Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A 2,000 Year Old Paper Trail

In my last post, “This Old Book,” I said that when I’d had a chance to look it over, I’d review the Celtic Texts Of The Coelbook volume I’d just received from Amazon. This has turned out to be such a Pandora’s Box of historical issues I’m not surprised that some refuse outright to even consider it, saying it’s “obviously” a forgery, since it does not conform to the standard Roman-based interpretation of British history. I therefore asked a colleague to help me out on this one, and he ordered his own copy. When we first got together, the conversation went something like this - “Do you think it’s all a forgery?” “I’m not sure. There’s so much there that makes me uneasy.” “Yes, either it’s a hoax, a forgery, a corrupt text - or our early history needs a re-think.”
The first problem is the external evidence – it’s the same problem as with a painting that someone says has been in their family attic for centuries. There’s no record of the existence of this work, known generally as the Kolbrin, before the 1990s, when the 'Culdian Celestial Age Trust' produced an annotated version for purposes of private study. The CCAT were a group dedicated to carrying on the work of the Culdee Church as the original church of Britain. The Culdees are well-enough attested, though the meaning of the name is disputed (suggestions including Celi-De, Hidden-of-God). Here they say it is from “Kailedy”, “wise strangers”. This derivation eludes me, but the text gives it as the nickname given by the locals to the group who arrived in SW Britain with Mary and other disciples led by Joseph of Abramatha [sic] and founded the first church.
Supposedly the originals were written down by Celtic priests and scholars, who drew upon longstanding oral tradition. They had been inspired to do so after they obtained via Phoenician tin-traders a copy of the older Egyptian manuscripts which now make up Volume One of the 2-volume paperback edition. These were all stored at Glastonbury, as the centre of the early British Church, until the disastrous fire of 1184. (More on this next time.) A pile of singed and tattered manuscripts were smuggled out and engraved onto more durable wooden and copper plates. Later, these were copied back onto paper by hand and translated into more modern speech by Culdian volunteers. The CCAT said they themselves got the texts from an Edinburgh-based 18th-Century religious organisation called The Hope Trust, who had inherited it from a long line of ‘caretakers.’ These were not educated folk (they seem to have been ‘tinkers’ ie itinerant tinworkers), but believed in its importance and kept it hidden (presumably from church bonfires), passing it down family lines. In the 20th C, when typewriters became available, the handwritten manuscript version was typed out. So what we have is a compilation of copies of various translations and transcripts.Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 871 AD
With their own organisation dying out and the world apparently heading for global meltdown of one sort or another, the Culdian Trust decided in 1992 to get it published. First there was an expensive gold-inlay version, and now this more accessible 2-volume US paperback edition. However the CCAT have repudiated the current US publisher’s marketing the work as The Kolbrin “Bible.” (The first chapters contain alternative accounts of some events covered by the “official” Bible, and its US publicist argues the first half is the Bible of the Lost Tribes of Israel.)
The modern Introduction in fact describes it as an “an ancient secular academic work,” and has a table showing what the editors think the language was in each “book” (manuscript). It says that Volume One, The Egyptian Texts Of The Bronzebook, was written by “Egyptian academicians” in a religious crisis that followed the Exodus of c1500 BC. It is given as written originally in Egyptian Hieratic script and then translated (in Lebanon) into Phoenician. The Phoenicians being the merchants behind the long-distance tin-trade route, a copy came to Britain with some individuals fleeing Roman rule. Volume Two, The Celtic Texts Of The Coelbook, is given as written in “Old Celtic”, translated into ‘Old’ English, then post-WWII into “Continental” (presumably modern) English. By “Old Celtic”, they must mean Common Celtic, i.e. before it split into its surviving dialects like Welsh, Gaelic, and Breton. The preface gives the dates of the original Celtic manuscripts as between 20 and 500 CE [AD]. This leads us to the question whether the external and internal evidence match.
The first chapter, The Book Of Origins, has a ‘preamble’ (originally a colophon, a note put at the very end) giving a set of date synchronicities as to when it was transcribed. Using such synchronisms was an old way of establishing dates before the continuous, cumulative year-count “AD” system became standard. (Scholars use CE ie Christian Era, to avoid the religious overtone of AD = Anno Domini, “Year Of The Lord.”) A churchman might say, “Written in the Year Of Our Lord, XXX", but these early AD dates in fact were compiled in annals such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from old short-form calendars like church Easter Tables (used to compute the all-important date of Easter for a generation). Sometimes this was done wrongly, and dates could be around 30 years out. (Leslie Alcock, the archeo-historian who dug up Cadbury hillfort to see if it might be “Camelot,” discusses this problem in his 1971 Arthur’s Britain.) A lay person writing a secular work in the old days might say something like “Written in the 28th year of good King Henry the Third” (the short form would be 28 Hen. III). But they might add other backup frames of reference, such as “in the 3rd year of the great plague” or “the 22nd year since the Saxons came.”
The text is preceded by a dozen such datum points. We start with: “One hundred and sixty years after the death of Ardpeth, the last king. Twenty years after the death of Garadon Pankris. Eighty years after the death of Kelwin. One hundred years after the death of Afterid.” Well, though Ardpeth was supposedly king of somewhere, and the name Kelwin[e] (Kelvin?) does at least sound familiar, none of these names are found in the standard sources like the Welsh Annals or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the lack of any cross-referencing detail here makes this lot a dead end. Perhaps these were all local figures otherwise unrecorded. So we simply draw a blank on that one.
Other references to kings however do prove traceable. One says the book was completed in “the 7th year in the reign of Ecgfrid, son of Oswey, king of North Saxondom”. Ecgfrith son of Oswy ruled Northumbria from 670 until he was killed by Picts in 685. This would put completion well after the US editor’s surmised end-date of 500 CE, specifically in 677 CE.
Map of Early Britain
Linguistically, this means the Celtic text could have been in a surviving dialect of Brythonic like Welsh. Due to the English expansion splitting Britain into Celtic pockets like Wales and Cornwall, the national language began to break down into a basic form, losing its ‘classical’ declension case endings around 550, according to scholars like KH Jackson. Manuscripts created before this watershed soon became nigh-incomprehensible to later copyists, as Jackson showed in his 1969 study of the epic 6th-C. poem “Gododdin” (commemorating a raid c590 AD from Edinburgh into Northumbria). But the breakdown of Brythonic into regional dialects like Welsh, meant that post-watershed works could survive in a living dialect that was evolving a written form. This is more positive evidence than the US editor’s earlier date, as it would’ve made the text more understandable to later generations of copyists.
From our first “fix” at 677 CE, we can backtrack from other given regnal dates to see if they converge on a consistent date for the book – and make sense historically.
The death of ‘Okther’ 165 years ago could refer to Octha, founder of Saxon Kent. This would give us 677 minus 165 = 512; Octha’s death date is unknown, usually put at 522 or later. But he is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in British sources like Nennius seems to be earlier, taking over from his father (or grandfather) the legendary Saxon leader Hengist after 488.
However, we also have 677 as year 2 of Ketwin’s kingship of West Saxondom and year 14 of Ardwulf's reign over the East Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has a ‘Centwine’ ruling Wessex 677-, yielding 678. Ardwulf is not the name of any recorded Anglo-Saxon king, but there was an Aldwulf ruling East Anglia from 663/4-, which would give us a writing date of 677/678.
The “fourth year in the reign of Lothir, king of all the Kents,” leads us to Kentish king Hlothhere (Latin Clotharius or Lotharius) who acceded 674/675, yielding a date of 678-9.
There is also the death of a “great king” 13 years before (=664), during ‘the devil's breath’. The ASC for 664 refers to ‘a great plague’, which Bede also describes as a devastating plague. The ‘great king’ could be Eorcenberht, the King of Kent of whom Bede says “he most nobly governed,” and was first to order that all pagan idols be smashed, and was the father of Lothair just mentioned.
It is also “the fifth year we suffer under the afflicting fires of the Black Bull of the North”. Despite the lack of a proper name, this suggests Pictish raids. In 672 [677 minus 5] AD, the fierce Pictish battleking Brude son of Beli came to power. His cross-border attacks would lead to a disastrous Northumbrian expedition led into Pictland in 685 by the already-mentioned Ecgfrith son of Oswy, who perished along with most of his army in the resulting battle.
‘Kadwilan of the Firstfaith’ [i.e. a pagan] suggests the famed North-Wales warrior-king Cadwallon. He died in 634, but the reference is to his slaying a 46-year old Christian king 44 years ago [677 minus 44 = 633] in a bloody ‘slaughter’. In 633, Cadwallon famously (infamously, to Bede) slew the 47-year old Edwin, Christian king of Northumbria and his sons, in a major battle causing Northumbria to break up.
The “third year in the reign of Ethelbred” leads us to Ethelred [no b] ruler of Mercia from 674. Ethelred was not a notable king, but the reference is given with the month and approximate day - between the 7th and 10th of September, suggesting the writer lives in Mercia (in the midlands) and is using an official local date, though having to guess at the exact day.
While nearly all these references lead to verifiable names or events, and the dates nearly all converge back within a year or two of 677 CE, we still have the problem regarding more general events where the date is a matter of interpretation. There’s also a reference to its being 122 years since “the coming of the long-sword-wielding warbands”. This suggests that the arrival of the Saxons (named after their swords, the “saex” then not a standard weapon) was later than the usual date, at 677 minus 222 = 455. The Anglo-Saxon Advent is usually put at 448/449 at the latest. However 455 is often given as the decisive date of their rebellion under Hengist and Horsa, when they overwhelmed their Romano-British employers led by Vortigern, cf the ASC, sub AD 455: 'This year Hengest and Horsa fought with Wurtgern the king on the spot that is called Aylesford. His brother Horsa being there slain, Hengest afterwards took to the kingdom with his son Esc.'
We also get a more challenging claim: “It is one hundred and thirty years [=547] since the last warband came and stayed with the land they took, when Britain ceased to be, during the reign of King Ifor.” Ifor is unidentifiable without any details or a surname [patronymic or locative], but the date 547 is the one often cited as the end of an era for successful resistance to Saxon expansion. That year, the most powerful British king, Maelgwyn Gwynedd, died and a great plague struck Britain, devastating the population. After years without any advance westward, the Saxons had by 552 crossed the watershed of central England and occupied Sarum [Old Salisbury], so that “Britain ceased to be” – at least as a single kingdom.
Well, so far, so good. Next time, we’ll look at the Coelbook’s original account of the arrival of the disciples led by ‘Joseph of Abramatha’ – what you might call the thorny matter of Glastonbury.