Pop quiz! What’s the oldest university in Europe? The official answer is the University of Bologna in Italy (dating to the 11th century), though the University of Paris and Oxford have reasonable claims to be as old or older. They pale in comparison to the Guiness Book of World Records’ pick for the oldest operating university: University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco, founded in the ninth century by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri (how cool is that!?).
But one of the first centers for higher education in Europe was Cor Tewdws, or the College of Theodosius, founded in Roman Britain (modern Llantwit Major in Glamorgan, Wales) during the fourth century. It survived the collapse of Rome, and though it was destroyed by the Irish (known then as Scots), the Vikings, and then the Normans, it was rebuilt and functioned until the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII dissolved it because it was also a monastery.
What does this have to do with insanity in historians? I’ve been researching Cor Tewdws for my current work in progress, and I’m feeling like this:
So, here are three things that will have historians crying, drinking, or pounding their head against the wall:
1-Tell them about some amazing historical event, but provide no details or proof. That’s why post-Roman Britain is a fascinating time period, and a completely frustrating one. It gave us none other than King Arthur–one of the most influential figures in Western legend and literature–but provides nothing more than rumors to suggest he actually lived. Part of the problem is that people don’t often bother to write things down when their society is literally burning to the ground, and what was written rarely survived. There’s just enough to tantalize–vague references, later legends–so historians fight like starving dogs over the little scraps of information and spin it to fit their pet theory. King Arthur was a Sarmatian war leader? A Celtic god? An alien? Sure, depending on how you look at it.
2-The scarce evidence is a good start, but it may not be enough to bring on a full mental breakdown. The next thing you have to do is make sure the evidence is impossible to make sense of. Take the case of Cor Tewdws. We’re told that when the Irish first raided the college in the mid-400s, they captured none other than the illustrious Patrick, taking him back as a slave and thus beginning his epic journey to sainthood (you didn’t know St. Patrick was Welsh, did you?). That’s awesome. Then, a generation or so later, St. Illtud (who was one of Arthur’s knights before becoming a monk, but then, apparently everyone for a two-century span was one of St. Arthur’s knights, which lends credence to the god/alien theories) re-established the college. Some of his young students included notables like St. David (patron saint of Wales), Gildas the historian, and St. Patrick. Wait … what!?
3-Whew, okay, your historian survived that one too? He or she is crying a little, but pressing onward? Time for a spitball: forgery. For example, many modern interpretations of early Welsh history are based on the work of nineteenth century Welsh historian and bard Iolo Morganwg (AKA Edward Williams), who compiled ancient Welsh documents, inscriptions, and legends into one handy source. The problem? He made crap up. And since we’ve since lost some of the original documents he had access to, we have no idea which parts he made up and which parts he didn’t. Maybe we shouldn’t trust historians who use a bardic pseudonym (especially one so close to YOLO). Now, if it was just Iolo/Edward who did this, it might not be so crushing, but the kicker is that pretty much every medieval historian did the same thing. They were all big, fat liars. Oh, sure, they had good intentions, wanting to get people excited about their national heritage, but we all know where good intentions lead.
So, the sum total is that we have no idea what really happened 1500 years ago. Honestly, there’s a lot of things we don’t know about 100 years ago, and it’s miraculous that we know anything about the “Dark Ages.” We’re basing our guesses on fragments of evidence written down after the fact, often contradicting each other, and in all likelihood at least partly made up. It would be like historians in the future trying to learn about World War II solely by watching Indiana Jones. You’d get that there were Nazis and that they lived in Germany and were bad, but that’s about it. And you’d go crazy looking for that warehouse with the Ark of the Covenant.