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Saturday, 26 October 2013

Worlds of Arthur: The traditionalists strike back

Here: http://stagspirit.wordpress.com/2013/10/06/andrew-breezes-review-of-guy-halsalls-worlds-of-arthur-facts-and-fictions-of-the-dark-ages/ (Actually this has now been removed but I am still pretty annoyed.)

Smells like Stag Spirit.

I have said before that no one made themselves look good by responding to a bad review but this one is so ridiculous and offensive, and misleading to the genuinely interested that it requires a riposte.  I don't know where this near-libelous drivel originally appeared except that it is set out as though it is in an academic journal.  The link is to a page on the blog of Arthurian fantasist Augustus Hunt (real name: Daniel Hunt - you can do your own bit of psychoanalysis about the name-change; the tenor of Hunt's own pseudo-historical ramblings can soon be gauged from those included on the blog).  Suffice it to say that pretty much every 'fact' or 'error' listed by the clearly-delusional Breeze* is nothing of the sort, but is simply a construct of his own invention.  There is no proof for any of them.

Let's look at the sort of 'careful scholarship' that Breeze claims to represent and of which he claims I am incapable.Let's start with the sixth paragraph as a prime example.  The points about a wedge being driven between the North Welsh and Cumbrian British, which Breeze lays into as showing what a careless scholar I am, are not views I espouse; they come from a section in which I am setting up those views as outmoded and indeed faintly ridiculous.  Clearly Breeze the scholar is incapable of following even a pretty simple argument in basic English.  As for the rest of the paragraph, were Breeze capable of reading a text closely and critically (and a brief perusal of his publications will show that he is not) he would note that I say (WoA p.23) that Degsastan is "an unknown spot usually identified as near Dawston Burn in Liddesdale", not that it is at Dawston.  I am well aware of the uncertainty.  Unlike Breeze, who states his own conjecture on the matter to be fact.  It is not.  It may be a plausible conjecture; I will look into it.  A fact, it is not.

And no more factual are the points made about the location of the Arthurian battles, which are based upon a chain of suppositions, none of which is secure.  The starting point is that the HB names are corrupt and that a linguist can then decide what they are corruptions of.  This is nonsense and quite the opposite of careful scholarship. Nor is Richard Sharpe's location of Gildas established. It is a conjecture.  One I like, as it happens, but conjecture nonetheless.  The same is true of Breeze's misleadingly confident statements about the martyrs.

Or take the point about Y Gododdin and whether or not its author could have met the author of the Historia Brittonum.  Aneirin is said, by the author of the HB, to have lived around 600 and Y Gododdin claims to have been written by Aneirin.  These facts do establish that Aneirin, whoever he was, was not a contemporary of the HB-author, whoever he was but they do not establish his date or the date of Y Gododdin because they don't establish that Y Gododdin, as we have it, actually was written by Aneirin or even that, if Aneirin did write such a poem, that that is the text that we possess.  Medieval writers habitually appended the names of great authorities of the past to their own writings.  Careful scholarship does not enable one to get beyond these points to the confident but misleading certainties that Breeze deals in.

The comment about Schrijver's 'texts' (in reality a collection of isolated phrases of probably Celtic nature, on things like curse tablets) is a marginal but fair cop.  I will hold my hands up to being out of date there.  The last thing I read did seem to suggest that the curse tablets were entirely in Latin and that Celtic readings had been erroneous.

When I first read something of Breeze's I confused him with Professor David Breeze, eminent Roman frontier archaeologist, not least because the piece dealt with an area near Hadrian's Wall, one of D. Breeze's specialisms.  I was a bit disappointed.  I thought the archaeologist had somehow moved to Spain and started to dabble in pseudo-history in his dotage, so old-fashioned and uninformed by recent approaches was the piece.  I was very relieved to find it was someone else. Breeze's problem, as intimated, is that he has lost touch with modern scholarship, especially on how to use early medieval sources.  Stenton and Jackson were, of course, giants of the field in their day and their legacy is secure, but approaches have advanced a great deal since then, and our treatment of sources is now a good deal less positivist and literal.  Like many of those who see the value of their hobby annihilated by these advances Breeze simply derides these advances as a decline.

* Don't be misled by the academic-looking affiliation at the end.  Breeze, whom I am reliably informed is every bit as obnoxious as this 'review' suggests, was incapable of finding employment in a proper university whether in the UK or Spain; he is employed by an Opus Dei-run ultra-conservative private 'university' in Navarra.  This, I assume, is where his embittered comments about the decline in standards visible in UK appointments originates.  He may, of course, have a point.


  1. Good on you, Professor Grumpy ... I thought that 'review' was a shocker ... anyone who presents a series of nitpicks as a 'review' fails at the first hurdle, even if any of the nitpicks holds water, which his don't. This is the man who thinks he's 'proved' that the author of the 4 Branches of the Mabinogi was Gwenllian, because he thinks it was written by a woman and she is one of the tiny handful of medieval Welsh women we have heard of! Go figure.

  2. But if you will go around using 'Oxford-educated' as shorthand for 'irredeemably evil', then you shouldn't be too surprised if the Celtomaniacs have a go at you ... 'English' pushes the same buttons for them ...

    1. Well hardly. No one I know has had their non-English origins used as an excuse for holding their career back. Does non-English status carry with it a lack of cultural capital or access to resource? I hardly think so. I doubt you'd understand. For 20+ years my non-Oxbridge status has been employed as a shorthand for inevitably second-rate. In my own job, in my own institution, I have to put up, on a regular basis, with being treated as a 2nd-class citizen whose achievements all have to be calibrated against the fact that I don't have the magic letters after my name - because I chose to do my degree elsewhere (because I couldn't do my degree at Oxford or Cambridge). A medieval (10th-Century Europe) blogger once told me that he didn't feel too bad about getting a job in Oxford because (I quote) he had served his time elsewhere. You see, teaching the likes of me is the structural equivalent to jail for these people. When I pointed this out to another Oxford graduate her response was - although intended to be supportive - founded upon entirely the same prejudices. These prejudices hardly even need to be stated; they saturate culture. A judge said that if someone applied to be a judge who didn't have an Oxbridge degree he'd 'want to know the reason why'. Point me at one (just one; any one) Celticist who occupies a similar structural position and I'll allow you the 'pushing the same buttons' comment. I naively thought that we were all adults in this profession who'd let our work do the talking. The first reference (to my face) of mine being 'only a York first' snapped me out of that. I'm evidently not middle class enough (no professors in my family) for almost all of the British early medieval establishment (especially that harpie on the Strand); God knows how they'd deal with someone from a genuinely disadvantaged background. Probably they'd see them as a 'project' to salve their mock-socialist credentials.
      Let me quote the conclusion of this piece (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2006/oct/19/highereducation.comment):
      "I am clearly prejudiced. And bitter. And probably wrong. But I think it's a better class of prejudice than Bennett's, and my bitterness and wrongness are, I believe, honourably shared ones. Many more Guardian readers, for example, will have attended non-Oxbridge than Oxbridge institutions. A good many may have read geography at Hull. Must they go through life with an inferiority complex, and the sound of the Bennett sneer in their ears?"
      I grew out of the inferiority complex in my mid-thirties. I never had an 'Oxbridge-reject' chip on my shoulder when I was at the start of my career; it took two decades of the 'Bennett sneer' to produce that.

    2. P.s. My Dad (the first family-member to go to University) went to Hull, from Bennett to Blackadder the foot-lights redbrick jibe of choice.


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