessons. I share them here in hopes that other people find them useful and informative. These notes are slightly reworked to as to be more presentable and the information is simply what I jotted down when listening to the lecture. Each selection of notes corresponds to a single 30-minute lesson.)
- When considering the King Arthur legend, we have to keep in mind some historical context; for example, though King Arthur is often depicted as ruling from an illustrious stone castle, and wearing a suit of shiny armor, neither would have existed during the time in which Arthur supposedly lived. Fortifications would have been earth and wood works, whereas armor would have been boiled leather.
- An early medieval bard named Merthelen (I am probably spelling that incorrectly; as I only had audio cues to go upon, I cannot maintain the spelling for certain) was likely the inspiration for the character we call today ‘Merlin.’ However, this figure was not linked to Arthur for close to six-hundred years after his death.
- Lancelot shows up not in a British text, but a French text, and is added to the Arthurian mythos along with the concept of the roundtable by a French writer.
- All though debated, many scholars do believe that an historical King Arthur existed.
- However, we need some historical context in order to understand the idea behind what inspired the legend. From the end of the 4th century to the beginning of the 5th, Britian had been Romanized and converted from the traditional Celtic lifestyles. The Romans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the Picts and other Northern and Western tribes which had not been Romanized.
- By the year 410, those Britons which had been part of the Roman Empire had been part of the imperium for almost four centuries (400 years). Since Rome, at this time, had been sacked (by the Visigoths?), all of the Roman legions deployed outside of Rome had to be recalled to the imperial center.
- Without the imperial Roman army to protect them, Britian fell prey to raiding Anglo-Saxon and Norse tribes. The 6th century historian Gildas recount both the slaughter as well as a man who helped push the invading ‘barbarian’ tribes back; two centuries later, Bede gives us the name of this man as Vortigern; likely a local warlord who gained some prestige, Vortigern hired mercenaries from the continent (likely France) to fight the other invading pagan tribes. These mercenaries were led by Hengest and Horsa.
- While the mercenaries overcame the other invading tribes, during the fighting they say how the native Britons were ill-suited to defend themselves, and after emerging victorious in battle, decided to settle the Briton’s land themselves. This was the start of the Anglo-Saxon invasion.
- For two generations Britain was divided. To the East, ruled the Anglo-Saxons. To the West, ruled people who could be described as Celtic-Romans, individuals who had reverted to a pre-Roman lifestyle, but still embraced aspects of Roman culture and technology. It is in this Celtic-Roman territory that we see the ‘Arthur-figure,’ the person who would likely have been the template for the legend of King Arthur, emerge.
- This Arthur-figure, would obviously have been a consummate leader skilled in battle as well as charismatic. However, because the period from 410-600 is truly a dearth of information, it is difficult to say anything definitive about this presumed figure. (This is the time period in which historians dub ‘The Dark Ages’) Part of this lack of information had to do with the times: The Britons had been so focused on merely surviving that they could hardly have given thought to write down their history as they were fleeing Anglo-Saxon blades. Meanwhile, the Germanic tribes lacked a sophisticated writing system; they could record a short message via rune and a rudimentary alphabet, but not much more. So, it is only several centuries later, with the emergence of Old English as an instructed language, that we see written histories starting to be recorded. Unfortunately, these histories do not mention an Arthur figure and they were written hundreds of years after they supposedly transpired.
- It is only with that 6th century historian named Gildas, born around the same time as the Arthur-figure, that we get something close to a first-hand account of the Arthur-figure. The history goes along the lines of a figure—Ambrosis Ariainus—challenging the pagan invaders to a battle and emerging victorious. But, as archaeology attests, during the time of this Arthur-figure’s victory, was also a transitional generation, while lingual research suggests that his name may have actually been a title, not a proper in in itself. This title, “rearthurmaus” likely denoted a ‘supreme leader.’ The name “Arthur” does not show up until a couple of generations after the period of the alleged historical figure. Researchers have posited that the name—Arthur—may have been an attempt to either Celticize a Roman name or to simplify a longer name or moniker.
- In the 6th century, all four of the Roman households in Britian had produced first born sons, and every one of those was named Arthur, thus attesting to both the popularity of the name as well as the belief that a great leader, an Arthur-figure, did indeed exist.
(As an aside, American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, being a student of the ancient languages, and a fan of Anglo-Saxon history, had once considered placing the mercenary Anglo-Saxon leaders Hengist and Horsa on the U.S seal.)