The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650
By John Morris
Why this book?
John Morris was an ancient historian specializing in the later Roman Empire who late in life turned his attention to Dark Age Britain. I only met him very briefly at a conference in the mid-1970s, by which time he was already very ill. He wrote by far his best-known work while presiding over the translation of a host of source materials for early medieval Britain and their publication by Phillimore, all the time fighting his own battle against cancer. He didn’t just accept Arthur as a real historical figure but made him the pivotal figure of British history in the decades around 500, accepting as authoritative all sorts of stories written many hundreds of years later. In so doing he was largely responsible for bringing the Arthurian Period of British history into existence and certainly gave it enormous popular appeal. Rarely has one writer had such an impact on a period of history.
That said, of course, the effect was to set back our understanding of the period for several generations, for Arthur cannot serve this sort of function and is much better thought of as non-historical. So I see this as both a fascinating popularization of history and at the same time a case study in poor historical technique, worth reading for the ways in which it signposts all the Arthurian history which has followed on, as books and films. It is still worth reading for the fantastical claims it makes, the ways in which it misuses source material of all sorts, and for the grandiose (but largely false) vision of the past on offer, but please, please, don’t imagine it to be a fair reflection of the distant past.
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