Sunday, October 27, 2013

Worlds of Arthur, by Guy Halsall

I know Guy Halsall and correspond with him fairly frequently. I think he's a very good historian. So when he wrote a book with a riproaring commercial title like "Worlds of Arthur" it was only a matter of time before I got around to having a look.

Frankly, I don't know how commercial this book is, or how much impact it will have on even the more serious readers among the general public, namely the people who actually shell out their own money to read books on serious subjects like post-Roman Britain and King Arthur. Certainly Halsall tries very hard to reach those people, and does a much better job than most academics do on similar projects. But the book is a thorough debunking of certain ideas about Arthur and his place in history, and is already provoking a mixed reaction.

Halsall believes that trying to find the real Arthur behind the legends is entirely futile, and he classifies most efforts to do so as pseudo-history.  It is possible that somebody named Arthur led British forces against Saxon invaders, but the simple truth is that we know nothing about any such person and can't  reconstruct his life and career. The few written sources we have for this two-century period (410-597) does not allow us to do it and unless some miraculous discovery turns up new information (and none has appeared for many centuries) we will never find Arthur. A lot of professional historians agree with this, but I doubt that anyone has made such an uncompromising presentation of this fact – the unknowability of Arthur – as Halsall does here. 

Halsall is equally interested in revising a framework that scholars of the past have imposed on our understanding of post-Roman Britain. To simplify, Halsall does not think that British history of the fifth and sixth centuries is best understood as a fight between "the Britons" and "the Saxons," a long contest which resulted in the expulsion of Britons from most of what is now England. In line with developments in other parts of Western Europe, English ethnic identity came to dominate because older identities, specifically the Roman identity, were no longer relevant to a Britain where the Roman economy and society had collapsed.

Halsall both discusses changes in our interpretation of British archaeology over the last 40 years, and offers his own reinterpretation, which he frankly labels as speculative. It's an interesting interpretation and one I find fairly persuasive, though in this period we will never have certainty.

One of the best things about this book is that Halsall discusses how people use and misuse evidence for difficult historical problems in great detail. This may put people off, but it is one of the most transparent discussions of what historians do in interpreting the often difficult to understand early Middle Ages that I've ever seen. It is not likely to be everybody's cup of tea. But have a look at this discussion of DNA evidence and how it can deceive, especially people who want to be deceived.
Even with these data, an even more serious problem concerns the move from DNA to conclusions about ethnic or political identity. Ethnic identity is multi-layered. It is deployed (or not) in particular situation as the occasion demands, and can be changed. DNA cannot give you a sense of all the layers of that person's ethnicity, or of which she thought the most important, or even if she generally used a completely different one, or when and where such identities are stressed or concealed. A male Saxon immigrant into the Empire in, say, the fourth century, would – one assumes – have DNA revealing the area where he grew up, but he would probably increasingly see himself, and act, as a Roman. Saxon origins would have little part in his social, cultural, or political life, and even less for his children, if they stay in the Empire. If he returned home with the cachet of his Imperial service, it might have been his Roman identity that gave him local status. He might even have called himself a Roman. However, if a distant male relative moved to Britain 150 years later, his DNA might be very similar but, in complete distinction, he might make a very big deal of the Saxon origins. They would, or could, propel him to the upper echelons of society. DNA tells us nothing about any of this. What is pernicious about this use of genetic data is its essentialism. It views a person's identity as one-dimensional, unchanging, and as entirely derived from that person's biological and geographical origins. In short, it reduces identity to something similar to 19th century nationalist ideas of race. Everyone sane knows that people moved from northern Germany to Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. In that sense, these expensive analyses tell us nothing we do not already know. In their implicit reduction of identity to a form of race, masking all the other contingent and interesting aspects of cultural interaction and identity-change they risk setting back the understanding of this period by more than a century. Moreover, they provide pseudo-historical and pseudo-scientific ammunition for present-day nationalists xenophobes and racists.
If you teach history, wouldn't you want your students to be exposed to such a clear discussion of a historiographical problem?  One with real relevance to the present?

Image: Tintagel. People in the 12th century thought this was an Arthurian site.

1 comment:

  1. Back in about, oh seventy nine or so, I was in York chatting with a Fellow from the university. He was telling me about the DNA that was being done on the people around York and the Lake District. Apparently, they found the Ninth Legion decendants, lots of (I think Iraqi) and, more telling, very little Italian DNA.
    What he spun from this is remarkable...stories of battle, muntiny and fading into the hills with two years worth of pay for three legions.
    I drank the bitter he bought me, and smiled.
    Could be...could be....usually if you follow the money, you come smack up on the truth. Maybe....