21. Alas, Britain

c. 367 to c. 460 CE

Britain was abandoned by Rome early compared to the rest of it’s territory, and what followed wasn’t pretty.

Okay, so, we have arrived at the much-teased episode about post Roman Britain. Hopefully I haven’t hyped this too much; I do try my best to manage expectations.

A few days ago, I got an email from Listener Ben – hello Ben – who had a question. Rather than try and paraphrase, let me just read the relevant part :

“Throughout the podcast, you occasionally call the Germanic people “Germans”. In my opinion, that’s not fully correct, since German is the modern word used for people from Germany or people who speak German. Now, to call people, who lived and moved all over Europe, Germans, seems to be misleading to me. I know I’m nitpicking, sorry”

Don’t be sorry, Ben, it’s an interesting question. I’ve used the word German pretty frequently, partly because it’s often what’s used by the authors I’m reading, and partly to avoid using the word barbarian (which feels a little loaded) too much. I worry less about that now, since there really is no good collective term for non-romans that makes much sense in context. And what else could I call them? Savages? There’s an actually loaded word. 

The way I use it and the way many of my secondary sources use it, German refers to any speaker of a Germanic language, which includes a wide range of people spread across a vast territory. Franks, Alamanni, Thuringians, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, and literally dozens if not hundreds of others count as Germans by that definition. 

Weirdly, the Romans themselves would not have recognized all of those people as Germani, which is where the word comes from. Germani lived beyond the Rhine, Gothi lived beyond the Danube, and the relationship was only understood through modern linguistics. While we’re on the subject of etymology and linguistics, by the way, the word barbarian comes from the Greek word barbaroi, which was a Greek onomatopoeia, mimicking the sound of foreigners’ speech. My high school history teacher told us once that it came from barba, the Latin for beard, but I have found no reference to that idea in any other source, so, with apologies to Mr. McCarthy I’m going with the Greek origin.

Anyway, to wrap up this digression, which I’m not sure has cleared up anything, I do apologize if the word German has been confusing or problematic, and I probably more often than not will revert to using the word barbarian, or when appropriate Germanic, instead. The good news is that the issue is going to go away pretty soon anyway, as those people, whoever they were, start to settle down and there will be less need to talk about them collectively. Thank you Ben, for your email, it’s always exciting to see an actual message pop through the cloudbank of spam that usually fills my inbox. 

Why have I left this for so long? Mainly it’s because Britain is really it’s own thing, from around the turn of the fifth century onward. There was very little point, I thought, in continually trying to circle around to Britain as I told the story of the last century of the Roman empire in the west, since there wasn’t very much interaction there. Better to just hold it back and deal with it on its own when it seemed appropriate. And now, here we are.

The second reason has more to do with my own anxiety. The fifth, and indeed sixth, centuries in Britain are the very definition of the DARK AGES. We have almost zero contemporary sources. And when I say almost zero, I mean one. One source that was definitely written in Britain within a hundred years of the events it describes. In a vacuum of information, though, legend will spring up to fill the void. So in spite of the absence of really high quality source material, the number of books that exist about the period could easily fill a shelf or two at Barnes & Noble, and does at the larger stores. The reason for that is obvious, you’re probably already mouthing it to yourself right now: Arthur. 

Strictly speaking, Arthur belongs a little bit after the time we’re dealing with here, maybe possibly perhaps, but he casts such a long and deep shadow on the research. I will end up speaking a very little teeny tiny bit about Arthur much later on in the episode, but I simply don’t have room to do him justice today. So yes, I’m ducking the question a bit, but with full intention of coming back to it later.

So the plan shall be this:

I will begin with a quick summary of Britain’s incorporation and role in the Roman empire, culminating in a less-quick run through the traditional narrative of what happened after the empire withdrew. Traditional in the sense that it’s been the widely accepted story, and the “national origin myth” of England since time immemorial. Then we’ll dig in to try and figure out which parts of that narrative stand up to scrutiny, both with modern historical research techniques and archaeology. The modern archeology is particularly exciting, with new finds being worked on literally as I speak. Archaeology also will give me a platform from which to dive into the even murkier waters of Scotland and Ireland, and try very hard not to drown, or get eaten by a giant pike or something. Hopefully we’ll reach the other side of the whole thing, cold and wet, but none the worse for wear.

Last episode I predicted might be a long one, and it turned out to not be so bad. Given that I’m six minutes in and am just wrapping up the introduction, I feel very confident that this one really will be a big one. Strap in.

Julius Caesar mounted the first Roman expedition across the narrow sea in 55 BCE, and another the following year. He described the Celtic culture of the island and established a chieftain as a client-king of Rome, but the exercise was not much more than a sideshow to his larger war in Gaul. It would be another hundred years before the emperor Claudius really committed to the conquest of the British tribes. The project proceeded relatively smoothly, with the usual doomed rebellions being dealt with in turn, most famously the one led by queen Boudicca of the Icinii. 

The Romanization of Britain followed slowly, and it was for a long time a primarily military undertaking. At its height, 40,000 Roman troops were stationed in Britania, about one eighth of the total strength of the army. That was obviously a massive number, and it required a massive amount of trade to keep supplied, with most of that supply being provided at imperial expense. The payback was Brittania’s rich mineral deposits, especially tin from Cornwall, but also lead from Wales and the Pennines, and gold also from Wales. The eastern, lowland side of the island was fertile farmland, and so the province was self-sustaining from a food perspective, though it had to import the wine and olive oil that the Roman army and its elite commanders demanded. While Tacitus, writing in the first century, considered Britannia a rich province, ultimately it’s unlikely to have ever done better than break even, as far as the emperor’s bookkeepers were concerned. 

Culturally, the Romans and the native Britons remained largely separate. Excavations of common farmsteads from the first century of Roman occupation are conspicuously non-roman in their layout and the complex of artifacts found within them. Unlike in other provinces, the elite administrators of Britannia were usually non-natives, and the general population seems to have been mostly looked-down upon by the Roman elites. Great villas grew up to exploit the rich farmlands, with locals providing labor, but little more than that. Towns like Colchester, Gloucester, York, and especially London, were established to handle the vast quantities of trade goods for the army, and these grew and flourished. But the money they generated did not seem to have penetrated the local economy to any great extent. The Villas and mining operations were usually run by imperial monopolies, and so the profits went right back to the emperor’s treasury, while the vast majority lived and worked for payment in kind, or as slaves. 

The essential difference between Britain and the rest of the empire is demonstrated pretty effectively I think by language. While Latin was undoubtedly the language of administration and scholarship, the vast majority of the population continued to speak a version of the old Celtic languages. These combined with Latin a bit to create something that modern linguists call Brythonic, but it is significant that the languages that pre-date the arrival of the Germanic peoples are not, in their essence, Roman. 

During the turbulent third century, active military campaigning on the island came to an end, while at the same time, trouble flared along the Rhine and Danube. Troops were withdrawn from Britannia to help in those trouble spots, and in their absence, Germanic raiders began to harass the eastern coasts, and northern tribes from what is now Scotland made a nuisance of themselves as well. The response was the construction of expensive fortifications, called the Saxon shore forts. The extent of these is debatable, but definitely included the eastern and southern coasts from The Wash to Portchester, opposite the isle of White. There is though an alternative interpretation of the evidence regarding these, which we will come to later in the episode.

Remains of a Roman Fort, known as Burgh Castle.

With the withdrawal of such a large portion of the military, and the simultaneous disruptions of foreign aggression, the result looks very much like economic collapse. Trade fell off dramatically. The towns shrank into near irrelevance. But oddly, as the crisis of the third century was resolved and the empire pulled itself back together, the Britain that emerged from the years of chaos was actually more Roman than it had been before. The economy had shrunk and localized, locally made pottery replaced imported ware, and coins became much more common in general circulation. The economy was smaller, but it was deeper. Christianity arrived and spread, and by the end of the three hundreds was probably the dominant creed, but there is evidence of pagan temple building late in the century, so it doesn’t seem to have been exclusive in Britain yet. The elites of the society became more local too, and the towns were replaced by great villas owned and operated for the first time by wealthy Britons. What we see in Britain follows the general trend across the empire, as local elites withdrew from the old-style economy based on the trading towns, and instead focus on growing their own estates and patronage networks

Roman fortifications.

It is through archaeology that we can most clearly see the change in British culture after the crisis of the third century, partly by observing the change in diet visible in the waste pits of the time. While archaeology rarely gives us a detailed chronology, it can at times make the dry historical facts more human in some ways. Butter replaced olive oil, for example, and apples become more prominent, but coriander also spreads down into the lower strata of society, so while the local produce is more commonly used by the upper classes, Roman-ness is also spreading downward into the common people. 

By 300, the economy had pretty much recovered, and a new, blended Romano-British culture had appeared. 

But there was trouble ahead, and while they may have had moonlight and music and even love and romance, the British would also have to face the music. There wouldn’t be a lot of dancing.

Signs of trouble appeared around the 330s, as raiders from north of Hadrian’s Wall – the Picts and Scotti – began raiding more frequently. These raids intensified over time until in 343 when emperor Constans was forced to lead troops against the northern tribes. Defenses were at the same time strengthened, at great expense, both along the wall and the Saxon shore. These defenses were overwhelmed though in 367, by the so-called barbarian conspiracy. These were a series of suspiciously well-coordinated attacks by Picts, Scotti, Franks, Saxons, and other Seaborne Germanic tribes, that brought fire and chaos to the island. Order was restored by the general who would become Theodosius I, and it’s possible his biographers exaggerated the threat, but it was clear that Britannia was vulnerable. 

It was just as vulnerable to Roman politics as it was to barbarian attacks, and in 383 one Magnus Maximus took his men to the continent to fight in yet another civil war. He was unsuccessful, and it was at least seven years for the legions to come back. Increasingly distracted by the turmoil at the center of the empire, the higher stratum of the provincial administration began to neglect Britannia. The last Roman mint on the island closed in 387, and after 400, there were no new shipments of money from the continent to pay the legions from the empire. Unsurprisingly, that made the legions unhappy, and in 407 Constantine III rode the wave of their unhappiness into Gaul, for a briefly successful period as a usurping emperor, before he crashed and burned and was relieved of his position and his head. He had taken most of the legions out of Britain with him, and this time they weren’t coming back.

The most commonly told version of the story of post-Roman Britain begins with Constantine. We talked about him in episode five. It wasn’t entirely a crazy idea for a usurper to launch himself from Britain. No less than Constantine the Great had been acclaimed emperor in York a hundred years earlier. What was odd was taking all of the fighting men along, and leaving the island province ungarrisoned. In 410, Honorius sent a letter to the British, letting them know that they were on their own, defense-wise for the time being. The time being turned out to mean forever. Raiders walked right past the now deserted forts, and the slide into chaos and decline was underway.

Remember, right now I’m telling the traditional story, call it the received history, if you like. We are not at home to Mr. Revisionism just yet.

The last communication between the elites of Britain and the Roman center was a message sent to Aetius sometime in the 440s. The “Groan of the Britons” famously pleaded for military intervention,

“The barbarians drive us to the Sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians. Between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.” 

The barbarians in question were Picts and Scots from north of Hadrian’s wall. When no help was forthcoming from Rome, the Britons sought help in other places. They invited Saxon mercenaries to come and help fight the northerners. The venerable Bede places the Saxon’s arrival between 450 and 455, but there are questions about that. These Saxons demanded more and more in return for their services, until they rose up in rebellion against their employers. Led by a pair of brothers, Hengist and Horsa, they called their compatriots in their homelands to come and take over this poorly defended, but fertile island, and the ensuing Germanic invasion drove the Britons westward, into the highlands of Wales and Cumbria and the remote southwest corner of Cornwall and Devon. The Saxon advance was – if we believe the legends – checked by a war leader named Arthur, who fought a series of battles that culminated at the battle of Badon Hill. His war gave the Britons fifty years of peace, before the tide turned again, and the final defeat and replacement by the Anglo-Saxons became inevitable.

This invasion came from the northern fringes of modern Germany and the Jutland peninsula, territories well behind the old Roman frontiers. The invaders were pagan and less Romanized than the Visigoths or Vandals, or even the Franks. Romano-Celtic language and civilization were swept aside and replaced by the new Anglo-Saxon culture.

There is more detail to that story, of course, but that is the gist of it. That was kind of a third reason it took me so long to get around to this episode; cut away all the Arthurian addenda, and the story of fifth century Britain really doesn’t have much meat on it. But I know that you don’t come here for glib, five paragraph summaries, especially after all that introduction. 

I’m not sure why you come here, but I know it ain’t that. 

But what about the bones of the story? How do we know what little we know? For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad tales of the lack of sources.

The phrase “the dark ages” is deeply unpopular among reputable historians, with their insistence on balance, avoidance of bias, and penchant for removing anything marketable from their materials. I’ve talked about this before. The very simple, totally neutral fact though, is that it’s very hard to see what was going on in Britain after the Romans left because there are almost no contemporary historical writings about it. We are left in the dark.

There is exactly one written source that was definitely produced on the island within a hundred years of the events it describes. Un. Uno. Ein. That’s it.

That source is a document called De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain” by a monk called Gildas. The bit about being caught between barbarians and the deep blue sea is part of this writing. Dating de Excidio is a challenge, but somewhere between 525 and 550 is the usually accepted range, though an argument can be made for earlier.

Stained glass of Saint Gildas

Gildas tells a story of a society that has fallen to pieces. The old Roman authority is gone, replaced by a patchwork of warlords and strongmen, that he calls tyranni. Tyrants. The most powerful of these is called Vortigern. Vortigern is the one who makes the fateful deal with the Saxons to help defend the Britons from the painted Northmen, Gildas even uses the familiar term for them: federati. There is an alternative explanation, that there were already plenty of Saxons  in Britain, brought by earlier foedus agreements, and that the Saxon shore was so named because that was where they lived.  It’s a bit of an outlier theory, not widely accepted, but still I thought I’d mention it.

Once the northerners were successfully fended off, Gildas says the Britons fell into the habit that has always been their undoing – enjoying themselves. In their laziness and drunkenness, they failed to notice the threat posed by the Saxons, and were taken by surprise by their rebellion. Things looked grim, as the Saxons quickly took control of the eastern parts of the Island, but then a hero emerged, who led the British forces to victory at a place called Mons Badonicus, and the Saxon onslaught was halted. There followed some fifty years of peace, in which Gildas was living when he wrote De Excidio. The leader at Mons Badonicus was named by Gildas as Ambrosius Aurelianus – a leading candidate for the title of “real life Arthur” if such a title must be awarded.

Now there are some problems with Gildas. That’s putting it mildly, it’s a frustrating and confusing document.

First of all, it was not Gildas’ intention to provide a perfect record of things as they were, he wasn’t intending to write history as we would understand it. In fact, the historical part, the part I just summarized, makes up less than one quarter of the whole work. It is meant as an introduction – a “how did we get here” summary – to a larger work of polemic in which Gildas absolutely blasts the moral and spiritual failings of the British rulers and clergy of his own time. Even if history per se had been his goal, the understanding of what constituted “good history” was completely different from what it is today. Ancient and medieval audiences did not demand that history be true to how it was, but rather that it make a moral point. The emphasis was more on the good than it was on the history.

Gildas provides absolutely no dates at all. The closest he comes is the reference to the letter sent to Aetius, which addresses him as “thrice consul”. Aetius was consul in 432, 437, 446, and the year of his death, 454. So the groan of the Britons must have been sent between 446 and 454. Beyond that though, there’s just nothing to go on. Also, it’s entirely possible that Gildas’ narrative isn’t actually in chronological order. Again, that wasn’t his point.

The only other sources from within a hundred years are the lives of a couple saints, most notably Saint Patrick and Saint Germanus, and a work called the Gallic Chronicle. These are vague at best, and of course, like Gildas, not really intended to provide full histories of the goings on in Britannia. The saint’s lives are there to tell the stories of the saints, the gallic chronicle is focused on Gaul, and mentions Britain only twice, so the historical record can be charitably called patchy. More accurately it can be called a frustrating muddle.

But what about archaeology, the word I’ve never spelled correctly on my first try?

Well that can give us some more answers, but just as in the archaeology of the early Goths, they have to be picked out of a jumble of conflicting, confusing, and sometimes just weird information, some of which seems to contradict the written records.

The human cost of Rome’s withdrawal though, is evident. The collapse was amazingly rapid. In the absence of the army and administration, and under the pressure of increased raids and reduced trade, the great agricultural villas failed, one after another. Money became scarcer and scarcer, until by 410 the economy seems to have reverted almost entirely to barter. Building and maintenance in towns ground to a halt. The roads were not maintained with any regularity, sewers clogged and became unusable. Public buildings and spaces fell into disrepair. Water supplies, the aqueducts, stopped flowing. By the 420s, in many places city life simply stopped. Eboracum and Londinium – Modern York and London – were effectively abandoned in the fifth century. THeir walls were cannibalized for more prosaic building materials, and the marshlands and forests reclaimed some or all of their streets. 

As a fishing boat is followed by gulls, the collapse of civil society was followed by disorder and violence. We know that from the burials of the time, many of which show evidence of violent death. But what we don’t see is evidence that this violence was the violence of foreign invasion, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes hadn’t arrived just yet. Instead it seems mostly to be the violence of riot and Balkanization. 

Hierarchies flattened out, society became simpler. Once you’ve been forced to abandon your big house, it’s hard to claim elite status anymore. Though some kind of authority remained. Someone had to write that letter to Aetius, someone had to organize life among the ruins. Local strongmen arose to meet the immediate defense needs of their communities and then fought one another over territory and resources. Authority was atomized, from the province to the region, from the region to the city, from the city out into the villages and towns. Everyone had to look out for themselves. We can’t know how exactly or indeed when exactly this happened. At some point, some of these warlords had hashed out enough power for themselves to qualify as Gildas’ Tyrani. As the towns were abandoned, the old hill forts of the iron age were re-occupied, as they were easier to defend without the logistical support of the legions. 

Life was lived among the ruins. It’s clear that this was a process, one that moved more quickly in some areas than in others. At Birdoswald, a fort on Hadrian’s wall, the inhabitants maintained their old way of life for a hundred years after the Romans left, as the traditions and equipment of the border garrison were passed down from generation to generation, until they finally bowed to the inevitable, and abandoned the fort. The story of the fifth century is one of a battered society, trying to hold onto a way of life that no longer has any foundations. There are signs of that society in the records – as fleeting as shapes in the clouds – the continued use of Latin personal names, for example, and references to soldiers that suggest the attempt to maintain a disciplined force of fighting men.

By the 450s, the old Roman style administration had pretty much completely vanished. It’s really something to think about. In two, maybe three generations, the whole thing had sunk into the mud. 

Ultimately then, archeology more or less confirms the broadest outline of Gildas’ account – the Ruin of Britain – what about the conquest part then?

The Adventus Saxonum – the Arrival of the Saxons – is where the modern scholarly approach really starts to diverge from the bits and bobs of written historical material. Strictly speaking, this carries us beyond our current period, but I don’t want to leave you hanging. I’ll do the outline and we can come back to it in more detail in a later episode. 

In the broadest outline, the traditional narrative holds up, but I do mean the broadest possible outline. There were three tribes of Germanic people who arrived in Britain and eventually took control of the island. Let me amend that: took control of the parts of the island but had previously been Roman Britannia. Phew, that was close. Those three tribes were – as most of you probably know – the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. The Angles settled north of the River Thames, the Saxons pretty much to the south of it, and the Jutes settled in Kent, in the southeast corner of the island.

Well that’s all very well but where did they come from? And why were they there? 

Our best source for the traditional narrative is The Ecclesiastical history of the English people, written by a churchman known as the Venerable Bede. Bede was writing in the eighth century, so quite a bit after the events he describes, but that must be OK right because he probably had access to documents that have since been lost to us? Well the signs seem to point to no. As far as we can tell Bede’s only written source seems to be the same one we have, which is Gildas.

Dinas Emrys, Wales, where according to one story, Vortigern attempted to build a stronghold. It was the site of a real hill fort.

Gildas tells us that Vortigern “as a protection for the country, sealed its doom by inviting in among them like wolves in a sheep-fold the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful to both God and men, to repel the northern invasions. Nothing was so pernicious in our country, nothing was ever so unlucky.” The first of the federates arrived in just three ships, but when they saw the situation in Britain, they sent messages to their homelands, and many more warriors crossed the north sea and were given lands on the condition that they would continue to defend the Britons from the Picts and Scots. Before long, though, they had entered into an alliance with the Picts, and, after finding fault with the provisions the Britons were providing, attacked their hosts. According to Bede:

“they plundered all the neighboring cities and country, spread the conflagration from the eastern to the western sea, without any opposition, and covered almost every part of the devoted island … Some of the miserable remainder …spent with hunger, came forth and submitted themselves to the enemy for food, being destined to undergo perpetual servitude… some, with sorrowful hearts, fled beyond the seas.”

This first wave was led by a pair of chiefs, brothers named Hengist and Horsa, and according to Bede, the migration would eventually become so numerous that the homelands in Germany remained depopulated into his own time (which would have been the eighth century).

The picture these sources paint is of a great, violent convulsion, with the Anglo-Saxons slaughtering, enslaving, or driving away the native Romano British. Some of the The Britons that fled were pushed to the west, into Wales, Cumbria, Devon, and Cornwall, some refugees sailed across the channel and settled in large numbers in Brittany, which is how the peninsula got its modern name. Riothamus, who we talked about a bit a few episodes ago, may have been a leader of some of those refugees. The linguistic map seems to bear out this story; the successor languages of Brythonic – Welsh, Cornish, and Breton, are exactly where you would expect to find them. 

So the general picture, of Germanic peoples pushing the Romano-British to the west, stands up to basic scrutiny, no problem. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. How quickly did this happen? Where exactly did these invaders come from? And how violent was it? Is it indeed a terrible wave leading to genocidal replacement, or something more gradual? Was it in fact more of a process of acculturation, with a new culture being imitated by and blending with the old? All of these questions are subject to some debate, to put it mildly. As ever, the problem is that the documentary evidence is sparse and vague, and the archeological evidence is relatively plentiful, but confusing.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the details here, or all the various sides of the debates, so I’ll just give you the executive summary version, but we’ll be coming back to it in a later episode, so wait until then if you want to shout at me. Essentially, the accepted idea is that Anglo-Saxon culture out-competed British culture. It’s entirely probable that Vortigern or some kind of authority figure did invite the Saxons to assist with defense, we’ve seen that as a model time and time again in the history of the Roman empire, along with then the growing influence of those federati, until they become the dominant power in the region. The idea of a genocidal clearing of the eastern parts of the island just isn’t supported by the evidence. There was probably violence, but not of the kind or scale that the chroniclers so breathlessly relate. Instead, we’re probably seeing a population that finds itself dominated by an outside culture, and in order to get along and maybe get ahead, adopts the language and habits of the newcomers. Those that can’t bring themselves to do so move elsewhere, in this case westward or across the sea to Brittany. The idea that there was no violence at all is ridiculous, but there are many gradients of violence between all out extermination and peaceful coexistence.

The question that remains, really, is why did the cultural exchange happen in the direction it did? Why did the Anglo-Saxons end up imposing their culture on the Romano-British, when what we’ve seen on the continent is the opposite, barbarians becoming Romanized? Put another way, why is English descended from Anglo-Saxon, and not Latin or Brythonic? The answer lies in that gap between the departure of the legions and the arrival of the Saxons. The collapse of Romano-British administration and order was so complete that by the time the Anglo-Saxons showed up, there was essentially nothing left for them to adopt. The Romano part of Romano-British had basically been dropped.

But what about the great hero? What about Arthur? Well I hate to disappoint, but I probably am going to. The first textual source where a war leader named Arthur appears in the Historia Brittonum, compiled by a (probably) Welsh monk (possibly) named Nennius, in the early ninth century. He refers to him twice, once in the so-called “battle-list”, a sequence of twelve battles in which this leader laid low the enemies of the British, placed by Nennius in the fifth or sixth centuries. This is the favorite of everybody who ever sat down to write about the “real Arthur”. Nennius mentions him again later on in a story about a great boar hunt, but now it’s clearly legendary, since Nennius says that the footprint of Arthur’s hound can be seen in a stone near Builth Wells, in Wales, and that it can never be moved or stolen.In the same story he mentions that in Ergyng can be found the grave of the son of Arthur the Soldier, which is never the same length twice. The hard fact that leaves us with is that sometime in the 830s in Gwynedd there were stories about a legendary warrior named Arthur, and Nennius heard them and wrote them down. 

The truth is, I’m going to punt on the question of Arthur. Not that it’s not interesting, not that I don’t have my own opinion. It’s that there just isn’t room. So this shall be the episode of promises, he will have at least a large chunk of another episode in the next season, if not one all to himself. That will work better with the chronology of the Podcast anyway. If I was really sneaky I would make it a special episode and put it behind a paywall or something, but let’s face it, I’m barely keeping up with this free feed at the moment, so that’s not happening any time soon.

Now, the rule is that each episode should be about one thing and one thing only. Much like the rule that I comes before E except after C, in this podcast I believe there are more exceptions to the rule than there are examples, and this episode shall be no different. Because you may have been wondering about those other raiders I keep mentioning, the ones from north of Hadrian’s wall, and just for good measure, what have the Irish been up to?

Well I have good news and bad news. The good news is this won’t take too long, the bad news is, that’s because very little is known in any kind of satisfying way. If I were to write an episode just about Scotland and Ireland in the fifth century, it would be titled “Your Guess is as Good as Mine, Really”. But we do our best. First of all, banish from your minds the image of proud Celtic warriors holding their own against the ravenous might of Rome -who are definitely not an allegory for the English in any way-, manly holdouts who would not be conquered. Eirinn go Brach and Alba an treun! The fact is that the Romans never made any serious attempt to subdue Scotland, even less Ireland. The Romans were pragmatic, and recognized that such an effort would be throwing good sestertii after bad. So what was going on up/over there?

Starting in the North, with the people known as the picts. The Picts really are a riddle. The name just means “painted people” and is usually encountered as a rhetorical device indicating the very furthest limits of the known world, not as an actual people. When they do speak of the people beyond Hadrian’s wall, most sources tell us that the nearest were still Britons, while the Picts were found further north, and were divided into two great confederations, the Dicalydones and the Verturiones. They left no trace of their language, though Bede hints that it was related to the British language, and some researchers have suggested an Irish connection as well. The removal of the Roman frontier may have triggered some instability within these groups, which would have led to the increase in raiding. All in all, though, it’s hard to say with any certainty that the Roman withdrawal had any effect one way or the other on life in the Highlands.

We’ve talked about archaeological cultures before – groups of artifacts found in areas that are interpreted as belonging to a distinct culture, like the Chernakov culture back when we talked about the early Goths. Well, the picts don’t seem to have one, which is weird. Much like in Ireland, there’s more stuff found for the stone and iron ages than for the early middle ages in Scotland. The archeology hinges on three main types of finds, cemeteries, forts, and symbol stones. 

An abstract Pictish Stone

The cemeteries are terribly frustrating, in that they don’t’ usually contain any of the kind of artifacts that are recovered from Germanic graves of the period. Called long-cyst cemeteries, because the graves were long cavities lined with flat stones, it seems that their inhabitants were buried in simple dress or undecorated shrouds, so no metal work or other objects to survive. These cemeteries began to proliferate and became very large in the seventh century, and are usually associated with the process of Christianization, which isn’t too helpful for the fifth century. The forts aren’t much better, the largest and most famous is at Dundurn in Strathearn, while another at Burghead contained a lot of stones with carved bull symbols, but their significance is unclear. 

Those carved stones are the most iconic of Pictish artifacts, beautiful both in their own right, and for the inevitable tinge of mystery that surrounds them. The vast majority are rough, undressed stones, carved with an array of designs. Some are abstract geometric patterns, these are the most common. Others depict animals, sometimes recognizably real animals, other times imaginary ones, like the so-called “pictish beast”. The stones are concentrated along the eastern coast of Scotland between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Moray, but are found elsewhere, all the way up into the Orkneys. Being stones, they are fundamentally undateable, but the balance of opinion leans toward their appearance in the late fifth or early sixth century. What they mean exactly, and why they were made, is unknown.

Ireland is equally tantalizing, and equally maddening. What is clear is that there were major changes in Irish society beginning in the fourth century and worked out over the next three hundred years. The best evidence for these changes is the proliferation of structures called cashels, or ring forts, and crannogs, artificial islands, across Ireland. These are small, much smaller than the earlier hillforts, and consisted mostly of wooden stockades and earthworks, so while defensive, they don’t suggest a serious move toward fortification like we see in Britain. Some of them might just be cattle enclosures. But it does speak to a dividing up of land, a more fragmented society. They also spread, around the forth and fifth century, into Galloway and the west coast of wales.

Reconstructed Crannog, at Castle Espie, in Ireland

If the great mythic kingdoms of Irish legend ever existed, like Ulster, they probably came to an end around this time. Some of those changes appear to have resulted in migration into Britain, especially coastal Wales and southwestern Scotland. Memorial stones bearing Irish names in those places also speak to a period of migration. The latter tribes were called Scotii, and would give their name to the whole country. What caused that change, and their exact nature, isn’t known though. Roman sources have very little to say about Hibernia, and no attempt to conquer Ireland was ever made. Catholic missionaries (such as Saint Patrick) began to visit in the fourth and fifth centuries, but whether Christian conversion was the cause of the disruptions or a secondary factor alongside ongoing social change is anyone’s guess. Later on, Irish missionaries would be key players in the conversion of British pagans, but that was still far in the future.


Title Music:
“The Britons” by Kevin MacLeod at Free Music Archive
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: