Saturday, January 18, 2014

Revisiting The Glastonbury Legend

Three years ago today, we did an item ‘Hollywood Goes For The Glastonbury Legend', about a just-announced film project on the legends of the coming of Joseph of Arimathea (famous as the grail-bearer of Arthurian romances) to Glastonbury, and his founding of the first Christian church. The project, originally announced in 2011, was to have been released in 2012, but it did not appear. Now it has resurfaced, with plans to start filming in the spring, for Xmas 2015 release. Scripted by Daniel McNicoll, Glastonbury: Isle Of Light seems to have finally been “green-lit” (meaning they got the finance to make it). The $50 million production will have dialogue partly in Welsh to represent the language of Caractacus and the other Britons of the time. The film will include the flight from Palestine (now to be represented on screen by Kazakhstan, on the Caspian Sea) to Somerset, where some filming will take place.
The curse that strikes some film projects, delaying them endlessly, could still hit, but this remains an opportune moment to have another look at a subject matter central to our remit here, for the source material is various codex works.
Content-wise, we have not only the persecution of Christ’s disciples and the flight of the Apostles to what was then just beyond Roman rule, via a lengthy voyage using an ancient trade route. On arrival, we have the difficulties the newcomers faced among local Celtic tribes ruled by Druids. We have the missionary group’s establishment of a church using relics from the Crucifixion, like the Grail or chalice cup. The development of their beliefs by the next generation into a compatible hybrid would mean the beginnings of the Celtic Church of Britain, centuries before its official adoption by Rome. 
We also have the British attempt to fight off the Roman invasion which followed within a decade of the Apostles’ arrival, a resistance led by the great war-leader Caractacus and the local king, Arviragus. After his eventual defeat in battle in AD 51 and then betrayal by the tribal queen Cartimandua, Caractacus was taken to Rome in chains, but made such a dignified speech to the Senate he was allowed to live out his days in comfort. It may also have happened that the peace was cemented by a dynastic intermarriage, one which in turn may have introduced Christianity to Rome. The official film synopsis describes its subject matter as “Joseph of Arimathea's flight from Jerusalem to his landing in Britain, his stewardship of the Holy Grail, his alliance with the rebel leader Caractacus and their leadership of a Celtic resistance against Roman imperial domination.” The IMDB characterises the production as “Action | Adventure | History:  A sweeping epic chronicling the legends of Joseph of Arimathea as he escapes peril in Jerusalem only to find himself on the other side of the globe facing a more extreme enemy. Upon arrival in Britain, which is on the edge of war with Rome, he implores the help of the warrior-prince Caractacus in an effort to defend their sacred customs and ancient ways.”

Overall, it’s quite the story, though we’ll likely never know how much is historical. Many of the story motifs of course found their way into the last floruit of the Celtic codex, the Arthurian romance tales which incorporate the mythology of Joseph of Arimathea and church relics such as the Holy Grail into the narrative. This ‘back story’ dramatizing this nexus of legends behind the Arthurian Grail story has never been put on screen before.

There’s so much that you don’t even need to get into the old West Country ‘Holy Legend’ which had Jesus himself earlier brought as a lad to visit by his tin-trading uncle Joseph of Arimathea. Recently, we also finally got the first comprehensive scholarly study, by Paul Ashdown, of how this legend was later promulgated, by William Blake and others, a process that continues to this day. The book’s title The Lord Was At Glastonbury makes it sound like one of the earlier religious works it studies (the phrase, from an 18th C. antiquarian work, should really have been put inside quote-marks), but the subtitle clarifies its focus: Somerset And The Jesus Voyage Story. This work, begun as an academic paper, confirms a lack of any evidence before the 18th C, the “Jesus’ visit” motif not being part of the Grail romance ‘back story’ or the Celtic Church of Britain’s official claim to precedence over that of Rome, which was later renewed by the English church and crown when it broke away from Rome in the 16th century. For example, a 1559 letter has been preserved from Elizabeth I to some pro-Roman Catholic English bishops repudiating Rome’s claim of precedence: “.. the records and chronicles of our realm testify the contrary… witness the ancient monument of Gildas ... This author testifieth Joseph of Arimathea to be the first preacher of the word of God within our realms.” 
A couple of mangled quotes are still sometimes trotted out in support of this boy-visit legend. One is Joseph’s comment on his life’s missionary work, “I brought Christ to the Britons”, which is a standard missionary metaphor being taken literally. The other is the statement, the original wattle church was “built by no other hands but Christ’s”. This creates immediate anachronisms (a boy building a church commemorating a religion founded on his future crucifixion); the fuller version in William of Malmesbury’s c1125 Gesta Regum Anglorum reads “… no other hands but Christ’s disciples”.

It’s part of this blog’s remit to look at the influence these codex sources have on popular literature and drama, and there is some indication the script may draw on the most recently surfaced codex source, known as the Coelbook or Kolbrin.
The filmmakers say researching the project led to Reclaiming The Blade, a 2009 feature-length historical documentary on the sword as a cultural icon, particularly in recent fantasy films. The publicity material notes that “Reclaiming The  Blade was initially born out of writer/director Daniel McNicoll’s research on historical warfare for the script, Glastonbury: Isle of Light.” A followup documentary focussing more on the back history of the sword was announced, Reclaiming The Blade: Sons Of Fire (“a closer look at the sword and bladesmiths who create real historical blades just as they were handcrafted from iron ore thousands of years ago”). This sequel is apparently now abandoned due to a financial-backing shortfall, but the title phrase “Sons Of Fire” suggests the filmmakers’ research may have included the controversial new Kolbrin codex collection. 

The phrase occurs in there as the name of one of the groups behind its writing, so we have “The Great Book Of The Sons Of Fire”, and so on. “We are the sons of The Sons of Fire, men so called because fire was necessary to their metalworking. Today we name our sons over the fire and forge, as they did, and each one of us belongs to the same fire,” says their text. The framework passages therein explain how the same skills were used to etch or engrave the metal equivalent of a codex, akin to the copper scroll plates found in the Dead Sea Caves etc. (“The marks are cut so that when seen to the right of the light they stand out clearly. The bookboxes are of twinmetal founded with strength and turned with great heat, so that there is no joint where the ends come together.”)

These “Sons Of Fire” seem to have been a bronze and iron-workers’ guild who derived from a dynasty of mid-Eastern craftsmen and artificers practicing various types of metalworking, some of whom eventually emigrated from their “twin cities” base around the port of Tyre in Phoenicia to Britain, early on, before there was a regular “tin trade” route between the two lands. (Joseph of Arimathea supposedly came to Britain on “tin trading” voyages, tin being the key ingredient in making bronze, an ingredient not readily available in the Mediterranean world, hence the early trade name of the British Isles, the Kassiterides or Tin Isles.) One of the earlier accounts in the overall collection describes the forging of the very first sword from a “thunderstone” and a secret blacksmithing process in a cave (“the secret of the bright blade engendering thunderstones”) while another account relates a “sword in the stone” king-choosing contest ritual where the stone is embedded in what sounds like a manufactured cement, described as a “manmade stone from sand, clay and other things”.

These events are set long before the authorial Sons Of Fire group arrive in Britain, but there are also accounts in the collection of the Apostles’ Glastonbury settlement in Arviragus’s kingdom and the struggle of Caractacus to keep the Romans at bay.
We’ve covered some of this material in previous blog posts (cf here), but there are other matters which remain unexamined.
One matter is the historicity (or not) of Arviragus and Caractacus/ Caratacos (spellings of his name vary, the modern Welsh being Caradoc) and their role as sponsors of apostolic Christian belief. The text indicates they were not brothers (as has been speculated) but associates both with Siluria, a tribal area covering South-east Wales and probably the adjacent Bristol Channel coasts. Arviragus is listed as the overking when and where Joseph et al land, in a vicinity ruled by a sub-king, while “Caradew held an estate in Siluria.”
Their father, the Catuvellauni king Cunobelin[us] / Kymbelinus (Welsh Cynfelyn) is described as ‘Britannorum rex’ by Suetonius. Kimbelin and sons are part of British legend, their names later used by Shakespeare in his romance Cymbeline, and are regarded as historical. In Geoffrey of Monmouth's 1136 legend-spinning Historia Regum Britanniae, Kymbelinus is raised at the court of Augustus. Raising princes of client kingdoms at court was a common Roman practice, but no other source claims this event. The names of the sons also differ in Roman v British/Welsh sources: Adminius, Togodumnus and Caractacus in one, and Guiderius and Arvirargus in the latter. 

Suetonius says an invasion of Britain in AD 40 was planned, then abandoned on the seashore, by Caligula when Cunobelinus banished his pro-Roman [eldest?] son Adminius, king of Kent. Suetonius and Dio Cassius say Claudius invaded after Cunobelin died and his 2nd son Caractacus defeated the Atrebates [in south-central England], leading their king to flee to Rome to seek alliance. In British legend, Guiderius led the initial resistance to the AD 43 invasion but soon died. This is confirmed by our Coelbook text “Caradew … was made warchief when Guiderius, son of Kimbelin, was slain by a slingshot, near the river Thames.” Dio has Togodumnus leading the resistance (with Caratacus), but is soon killed after the battle on the Thames. The Roman commander Aulus Plautius had to set up a defensive line by the Thames to resist ‘vengeful’ counterattacks, but Claudius himself arrived with reinforcements and the army crossed the Thames to victory. 

The discrepancy has led some writers to say they Guiderius and Togodumnus were the same man, known by different names. The same situation occurs with Arvirargus/ Caratacus, as both are named as the resistance leader. Our text however suggests otherwise, and there is no reason there had to be a single leader in the circumstances. The Guiderius = Togodumnus identification has also been challenged by Dr Miles Russell, who thinks the latter, defeated, survived as the post-Conquest Sussex-based client king Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus or Cogidubnus, the latter version a mistaken rendering, by Tacitus, of Togidubnus or Togodumnus. His full name Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus means he was made a Roman citizen. It has been also argued, from surviving epigraphs, that Sallustius Lucullus, Roman governor of Britain later in the century, was Cunobelin’s grandson.

There is an epitaph to the tale, that after Caractacus’s capture, when he was living in Rome (AD 51-?), an alliance was cemented by arranged intermarriage between the Roman-imperial and the British royal dynasties. The story is Caratacos was married to one Genuissa, supposedly Emperor Claudius’s daughter. No such daughter exists in the Roman official records, but she may have been an adopted daughter. This was a widespread practice in the Roman court (see Robert Graves’s I Claudius), and it would be more likely the Emperor would marry off a foster-daughter for political purposes than a biological daughter. The Kolbrin says: “Caradew … married Genuissa, daughter of Claudius, to bind the peace agreement.” There are also two accounts of other intermarriages between converts and Roman officials. One is “Joseph Idewin and his brave band came to flowering Britain three years after the death of Jesus. He converted Gladys, sister of Caradew, who married … Aulus Plautius, a Roman commander.” (He was in fact the overall Roman commander of the AD 43 invasion, who halted the British attack by the Thames.) Second is: “Joseph … converted Claudia Rufina, the daughter of Caradew previously called Gladys, who married Pudens, a Roman.” This would be the British woman Claudia Rufina referred to by the poet Martial who married Aulus Pudens a generation later, in the AD 90s. It seems Caradew/ Caradoc / Caratacos had a sister and a daughter both named Gladys, but it’s been suggested this was a common ceremonial name for such ‘noble’ families in its Celtic/Welsh version, Gwladys; more of interest is the renaming of G[w]ladys as Claudia, the distaff equivalent of Claudius. This was also back-translated into Latin as Claudia (cf 6th C Saint Gwladys ferch Brychan). This dynastic intermarriage may have introduced Christianity to Rome early on. (Recently, Bloodline: The Celtic Kings Of Roman Britain (2010) by Bournemouth Uni archaeology lecturer and tv presenter Dr Miles Russell has taken a more in-depth look at the possible relationships here.)

Another matter is Joseph’s own earlier personal connection with Britain. While I can see no suggestion in the various Kolbrin books that Joseph brought Jesus with him at any point, the text suggests some personal or family connection over a period of years.
First, he seems to be able to speak a local language. At one point, he says to the hostile locals, "Ask among your own about me, for I am not unknown to them." Also: “Joseph spoke a tongue understandable to these people, but he spoke slowly and not after their fashion.” The text mentions there were then in Britain 4 tongues and 5 dialects, so working out which of these it might be is difficult. It’s quite possible there was a lingua franca, ie a trade language akin to Swahili in Africa, which grew out of the tin trade, and there are a few passing references to a sailors’ language. Another reference is: “Aristolas taught that Ilyid had been one who commanded with the ships of Rome, but was not without ships himself.” Ilyid is the respectful name given Joseph as a figurehead of his people to the locals, and he is also referred to as “the noble commander.” This supports the theory Joseph visited because he was a decurion, in charge of mines. (Tin wasn’t mined then, being panned from stream-beds but lead was, from the Mendips.) The source, Aristolas, may be Aristobulus, in Welsh Arwystli, an apostle who survived to become the first bishop in Roman Britain.

Secondly, some familial relationship through intermarriage is indicated. Cf: “Joseph Idewin was related to Avalek whose kingdom bordered that of Arviragus, through Anna the Unfaithful.” (The name ‘Joseph Idewin’ obviously replaces ‘of Arimathea’ etc, which would have meant nothing in Britain, though it’s not likely another place-name; the root ‘dewi’ means divine.) ‘Avalek’ has the same root as Avalon, and this has an earlier Celtic form, Avallach [Afallach in Welsh orthography], which may be lead to king and kingdom becoming confused via the compound Ynys Afallach, Isle Of Avallach/Avalon, for the name may be more a ceremonial title for a post-holder, the ruler of that territory. 
‘Anna the Unfaithful’ may refer to the figure the Kolbrin elsewhere refers to as “Anna (his first wife, the fair stranger)”, the mother of James and Joses. In medieval Welsh sources, Anna was a cousin of the Virgin Mary, and she later married Beli Mawr (Beli the Great), an ancestral leader who was father to Afallach as well as Caswallawn and several figures who appear in the Mabinogion folktale collection.  Our same Kolbrin source adds in an adjoining passage, “Some say Joseph married Holy Mary after the death of his wife, but this is a known heresy put about by those in ignorance of what is written, for his wife was not that Mary.” Another passage adds he looked after the Virgin Mary, ie Jesus’s mother, after the crucifixion, and it sounds possible she did accompany the various other apostles to Britain, as has been suggested by some modern writers. It’s possible Anna ‘the fair stranger’ was herself British, which might explain the Unfaithful epithet (several Roman writers have commented that British women were sexually independent), and Joseph met her on one of his trips, but more work is needed to sort out the post-crucifixion story of the apostles.