Category Archives: Humour

Seminar CLXXIX: mocking Irish clergy in the tenth and eleventh centuries

Once returned to the UK after the trip to Catalonia lately recounted, I was happy to be heading back to the Institute of Historical Research, whose Earlier Middle Ages Seminar has in these last two years run to a shortened programme in the summer. First up in the summer 2013 series on 22nd May was Elizabeth Boyle, an old acquaintance from Cambridge. I would therefore have been down to London for this anyway, but her title, “Lay Morality, Clerical Immorality and Pilgrimage in 10th- and 11th-Century Ireland”, also intrigued. Since the IHR has been in exile for some years now, it took some finding, but finally with us all gathered in a huge basement room where we could hardly see people come in to find us, Lizzie told us a couple of excellent but odd Irish stories and drew some tentative points of bigger social import out of them.

Folio 53 of the Book of Leinster

Book of Leinster, folio 53” by Áed Ua Crimthainn et al (12th century) – Laighean53a at web site of Trinity College, Dublin. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The common links between the stories are firstly that they are next to each other in the so-called Book of Leinster, secondly that they both involve unnamed kings acting to correct the morals of Irish clerics fallen into sin, and thirdly that they relate to pilgrimage, which was where Lizzie had come in as she was at this time working on a project comparing contacts with Rome between England and Ireland in the tenth and eleventh centuries.1 This seems to have been a period in which there was both a substantial rise in pilgrimage (which has certainly been detected in Catalonia too, though there it could be just more evidence; not so in Ireland, where there is actually far less evidence than in the centuries before) and also a current of scepticism about the practice.2 This was neatly expressed in an anonymous ninth-century verse Lizzie gave us in the handout (in both Old Irish and her translation, but I shall stick to the latter because I can’t really even pronounce the Celtic languages, let alone understand them):

“Going to Rome:
great hardship, little benefit.
The King you seek here:
if you don’t take Him with you, you won’t find Him there.”

These stories are in something of the same vein. In the first, Cethrur Macclérech (‘Four Junior Clerics’), the protagonists, whom Lizzie compared to gap-year students, head for Rome and are put up by ‘a renowned man of the Franks’, who makes roughly the above point to them and persuades them to accept a living from him in exchange for their prayers. They go to Rome anyway but when they come back he throws a local hermit out, who is obviously delighted by this further adversity (apparently really),3 and they are just moving in when one of them says, “May it be lucky,” at which point the king responds: “‘Out of the country with them! they are heathens! Let them not even drink the water of the country.'” So they head off dejected, but next day while washing in a stream a box floats down to them and bounces into the arms of their leader (called a bishop, now) and he sends it back to the king. It turns out to contain six bars of silver and one of gold, all of equal weight, and the king expounds this as an allegory on the days of the week and Sunday observance, but accepts the clerics back as long as they never think of “‘luck'” as long as they live. It looks as if there were several moral points knocked into a single story here, but the point about luck being superstition is the one the scribe ran with.

Manuscript depiction of medieval Rome as widow during the period of the Avignon Papacy

This is really nothing to do with the post, but it came up as I searched for medieval images of Rome and is just too much fun not to include, Rome shown as a widow during the residence of the papacy in Avignon. Seriously: how many of the Avignon popes were good husband material, Mrs Allegorical Rome? Consider your options! “BNMsItal81Fol18RomeWidowed“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The second interested me more, since I found in it faint points of contact with other stories I know dimly, not least from Chrétien de Troyes, that feature a King of the Greeks (and there are five more of these in the manuscript, apparently).4 Here, that king is the unfortunate butt of the story, but certainly its moral champion. A bishop who has gone to Rome on pilgrimage determines to go on to Jerusalem, and meets a “wonderful king” of a land on the way who points out to him that “God is in every place” and installs him as the royal confessor, and indeed also treasurer. Because the king was frequently out, the bishop heard the queen’s confession more often than the kings and eventually wound up, er, giving her something worth confessing, an incident that quickly becomes habit-forming. The king is told and comes back and besieges his wife and the bishop in their ‘stone mansion’. She won’t open up and in the night the bishop repents, does 300 prostrations and faints, and the angels come and carry him to his church, where he wakes and gratefully starts celebrating nocturns. The king then hears and realises his suspicions are misplaced, so goes to abase himself before the bishop, who is at least conscious that he hasn’t really deserved this break (“It is not upon me alone that disgrace from the devil has been exercised”) and resumes his pilgrimage. The real winner here is the queen, to whom the king had to pay compensation for false accusation so that she would remain with him (which is Irish law, not Roman, as Lizzie noted). The point here is supposed to be that we can’t know what God will or won’t forgive, but again it seems clear that there’s a lot of other points you could make with this tale.

The early medieval Gallerus oratory in County Kerry

A stone mansion of the sort imagined by our story-teller? The early medieval Gallerus oratory in County Kerry. The linked page gives you a handy short account of the debate over the Céli De.

The points that Lizzie chose to emphasise, at least, hung around the purity of the clergy. This is a fairly obvious target of both these stories, albeit perhaps an incidental one, but there was at this time in Ireland some dispute over the peculiarly Gaelic clerical movement known as the Céli De, ‘clients of God’, who do not easily fit into our categories either of reformers or hermits, being something of both and not enough of either for the Gregorian Reform movement and those moving within it to be quite happy with them.5 They did undertake lay ministry and confession, and these were far from the only tales about how that could go wrong (a style of story I attempted to classify as “swyve or shrive?” in questions, gleefully ignoring the fact that this only works in a different dead language). Whether the clerics here are actually supposed to be Céli De is unclear, however (though the bishop of the Gaels in the second story is so called in its last line) and the manuscript context may even suggest that these were tales in which Céli De poked fun at their mainstream, travel-happy brethren. In the end what was mainly clear here is that there were some moral arguments going on that the writers and users of this manuscript and those who copied its tales were pursuing through low humour, and anything we might want to say beyond that about authorship, purpose and reception was hard to settle. But medieval use of humour is itself worth remembering, and unlike many these stories’ fun has held some of its meaning.6


1. The Book, or Lebor na Nuachongbála to its old friends, is Dublin, Trinity College MS H 2. 18, and is printed as R. I. Best et al. (edd.), The Book of Leinster, formerly Lebar na Núachingbála (Dublin 1954-1983), 6 vols, or so says Lizzie’s handout. Meanwhile, investigation by web reveals that this paper is now published as E. Boyle, “Lay Morality, Clerical Immorality, and Pilgrimage in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century Ireland: Cethrur macclerech and Epscop do Gaedelaib” in Studia Hibernica Vol. 39 (Dublin 2013), pp. 9-48, so you can follow up the references and see if the conclusions changed from what I heard if you like!

2. The locus classicus here is Kathleen Hughes, “The Changing Theory and Practice of Irish Pilgrimage” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 11 (Cambridge 1960), pp. 143-151, but I guess there must be more now, and that Lizzie will be providing yet more shortly! The Catalan side of things is covered, again classically, in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies catalanes: sèrie històrica 1 (Barcelona 1958, repr. 1980), pp. 302-313.

3. Lizzie’s translation has it as: “‘I give thanks to God’, said the hermit: ‘My earthly king ejecting me; my heavenly king coming into it.'”

4. Chrétien de Troyes, Cligés, ed. P. Kunstmann in Base de français médieval, online here, last modified 31 July 2013 as of 27 April 2014, ll. 43–58. For interpretation I’m only immediately able to proffer Barbara N. Sargent-Baur, “Alexander and the Conte du Graal” in Arthurian Literature Vol. 14 (Woodbridge 1996), pp. 1–19, but there must be something more general about the world of the Greeks in romance… Aha! Regesta Imperii proffers Rima Devereaux, Constantinople and the West in medieval French literature, Gallica 25 (Cambridge 2012), which I haven’t seen but must at least be relevant.

5. Lizzie cited the work of Westley Follett, Céli Dé in Ireland: monastic writing and identity in the early Middle Ages (Woodbridge 2006) here, but her handout also offers Aubrey Gwynn, The Irish Church in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, ed. G. O’Brien (Dublin 1992), which may be what Follett is kicking against? I dunno guv’, this is really not my field!

6. Jokes are a medium hard to interpret over a thousand years and a linguistic divide, but that doesn’t mean they should be forgotten: here Lizzie cited, as would I have, Guy Halsall, “Introduction: ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got the key'” in Halsall (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 1-21.

Link

An alternative manifesto for this blog

“If I could live in any decade, it would definitely be the 960s.”

Probably as thinking humans you all read The Onion already and saw this when it was new, or when Another Damned Medievalist also linked it (though I can’t now find where she did so), but it appeals on so many levels…

“… Everyone was in this vibrant period of transition between Byzantine autocracy and fealty to large landowners, just trying to discover themselves. For a brief moment you had this optimism that made you feel like you could just stick your thumb out, hop in a passing cart transporting waterfowl, and go. Didn’t even matter where—you’d just take it easy at the next fiefdom and figure it out. Who was going to tell you no? The king? Edgar the Peaceable was on the throne and he didn’t care. It was a simpler time…”

I mean, I’m probably more a fan of the 970s myself—so many exciting possibilities as Europe begins to have access to gold again, even if it comes with a side-order of Muslim military campaigns of terror in Spain and Southern France, Norman ones of opportunity in Southern Italy and Viking ones of conquest in England… But the arts were so much more ambitious!—but he’s totally right about the 980s. That can only seem like a good decade if you don’t remember it!

Gallery

Flat out for Sutton Hoo

This gallery contains 14 photos.

The Easter holiday was short in the UK last year, but this didn’t stop some of us making good use of it, and for me this included, somewhat to my surprise, an Anglo-Saxonist roadtrip. This excellent idea was one of … Continue reading

Trust some of the experts, some of the time

Partly because I had forgotten pretty much any of what was in it, and therefore how much use the students would find it, and partly because I owned a copy thanks to a patron’s generosity and it was annoying me that being true as well as the former, I was over the summer reading Margaret Gelling’s Signposts to the Past, an attempt to write an accessible account of what we can safely gather from English place-names and to stop people reading them wrong. This often comes close to being, and in the introduction is explicitly, an appeal to people to just take the experts’ word on trust because it’s too complicated for laymen, a stance that I never warm to, being more of the persuasion that if one can’t explain something in ten minutes in a pub one doesn’t understand it.1 However, Dr Gelling did provide one excellent type case that I thought merited recounting, its ethnic essentialism not withstanding:

The Anglo-Saxons had three words derived from the same stem as the verb ‘bury’ which they occasionally used in place-names to designate tumuli. These are byrgen, byrgels, burgæsn…. Either byrgen or burgæsn (probably the former) is found in two minor names in Oxfordshire, Berring’s Wood in Glympton and Berins Hill in Ipsden. There are early spellings for both these names, and the derivation is certain in the first instance and probable in the second. This etymology was put forward for both names in Gelling 1953, superseding a long-standing antiquarian association of Berins Hill in Ipsden with St Birinus, the apostle of the West Saxons, who was the first Bishop of Dorchester on Thames. There was an unexpected sequel to this when, by the sort of ghastly coincidence which place-name students must always look out for, an important pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery recently came to light at a spot now called Berinsfield north of Dorchester OXF. This discovery led to immediate speculation about the derivation of Berinsfield from byrgen, which would have proved continuity of tradition about the cemetery from early pagan times. The caution prompted by the failure of the name Berinsfield to appear in any of the sources consulted for the place-name survey of Oxfordshire proved justified, however, and inquiries revealed that Berinsfield had been invented by a local historian for the benefit of the airfield situated there, and that he intended it to commemorate Bishop Birinus. Although the false derivation from byrgen had a short life, it managed to appear in at least one Ph.D. thesis, and the incident makes a salutary cautionary tale…. It is worth noting the circumstances in which this name, although of quite recent invention by a very well-known local historian, took root and appeared genuine to a team of archaeologists who knew the area initimately. The sequence of events appears to have been: (1) the antiquarian association of Berins Hill near Ipsden with St Birinus of Dorchester; (2) the invention of the name Berinsfield for an airport near Dorchester, presumably on the model of Berins Hill; (3) the alternative derivation of Berins Hill from byrgen in Gelling 1953; (4) the discovery of the cemetery at Berinsfield by archaeologists who knew that Berins- could be from byrgen.2

The archæologists just knew too much! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing! and so on. I think the thing I love most about this story is the way she could describe the discovery of a major new site as ‘ghastly’, but if I’d got implicated in a foul-up like that I might also feel the sting some time afterwards. I assume Dr Gelling was also involved in examining the Ph.D., and I would hate to have been that student, though it was hardly their fault either. But what’s the moral from the point of view of the local historian, whoever they were, that’s what I can’t figure…


1. M. Gelling, Signposts to the Past. Place-names and the history of England (London 1978, repr. 1979), e. g. p. 13: “Because place-name etymology abounds with snares of this kind, it is not possible to invite general participation in the process of suggesting etymologies. The rules have been objectively established: they are not arbitrary, but they are intricate, and few non-specialists master them well enough to be on safe ground in this branch of the study…. It is therefore important at the outset to ask people who have no special competence in the history of the English language to accept specialist guidance about the meaning of place-names…. Etymologies should be accepted from the philologists, or only revised with philological consent.” There’s probably a form you have to fill out.

2. Ibid., pp. 140-141, citing M. Gelling, The Place-Names of Oxfordshire vol. I, English Place-Name Survey XXIII (London 1953).

In which Chris Lewis tells it better

A lightweight one, to get the wheels back on the road! I’d like to dedicate this post to Ted Buttrey, who knows what I mean when I say this: there’s a particular form of academic achievement that is not often recognised as highly as it should be, which is the joke in the footnote. This is a special achievement, not just because one is always up against a word-count and it has to survive, fitter than some other reference you might have put, but also because it then has to satisfy the referees and editors that it’s worth leaving even though academia r srs bizniz and so on. If it does, though, it’s one of the few things where endnotes rather than footnotes are preferable, because it adds distance between feedline and pay-off. For example, when I was putting this virtual exhibition together, I was reading quite a lot because as you can see it’s not about something I really know much on myself, and when I found in Dick Doty’s history of the Soho mint a sentence saying that a whole history could be written from what Matthew Boulton’s correspondence revealed about the world of eighteenth-century art production, with a reference, the faff of having to find my way to the right place two hundred pages further on actually made it funnier when I found that the reference was merely, “But not by me.”1 And on the morning of the day when I first drafted this post I had just found Chris Lewis doing similar, and the passage in question is Quite Interesting so I thought I’d just quote it all.2 You don’t mind, right? The pay-off is in the second footnote, so you have to read to the end.

The origin of the name Englefield… has to be sought… in an English adaptation of the territory’s Welsh name, Tegeingl…. The processes by which ‘Tegeingl’ was Anglicized as ‘Englefield’ are perhaps illuminated by Gerald of Wales in the course of recounting a laboured joke which he alleged illustrated the witticisms of the Welsh. The joke hinged on the coincidence that Tegeingl was also the name of a woman who had slept with each of the two princes, Dafydd ab Owain Gwynedd and his brother, who ruled the territory of Tegeingl in turn. Its punchline was a supposed saying from that time that Dafydd succeeded his brother as prince: ‘I don’t think Dafydd should have Tegeingl. His brother’s had her already.28 At first sight Gerald’s shaping of the story seems to be directed against the Welsh (dirty-minded, not funny), but it also acts in a more sophisticated way to score points off the English too. Teg was the Welsh for ‘beautiful’, and Teg-engl might be (deliberately) mistaken by a quick-witted Anglo-Welsh bilingual, such as Gerald, as meaning ‘the beautiful English(woman)’. Read like that, Gerald’s unfunny joke may have concealed a clever dig at the English: by ruling successively over the province of Tegeingl the two princely brothers had taken turns with a beautiful Englishwoman.29 When English speakers first reached north-east Wales, they may well have heard the Welsh name of of the territory as Gerald later would, as teg eingl, and understood its proper name to be Eingl, particularly appropriate (if misunderstood as a homophone) when they settled in part of it.

28  Gerald of Wales, Descriptio Kambriae in Works, ed. J. S. Brewer, James F. Dimock and George F. Warner, 8 vols, RS 21 (1861-91) VI, 153-227, at pp. 190-1.

29  Walter Map would have told the same joke better.

How true those words are, even today. More serious content shortly I hope!


1. Richard Doty, The Soho Mint and the Industrialization of Money (London 1998).

2. C. P. Lewis, “Welsh Territories and Welsh Identities in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 130-143 at p. 138.

Gold and fool’s gold strained from the web

Ordinarily I do links-posts when I have little other content to post, and I save up links against that day so that I’m sure I shall have something interesting to show you all. The way this goes wrong, of course, is the current situation where I have forty-odd posts that I hope will be interesting existing in some state, and also a whole bunch of saved-up links getting increasingly out of date. So, let me clear some decks with some commented things for you to look at and then resume more autocthonous programming.

Digital Treasure

  • Page 185 of the Cartulaire Générale de CíteauxFirst and foremost in this, periodically an update arrives in my INBOX from the Chartae Burgundiae Medii Ævi project of which I’ve made mention here before, the guys who finally indexed the Cluny charters for the greater good of the world. Though they have fewer big goals now their progress is still considerable and ongoing, and more and more stuff is coming online. For me the most exciting thing in the recent batches is the cartularies of Dijon and Pérrecy, now online as facsimiles both of the manuscripts and of the edition, but for many others, I’m guessing that the star attraction will be the General Cartulary of Cîteaux, and indeed its other cartularies too. All of this, as far as I can see, is also included in the searchable database that was the starting point of the whole project. Really, one just wishes Burgundy had been bigger (though of course `one’ is not the first to do that…)
  • Newly-cleaned sword pommel from the Staffordshire HoardMore locally, although it’s almost old news now, conservation efforts on the Staffordshire Hoard are still continuing and new information about it keeps becoming available. One of the good things about that project is how keen they have been to keep the non-academic population in on the loop, and in this day and age of course that involves social media. An example of this, featuring some pictures that were new when I stored the link, and are still shiny, can be found here along with the input of one of this blog’s more important supporting characters, on whose work more soon.

Physical treasure: notable finds

  • Saxon woman cow buried at Anglo-Saxon Oakington cemeteryObviously we can’t have a Staffordshire hoard every year, it’s not like we’re in Gotland or something, but this was pretty good anyway, a burial from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Oakington in which the remains found were an apparently-wealthy woman and a cow, a weird anti-pairing to the warrior-and-horse combo with which we’re more familiar from Sutton Hoo and Lakenheath. Worth a look even if bodies aren’t your thing; as for me, I have to build this lady into a lecture now…
  • Monastery of BenedkitbeuernThen, across the Channel, and in fact really quite a lot further, about as far as possible really. But we start across the Channel, at the monastery of Benediktbeuern, where in the fifteenth century a rather fancy Bible was made, in four volumes. This we know because it is now in Auckland, New Zealand, where recently investigations have revealed at least eight strips from a much older Bible, from the time of Charlemagne (whom the story calls “the French and German emperor” – better than choosing just one I suppose?), that were reused as binding material. The survival of ancient manuscript material as linings and joints for newer ones is not unusual, but the distance of travel involved here rather is; as the Waikato University researcher who found them is quoted as saying, “these little pieces of manuscript have travelled further than any other piece of Carolingian manuscript as far as we know”. Slightly amazing!
  • Portrait denarius of Charlemagne as Emperor (812x814)Nonetheless, in some ways more amazing is another find from the era of Charlemagne, although this, a portrait denarius of Charlemagne from an unidentified mint and dating from the short space of his reign in which he was acknowledged as Emperor by his counterpart in Constantinople (812-814), is a find made a long time ago; it’s amazing because in March it sold for 160,000 euros, making it one of the highest-price medieval coins ever sold.1 (The estimate had been a mere 30,000…) We all know, of course, that very little if anything is worth more than Charlemagne but evidence of this is usually harder to quantify!
  • I got the first of these from Antiquarian’s Attic and the latter two from News for Medievalists, so hats duly tipped to them.

Finds more controversial

Site of the prehistoric temple at Ranheim, NorwayThere were two stories I wanted to comment on in this kind of category, but I don’t think I’m quite up to doing more with this one, which isn’t medieval in the slightest, than to say, can you imagine how this knowledge would have been used 150 years ago? We have, after all, seen on this blog the kinds of fight that can break out over who was where first… So, more interesting and relevant perhaps is news of the discovery of a pagan temple site at Ranheim in Norway, with a sequence of dates running from a fire pit in the lowest layer whose charcoal radio-carbonned to the fourth or fifth centuries BCE and a last-used date of 895×990 AD, after which the building was apparently carefully dismantled, pulled down and levelled, thus explaining the remarkable preservation. Now, this is an amazing site if that’s all correct, but the story has been presented in a very odd way. Admittedly, I have sourced this information from a site called Free Thought Nation (by way of Archaeology in Europe), so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it is down on Christianity, but it’s the way it’s down, which it supports with alleged quotes from the excavator, that surprises me: they read the site as having been dismantled and levelled to hide it from the forces of Christianization at loose in Norway at the time, probably prior to the faithful emigrating to more tolerant pastures like Iceland. Why, though, should we not suppose that the temple was taken down as part of Christianization? Because it’s not violent enough, or something? More probably, I suppose, because it was not subsequently re-used for a Christian site of worship, implying that no population needing one remained, but it’s still a bit odd, as is the effort the article goes into to establish that this religion, whatever it was, predated Christianity, but does not demonstrate any settlement nearby. So okay, pre-Christian religion, yes! How does that help? and whom?

Links involving me

More humbly and mundanely, there are two things I could point you at that reflect on my various endeavours, though only one of these involves Vikings I’m afraid.

  • The one that doesn’t is that I lately updated my personal academic webpages, so if you want to be up-to-date with my publications list (on which more here too before long), to see which of my various projects I’m admitting to working on currently or simply to get the latest on my hair, they’re here. Now I just have to get all my institutional ones similar…
  • Dunnyneil Island, Strangford Lough, Ireland, from the airAnd secondly, and more excitingly, back in May I got an e-mail from someone at BBC Ireland asking for comment on the excavations at Dunnyneil Island in Strangford Lough. This is only the second time I’ve been asked to be a media mouth, and the first time I didn’t realise how tight the timescale was and so missed out; this time I answered mail with unparalleled alacrity and as much help as I could be. I was, however, fully expecting this to be cut about, abbreviated and misused and I was completely wrong: quite a lot of what I wrote is now part of this story by Laura Burns, and all the quotes from me, modulo typos, are actually what I sent her. I’m rather pleased with it, and I wish all medievalist journalism was as good. You may like to have a look.

And finally…

Also, for those with problems with Oxford (including simply not being here), there’s this, which the Naked Philologist sent me and which I offer without comment…


1. In this dating I follow the view of Simon Coupland, and before him Philip Grierson, that Charlemagne only began to issue these coins once recognised as emperor by the eastern one (see S. Coupland, “Charlemagne’s Coinage: ideology and economy” in Joanna Story (ed.), Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester 2005), pp. 211-229, repr. in Coupland, Carolingian Coinage and the Vikings: studies on power and trade in the 9th century, Variorum Collected Studies 847 (Aldershot 2006), I, but the auction house in question, Künker’s, have used a more cautious/less precise date.

On being one of the barbarians

I had high intentions for this post when I made a stub of it many moons ago. I wanted, having read some thought-provoking scholarship and some argument-provoking blog comments, to write something trenchant about how what the people who seek to identify themselves with the migrating peoples of the early Middle Ages are looking for is not always biological race, which is inherently ridiculous to hang on to given the number of intervening generations diluting its supposed ancient purity (itself equally diluted from something else, of course), but a kind of either locational or cultural continuity, or both. And I wanted to contrast that to how fascinated people now get with tracing DNA mutations back, not to a modern or even ancient people of some kind, but beyond it to an origin group that doesn’t relate in any obvious way to where they are now or how they identify. There’s a number of arguments that could spin off this, one for example about how difficult it seems to be getting to confine the status of ‘human’ to homo sapiens as it turns out to share DNA with ever more other hominids, one about how the link between those two fascinations may most obviously be in the way that time renders their visible or functional effects irrelevantly tiny, or even the one about whether migration makes any long-term genetic difference that isn’t just as explicable by distance, but I can’t tell from my stub which of these, if any, I’d intended, so I’ve decided instead to just make a couple of glib observations about supposed barbarian identity and the modern day, one which I owe to teaching and the other of which came to me in a flash of hilarity during the summer.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and cabinet attired as Romans for a White House party in 1934

Roma nova, Roma felix

The first of these was started off by a sharp set of observations in something I was reading about how rather too much scholarship for analytical neutrality has been founded in the idea that we, the scholars, represent civilisations in some way continuing the identity of either Romans or barbarians.1 Again, one could get serious about that, but I found it more fun in teaching to question our ability to call ourselves civilised. Witness this well-known piece of Roman writing by Sidonius Apollinaris,2 in a letter to his friend Catullinus:

Why — even supposing I had the skill — do you bid
me compose a song dedicated to Venus the lover of
Fescennine mirth, placed as I am among long-haired
hordes, having to endure German speech, praising
oft with wry face the song of the gluttonous Bur-
gundian who spreads rancid butter on his hair?
Do you want me to tell you what wrecks all poetry?
Driven away by barbarian thrumming the Muse has
spurned the six-footed exercise ever since she beheld
these patrons seven feet high. I am fain to call
your eyes and ears happy, happy too your nose, for
you don’t have a reek of garlic and foul onions dis-
charged upon you at early morn from ten break-
fasts, and you are not invaded even before dawn,
like an old grandfather or a foster-father, by a crowd
of giants so many and so big that not even the kitchen
of Alcinous could support them.

Now obviously this deserves the big flashing-green SATIRE warning once deployed by Monty Python, though despite that it’s been made to bear rather a lot of weight about the accommodation of barbarian warriors by Roman aristocrats.3 Taking it briefly at its face value, however, what would Sidonius think of us? The barbarians have won! We may not put butter on our hair (except maybe cocoa butter) but some of us do wear our hair long and, damn, do we cook with onions. In fact some of us even care where the onions come from: Spanish, French, English, all different… Again, not at breakfast maybe (though: hash browns? omelettes? don’t tell me you think an omelette is better without finely-chopped red onion in it) but pretty thoroughly otherwise. And as for garlic, there might have been a hold-out in England at least until the eighties but I’m not sure how many people you could still find considering it typically French now. I mean, there is (or was; its website domain has gone…) a restaurant in London dedicated to the noble alium, which horrifies as many people as it delights but which I’m pretty sure would have about killed Sidonius. Meanwhile, if you look around for the kind of things that Sidonius might have considered haute cuisine, it’s not the Romans who won, really, is it? The barbarians are us! What he would have made of Burger King can only be imagined, except to say that he would probably find a tiny relief that it was only a king…

Anyway. I’ve had fun with that as a teaching point, especially since it then leads into the whole question about how seriously it’s meant to be taken given the set-up, but more difficult, sometimes, is trying to find an analogy for barbarian identity if you want to push people away from an idea of tribalism based on genealogical descent. This is of course tricky given how much weight the barbarians themselves, or at least their leaders, could place on biological descent, even if it was often plainly fictive.4 The common analogy with football teams and their supporters doesn’t quite get you over this hump. But on the other hand, where in this day and age are you going to find a group of people with a distinctive and almost uniform appearance in terms of hair and costume, a quasi-militaristic presentation with elements of existing political iconography in it, and even aims of world conquest, who also claim to be kin to each other even though everyone knows it’s not true?

Logo of the band the Ramones, based on the United States Great Seal

(Wikipedia, whence I got this, has an extensive free-use justification for borrowing it that I think can be justified here also, but the Wikipedia article as it now stands, linked through, is also good on the iconography here and its source.)

SPOILER: Jonny, Joey, Tommy and Dee Dee were not actually related

Cover of Ramones' album Rocket to Russia

Cover of Ramones’ album Rocket to Russia, used on Wikipedia with a similar fair use justification, linked through. Here I’m after the militarism and what I think of as the ‘standard’ uniform.

OH YEAH. Though, of course, you’d then need the distinctive material culture to be adopted by people who weren’t, and couldn’t even have been, part of the original movement…

Child named Daisy wearing Ramones t-shirt

You’ve seen this. Not this particular child, probably, but you’ve seen it, and on people who get to choose their own clothes too.

Brilliant. Now, how do we incorporate this into a pedagogical context?

… I think we’re done here.5 I’d like to dedicate this post to the senior academic who told me off for requesting the Ramones at the Leeds dance and to all the people who danced anyway…


1. The scholarly writings that set this partly off were Catherine Hills, “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” and Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon Archaeology”, both in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 16-26 and 27-41 respectively and previously Hills, Origins of the English, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology (London 2003).

2. Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmen 12, ed. and transl. W. B. Anderson in Sidonius, Poems and Letters, ed. and transl. Anderson, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge MA 1936), 2 vols, I, pp. 212-213; a newer text of the Latin online here.

3. Compare Walter Goffart, Barbarians and Romans, A. D. 418-584: the techniques of accommodation (Princeton 1980), and specifically the pp. 3-39 repr. as “The Barbarians in Late Antiquity and how they were Accommodated in the West” in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 25-44, with Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: a new history (London 2005), esp. pp. 192-202 where the same Sidonius poem comes out, taken more or less straight, and Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), esp. 417-454, using Sidonius p. 434. It will not be news to anyone who reads this regularly that I find Guy’s use of this and other evidence on this question most persuasive; he also has a more sustained and nuanced reading of the poem in his “Funny Foreigners: laughing with the barbarians in late antiquity” in idem (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 89-113 at pp. 93-96, which I very much recommend. I owe my copy of that book to the kindness of Professor Matthew Innes.

4. Venerable but classic treatments of this theme are Ian N. Wood, “Kings, Kingdoms and Consent” and David N. Dumville, “Kingship, genealogies and regnal lists” in Peter Sawyer and Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 6-29 & 72-104 respectively, the latter reprinted in Dumville, Histories and Pseudo-Histories of the Insular Middle Ages, Variorum Collected Studies 316 (Aldershot 1990), IV.

5. Though if the fact that Joey professed here not to care about history bothers you, you might like to be reminded that one of his biggest fans sees the point