Friday, January 11, 2008

A Dark Ages 'Rough Guide' Travel Codex

Today, we can only lament the loss of the early accounts of life in Britain and Ireland we know once existed, all the way from the pioneering travel accounts by Pytheas, Hecataeus, and others, through the lost native works of the Dark Ages. The Roman-occupation era gave us descriptions by Caesar, Tacitus and others, but even much of this is lost. And the sole surviving historical account from the subsequent Dark Ages is Gildas's tract on the ruin of Britain - the one famous for not mentioning Arthur. This is indeed the meaning of the term Dark Ages, that the era lacks the illumination provided by contemporary accounts of life.
But some fragmentary descriptions do exist in codices that did survive - in Saints Lives, in Bede's later books, Irish sagas, etc. English classicist author Simon Young has used these, combined with the conclusions of modern research scholarship, to simulate what such a contemporary traveller's account might have been like. This is the framework of his AD 500: A Journey Through The Dark Ages Of Britain And Ireland, written as part of his aim of bringing this history to a general audience. There is a slight attempt to pass off the entire book as a genuine codex, Bibliotheque Nationale MS # 12202, which is being translated here for the first time; but the Author's Preface, for those who read this, makes clear this is just a literary device to set up a history lesson.
AD 500 by Simon Young, front cover
The fictional framework Simon Young creates for his history lesson is that the book is a report prepared for the court of Rome's successor, the eastward-looking Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople (modern Istanbul). This report by the Byzantine Emperor's chief geographer and map maker is largely based on an older, just-retrieved and bloodstained codex. This was the travel diary of an official Byzantine Empire expedition, made up of mainly of scholars, around the British Isles, for purposes of mercantile and political intelligence, some twenty years before. (Young in fact draws on sources right through the 6th Century - it's not a snapshot of the year AD 500 as there wouldn't be enough material from any single year, or even decade.)
One by one, the original "embassy" party fell by the wayside, their fates a catalogue of the dangers of Dark Ages travel. Their translator was washed overboard en route; their librarian fell victim to the steep Welsh hills; another scholar was "frightened into the sea near Thule by beaked creatures"; the mapmaker was lost when they accompany a cavalry force to witness the famous raid of the Edinburgh-based Gododdin warband into northern England; their geographer died of appendicitis; their 'book carrier' got plague; their diplomat was bitten by an adder; the expedition's artist was stabbed when they try to examine a Saxon memorial, and the "log writer" himself, as they call the codex's doomed travelling scribe Sophron, was mortally wounded by the same angry mob. But the original travel-account codex itself survives as inside it offered a reward for its return to Byzantium. The Emperor commands his chief geographer and map maker to use this blood-stained recovered codex to compile a travel handbook for Imperial spies to use in advance of a planned 're-integration' i.e. reconquest. Thus, there is an emphasis on the codex being a "survival guide" to visiting the barbarians, which sets the tone. We also get pithy descriptions of places from Tintagel to the Orkneys which give a vivid picture of these sites as they once were, and a traveller's view of the customs and life encountered there.
Overall, Young's is a thoughtful approach, the sort of multi-layered effect you normally only get in "literary" novels about rediscovered manuscripts, used to dramatize two contrasting time-frames. Historical novelists have of course used the technique of drawing on contemporary accounts to offer authentic background detail ever since Robert Graves used it in the 1930s in his I, Claudius (and sequel). Indeed the whole 'realist' school of Dark Ages novels about Arthur et al is built on using this sort of research detail to create general verisimilitude. But you never know where the novelist's imagination takes over. Here, Simon Young explains what he has done, and why. Because of the book's educational aim, it has modern place-names in brackets, "Translator's" footnotes which really represent the view of modern scholars, endnotes, a glossary, and a bibliography. It's the descriptions that are the substance of the work, depicting Celto-British, Pictish, and Saxon court entertainments, family life, diplomacy, monastic communities, laws, seasonal customs, and so on. Unfortunately, this framework proves rather self-limiting.
The anonymous Greco-Roman codex author of this revised 'Rough Guide To The British Isles' is a relentless snob who hates the place, which in fact he himself has never visited. He sniffs endlessly at 'barbarian' ways - regular mention is made for example of the Irish custom of male nipple sucking (don't ask). And the book doesn't give any indication any of the people the embassy meet had any concept of the world beyond their local community. (For instance there was a centuries-long alliance of sorts between the Irish and the Picts and later the Scots of north Britain which made the Roman occupation untenable.) British religion is depicted (this will annoy modern Pagans) as still one of 'blood-dripping gods,' with human sacrifices in the sacred groves. (This was part of the Roman pretext for conquering Britain.) Young's narrator does mention Christian communities when the party visits places like Caldey Isle's hermitage, but makes sport of their 'old-fashioned' form of worship, stuck in a time warp, regarding Orthodox Byzantine Christians as heretics. (The codex author himself seems to echo this more 'modern' view, speaking in a pious tone but never making the sort of imprecations and prayers you often get in the actual works of this era, only using the authority of the church as part of his own.) Unfortunately we hear nothing of that great mystery - the early, pre-Roman, arrival of Christianity in Britain.
It's certainly not the usual whitewashed view you get from English historians that the Saxons never actually invaded but were 'gentleman farmers' who were second only to the Romans in their intelligent social organisation and help 'civilise' the hopeless 'Celts'. But it echoes the fashionable argument among English historians that the "Celts" never existed as a nation, race, or culture, and are a purely modern inventions by Scots/Welsh/Irish nationalists. (In fact the Greeks did use "Keltoi" early on to describe the peoples of Western Europe, but writers like Caesar distinguished Britons from Continental 'Celts' or Gauls - while invading Britain on the excuse the troublesome Gaulish Druidic cult originated in Britain as a centre of philosophical education.) In reality, the Byzantine Emperor's intention of re-conquering Britain seems to have been real enough (at the time of Justinian), but as far as we know, naught came of it. Perhaps the inference here is that the Emperor read his geographer's Rough-Guide report, and decided not to bother. Young certainly emphasises the negative, sensational aspects to depict the Isles as a benighted place - the book opens with a quote from Conrad's Heart Of Darkness which sets the overall tone.
Young does use the term "Celts", but his codex scribe posits a descending cycle of primitivism with the Saxons at the bottom of the dung-heap. The original party of Byzantine scholars toured the Isles clockwise as this started them off in the most civilised parts, beginning with Tintagel, proceeding to Ireland, then Scotland, before braving the totally uncouth Saxons of the south. The tone of the social observation is mordant in a way you get from authors of historical novels from Alfred Duggan in Conscience Of the King (1951) onward. Yet Young's work doesn't have any of the built-in irony that, say, an historical novelist like the English author John James would offer in works with similar narrative set-ups such as his The Bridge Of Sand, where in the end the supercilious narrator realises his world-view is somewhat lacking, and the natives are not so stupid as he thought. Like many a modern tourist (and dare one say, modern travel writer), the codex compiler arrives at no conclusion, coming away no wiser than when he left.