This afternoon I finished reading a book about "evolving identities, origin myths and the use or abuse of archaeology and history," Francis Pryor's Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons (233). Though the author seems to have an aversion to the use of the Oxford comma and did not find King Arthur (which was not a surprise in itself), I found the book thoroughly intriguing and recommend it to you, even if you have no immediate interest in the topics it concerns. Interest in the historical period aside, how can you not enjoy a book whose author's writes sentences such as these: "Over the centuries Britain has produced its fair share of religious innovations, ranging from the Celtic Church to Quakerism. Generally speaking the official Church greeted them as one would welcome a scorpion to one's trousers" (144-145)?
Ever since I discovered the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table as a boy, I have been fascinated by that period of British history known pejoratively - and incorrectly - as "the Dark Ages," which is why I first picked up the book. Beginning with the notion that "the fundamental attitudes underlying human society take a long time to change," Pryor examines and refutes the claim of an Anglo-Saxon invasion of the east of England in the 5th century that completely changed the people and landscape of the British isle, an invasion accepted without question by historians and archaeologists alike (xviii).
Pryor brings his experience and expertise as a prehistoric archeologist to the excavations of Roman, post-Roman, and Anglo-Saxon England, as well as the few documents which have come down to us, and arrives a jarring conclusion:
I am in doubt that archeology is the only means by which the Dark Ages can become fully illuminated. There is a huge amount of exciting new work taking place, and the more we discover, the more it becomes apparent that the fifth and sixth centuries were never truly Dark. There was no no population collapse, the countryside never reverted to woodland, field systems continued in use, towns quite rapidly appeared and then stayed for good. Yes, there were major social and political changes, and, yes, we can see the effects of real raiding in the Viking depredations of the mid-ninth century, that were followed by the collapse of long-distance trade. But where is the evidence for such happenings in the 'Dark Ages,' when communication with mainland Europe and the Mediterranean was a regular occurrence, by both land and sea (234-244)?
After examining the written records and comparing them with the archaeological evidence of landscapes, graves, clothing, skeletons, towns, fortifications, etc., Pryor says, "I can see no convincing archaeological evidence for 'Dark Age' chaos, disruption and turmoil" (96). Why, then, have so many archaeologists and historians held so firmly to the notion of an invasion, even ignoring available evidence to the contrary?
Pryor suggest the answer may have something to do with the nineteenth, a claim that at first seems odd until you seriously consider the biases with which people - even historians - write:
The Victorian era was a time when the previously separate strands of history and science came together in a form of both pseudo-history and pseudo-science which today we would simply label as racist. This doctrine held that human beings came in physically, mentally and intellectually distinct races, the 'purity' of which would be threatened by mixing with the blood of another race. This was of course a fundamentally flawed doctrine, which would have appalling consequences in the twentieth century.Different races were ascribed different characteristics. Celts, for example, were hot-headed and emotional, while the German or Teutonic race, which included the English, thanks to those Anglo-Saxon migrations, was the best of the lot: rational, loyal, artistic, inventive, etc., etc. (152).
What does this have to do with the post-Roman Britain? The answer is both obvious and disturbing:
When Victorian ideas about the characteristics and purity of races were allied to the 'culture-historical' approach, archaeologists and historians believed they could provide a solid academic basis for English Teutonic origins. That is why manifestly unreliable sources such as Gildas were pressed into service. Gildas' shortcomings were ignored because he was saying what people wanted to hear. These then were the forces that lay behind the circular argument that has bedevilled the study of fifth- and sixth-century Britain for over a century (153).
Rather than attributing everything to the Anglo-Saxons and their supposed supplanting of everything that came before them, Pryor convincingly suggests the possibility of a continued memory, even going back to prehistory:
Surely it is not unreasonable to suggest that many of the ancient themes that we find in the Arthurian tales could have been current for much longer than was once believed, and that they found their way into the literature in ways that recall Mallory's adoption of the legend of the Holy Blood, which was already an old cult when he encountered it. Mallory, Geoffrey of Monmouth and other contributors to the Arthurian tale were seeking to flavour their stories with an air of antiquity, so it would have made good sense to seek customs that were known, or believed, to have had ancient roots (219).
The fundamental attitudes underlying human society do quickly change; rather, they are passed on and utilized in perhaps new ways, while retaining something of the ancient memory, even after the origin is lost and shrouded in time.
Pryor's work is not a "revisionist" history, but rather a reading of history as it actually was, as best as it can be read. He challenges the generally accepted history not because he disagrees with it on principle (which he does), but because there is simply no archaeological evidence to support the theory of the Anglo-Saxon invasions and plenty of archaeological evidence to disprove the theory. His book is a timely reminder for us to question the evidence presented before us and not simply to accept someone's story based solely on the word of the teller.