'The tomb of King Arthur', BL Harley 1766, f. 219
A story has been going around the British media this past week, springing from some new archaeological research which has been conducted at Glastonbury Abbey. This research, a four-year project based at the University of Reading, sounds very interesting: it has explored the early history of a site which has long held a unique place in popular culture in this country, associated as it is with Arthurian legend and with an early, mythical origin for the British church. You can read about the research and some of its findings on the University of Reading website.
This is all great. But the way this story has been reported in the media this week has been troubling me, so I finally gave in to temptation and decided to blog about it. What I intend to do in this post is to look at how this story has been reported, to challenge some of the unquestioned assumptions which are apparent in that reporting, and to suggest some alternative ways in which one might think about medieval monasteries and the legends they told. I want to make it clear that in doing so I’m absolutely not making any criticism of the archaeologists, their research, or how they communicated it; I don’t know enough about the circumstances or the subject to do that, and I’m sure their work is exemplary. (I’m not an archaeologist, nor a specialist on Glastonbury; I also know how easily a message can get distorted as it passes through the hands of journalists and spreads on social media.) I’m not criticising anyone, really, and I don't think anything I say here will be of much interest to academics or specialists. This is for those of you non-specialists - I know lots of you read this blog! - who are interested in history but who can sometimes find the medieval church and its legends bizarre and off-putting.
The main criticism I’ve seen on social media about the way this story has been reported is that some of the reports have suggested that nobody knew – until now!!! – that the stories connecting King Arthur or Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury were myths. (I don’t believe the research is in fact claiming this.) ‘We already knew that’, many people have said – and yes, we certainly did. I suppose there probably are some people who really thought King Arthur was buried at Glastonbury, but I can’t say I’ve ever met one. But let’s put that to one side, because I don’t actually think that’s a big problem here.
The essential fact, on which this research has shed new light, is something many people have known for a long time: substantial parts of the legends associated with Glastonbury were invented in the twelfth century, by the monks, to bolster the prestige of the abbey. The monastery created physical ‘evidence’ to support these stories, in the form of supposed graves and a church built in a particular style, which accompanied texts produced at the abbey making similar claims. It seems that this new research has illuminated how and when that physical evidence was manufactured, and how it has misled some modern archaeologists in their study of the abbey. Interesting stuff. But in the reporting of this, the idea has somehow arisen that knowing how and when this evidence was manufactured means we know why. This is where things become more troublesome. The headlines tell their own story:
Glastonbury legend was 'fabricated by 12th century monks desperate to raise cash'
How Glastonbury Abbey's myths were invented by medieval monks on the make
How medieval monks spin-doctored Glastonbury King Arthur legends
Monks dreamt up myths of King Arthur and a visit by Jesus to raise money and lure pilgrims to Glastonbury, research says
Follow the links, and you'll see these stories contain some telling words and phrases: 'concocted', 'no more than a money-spinner to draw pilgrims', 'forged', 'the monks just made them up', 'doctored', 'taken in by the myths', etc. This pejorative language is very odd. What a lot of pious disapproval for a crime eight centuries old! And of course some commentators, and most of the comments on all these stories, have extrapolated from this that all religions, in every place and culture, are cynical scams to deprive ordinary people of their money and their peace. Ah, for the omniscience of an internet commentator...
Sticking, however, to the medieval, there are two things about this reporting which trouble me:
a) assuming that we know for sure the motive behind the monastery’s actions
b) passing moral judgement on that motive.
Only one possible motive is suggested in any of this reporting: the desire to raise money by attracting ('luring', says one report) pilgrims and visitors. This is, indeed, a very likely motive. Medieval monasteries, like every other kind of institution, needed money to live on. They had mouths to feed, taxes to pay, buildings to maintain, estates to run, and many other demands on their resources; monasteries had an economic and social importance in their communities for which it’s difficult to imagine any modern parallels, and in many areas they were the primary sources of education, healthcare, and support for the poor. Needing to raise money to fund these activities isn’t necessarily a noble or ignoble motive – it’s just what it is. Read some of these reports and you’d think the monks were raising money for the fun of rolling around in piles of gold like Scrooge McDuck; maybe some of them were, but I rather doubt it. So why use such language? I don’t know about you, but when I see a business selling its wares, a charity trying to raise money, or a school running a fundraiser I don’t think or talk in terms of these institutions being ‘on the make’ or ‘filling their coffers’. They’re raising money in order to do the things they do. It’s not a scam (although obviously it might be sometimes); it’s just life.
The moral judgement implied by terms such as ‘money-spinning’ must come, then, from the idea that these monks have deliberately and deceitfully distorted historical fact - 'forged', 'fabricated' and 'doctored' history - in order to raise their money. That’s one reading of the situation. Let me propose some others.
It was not uncommon for monasteries to create, or to enhance, legends about their own history. Glastonbury is an especially visible case, because it claimed such very early origins and such very famous burials, but it's not that unusual. It had form in the area of ‘just making things up’; the abbey was doing it earlier in the twelfth century as well, when the monks invented a different story (or ‘ran another scam’ if you prefer to see it that way), and claimed they had acquired the body of St Dunstan from his burial-place in Canterbury. They almost certainly hadn’t, and they probably deserved the scorn poured on them by a contemporary historian. (That historian, as chief custodian of Canterbury’s own legends, had a right to feel aggrieved by Glastonbury poaching the best of them; I’m not sure why 21st-century journalists seem to share his moral outrage!) You could see this as a sign of a monastery ‘on the make’, or as the act of a community in trouble, rather desperately trying to give itself a bit of security and power amid the turmoil of the twelfth century. The assumption that the driving force behind obtaining prestige in this way is solely financial is much too simplistic; there are other kinds of cultural and social power worth having besides 'cold hard cash'.
But it's reductive, too, to only talk about monasteries inventing legends from a desire for money, power, and influence. In this post about medieval translations of saints' relics, I discussed how such inventions often allowed communities in times of crisis to come to terms with their own history, to find a source of identity and unity in looking back at the past - to tell a story about their history which explained to themselves, and to others, who they were and what they were doing. There are few things more important, in creating a sense of communal identity, than having a strong sense of your roots. For all their power, monasteries could be vulnerable, and at times they didn't have much to defend themselves but their history, in whatever tangible or intangible form that might take - documents and charters, relics, or an association with a powerful saint no one would want to cross. Creating legends about such things, especially at moments of particular stress, is not just PR spin - it's self-preservation, perhaps as much psychological as material. When trouble came to a monastery, as it did to Glastonbury with the fire of 1184, monks might turn to their own legendary history as a source of - yes, of income, but also perhaps of reassurance, a reminder (to outsiders and to members of the community) of how long the abbey had endured and how it might still have a future. If your community, your home, which you knew to be a truly ancient and venerable institution, seemed to be in danger of collapsing around you, you too might well turn to a grand legend which offered the chance of survival. You might forge a charter in support of rights you knew you had but couldn't prove; you might decide it was no longer enough to say Glastonbury had a strong connection to St Dunstan (as it certainly did), and start to claim that it also had his body.
‘Just making something up’ in this context isn’t perhaps admirable, but it seems to me an entirely human response. It's also not simple dishonesty: monks in such situations might well have believed they were telling a small lie in service of a greater truth. Even today historians find - if you can believe it! - that when you communicate with the world beyond your community, you sometimes have to spin your story a little in the service of a higher good. Opinions will always vary on far you can go; today we expect historians to stop short of what we would consider outright forgery, but these questions are not always clear-cut. Such pressures can test even the most scrupulous historian: William of Malmesbury, commissioned to write about the history of Glastonbury in the late 1120s, seems to have found it impossible to come up with something which would simultaneously please his patrons and match what he knew to be true about English history. He failed, and the monks had to adapt his account to produce the history they wanted. Historians, even modern historians, face these pressures all the time; we might think ourselves above trying to please patrons, but academics nonetheless have to deal with being accountable to their funders or employers, and with 'selling' research to the public and the media. Many a medieval hagiographer would understand the challenges that brings.
This may explain why some monks might forge or fabricate history for other motives than sheer greed. But at Glastonbury, and with saints' legends in general, there's something much deeper going on. It's not really appropriate to talk in terms of forgery and faking; we are speaking about legends and myths, and if you approach such narratives as bad or dishonest history, rather than as literature, you will always underestimate their power. This is especially obvious with regard to Arthurian legend, because we can see for ourselves just how potent these myths are even today. In the twelfth century, the legend of King Arthur absolutely took off in England, and became hugely popular almost overnight. (Here's a fairly compact overview, and see also this and this page.) This coincided with an explosion in the volume and variety of historical texts being written in England, in Latin, French, and English, and in many of these texts Arthurian legend became incorporated into the narrative of the pre-Saxon history of Britain; from a strictly historical point of view this was largely spurious, but it was a moment of immense literary vitality and creativity. Not everybody was swept along with the fashion; there are some sceptical and scathing comments from twelfth-century historians about this apparently brand-new history. But these stories had huge appeal, and part of that appeal, we might speculate, was that they occupied an enchanting borderland between history and fantasy: they can be imagined taking place not in some faraway magical kingdom but in this country, on the very ground we walk on, yet so far in the past that they provide space for all kinds of invention.
Whatever the exact details of Glastonbury’s origins, there’s no doubt it really is ancient, and people go there, even today, in part because of the charm of antiquity, the sense of origins lost in the mists of time. The vagueness and the mistiness and the ‘maybe real, maybe not’ are part of its appeal to the imagination. Deliberately designing a church to look older than it is might well be a scam, but it might equally be an attempt at conveying an aura of ancientness, creating an atmosphere which helps your visitors to feel that this is a special, holy, and ancient place. (Note the difference between 'helps your visitors to feel' and 'tricks your visitors into thinking'.) It’s an entirely natural move to associate that specialness with the most popular historical legend of the day, one which was especially beloved by the aristocracy and the educated elite – the social world from which some monks came, and which most monks had to learn to negotiate to some degree. In that world, Arthurian legends were everywhere - and understanding them as legends, as literature, is key.
Legends are not lies. Fiction is not fraud. At root, these are stories, and the most important thing about a story – even a story about events which happened in the past – is not always whether it is true, as in, it actually happened. We all know this, don’t we? Telling a story which you know not to be true is not necessarily lying; whether we call an untrue story a 'lie' depends on all kinds of other factors, which we are quite capable of understanding in our everyday lives. It depends on your intention in telling it, the manner in which you tell it, the way you want your audience to receive it, and the way they actually receive it. If you invent a story which you know is not true, and you want your audience to believe it’s true, that might be what we would call a lie. (But even so, there are circumstances in which we would not consider it lying; when parents tell their children stories about Father Christmas, children believe them, but most people don’t call that 'lying'.) And if you invent a story which the audience won’t believe, which they will recognise as exactly that – a story – that’s not a lie. That’s fiction. It’s fiction even if it deals with history; it is quite possible to tell a story about history because you think it’s a good and powerful story, and not because you think every word of it actually happened.
There are all kinds of grey areas here, even in historical narratives, and medieval views on this were sometimes different from ours; not better or worse, not more or less fraudulent, but different. (The place and status of fiction and legend in twelfth-century histories in particular is a huge subject which I won’t try and summarise here.) So when you come up against a medieval legend which seems to you obviously untrue, pause for a second before you jump to the conclusion that the person who told it was either a liar or a fool. They may have been, but there are many other possibilities - and wouldn't it be fun to exercise a bit more imagination? Honestly, I’m just bored of reading news stories, and historical fiction, which repeat the old lazy story about cynical monks and credulous pilgrims, without making any imaginative attempt to move beyond the cliche. That’s an idea of how monks and pilgrims might have interacted – a modern myth, you might say – which has barely advanced one step in historical analysis from the anti-monastic rhetoric of the sixteenth century. As history, as journalism, and as fiction, it’s just dull, because it’s so limited and so uniform. It assumes that we not only know exactly how the monks (all monks, in every monastery) communicated their stories to visitors, but also how the visitors (all visitors, from every walk of life) received the stories they were told. And we just don’t. We never will. We can imagine all kinds of possibilities, but we don’t know for sure. We have some physical evidence, and we have texts, but that’s not everything – it’s the difference between seeing the set, props and script for a play, and watching it performed.
(Or, to be a little mischievous: it's the difference between reading the plans for the public engagement aspect of the Glastonbury Abbey project, and seeing what the media actually heard when the words 'cash' and 'monks' were mentioned in the same sentence...)
So we could imagine (as most writers seem to) a version of events where a credulous pilgrim comes to visit an abbey and a cynical monk, laughing up his sleeve, spins the pilgrim a ridiculous story, which ends up in the pilgrim gratefully pouring pursefuls of money into the monk’s waiting hands. But at the other extreme, we could also imagine a visitor, a bit bored and wanting a day out, coming to have a look at that new church people have been talking about; he asks about it, and hears a story about King Arthur which it’s quite clear the teller doesn’t really expect him to believe. (I’m imagining a playful telling, the way a friendly room-steward at a National Trust property might play up the story of the house’s resident ghost; you know and she knows that it’s probably just a story, but it’s still a fun thing to tell the visitors.) Or we could imagine an informed visitor who knows more about the abbey than its own monks do, bemusing them by enthusiasm for its legends (I’ve been in that role sometimes!). We could imagine a situation where a very keen monk really really believes in the story, and the visitors laugh, but not unkindly, at his naivety. Or a situation where both monk and visitor half-believe, half-doubt, but enjoy the story anyway. Or where both very sincerely, genuinely believe with all their hearts (because monks were capable of sincerity, you know). There are all kinds of things you can imagine, if you can step away from the cliche.
Any or all or none of these things might have happened. Just at Glastonbury, we’re talking about interactions between hundreds if not thousands of people, from royalty to the lowest classes of society, over the course of more than three centuries. How can you be so sure that you know what everyone was thinking, all that time? Telling stories is one of the most fundamental parts of human experience, and to dismiss all that as deception is just silly. Human beings, even in the supposedly credulous Middle Ages, are entirely capable of enjoying a story without knowing, or even caring, whether it's true or not. If we only told true stories, I don’t think life would be worth living; and if we were required to be 100% sure whether or not a story was true before we were allowed to tell or listen to it, an essential part of human communication would break down. Not only would we have no fiction, but we would not be able to repeat the kinds of stories we all tell, all the time, about our own lives – the kinds of stories which are rarely ever true in every detail but which knit communities together, help us to understand our own experiences, and let us imagine why things are as they are or how they could be better.
Legends are not lies. If you go to Glastonbury today – that strange yet wonderful town, rich in genuine antiquity and utter nonsense and everything in between – you will find some people who wholeheartedly believe in the myths. You’ll also find people who don’t believe in the myths at all, and don’t understand why anyone would want to. But the majority of people will probably fall somewhere between those extremes. They don’t really believe in everything they’ve heard about King Arthur or Joseph of Arimathea, but they like the stories; they enjoy thinking about them, and they get pleasure from being in a place associated with them. Maybe they like to imagine they could be true, but they wouldn’t necessarily like the stories more if they were; their value and their meaning are quite independent of their historical veracity. And to see objects and places which are said to be associated with these stories is a spur to the imagination, a pleasurable or even a moving experience. It contributes to the sense of a place which is special for a reason its visitors can’t, perhaps, quite define or articulate, but which is nonetheless valuable and powerful to them. To be in a special place makes them feel that life means something, that there is a reality beyond the drudgery of the everyday. There is nothing wrong with any of that.
There are so many kinds of desire at play in human behaviour, and most of all in the stories people tell. It might be the job of a historian to work out what truth, if any, lies behind those stories, but it is also our job to try and understand why and how they might be told. Passing moral judgement, busting myths, or gleefully discrediting ancient legends will only take you so far; it will never really help you understand why these legends had so much power. To do that, you have to allow for the role of stories in forming identities and building communities; for the diversity of ways in which people receive the stories they hear; for the place of imagination, play, and the pleasure of narrative. You have to allow for the fact that the past was different from the present, and that medieval writers did not always share our particular idea of what makes good academic history; they weren't wrong, or stupid, just different. Look around you, and you'll see that we all constantly use stories in thinking about the past, and especially in communicating it to others: the news reports I linked to at the beginning of this post are not simply reporting facts but telling a story, complete with motives for which we do not (and never will) have evidence. This story about 'monks on the make' 'filling their coffers' is one particular way of interpreting the evidence we have; it's a story about the medieval past which appeals to modern journalists and to many modern historians, in part because it fits with a certain narrative which for centuries dominated the study of history in Britain - medieval England mired in a corrupt, superstitious Dark Age before the dawning of Reformation light. The 'myth-busting' in fact just reinforces a very old myth. (The similarity in rhetoric between anti-Catholic Victorian historians and secularist Guardian journalists is really quite strange to see.) Often this goes hand-in-hand with a superior, not to say snobbish, attitude towards popular tradition and the gullibility of the general public, who are, it's assumed, too stupid to recognise a legend when they hear one.
But there are other ways to tell the story, based on the exact same evidence. I've suggested a few, and I'm sure you can think of others. If nothing else, we can pay attention to the language we use: what a difference it makes if instead of speaking of histories 'fabricated', 'concocted' and 'forged', we use the language of imagination, story-telling, and creativity.