The first time I watched King Arthur (2004, dir. Antoine Fuqua, screenplay by David Franzoni), one of the more hopeful elements was the decision to include Germanus of Auxerre in it. Germanus was a real person, and his appearance early in the film led me to think that perhaps the film was going to do something fresh and interesting by tying the Arthurian legends into a genuine historical event that most people haven never heard of. “Maybe this film has something interesting to offer,” I thought to myself. Boy, was I wrong.
Germanus of Auxerre
Germanus, also known as St. Germaine and Garmon Sant, was a Gaulish (proto-French, to simplify) bishop of Auxerre in the early 5th century. One of the most important events that we know about during his life was a visit he paid to Sub-Roman Britain sometimes around 429 or 430 AD.
In 410, the Roman Emperor Honorius withdrew the last Roman troops from Britain, and in response, the local authorities essentially seceded from the Roman Empire, expelling the Roman civil authorities. For the next half-century, the Britons sought to maintain a degree of Roman civilization even as the economic, military, and civic underpinnings of the civilization were breaking down. This period is generally known as the Sub-Roman period, and traditionally it lasts down to 449 AD, when the Saxons began to overrun lowland Britain (although historians may occasionally disagree about the end date for this period, arguing that it lasts down to 597).
The motive for Germanus’ visit was the emergence of a theological movement that eventually came to be branded as a heresy, Pelagianism. The founder of this movement was a monk known as Pelagius; he’s usually thought to be a Briton, although by the time of the Pelagian Controversy, he was living in Rome, where he was a respected theologian. Very little of Pelagius’ thought has actually survived; early Christian authors had little interest in preserving the writings and doctrines of people they deemed heretics. In fact, it’s not even clear that Pelagius actually taught Pelagianism; it may well be that his supporters developed his thought beyond what he taught. Regardless, Pelagianism maintained that humanity is a capable of avoiding sin because we have free will, and that includes the choice to sin or not sin. Humans were capable of doing good deeds on their own, and in fact God required them to do so. Otherwise, how could God justly punish sin? If a person is incapable of not sinning, it seems perverse of God to expect them to not sin. Pelagius seems to have objected to people using human sinfulness as a justification for failing to live morally.
Unfortunately for Pelagius and his followers, the most influential churchmen of their generation included St. Augustine and St. Jerome, both of whom were among the giants of the early Latin theologians and both of whom opposed them. Augustine, arguably the most influential Western theologian after St. Paul, articulated the doctrine of Original Sin, which holds that all humanity fell when Adam and Eve sinned. Because humanity is permanently tainted by the inherited stain of their sin, it is impossible for humans to do good works or avoid sinning without God’s grace and assistance. The doctrine of Original Sin was in complete opposition to Pelagianism, and in 411, the Council of Carthage condemned Pelagianism as heretical and affirmed Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin, which subsequently became a fundamental teaching in the Catholic and many Protestant Churches (such as Lutheranism). Pelagius himself died naturally in 418, but Pelagianism continued to circulate.
It was to confront the reported spread of Pelagianism in Britain that Germanus and another bishop, Lupus of Troyes, traveled to Britain in 429 or 430. Some sources claim that he made a second visit sometime over the next 15 years, although some scholars have argued this is a confused report of his trip in 429 and that he only made a single visit. This visit has loomed large in scholarship on the Sub-Roman period for the simple reason that it’s virtually the only major event we have clear documentation for in the sources. As I mentioned in my first post on King Arthur, the Sub-Roman period is part of the British Dark Age, because we have so little information about the period. Between 410 and 600, we have precisely one written document that scholars uniformly agree was authentically written in Britain in this period (although the two letters of St. Patrick may have been written either in Britain or Ireland). That one invaluable document is Gildas’ letter that mentions the battle of Mt. Badon.
The story of Germanus’ visit is recorded in the Life of St. Germanus, written by Constantius of Lyon, a Gaul. He tells us that Germanus went to Britian and debated a group of Pelagian bishops and disproved their beliefs, with all the witnesses being persuaded to abandon the heresy. While there, Germanus took time to cure a blind girl, have a dream about St. Alban, break his foot, miraculously divert a fire, and defeat an invasion of Saxons and Picts by getting lots of people to shout “Alleluia!” so loudly that the echoes made the invaders think they were facing a much larger force than they actually were. I guess the Saxons and Picts back then were kind of dim. What he didn’t do, so far as Constantius tells us, is meet anyone named Artorius.
Germanus in King Arthur
After an intro sequence featuring Artorius as a young boy, the film starts in 467, with the arrival of Bishop Germanus (Ivano Marescotti). Bad guys attack the wagon he’s traveling in, and Arthur (Clive Owen) and his men kill the bad guys, but not before they’ve killed the bishop and most of his retinue.
But surprise! The dead guy in the wagon isn’t actually the bishop. Instead Bishop Germanus has cleverly disguised himself as the captain of the bishop’s guards. Because no one would try to kill the leader of the bishop’s bodyguard when they were trying to kill the bishop. That’s the sort of logic this film operates on.
Although Arthur and his men and supposed to receive their magical discharge papers after escorting the bishop to the Roman fort, Germanus decides to jerk them around by insisting they undergo that great cinematic cliché, the One Last Mission, because somehow he’s in charge because the pope has taken control of the Roman Empire because…well, just go with it.
Arthur, as it turns out, is a follower of Pelagius. The film gets Pelagianism entirely wrong, because it seems to think of it as some sort of political movement revolving around every historical action figure’s favorite value, “freedom”. (Evidently, William Wallace was a Pelagian.) As Arthur insists, his people “were free from your first breath!”, conveniently forgetting that he and his knights were born into servitude, as the prologue has shown us. There is no discussion of the issue of Original Sin or the theology of Free Will at all. And Arthur is upset to eventually learn from Germanus that Pelagius was recently executed.
So the film makes the intriguing choice to introduce an important historical figure and a major theological debate, and then makes the mind-numbing decision to do nothing even remotely intelligent or even interesting with these details. Ok, I get that 5th century theological debates are a hard sell to a modern action film audience, SO DON’T MENTION THEM.
The Dating of the Film
Simply put, the film’s chronology is a complete mess. The historical Lucius Artorius Castus was in Britain sometime between 175 and 235 AD, so well over 200 years before the time of the film. But that problem gets fixed easily, by making this Arthur a descendant of the original one.So that piece of chronology isn’t a problem (relatively speaking). Instead, everything else about this film’s dating is just wrong.
The events are set in 467 AD, when the Roman Empire is beginning to collapse. But Roman Britain hadn’t been part of the Empire for more than a half-century, since it seceded in 410. Bishop Germanus’ visit was around 429; granted, he may have made a later second visit, but that happened by the 440s at the latest, because Germanus died in 448. The film opens with a visit from a dead man to a part of the Roman Empire that’s hasn’t been a part of the Empire for longer than he’s been dead.
But there was still an emperor in the West in 467, because the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, wasn’t deposed until 476. So the idea that the pope is running the Empire because there’s no emperor is just silly.
And, as I noted in my first post on this film, the “historical” Arthur (if there was such a man) didn’t fight his battle of Mt. Badon for probably another 20-30 years, around 495 AD, give or take a decade. There is simply no way to massage the dates in the film to get them into even a remotely coherent order. And why the hell did David Franzoni settle on 467 as the date for the film? Did he mean to write 476 and just transposed two digits and no one else involved in the filming caught the typo? That makes about as much sense as anything else having to do with this film.
Why set the film in the waning years of the Roman Empire, why set “Artorius” in his proper century, if you’re not actually going to fight the battle of Mt. Badon? Why not just go with Malcor’s claim that Arthur belongs in the late 2nd to early 3rd century (when there’s actually an emperor to give him orders) unless your intention is to fit him into Dark Age Britain? If you want to set him in Dark Age Britain, why not get the dating at least partially right? Why get literally every chronological detail wrong?
This wouldn’t be so bad if they hadn’t made the film’s supposed historical accuracy a major selling point of the publicity campaign. They went to the trouble of recruiting a genuine scholar (granted, a folklorist with a rather half-baked theory, rather than a historian, but still…), but apparently Dr. Malcor didn’t bother to point out to them that the dates in the script are just so much word salad. Either that or she did point it out and they felt it didn’t matter, which seems equally likely, given that this is a Jerry Bruckheimer picture.
The film’s jumbled chronology is sort of like a Dan Brown novel, filled with clever clues to form a message that only the historically literate can parse out. But the message they form is “screw you, suckers! This makes no sense!”
Update: A reader tells me that in the closing narration, there is a mention that the final battle is Mt. Badon. I apparently missed that. But it makes absolutely no sense, since Badon seems to be modern Bath, which is nowhere near Hadrian’s Wall, where the battle is definitely taking place. This is sort of like claiming that the Battle of New Orleans took place in New Jersey.