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Post-Roman Britain

Introduction to Nennius

by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999. Updated 8 April 2013

The records of the British past were handed down through oral tradition (in the form of trained bards who specialised in memorising such material). Only a small part of this oral tradition was ever committed to writing.

Furthermore, the distinction that modern readers automatically make between history and literature was by no means so clear-cut.

Add to this all the misty problems of sources and dating, or of authors' intentions in writing their works, and the interpretation of those relatively few texts that have survived to the present day have become a formidable exercise.

This is immediately apparent when studying the first and most substantial account of Arthur's deeds in the Welsh records. This account took the form of an book which was written or compiled around the year 829, entitled Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons). It is often ascribed to a certain Nennius, although some scholars would argue that he (if he existed) had no part in it. [1]

This work is far from being a history; a later editor thought that the author had 'piled together everything [he] could find', and what can really be discovered from it concerns the culture and traditions of the Welsh people in the late eighth and early ninth century, which is the period in which it was put together.

It is an attempt to explore the Welsh past, but its author is not writing in what would now be considered an historical manner; there is no real chronology, and little attempt is made to examine the sources critically such as can be detected in the work of his Anglo-Saxon predecessor, Bede.

The writer is more concerned with the ideology of the present: he portrays the Welsh as a race of noble descent, capable of heroic deeds, treacherously driven out of their rightful lands by the Saxons.

All of this had considerable relevance to the political ambitions of the Welsh at the end of the eighth century, when there was the hope of a revival of their fortunes under Rhodri Mawr, king of Gwynedd, who was uniting the country peacefully.

So the Historia Brittonum is more a record of developing tradition, drawing on heroic poetry, on legends about places and names, and on oral tales, a tradition which is by no means static but which is being elaborated all the time.

But, underneath the synthesis of available material made by the author of The History of the Britons, there does appear a dimly discernible historic record which has been confirmed by at least two brief entries in a set of year-by-year entries in the Annales Cambriae (the Annales of Wales), for 516 and 537.

Nennius' material needs to be read with care because he cannot be entirely trusted, but there is a basis of truth within his text that can be extracted with extreme care.

[1] Nennius is also written as Nemnius or Nemnivus. These alternate forms show an 'm', which in Welsh transmutes into a 'v' sound (spelled as an 'f'), and because of the adjacent 'n' can in some cases be dropped. The modern name of Niven seems likely to be a survival of this.


Text copyright © P L Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.