The Future of History

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Occam's Razor

Well, it was only to be expected.  My article on Arthur and the Church, which was published in the August 2012 issue of History Today magazine, prompted a response.  A letter came in which, lucid and reasonable though it was in many ways, repeated two of the most common misconceptions about King Arthur.  The first being that he was a king.

Thus, the correspondent pointed out that Artuir mac Aedain (the original Arthur - read The King Arthur Conspiracy to find out more) was only "a minor prince, not a king".

In fact, the legendary Arthur was never a king.  Not until the later storytellers got to work on the tales.

For a start, the word "King" didn't exist; besides which, it is of Germanic origin, and would have meant nothing to Arthur and his people.  But Arthur's contemporaries didn't even claim that he was the Celtic equivalent of a "king".

Take Nennius, the name commonly applied to the author or compiler of the Historia Brittonum ('History of the Britons'), who provides us with one of the earliest historical references to Arthur.  According to Nennius, the "maganimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons ...

And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander [dux bellorum- 'duke of battles'], and was as often conqueror.

Now, most people would agree that you can't get much more noble than a king.  And yet Arthur, according to one of our earliest sources, was far from being the noblest in his alliance.  There were "many more noble" than he was.  Wouldn't that, in itself, suggest that Arthur was not a king - rather, kings served with him, and probably under him, but Arthur himself was something else?  A military commander or dux bellorum.

And, indeed, we find in the early literature - most of it Welsh, but that includes poetry emanating from what is now southern Scotland - that Arthur is not called "king".  The word used for him is ymerawdwr or "Emperor".

Unlike "king", which is of Germanic orginin, and therefore came in with Arthur's enemies, the "Emperor" title was a legacy of the Roman occupation of Britain.  The Latin imperator was usually applied to a successful military champion or general.  In the early poems and tales, Arthur is repeatedly referred to as the "Emperor Arthur".  Not a king.

And so, the simple fact that Artuir mac Aedain was a prince, and not a "king" as such, is irrelevant in terms of the quest for the historical Arthur.  Anyone looking for a historical King Arthur will fail, because there weren't any.  To go looking for a king is to go looking for the wrong thing altogether.  He was not a king.  He was a military commander, one who was less noble than many of those he led.

Having made the rather common mistake of assuming that Arthur must have been a king (because, much later on, storytellers started referring to him as "King Arthur"), the correspondent to History Today magazine then invoked Occam's razor.

Named after the 14th-century English friar, William of Occam, the famous "Occam's razor" principle argues that the best theory is the one which relies on the fewest assumptions.

The letter-writer claimed that, according to the rules of Occam's razor, the original King Arthur was probably an earlier hero after whom Artuir mac Aedain ("a minor prince, not a king") was named.

This is, in fact, the standard argument flung at anyone who points to Artuir mac Aedain.  Artuir cannot have been Arthur (presumably, because he was of Scottish descent, and therefore not quite "English" enough to have been a proper Arthur), and so he must have been named after an earlier Arthur, who has since been completely forgotten.

Artuir mac Aedain is, without doubt, the earliest historical individual to appear in the records with the name Arthur (Artuir being a Gaelic approximation of the British/Welsh Arthwr).  So, the claims of an earlier Arthur - about whom nothing is known - fail the first Occam's razor test, because they require an assumption.  We know that Artuir mac Aedain existed, because he appears in the Irish Annals and the Life of St Columba, written in about 697 AD.  The assumption that he must have been named after an earlier, more famous Arthur, is just that - an assumption.

The fact that many of the individuals who followed "King" Arthur into the legends were contemporaries, kinsmen and near-neighbours of Artuir mac Aedain would also require some sort of explanation from the advocates of the unknown Earlier Arthur.  At which point, Occam's razor gets thrown out of the window.  The standard response is - there was an earlier Arthur, whom nobody can identify, and then, some years later, along came another Arthur (Artuir), named after the first, who happened to be around at the same time as several Arthurian heroes were active in North Britain.

See the problem here?  The Occam's razor principle actually supports Artuir's candidacy for the role of the historical Arthur - because many more assumptions have to be made in order to advance the claim that he was named after an earlier Arthur, who everyone then forgot all about!

Whoever this "earlier Arthur" might have been, he certainly didn't trouble the historical records.  The first Arthur on record is Artuir mac Aedain, and it was during, and shortly after, his lifetime (roughly, 559 - 594 AD) that the name Arthur started to become popular.

And whoever the mythical Earlier Arthur was, he can't have achieved very much.  The best that could be said of him was that he managed to hold the encroaching Saxons back for a while, giving the Britons a breathing space, but it made no difference because the Saxons won in the end.

Now, I don't know about you, but any hero or military champion - whether a "king" or not - whose claim to fame was that he achieved a temporary victory, is not necessarily going to be remembered for all time.  One who scored several victories, leading to the near-annihilation of the foe, only to be betrayed, and whose death spelled the end to an independent Britain - well, someone like that might be remembered.  But a mysterious stranger who won a short-term victory and then vanished, leaving not a trace ... hmmnn, not so sure.

The only thing that the advocates of the Earlier Arthur school have to stand upon is a couple of later interpolations in the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), which offer the dates of 518 and 539 for the Arthurian battles of Badon and Camlan.  Neither of these dates fell within the lifetime of Artuir mac Aedain.  Neither date matches any known battle.  Both dates are essentially meaningless.

St Gildas, sometime around the middle of the sixth century, referred to a "siege of Badon Hill" as having been fought in the year of his birth.  This siege was a success for the native Britons, and brought about a temporary peace with the Saxon settlers which lasted up until the time when Gildas wrote his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ('Of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain').

According to the Welsh Annals, Arthur carried "the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and nights on his shoulders" at the Battle of Badon.  This would have made him just the sort of person St Gildas would have liked - a Christian.  And yet, Gildas made no mention at all of any Arthur and gave no hint that a catastrophic battle like Camlan had taken place since - which it must have, if Gildas was born in the year of the Badon siege and was writing prior to 550 AD.  But no, Gildas says nothing about Arthur or Camlan.  Quite simply, there had been no Battle of Camlan during that time.  Arthur had not even been born.

Once again, the advocates of the completely-vanished, completely-unidentifiable Earlier Arthur make the assumption that the "siege of Badon Hill" mentioned by St Gildas was the same as the "Battle of Mount Badon" which Nennius, writing nearly 300 years later, ascribed to Arthur, the "duke of battles".

So, again, we find that the Earlier Arthur theory fails the Occam's razor test.  It requires, quite simply, far too many assumptions, the main one being that somebody called Arthur appeared, did something that was only temporarily relevant and successful, and then vanished without a trace, before - some time later - the first historical Arthur appeared and the name suddenly became popular.

Seriously - if you're going to use Occam's razor, use it properly.  The least number of assumptions - and therefore, the better theory - suit the argument that Artuir mac Aedain was the original Arthur.  He is the first Arthur on record.  He was a contemporary of other Arthurian heroes.  He died in a battle which we can date to 594 AD.  He wasn't a king - but then, neither was Arthur. 

And when he died, Britain fell.  Simples.

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