Seminary VII (digging in a church with a Pict)

On Wednesday 17th October, the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar was given by Thomas Owen Clancy, who was asking, “The churches of the Picts: when, where and what were they for?” Which is fair enough really. As he said, the simple answer was, ‘during the Pictish period’, ‘in Pictland’, and, ‘for the Picts to worship in’ but actually pinning it down beyond that was tricky. Thomas is very cautious, as anyone in that field has to be to avoid getting stuck into heavy politics and stupid anthropology comparisons, or just being mistaken for a blue-rinse loony. He did however have some new input on the place-names that filled out the picture of the early Scottish Church a bit, which otherwise looks terribly western-focussed and therefore Gaelic. He found good evidence to suppose that a widespread pastoral network existed in genuinely Pictish territory (where we agreed to define Pictish as ‘not Gaelic’, except maybe in Atholl but that’s my own personal bee in the bonnet) before the Gaelic takeover of the ninth century, although some at least of that probably had to be blamed on the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century. As a counter to that, however, he also opened up the suggestion that Gaelic was always a privileged language for those in charge of the cult, because writing and Christianity both seem to have been imported in it (except where a rival Anglian import was preferred) and that the Pictish Church may therefore have had little use for Pictish.

By and large, it was a paper full of interesting ideas not pushed too far, and though no-one was very much the wiser at the end in some ways, Thomas is very good at leaving us feeling better about how little we know in this area, because he always has some hopes that we might some day work it out and ideas to follow up.

Happy to answer further questions about this should anyone be interested, but for now that’s as good as you get because I had to move house and prepare a lecture the week I drafted this and my brain is mostly elsewhere…

7 responses to “Seminary VII (digging in a church with a Pict)

  1. Interesting looking paper on Aedan mac Gabran. I’ll have to add it to the pile of things to read. So was this a conference paper or ?

    I’ve always thought that Aedan would be a good topic for one of those ‘history and legends’ books. I don’t know why Scottish historians don’t work on him more. Not one biography-type book on him that I know of. It seems to me that there is enough material.

  2. The Áedán paper was the first conference paper I ever gave, and it came out of a Master’s thesis of which the best that one could say was that, like the proverbial curate’s egg, it was excellent in parts. I guess, having recently re-read it, that I would still try to save two-thirds of the Áedán material as historically viable, but I might junk a lot of the rest. I’m probably going to go back and revise this next year once I’ve found time to soak up all the terrible things Alex Woolf has been doing to Pictish scholars. No-one seems to have quite suggested what I think the evidence best fits with, but I’m long out of touch and efforts to get real academics to look it over have resulted in what I can only assume are tactful silences. I don’t think there is enough material on Áedán for a book, although someone has contacted me about the paper who was aiming to write one, but certainly more could be gathered together than has been. In the eventual decent narrative history of early medieval Scotland that someone some day surely must write, he ought to get a decently thick section.

    Gawd, just Googling for Alex throws this up, which I didn’t even know about; that will be why the rest of that thesis would never stand up :-)

  3. Oh yes, Mr Woolf has been very busy. His book is about much later than Aedan though. I haven’t seen it yet. I think a history and legend book could be done. Aedan is mentioned in poetry and used for later propaganda. Besides, some books are quite small. :-)

    Have you read his paper on Cadwallon?

  4. Not yet: the shift of field to Catalonia basically left me not staying up to date with anything Alex and his fellows have been doing unless, as with this post, someone presenting somewhere gave me cause to find out about it. Come the New Year, though, as I say, once three other things are done…

  5. Steven Banks

    Greetings Mr. Jarrett,

    I was looking forward to reading your paper on Aedan mac Gabran, but the link is broken. Can this be rectified, or is there some other way to obtain your paper?

    Steve Banks

  6. Mr Banks, the links work for me, but you should probably see this post before following it anyway…

  7. Pingback: Seminar CXXXVII: reassessing the Pictish Church | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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