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'I Have Made a Heap of All that I could Find'

In the ninth century AD a celtic monk, fearful that the history of his people would be lost forever, gathered together into one book such scraps of history as he could find. The result has perplexed, frustrated, and tantalized the historians that followed him – even to the present day.

At the beginning of the ninth century, Celtic Britain lay in ruins. Pushed to the fringes of their lands by the barbaric Anglo-Saxon and Scottish invaders, the Christian Celts clung to their strongholds in the west and dreamt of the day when they could throw off the Anglo-Saxon yoke.

It was in this atmosphere that a celtic monk by the name of Nennius compiled a history of his defeated people. Nennius, a 'disciple of St. Elbotus' (presumably Elfod, who was the bishop of Bangor in modern-day North Wales), based his work, the Historia Britonnum, mostly upon an older history that is now lost, which he embellished

...partly from writings and monuments of the ancient inhabitants of Britain, partly from the annals of the Romans, and the chronicles of the sacred fathers, and from the histories of the Scots and Saxons.

To this literary melting pot he liberally added any scraps of oral tradition that he chanced upon..

Sadly, Nennius was not a good historian, and the result was a wild and unrestrained history, full of fanciful genealogy and romantic tales of past Celtic heroes. Nennius did not stoop to question the veracity of his sources, and he made no attempt to synthesize a coherent story – or even logical timeline – from them. Instead, he confesses in his apologetic preface, 'I have made a heap of all that I could find'. His failings as a historian contrast sharply with the polished writings and keen critical analysis that marks the history written by his Anglo-Saxon predecessor, the Venerable Bede. Nennius would probably not have disagreed with this assessment – in his shamefaced and apologetic preface, Nennius implores:

... every reader who shall read this book, may pardon me, for having attempted, like a chattering jay, or like some weak witness, to write these things.

But in many ways it was Nennius' failings as an investigative historian that give value to his work. By not scrupling to write of shadowy, half-mythical figures, he has become, for example, one of the earliest sources to mention King Arthur, in a passage in which he relates the twelve battles at which Arthur is claimed to have lead the British to victory over the English.

So we should not be too hard on poor Nennius. He has, after all, provided us with a window, albeit murky, through which we can peer into half-remembered world of Dark Age Britain. Perhaps we should do well, instead, to heed the sage's advice, and be grateful that we have any knowledge at all of those dark times.

Do not be loath, diligent reader, to winnow my chaff, and lay up the wheat in the storehouse of your memory: for truth regards not who is the speaker, nor in what manner it is spoken, but that the thing be true; and she does not despise the jewel which she has rescued from the mud, but she adds it to her former treasures.

Nennius's history is available on-line at the Medieval Sourcebook, as both a series of extracts, or as the complete text.

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Copyright 2001 Dr Tom J Rees. All rights reserved.