Daily Archives: November 16, 2017

Here are the five ancient Britons who make up the myth of King Arthur



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Holly Hayes/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Miles Russell, Bournemouth University

King Arthur is probably the best known of all British mythological figures. He is a character from deep time celebrated across the world in literature, art and film as a doomed hero, energetically fighting the forces of evil. Most historians believe that the prototype for Arthur was a warlord living in the ruins of post-Roman Britain, but few can today agree on precisely who that was.

Over the centuries, the legend of King Arthur has been endlessly rewritten and reshaped. New layers have been added to the tale. The story repeated in modern times includes courtly love, chivalry and religion – and characters such as Lancelot and Guinevere, whose relationship was famously immortalised in Thomas Malory’s 1485 book Le Morte D’Arthur. The 2017 cinematic outing, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is only the most recent reimagining.

But before the addition of the Holy Grail, Camelot and the Round Table, the first full account of Arthur the man appeared in the Historia Regum Brianniae (the History of the Kings of Britain) a book written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in around 1136.

We know next to nothing about Geoffrey, but he claimed to have begun writing the Historia at the request of Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, who persuaded him to translate an ancient book “written in the British tongue”. Many have concluded, as Geoffrey failed to name his primary source and it has never been firmly identified, that he simply made it all up in a fit of patriotism.

Whatever the origin of the Historia, however, it was a roaring success, providing the British with an heroic mythology – a national epic to rival anything written by the English or Normans.

Story teller

As a piece of literature, Geoffrey’s book is arguably the most important work in the European tradition. It lays the ground for not just for the whole Arthurian Cycle, but also for the tales surrounding legendary sites such as Stonehenge and Tintagel and characters such as the various kings: Cole, Lear and Cymbeline (the latter two immortalised by Shakespeare).

As a piece of history, however, it is universally derided, containing much that is clearly fictitious, such as wizards, magic and dragons.

If we want to gain a better understanding of who King Arthur was, however, we cannot afford to be so picky. It is Geoffrey of Monmouth who first supplies the life-story of the great king, from conception to mortal wounding on the battlefield, so we cannot dismiss him entirely out of hand.

A full and forensic examination of the Historia Regum Britanniae, has demonstrated that Geoffrey’s account was no simple work of make-believe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence now exists to suggest that his text was, in fact, compiled from a variety of early British sources, including oral folklore, king-lists, dynastic tables and bardic praise poems, some of which date back to the first century BC.

Here be dragons?
George Reyes/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

In creating a single, unified account, Geoffrey exercised a significant degree of editorial control over this material, massaging data and smoothing out chronological inconsistencies.

Once you accept that Geoffrey’s book is not a single narrative, but a mass of unrelated stories threaded together, individual elements can successfully be identified and reinstated to their correct time and place. This has significant repercussions for Arthur. In this revised context, it is clear that he simply cannot have existed.

Arthur, in the Historia, is the ultimate composite figure. There is nothing in his story that is truly original. In fact, there are five discrete characters discernible within the great Arthurian mix. Once you detach their stories from the narrative, there is simply nothing left for Arthur.

Cast of characters

The chronological hook, upon which Geoffrey hung 16% of his story of Arthur, belongs to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a late 5th-century warlord from whom the youthful coronation, the capture of York (from the Saxons) and the battle of Badon Hill is taken wholesale.

Next comes Arvirargus, who represents 24% of Arthur’s plagiarised life, a British king from the early 1st century AD. In the Historia, Arthur’s subjugation of the Orkneys, his return home and marriage to Ganhumara (Queen Guinevere in later adaptions) parallels that of the earlier king, who married Genvissa on his return south.

Constantine’s statue in York.
chrisdorney/Shutterstock

Constantine the Great, who in AD 306 was proclaimed Roman emperor in York, forms 8% of Arthur’s story, whilst Magnus Maximus, a usurper from AD 383, completes a further 39%. Both men took troops from Britain to fight against the armies of Rome, Constantine defeating the emperor Maxentius; Maximus killing the emperor Gratian, before advancing to Italy. Both sequences are later duplicated in Arthur’s story.

The final 12% of King Arthur’s life, as recounted by Geoffrey, repeat those of Cassivellaunus, a monarch from the 1st century BC, who, in Geoffrey’s version of events, was betrayed by his treacherous nephew Mandubracius, the prototype for Modred.

All this leaves just 1% of Geoffrey’s story of Arthur unaccounted for: the invasion of Iceland and Norway. This may, in fact, be no more than simple wish-fulfilment, the ancient Britons being accorded the full and total subjugation of what was later to become the homeland of the Vikings.

The ConversationArthur, as he first appears, in the book that launched his international career, is no more than an amalgam. He is a Celtic superhero created from the deeds of others. His literary and artistic success ultimately lies in the way that various generations have reshaped the basic story to suit themselves – making Arthur a hero to rich and poor, elite and revolutionary alike. As an individual, it is now clear that he never existed, but it is unlikely that his popularity will ever diminish.

Miles Russell, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, Bournemouth University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


How an earthquake in 1906 San Francisco sparked the invention of modern-day Chinatown



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louisraphael/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Joe Upton, University of Sussex

You pass through the Chinese gate and into the red wash of the main thoroughfare. Strings of lanterns hang above you, lighting your passage. To your left, a glaring neon sign blinks on and off, while on your right, pagoda roofing and latticed woodwork adorn an otherwise non-descript building.

It’s clear that you’re walking through Chinatown. But this small, highly-stylised slice of the Orient could be located in almost any Western city in the world – and perhaps surprisingly, almost nowhere in China.

There’s a reason that Chinatowns across the globe bear a strong resemblance to one another. They are a spectacle specifically built and replicated to attract tourists. And they were all spawned from a single event: the great earthquake of San Francisco, in 1906.

A bad reputation

Chinatown existed in San Francisco before the earthquake, too, but the area was despised by the rest of the city. Although the stories of underground tunnels, brothels and opium dens were mostly fabricated, they gave Chinatown an aura of notoriety which marked it out as different and debased.

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Public health investigations found or invented faults fuelled by racist invective. Chinatown was declared a “cancer in the heart of the city”, crowded with the “filth” of an “infamous race”.

In 1882, the widely-supported Chinese Exclusion Act became the first (though sadly not the last) law to exclude a group from the United States on the basis of race or religion: a testament to the levels of antipathy harboured towards the Chinese, and Chinatown.

When the earthquake struck San Francisco, the inhabitants of Chinatown were not even included in the death toll.

Disaster zone: San Francisco’s Chinatown, after the 1906 earthquake.
Chicago Daily News/Wikimedia Commons

Less than one minute’s worth of seismic activity was all it took to change the face of Chinatown forever. Space opened up in the heart of San Francisco. Where once had stood the buildings and streets of Chinatown, there now lay an opportunity to build – and to capitalise.

Influential figures such as mayor E E Schmitz saw a chance to claim the central space for their own, proposing that Chinatown be rebuilt in Hunter’s Point, on the very margins of the city.

A new vision

Nevertheless, the leaders of Chinatown managed to secure the previous location for their community, and began to refashion San Francisco’s Chinatown as an exotic wonderland for non-Chinese visitors. Look Tin Eli and other Chinatown leaders had a vision of an “Oriental city [of] veritable fairy palaces filled with the choicest treasures of the Orient.”

Unlike the brick, Italianate buildings of pre-earthquake Chinatown, which were common throughout the city at the time, Look commissioned buildings that would imitate Chinese design elements. The process was continued two decades later, with Chingwah Lee’s popular seven step plan to make Chinatown a “tourist magnet”.

Amateur hour.
mariosp/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Yet the architects initially responsible for designing this Oriental scene were, in fact, white men who had never visited the Orient; and their designs betray an inexperience with Chinese architecture.

Nevertheless, Look’s creation of an Oriental city was a success. The design of San Francisco’s new Chinatown reestablished a centre of business for the Chinese community, and enticed non-Chinese customers to explore the exotic-looking streets and shops within.

A real phoney?

Throughout the 20th century, most of the West’s Chinatowns went on to mimic San Francisco’s successful, tourism-based model. There are unique features to be found in each of these Chinatowns, yet many of the aesthetic and commercial genes of San Francisco’s post-quake enclave are expressed in its offspring.

New Chinatowns are still being designed and proposed today. For instance, the city of Liverpool in the UK is anticipating the construction of the New Chinatown project, which advertises itself as a “distinctively Chinese urban quarter” and “an utterly unique shopping experience”. The project is designed and managed by UK-based, non-Chinese community companies, but has sought investors from China and Hong Kong.

Chinatown has come to represent a clear, cohesive and supposedly “authentic” idea of the Orient. But it’s based on a version of “Chineseness” designed for consumption by tourists. The identity of Chinatown’s inhabitants is, in fact, far more diverse than its name implies.

What lies beneath?
Thomas Hawk/Flickr, CC BY-NC

In San Francisco, the area is inhabited by migrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China, their American-born offspring, people of other Asian backgrounds and increasingly, people of non-Asian descent. All bring their own political, cultural and social allegiances to the space.

Yet the skyline of modern Chinatown can also be viewed as a response to decades of discrimination; a protective surface defending a vital inner world. San Francisco’s new Chinatown was designed and marketed as a beautiful and fantastical vision, to encourage a new outlook on the space and to make it a more attractive area.

The ConversationUnder threat of relocation to the outskirts of the city, the reconstruction of Chinatown atop its old site was a declaration of fortitude, and its stylised Oriental design was a means of survival. Chinatown’s exotic aesthetic attracted custom and ensured a Chinese presence in the centre of San Francisco — and other cities across the world — for well over a century, and continues to do so today.

Joe Upton, Doctoral Researcher in Chinese American Literature, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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