The Heroic Age
Book Review: The Dates for Gildas and Badon in Cambro-Latin Compositions: Their Competence and Craftsmanship by David Howlett by Howard Wiseman School of Science, Griffith University
In this book, David Howlett claims to discover secret meanings in early Mediaeval Welsh compositions in Latin, including the dates for the battle of Badon and Gildas' composition of the de Excidio Britanniae. I argue that these dates are baseless.
Unlike David Howlett, I am no expert on Cambro-Latin Compositions. However, I believe I am qualified to recognize lack of rigour in the analysis of data, and it seems to me that this phenomenon is evident in Howlett's Cambro-Latin Compositions: Their Competence and Craftsmanship. In this book, Howlett claims to find all sorts of hidden depths in early Mediaeval Latin literature from Wales. The 'discovery', which is perhaps the most startling, concerns the battle of Badon often believed to be the site of Arthur's ultimate defeat of the Saxons. Howlett concludes that the date for Badon, and for Gildas' composition of the de Excidio Britanniae (DEB), which is the oldest text to mention it, are concealed within the text of Latin works by Welsh scholars, including the DEB itself. Since this claim is probably also the one of most interest to readers of this journal, I will restrict my review largely to a critique of this part of Howlett's wide-ranging book.
Howlett's claim is that the Cambro-Latin tradition fixes the date of the battle of Badon, to be A.D. 496, and the date of Gildas' composition of the DEB to be A.D. 540. He bases this upon three works. The first is the DEB itself, the second is the early ninth century Historia Brittonum (which is the first to associate Arthur with Badon), and the third is the late twelfth-century Descriptio Kambriae by Gerald of Wales. Let us look at each work in turn.
The DEB is infamous for its obscure fixing of the year of the battle of Badon to the year of Gildas' birth, and perhaps to forty-four years before the date of composition, or perhaps to forty-four years after Ambrosius Aurelianus' first victory over the Saxons . In his analysis of the DEB, Howlett finds the infamous forty-four also hidden in the text at this point, as the number of words between "From that time" [Ambrosius' victory] and "which is also that of my birth" (non inclusively) . Whether this discovery is convincing or not, it unfortunately adds absolutely no information to what Gildas says in the text.
At this point in his book, Howlett introduces the "traditional date reckoned for the composition of the de Excidio Britanniae, 540". No reference for this "traditional date" is given, and it certainly is not a universally accepted date for the composition. Recent historians have, in fact, varied widely in their estimation for the date of composition, from 479 x 484 (Higham 137) up to c.545 (Dumville 1984). Howlett finds nothing in Gildas to support this traditional date, so Howlett's claim that Gildas dates the battle of Badon to 496 (forty-four years before the time of his writing) cannot be supported from within the DEB. Also, the location of the forty-four words that Howlett discovers in Gildas' text would seem to suggest that the forty-four years were before Gildas' birth, not after it, which further undermines his calculation.
Next, Howlett considers the Historia Brittonum. Here, he claims to find the year 496 in the passage on Arthur, as the number of letters from the beginning of "The twelfth battle was on the mountain of Badon ..." and the final "Amen". Obviously, one could count other things instead, such as letters from the beginning of the section to the first mention of Badon, and one would obtain an entirely different date (but not one compatible with Gildas, perhaps). The most obvious artifice in Howlett's computation is that he includes inter-word spaces in his letter count, including the space before "The twelfth" (Duodecimus) and the one after the final "Amen"! Howlett does not include spaces in his letter counts in other works, or even for discovering other hidden depths in the Historia Brittonum. No justification is offered for doing so in this case. Also, the final Amen itself is not even present in the oldest extant manuscripts, as Howlett himself admits. Obviously, he has made arbitrary choices in order to get the answer he wants, namely 496.
The final Cambro-Latin text Howlett uses to support his dating scheme is the Descriptio Kambriae by Gerald of Wales. Here, Howlett pulls the year 540 out as the number of words in the preface up to and including "Gildas", in the sentence "And so Gerald follows Gildas". But Gildas' name also appears earlier in the preface, in the phrase "Before all other writers of Britain, Gildas alone to me ... seems to be imitable." This first appearance of Gildas is as the 482nd word. As noted above, a date of around 482 has in fact been suggested by Higham for the composition of the DEB. Alternatively, why should Gerald have been referring to the date of the composition of the DEB, rather than the date of Gildas' birth? In that case, perhaps Badon was in 482. Or, perhaps it was in 540. Or, more likely, we can draw no useful conclusions about fifth- and sixth-century history from the Descriptio Kambriae at all.
To summarize, the dates that Howlett has extracted from the Historia Brittonum and the Descriptio Kambriae would seem to tell us about his preconceptions of history in the Brittonic age rather than any fact about it. While I cannot judge whether all of Howlett's "remarkable coincidences" are similarly illusory, it is worth remembering that a one-in-a-thousand coincidence is likely to turn up if one has a thousand methods for counting. When one allows, as does Howlett in various places, counting letter or letters and spaces or syllables or words or lines or sentences, from the beginning or from the end of a passage, inclusive or noninclusive, to the first occurrence or to a later occurrence, the number of possible integers that can be extracted from a text is very large indeed. A truly convincing study would have to prove statistical significance of the supposed patterns, obviously a much more demanding task than merely finding them.
Finally, Howlett's 'discoveries' can be criticized on historiographical as well as statistical grounds. His claims would only make sense if there were a continuous tradition of Welsh scholarship, with secret knowledge of Welsh history and secret Cambro-Latin compositional conventions stretching unbroken from the sixth to at least the twelfth century, and then disappearing without trace. But, this idea is belied by one of the cornerstones of early Mediaeval Welsh history and literature, the Annales Cambriae. These were composed in the middle of Howlett's period of study, probably in the ninth or tenth century (Dumville 1977). As is well known, they gives a date for Badon of around 518, quite incompatible with Howlett's date of 496. I have suggested how the Annales Cambriae date was derived in another publication (Wiseman 2000). To conclude this piece I would simply reiterate my final claim there, that we can only guess at the true date of the battle of Badon, and hope not to be wrong by too many generations .
1. For a review of arguments to the mid-1970s, see chapter VII of O'Sullivan.
2. Here and below, all English translations of works discussed by Howlett are taken from Howlett's book.
3. At least one recent historian must be wrong by more than a generation regarding the date of the battle of Badon. N. Higham dates it to 436x441. This is about eighty years prior to the date of 519 suggested by Evison pp.18-21.
Dumville, D.N. (1977). "Sub-Roman Britain: history and legend", History. N.S. 62: 345-354.
Dumville, D.N. (1984) "The chronology of De Excidio, book I", p. 61-84 in Gildas: New Approaches. Boydell: Suffolk.
Evison., V.I. (1965) The Fifth-Century Invasions South of the Thames. London: Athlone Press.
Higham, N. (1994) The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the fifth century. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Howlett, D.R. (1998) Cambro-Latin compositions: their competence and craftsmanship. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
O'Sullivan, T. D. (1978) The 'De Excidio' of Gildas: its Authenticity and Date. Leiden: Brill.
Wiseman, H. (2000). "The derivation of the date of the Badon entry in the Annales Cambriae from Bede and Gildas". Parergon. 17: 1-10.
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