I get a lot of press releases each week, and most of them are either useless, off-topic, or so obscure that they go directly into the trash. But yesterday I received one about a “new” claim that the historical King Arthur had been discovered (yet again), and I felt compelled to follow it up with a bit of investigation because it struck me immediately that there was nothing new about it. To begin, let’s take a look at what the press release has to say:
A historian believes he has found proof that the legendary King Arthur was actually the son of a 6th century Scottish king – and is offering £50,000 to anyone who can prove him wrong.
How dramatic! Hunting an unknown manuscript in the bowels of a Swiss library only to stumble into the earliest record of King Arthur! That would truly be a dramatic turn of events, if it weren’t for the fact that Dr. Ferdinand Keller of Zurich, an archaeologist, actually discovered the manuscript at the bottom of a chest full of books at the Schaffhausen public library. In 1845. The Dorbene manuscript is better known as the oldest extant recension of the Vita Columbae (Life of St. Columba) by Adaman, copied no later than nine years after Adaman’s death. The dating come from the fact that the copyist, Dorbene of Hy, died in 713, nine years after Adaman. This manuscript, almost certainly a direct copy of the original rather than a copy of a copy, is the basis for all modern editions of the Life of St. Columba and has been available in both a transcribed Latin copy and English translation since the nineteenth century. The original is locked away not to hide it but because it’s 1,300 years old and really fragile.
The relevant section, referencing a warlord Latinized as Arturius (here re-Anglicized as Artur), occurs in Book 1 of the Vita, where Columba, who died in 597, meets with King Aidan (or Aedán) of Dal Riada (covering parts of Scotland and Ireland), who reigned from 574 to 606, and delivers a prophecy about the royal succession:
Carroll chooses to read the text as stating that Artur was a warlord—in keeping with Nennius’ description of him in the ninth century in the Historia Brittonum as the “military commander” (dux bellorum) rather than as king (ch. 56). But the text of the Vita Columbae doesn’t actually say that. Adaman says only that Artur was killed in battle, not that he was a commander of his father’s forces in that battle. Carroll seems to have read backward from Nennius.
Rodney Castleden, whose work I am not particularly fond of, believes that the aforementioned Artur was named in honor of the “real” Arthur, who had just died. Whatever you think of that, he rightly notes that there were a number of princes in the 500s and 600s who were named Arthur, a name which had quite a fad among royalty in the Dark Ages.
But none of this is new. Carroll first proposed his idea in 1996, in Arturius: A Quest for Camelot. The late ancient astronaut theorist Laurence Gardner picked up the idea and ran with it, too, as did a few lesser authors.
The second point that Carroll makes is not related to this text. His claim that Artur had a sister named Morgan comes from a different book altogether, the Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee; or, rather, the medieval notes to it, in mixed Irish and Latin, which he elides with the text itself. This is very long and complicated, and honestly, it tried my patience some. The critical edition reads the relevant line of the poem as “Muirgein, a wondrous birth” (entry for January 27) with no mention of Arthur or anyone else. However, in the Irish/Latin notes, an unnamed medieval redactor, writing at an uncertain date, also glosses the line as “Muirgein, daughter of Aedán,” but the scholiast offers no documentation for the source of this legendary figure. Nor does he dwell on it. He gives the first and apparently preferred reading as “Muirgein, i.e. the birth of the sea, i.e. the abbot of Glen Uissen, as Oegenus says,” but he devotes the most space to yet another reading, of Muirgein as the daughter of Eochaid, about whom he quotes a lengthy poem. Later Arthurian writers simply assumed without referencing the poem itself that it explicitly called Muirgein the daughter of Aedán, though it was one of three possible explanations suggested centuries after the fact. The oldest manuscript of the Martyrology seems to date to the thirteenth century, so presumably the notes were compiled sometime between the eighth and thirteenth centuries, with scholarly opinion suggesting that the notes we have are derived from an original from early times. Any given note, however, is not possible to date. At any rate, they were written many centuries after the events described. The edition produced by the Irish Texts Society in 2012 inserted a question mark after the note about Aedán’s daughter, presumably to indicate that the reading is uncertain.
The only correct claim is that Muirgein is probably cognate with Morgan, both referring to a “sea-born” water-spirit. William Stokes, the translator of the poem and its notes, is most likely correct in assuming that the reference to Muirgein is a euhemerized reference to an early Irish mermaid myth.
All of this seems irrelevant, though, since Morgan Le Fay was not Arthur’s sister before Hartmann von Aue made her so. Before that, she was the leader of the magical sisters of Avalon who heal Arthur, characters parallel to Pomponius Mela’s description of early Gallic / Celtic beliefs about magical healing virgins on an island off Brittany. The long and short of it is that Morgan wasn’t originally Arthur’s sister, so the whole argument is moot.
Carroll is offering his £50,000 reward (according to the press release; it was $50,000 on his website) on disingenuous terms. It is impossible to know what was in the hearts and minds of the first storytellers to spin myths about King Arthur. Therefore, short of finding a parchment stating “I made up this story after reading about General Moore D. R. Tour,” it is simply impossible to prove that Carroll is wrong, no matter how unlikely his claims are, or how badly he has mangled the evidence.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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