Thursday, September 16, 2021

Just not there: China

Biden seems to relish not mentioning who he is talking about, a boon for Digital Humanities researchers like me protesting what I will now dub surface indexing. Here is what the WaPo reported Thursday, Sept 16, 2021, about the new three-way submarine defence alliance between the US, the UK and Australia:
None of the three leaders mentioned China in their remarks, but the objective of the new alliance was clear: challenging the country’s growing economic and military influence. The effort comes amid rising tensions with China over a range of issues including military ambitions and human rights, and Biden has made it clear he views China as the country’s most significant global competitor.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Brittany had Arthur's Back

Read along with me in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain to understand what the idea behind the Chapter IX is (p.149). So why does Geoffrey of Monmouth even care about the Saxons? He is of Brittany stock, his ancestors came in with the Norman invasion, and is now settled around the castle of Monmouth in the Welsh border marches. When the actual invasion happened and Harold was killed at Hastings, the Welsh did not care; we can show that from the contemporary chronicles. The Welsh were much more interested ins sorting out internally their overlordship and focused on the contacts with Ireland.

My first claim is that, for Geoffrey (a name from Brittany, btw), the Saxons are the Anglo-Saxons that the Normans vanquished. Here he is basically inverting the narrative. It's not the Bretons and Normans who are the invaders, it is the Saxons who came to English Isles from Germany and conquered large swaths. While the second part is true (and showing that part in detail), the first part is not really the case. But that's the idea behind the detailed description of the Saxon battles. So first Colgrin gets defeated at the River Douglas (together with the Scots and the Picts, already old enemies by now of the Norman and Breton overlords) (p.150), and then gets bottled up in York. The rescue team under Baldulph with his six thousand men gets trounced by the duke of Cornwall and an army half the size. Duke Chelderic comes with six hundred ships to help the Saxons in York.

Now Arthur is short of men, so he calls for help. And from whence? Brittany! Arthur's nephew Hoel, son of the King of the Armorican Bretons, shows up with 15,000 men. I don't think for a moment that Geoffrey had any sources stating how many men anyone really had, but I think it is fair to assume that the numbers are interesting in their qualitative sense of comparisons. 15k is more than 6k; that's the punch line here. Arthur is getting big help from Brittany. That's the memo.

I also think it key that Hoel is the nephew of Arthur. Sure, kinship is the only place from which help can come, but the emphasis is on the nephew, not on his father Dubricius, Arthur's brother-in-law. With an eye toward the evil nephew, Mordred, later on, that sets up an interesting tension.

Over the next three chapters (3-6; p.151-154), Arthur and his men defeat the Saxons. They first trap them in the wood of Celion, whereupon the Saxons promise to leave for Germany, but turn around and come back, breaking their oaths. Hoel gets sick, which weakens the king's army for dramatic effect and making the upcoming victory even more of a sign that Arthur, as the oath-keeper, is trouncing infidels. In case anyone misses it, the prayer of the bishop of Lincoln and Arthur's speech spell it out (Chapter 4, p.151f). 

Arthur puts on his famous weapons, including the shield Priewen on which Mary is painted. This is a reference to an old Welsh legend that Arthur carried the Mother of God into battle, either on his shoulder or on his shield (a one letter permutation in Welsh.

It has been suggested that Arthur’s carrying the two religious burdens on his shoulders is an error for on his shield, through written confusion between ysgwyd (‘shield’) and ysgwydd (‘shoulder’), words often associated in early poetry (iscuit and iscuid in Old Welsh spelling). (Padel, p. 16)

The ensuring battle at Badon is one of the earliest battle attested for Arthur in the Welsh sources, as taking place on a mountain, and having Arthur kill 960 men (Padel, p.16f), but the particular way in which Geoffrey describes it smacks of Hastings, for my taste (p.153). For good measure, Goffrey halves the number of dead killed by "Caliburn" from "the Isle of Avallon", to 470 men. Those fleeing Saxons regroup under Chedric but are surrounded and Chedric killed at the Isle of Thanet (p.154).

With the Saxons out of the way, Geoffrey can now turn to iterating through the remaining typical enemies of the Norman and Britton occupiers of England. They are all squashed and conquered: the Scots and the Picts (p.155); Ireland, Iceland, Gothland and the Orkneys (p.158); Norway, Dacia (i.e. modern Romania and parts of Bulgaria!), Aquitaine and Gaul, including taking Paris from the (Byzantine Emperor) Leo (p.160). 

Concurrently, Arthur restores the pre-Saxon state of politics in England, including the Duke Lot as rule of the duchy of Londonesia. This man's ancestors hail from royal blood, and he married Arthur's sister "during the time of Aurelius Ambrosius", and fathered Walgan and Modred. Guinevere is called Guanhumara, also of Roman descent, and becomes Arthur's wife (p.157).

In this position, Arthur can summon the subdued lords to Camelot, which is called City of Legions in Goeffrey (p.161), for Arthur's coronation. The list of whose-who that answer his call (p.162) basically covers most of then-known Western Europe. Of the invited, Brittany's child Hoel manages to bag the largest description:

... Hoel, duke of the Armorican Britons, and his nobility, who came with such a train of mules, horses, and rich furniture, as it is difficult to describe. (p.163)

Even here the claim of lineage is spelled out by Geoffrey:

For the Britons still observed the ancient custom of Troy, by which  the men and women used to celebrate their festivals apart. (p.164)

The festivities are going well when the general of the Romans, Lucius Tiberius, challenges Arthur to submit to Roman rule (p.165) by paying the missing tribute due to Rome since Julius Caesar.  Arthur and his vassals retreat to counsel, and Arthur reminds them of his lineage's claims (p.166). As the reader suspects, Lucius has it all backwards. Arthur is kinsmen with both Emperor Constantine, son of Helena (p.167) and of Maximus, who

... both wore the crown of Britain, [and] gained the imperial throne of Rome. (p.167)

In fact, as Arthur slyly points out,

Do you not, therefore, think, that we ought to demand tribute of the Romans? (p.167)

Unsurprisingly, it is his kinsman Hoel that get's to go first.

As soon as he [i.e. Arthur, RCK] had done speaking to this effect, Hoel, king of the Armorican Britons, who had the precedence of the rest, made answer in these words." (p.167) 

Hoel is in agreement and reminds them of the Sibylline prophecies,

... which expressly declare, that hte Roman empire shall be obtained by three persons, natives of Britain. The oracle is fulfilled in two of them, since it is manifest ... that those two celebrated princes, Belinus and Constantine, governed the Roman empire; and now you are the third to whom this supreme dignity is promised. (p.168)

Hoel throws in ten thousand men, about 2/3 what he sent when Arthur was calling for help against the Saxons, but there you go. Only the King of Albania, also gets to give a speech (p.169), offering two thousand horse plus foot soldiers. The others are lumped together but their numbers are conveniently summed up: 183,200 horse and foot in number "not easily fall[ing] under" (p.170).

Lucius also musters his army from the east (which includes Spain, ruled by king Alifantinam?), and since Hoel is coming with Arthur (he promised his personal presence, p.168) and Walgan as well (p.175), Mordred and Guinevere (p.171). Before Arthur has time to defeat the Romans, he must best a Spanish giant who stole Helena, the niece of Hoel (p.172) and carried her off to the top of Mont St Michel---a Breton concern apparently that explains Helena's tomb (the lady does not survive the rescue), which Hoel built as a mausoleum (p.175). 

At this point Geoffrey of Monmouth begins the drawn-description of the battles of Arthur's host against the Roman army; this we shall save for another time.

Literature Cited

Padel, Oliver James. Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature (Writers of Wales), University of Wales Press. 

Saturday, August 21, 2021

The Rise of Arthurian Legends and the Plantagenet Empire

This is almost a guest-post, since it contains so much information provided by my frequent collaborator, Beparo.

When reading up on Wace's Roman de Rou, or A History of the Norman People, as some translate it, I was struck by the role that Wace had played in bringing the Round Table of King Arthur into existence, so to speak, by inserting it into his adaptive translation Roman de Brut, completed in 1155, of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Kings of Britain (Burgess & Van Houts, 2004, p.xxvi).

So in the middle of this negotiation of how to bridge these two land groups together (an attempt that does extend back to Saxon migrations and the Viking raiding of the 9th century, make no mistake), we have this influx of mythology. Perhaps the claims to the Roman mantle of power are again at disposition? The papacy is definitely involved in this shuffle, as the troubles that Wace go into for backing Becket against Henry II remind us (Burgess & Van Houts, 2004, p.xxxvii).

The Round Table may have Welsh roots, perhaps. The Winchester Round Table is perhaps the most interesting aspect in that question. As Beparo put it,

It was almost certainly Edward I who commissioned it, ca. 1260?;  so, maybe a century after Wace had been making the rounds.  But Henry VIII had it renovated, and the current paint job (with the Tudor Rose conspicuously in the middle of the table) dates to his era.  I seem to recall somewhere coming across speculation this was done in advance of Charles V's state visit in May of 1522;  the monarchs visited Winchester, where Charles would have seen it.  Given the Habsburg claim to Roman imperial succession, the implicit message probably wasn't lost. 

Those speculators however may have gotten

... Charles V confused with Francis I.  The state visit of 1522 was preceded by another in 1520, which was part of the run-up to the Field of the Cloth of Gold---yet another of these complicated trans-channel exercises where everybody was trying to trump everyone else's claim to be the sole inheritor of the Roman imperial purple.

As Beparo reminds us, the notion of inheriting the Roman imperial purple, and the imperial control implied, had found its traces in the Welsh sources in the figure of the late-Roman general Magnus Maximus, whose traces as Macsen Wledig are found in the Mabinogion. (Not all traces in Mabinogion are this historically grounded; the backdrop of The Dream of Rhonabwy for example is more complicated to discern.)

This is interesting because the compilation process of the Mabinogion belongs into the 12th and 13th century, when the French tradition of romance (the literary genre, not the vernacular translation of Wace's) was in full swing and flowing back onto the English Isles. For example, Wace's Roman de Brut was translated into English between 1200-1220 by Layamon, a Parish priest from Worchester (Burgess & Van Houts, 2004, p.xxvi). 

Of course, these back-and-forth connections between England and the modern day French shoreline reach back before the Conquest even. Wace himself is in some way linked to Duke Robert of Normandy, the father of William the Conqueror, who had attempted his own invasion of England and ended up with his fleet on Jersey instead, which connected Wace biologically to Turstin, the duke's chamberlain (Burgess & Van Houts, 2004, p.xxxv). 

William brought Breton soldiers with him to Hastings (Ralph de Gael from Rennes; Apdx 40 and Saint Saveur le Victome, Apdx 89 in: Burgess & Van Houts, 2004, pp.xlvii-lxii)), who settled in the Welsh border marches, controlling Monmouth castle after 1080. This aristocracy has been suggested by Frank Stanton and others as the nobility from which men like Geoffrey of Monmouth hailed (discussed in: Brynley F Roberts, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Cardiff, 1991). Perhaps even the name Arthur was more Breton than Welsh, after all.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Constantine's Donation and its relationship to the Acts of Sylvester

This rather complex problem was first exposed by Nicolaus von Kues, Lorenzo Valla and the English bishop Reginald Pecock (in his writing against the Lollards). The whole background story of the donation is dependent on the Acts of Sylvester, which narrates the baptism of Constantine by Sylvester after the victory at the Milvian bridge (cf. Wilhelm Pohlkamp, Textfassung, Literarische Formen und geschichtliche Funktion der r├Âmischen Sylvesterakten, in Francia 19/1 (1992), pp.115-196; digitally accessible in the Bavarian State Library). The validity of these actus Sylvestri is in turn assured by the pseudo-Gelasian decretum,  a Gallic index of permissible books from the 6th century (cf Erich von Dobsch├╝tz, Decretum Gelasianum, in the series Texte und Untersuchungen zur Altchristlichen Literatur, Bd xxxviim 3m  Leipzig 1911, digitally accessible at the Internet Archive) that eventually made its way into the Gratian judicial corpus.

The core problem was that Eusebius of Cesarea, though later condemned as Arian, had himself been the Church historian of choice of Constantin, as Reginald Pecock pointed out, and had narrated no baptism of Constantine in Rome (neither after the battle nor due to leprosy), but placed that even in Nicomedia toward the end of the Emperor's life.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Valla and the temporal Arrow

Thinking about interpretation of historical events for long will make one tend into the direction of increasing under-determination. But there are a few things that work like a hard pruning shear and that are not really debated. These have to do with some of the dimensions of our cognition, to put it in terms of Kantian categories, namely that temporally separate things only have one direction of dependence; and that the same macroscopic object cannot be at two locations (that share no spatial overlap) at the same point in time. 

That was basically all that Lorenzo Valla used to dismantle the claims behind the forged Donation of Constantine to Pope Sylvester. Valla argued that certain phrases were in use during the reign of Constantine and certain phrases were not. For example, during the time of Constantine, there were no satraps. Since the Donation assumes that there were satraps as a political title and role, the text shows no understanding of the time of Constantine and therefore cannot be from the time of the reign. 

What that means for an interpretation then is that we have a situation where we have run out of alternatives and ruled them out. As in the old Peanuts joke, there are no oceans (now) in Kansas, nor in North Dakota, nor in Colorado, nor in Arizona, nor in Utah, nor in Wyoming. Given that there is a finite number of states, we can eventually iterate over all of them and determine if they have oceans or not. Thus with the writings from the time of Constantine; eventually we can look through all of them and come up with something like word counts for satrap for each of them. And we can then make a positive statement of an absence: there are no documents from the time of Constantine that recognize satrap as a political title.

We of course immediately see the problem. How did we get this set of dated documents? By some method like Valla's, involving terminus ante quem and terminus post quem. Presumably involving the same logic that Valla just used. For clearly our set of documents cannot use the Donatio itself. There is then a petitio principii in the sense that we already need to exclude the document under consideration in order to make the determination.

But that may be overplaying the hand of the other side. Surely it is good cross-validation practice to go through a canon of writings and see how well, if one document is withheld during training, the separated document holds up when looking at all the other ones as the training corpus. Or perhaps one can cluster the documents by the language and find that the Donatio is an outlier along several dimensions. There is a way that this determination can be made that is not completely dependent on begging the question.

Perhaps the example of the satrap is not the best one either, because that term did exist before Constantine and had become part of the historical discourse since Herodotus (Book III, 89-93).