Monday, October 19, 2009

Francis Pryor - Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons

In the simplistic view of British History, there was a brief period around 2000 years ago of stability, civilisation and prosperity with the arrival of the Romans. Either side of these few centuries was chaos, poverty and war.

In particular, the departure of the Roman's we are led to believe led to the collapse of civilisation followed by the brutal arrival of the Anglo Saxons. These Saxon's pushed aside the natives and established themselves as the new British. From such noble stock are the current denizens of this island descended.

Francis Pryor's book, which might loosely form the middle part of a trilogy, sets out to argue that this view of history is nonsense. Partly his argument is common sense. Why, with the departure of the Roman's would people simply abandon the towns and cities they had lived in, and disappear back into an earlier mode of existence?

Instead, Pryor argues persuasively that reality was very different. Firstly he explains that the Roman invasion actually impacted very little on the vast bulk of the population. Most people continued to farm as they had done, with perhaps better goods or more variety of items being available in the local market. This is explained in terms of the archaeological record by the continuity that the remains show. There aren't a series of breaks as the Roman's arrive and then leave in most places. Even in the new towns, there is often continuity between pre-Roman and Roman buildings.

A similar process takes place as the Roman's leave. Most places are left relatively undisturbed with minor changes - in particular coins vanish as the Roman market disappears. Bartering would have returned. The most common archaeological remains - pots - revert to simpler and local designs.

It should be pointed out that these aren't just Francis Pryor's ideas. He quotes numerous other archaeologists to back up his case and builds an extensive case. Here he summarises a fellow archaeologist, Dr. Richard Reece;

"He [Reece] sees no evidence for chaos or social collapse, because communities were resuming a pattern of life that had not died out and that was already well-established prior to the Roman interlude."

Following the Roman departure, there simply wasn't an Anglo-Saxon invasion. Certainly there was an Anglo-Saxon influence. But this wasn't out of the ordinary. There must have been trading networks, as well as other contacts between people living on the British Islands and the Continent for thousands of years. Pryor shows that the evidence for an Anglo-Saxon invasion is more in the minds of chroniclers and their more modern followers, than in the archaeological record.

There are numerous examples. Perhaps the most interesting is that from a farming point of view there is a great continuation of farming methods from before Roman times to more recent eras. A series of invasions by a new people, that displaced the earlier inhabitants, would have led to a change in the pollen records. Instead, either any invaders immediately learnt traditional methods of crop growing, or they didn't exist.

Pryor's is a easy to follow account. Despite the book's subtitle, there is little in here about King Arthur. The evidence for this individual is very limited. More likely King Arthur was a propaganda figure, invented for the interests of a particular elite - elements of his story tie in with much longer established myths and traditions and it's not uncommon for those trying to establish legitimacy to add existing legends to their own newer tales.

Francis Pryor's version of British history is less exciting that the one that we are used too. There are less invasions and populations often stay in one place, quietly farming for dozens of generations. Yet it is clearly a more believable history - one which puts ordinary people at the heart of things for the last two thousand years.

Related Reviews

Pryor - Britain BC
Pryor - Britain in the Middle Ages


Andrew Blackman said...

Good to see the myth of the "Dark Ages" getting another good kick in the teeth. Interesting to hear about the invasion, or lack thereof - I'd certainly always thought of the Anglo-Saxons as invaders.

I felt a bit sorry for Francis Pryor when you got to the King Arthur part. I can just picture him telling his publisher, "But there's no real evidence...." and his publisher nodding and saying something but all the time just salivating over all the extra sales he'll get from sticking "Arthur" in the subtitle.

Max Cairnduff said...

It is very easy to imagine the publisher doing just that, it sounds like an excellent book, saddled with a rather misleading title.