The two great medieval histories of the British people, those by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nennius, have long been dismissed as fantasy. But among such tales as the arrival of the Trojan Brutus, the slaying of the giant Gogmagog, and the 12 battles of Arthur, the last of the British kings, might there be elements of truth? Both writers drew on various sources, including histories now lost and heroic tales passed down the generations. Naturally, the details became garbled over time in the retelling, and events were chopped and changed or invented to suit the intentions of the writers. This, however, provides the key to Russell’s reinterpretation of those medieval works. Trinovantum or ‘New Troy’, equated with London, was not a city founded by Brutus, nor was Cornubia, identified as Cornwall, a kingdom established by Brutus’ warrior Corineus. Instead, they derive from epics that record the power struggle between two Iron Age tribes of southern Britain, the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni. With this in mind, many of the individuals and places mentioned in the histories can be recast with those familiar from Iron Age coinage and ancient texts.
Geoffrey’s Cymbeline is clearly history’s Cunobelinus, but in Russell’s reassessment, Cornish king Dunvallo Molmutius becomes Dubnovellaunus, for example, while the location of Arthur’s final battle, Camblam, becomes Camulodunum. This is more than an exercise in historical matchmaking, but speaks also of the importance of heroic tradition in Iron Age and Romano-British society.
Inevitably, many the arguments put forward are heavy with health warnings, and some of the links between the medieval texts and historical events are decidedly tenuous. Arthur devotees, too, be warned: the book is not essentially about the legendary king – in fact, one suspects that the title was devised to tap into the huge Arthur market to boost sales.
Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable book built around a compelling idea that raises the possibility that in the accounts of Geoffrey and Nennius, there are preserved details about Iron Age life left out by ancient writers.
This review appeared in CA 335.