English Heritage are in the Dark Ages at Tintagel

Tintogel, more famous for his antiquity than rewardable for his present estate, abutteth likewise on the sea; yet the ruins argue it to have been once no unworthy dwelling for the Cornish princes.

Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall, 1602

Not long before Shakespeare released Hamlet, Richard Carew had already published his Survey of Cornwall–a masterpiece of Elizabethan-era prose and one of the most important historical documents written about Cornwall. Tintagel Castle was in a not unfamiliar ruinous state than now and Carew devotes some space to discussing the site’s history and lore.

Carew cites a poem (originally in Latin) collected by William Camden which I read before I set off for Tintagel for my own survey a few weeks ago:

There is a place within the winding shore of Severn Sea
On midst of rock, about whose foot
The tide’s turn-keeping play:
A tow’ry topped castle here
Wide 
blasted over all,
Which Corineus ancient brood
Tindagel Castle call.

Corineus is a character likely based on an historical king of Cornwall (or at least a memory of Cornish kings), re-mythologised, just like King Arthur, by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century History of the Kings of Britain. Gildas and Nennius were already writing history and legend 600 and 400 years before. Old British kings have a habit of dissolving into myth, see also the second-century King Lucius.

Memory of Tintagel as a seat of real Cornish kings long pre-dated the Victorian Arthurisation of the post-Roman and early medieval history of the site, as shown by re-collections of Carew and others.

I knew that English Heritage had decided to brand the period of the Cornish kings as the Dark Ages and first raised this concern in my post on the Tintagel Controversy.

 This is live historiography and any student of medieval history should be keeping up! #stopthedarkages

In this post I reiterate my concerns from the point of view of a medieval historian and interpreter about the use of Dark Ages by English Heritage to brand such a crucial period in Cornish history.

English Heritage base their national timeline 'The Story of England' on a substantial period of confusion and lack of knowledge they call the Dark Ages (c410-1066) #stopthedarkages

English Heritage base their national timeline ‘The Story of England’ on a substantial period of apparent confusion and lack of knowledge they call the Dark Ages (c410-1066) #stopthedarkages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cornwall and the Story of England

English Heritage’s national timeline “The Story of England” is committed to the Dark Ages and presents a strange narrative in which both the Middle Ages and Cornwall sit very uncomfortably.

Apart from the anachronism that Dark Ages represents (casting modern determinist values on the past) the fact that it is used commonly as a derogatory and denigrating term must surely have given English Heritage pause for thought?

Since then a large and vocal cohort of fellow medievalists joined the #stopthedarkages cause and have expertly deconstructed the term from their own perspectives as being value-based, anachronistic and misleading.

Stop the Dark Ages #stopthedarkages

Dr. Leonie Hicks rallied fellow medievalists not just in the UK but abroad as well and is documenting the #stopthedarkages debate on Storify. This is live historiography and any student of medieval history should be keeping up!

A Clerk of Oxford thinks English Heritage is making a partisan value judgement about historical change between Anglo-Saxon and Norman. Kate Miles called the use of Dark Ages by English Heritage an “outdated stereotype” in History Today.

Dr. Charles West commented, “isn’t it patronising to suppose that this public would be baffled or put off by describing a period of time as early medieval, the obvious alternative?” Going on to highlight that Historic Scotland have no such qualms about the intelligence of their audiences and eschew the term completely.

Dark Age apologists

On 5 May English Heritage issued a defence, a kind of apology, to those of us who were vocalising our objection to their use of Dark Ages not just as a term to describe a period from the 5th century to 1066 but also because it was unnecessarily loaded and judgemental.

Dr Hicks’s surgical demolition of the national heritage agency’s defence of the Dark Ages does not need re-stating by me.

The contents of this apology were not new to me as they had been emailed to me, almost verbatim, by one of the historians who had reinterpreted Tintagel. But at least they did leave it open at the end for us to suggest alternatives so long as it is “short, generally valid for the period c.400 – 1066 and crucially, must be understandable to the wider public.”

Are English Heritage interpreters using best practice when thinking about their communities–are they thinking about them at all?

Although the apology obliquely referenced the problematic use of “Anglo-Saxon” in Cornwall it completely missed the point of the damaging effect of using Dark Ages on the audiences and communities of Cornish heritage–and indeed the heritage of others.

Early Medieval is not considered good enough because “we have found that these terms are popularly associated with the period around 1066 and the Normans.”

The mystery amongst heritage interpreters and commentators remain – who at English Heritage has interviewed and canvassed its audiences (including professional practitioners and academics) to find out whether this is true?

Are English Heritage interpreters using best practice when thinking about their communities–are they thinking about them at all?

The get-out clause with the apologists seems to be the specific period of the 5th to 7th centuries for which the Dark Ages seemed to them most apposite. Ken Dark’s ‘Back to the ‘Dark Ages’? Terminology and Preconception in the Archaeology of fifth- to seventh-century Celtic Britain’ published in Journal of Celtic Studies 4, pp. 193-200, is cited as being influential (although literally no one I knew had heard of it). Ken Dark had back in the 1980s studied some of the Mediterranean pottery from Tintagel from a Byzantinist’s perspective so how a scholar could sabotage his own evidence of super-highway Atlantic seaboard trade by calling this period the Dark Ages is bewildering.

Ian Mortimer chastises English Heritage for dropping the “professional bar too low” with the blanket use of Dark Ages to describe the “later Saxon period” after the turn of the 8th century (700) but absolutely defends its use for the 300 or so years before hand which, with a flourish, are described as a “violent culture.”

Prof. Howard Williams has also got tied up in knots about periodisation in the early Middle Ages  but does not get to the Dark Ages, albeit on Twitter did ask why Dark Ages wasn’t OK for Cornwall in the 5-7th centuries (see below).

I spent an awfully long time ruminating on categories and labels when studying for my PhD on early medieval southern Italy and the Mediterranean. I called the entire period I worked on early medieval, echoing my peers and mentors – several of whom had produced new revisionist work on the early Middle Ages.

If you can’t explain it, don’t use it. If you have to apologise for it, don’t use it.

I am an advocate of describing change by other means such as economic, technological or political. I have curated several exhibitions, including those on medieval topics and have never received any feedback outlining confusion about the use of the terms medieval, early medieval or simply the use of a date. For me, this works because it is not casting a value judgement on my sources.

All other descriptors need to be authentic to the place and chronology of the archaeology or documentary record you are examining. If you can’t explain it, don’t use it. If you have to apologise for it, don’t use it.

Narrative choices

My serious contention is that English Heritage has branded a really significant period in Cornish history that has produced a huge amount of evidence as the Dark Ages.

It is misleading. If, on the one hand, 5-7th century Tintagel is presented as the seat of kings (English Heritage interpretation describes it as “high status”) how, then, can you call such a period dark, as in unknowable, sinister, shady, obscure, even calamitous?

Arguably, inhabitants of the British Isles, particularly Cornwall and the wider South West peninsula, have never lived in a more internationalist period as they did in the first centuries of the early Middle Ages as Roman infrastructure broke up and large communities migrated long distances to find new homes, new alliances were made, new trade and movement deals struck.

It was exactly in this period that a lesser known migration of people from the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia (“Greater Cornwall”) in South West Britain took place to settle in the region of Brittany taking language and culture with them.

The fact is we know a lot about this period. Like all medieval sources, whether texts or material culture, they take time and skill to decode, compare and place in context.

Or, is English Heritage keen to achieve a harmonious “Story of England” across all of the sites it manages and therefore is it more convenient to relegate early medieval Tintagel as it just doesn’t fit the narrative of the blossoming of a London-centric England?

Hiding the evidence

The Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999 by Barrowman, Batey and Morris  is the most recent collection of archaeological reports about the early medieval site. The authors from the University of Glasgow, were commissioned by the old English Heritage, to conduct fieldwork and research to re-examine the extensive earlier excavations by Ralegh Radford in the 1930s.

Artognou stone demonstrating Dumnonian literacy and culture, not Arthur.

Artognou stone demonstrating Dumnonian literacy and culture, not Arthur.

Nowhere in the pages of this book does the term Dark Ages appear and the Arthurian claims are calmly refuted. You would not be any the less wise for their absence.

Speaking on the discovery of the ‘Artognou stone’, displayed in the exhibition centre: “Despite media speculation, the latter is not ‘Arthur’, although the stone itself is dramatic testimony to the cultural and literary milieu of high-status Dumnonian society in the post-Roman period.”

The description of the slate in the exhibition centre slightly skews the evidence for literacy at the site and reintroduces Arthurian possibility, “Although similar to Arthur, this does not prove his existence.” And then rather weakly continues, “The slate does show that the people who lived here continued to write in Latin, proving the high status of the settlement.”

If anything is going to confuse an audience it is going to be the concomitant use of terms such as “high status” and “Dark Ages.” The point here isn’t just about the Latin inscription (and no cross-reference is made to the inscriptions on nearby stones, for example in the churchyard) but the fact it was written – yes in the “Dark Ages” they could write at Tintagel !

Tintagel, an ancient powerhouse.

Tintagel, an ancient powerhouse.

Continuing to describe the 5th-7th century settlement (thought previously by Ralegh Radford to be a ‘Celtic monastery’) the authors conclude that the new archaeology, “has demonstrated the iconic importance of the site from the post-Roman period, not just in Dumnonia, but in the wider world of western and northern Britain and Ireland and the economy of the late Antique and Byzantine world.”

Put simply, early medieval Tintagel was an ancient powerhouse. After the breakdown of Roman rule, Tintagel remained part of an international political, cultural and economic network. Because of this longevity and continued success Tintagel became imbued with symbolic importance as a place of legitimacy and power.

From an historiographical point of view, English Heritage does not have a leg to stand on so it’s time for them and anyone who continues to use this discriminatory term to #stopthedarkages now.

Instead English Heritage have chosen to represent this period as the Dark Ages and provide a rather watered down and awkward version of the sheer range and richness of the evidence from the site–you don’t get any of the impact of the sheer scale of finds in the visitor centre.

While some attempt is made to represent the significance of the site it really does not come through, and its importance in Cornish history is hidden altogether.

The teleological back referencing to Arthur in the exhibition, on site and in the guidebook, can only serve to reinforce a sense that the interpreters have chosen to privilege populist conceits over real history and archaeology. The additional outdoor interpretation around the early medieval sections will sadly reinforce these messages.

It is a worrying trend that national agencies are actively choosing to use terms such as Dark Ages at any historical site. They should be providing an example to others in the way they manage and interpret their heritage.

From an historiographical point of view, English Heritage does not have a leg to stand on so it’s time for them and anyone who continues to use this discriminatory term to #stopthedarkages now.

Places of power, denigrated by English Heritage as Dark Age at Tintagel.

Places of power, denigrated by English Heritage as Dark Age at Tintagel.

References:

Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall 1602, with a new introduction by Paul White 2000 (Launceston: Tor Mark Press).

David J. Knight, King Lucius of Britain, 2008 (Stroud: Tempus).

Rachel C. Barrowman, Colleen E. Batey, Christopher D. Morris, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999, 2007 (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London).