Let no-one say I can’t take criticism as well as I give it

A so-called `Pictish Beast’ as seen on the Pictish symbol stones of Scotland

By means I won’t go into, I have recently got hold of the newly-published Vol. 17 of the Pictish Arts Society Journal, and I discover therein a rather worrying paper by one Jonathan Jarret [sic], entitled “The Political Range of Áedán mac Gabrán, King of Dál Riata” (pp. 3-24). Quite why a paper on a Gaelic ruler most famous for his defeats of the Picts is doing taking up most of a journal (there are only 40 pages, and 4 other papers occupy the remainder) on the Picts and their culture is hard to immediately determine, but the answer may come in an apologetic foreword from the editor, who explains that due to a “longer than acceptable” delay and lost graphics many contributors withdrew their papers. Jarret’s offering is therefore one of the few stalwarts, but a cruel reviewer might hazard that the author (who appears, from his easily-Googlable web-pages, to work not on Scotland at all but Catalonia a good three centuries later) was hard-put to find an alternative. His lack of awareness of the latest scholarship is surprising; the latest reference given in the strangely-formulated bibliography is from 2000,1 and he thus misses such important work as Alex Woolf‘s papers in the 2006 Scottish Historical Review arguing for a relocation of the Pictish kingdom of Fortriu to some distance north of where it is conventionally supposed to have been. The fact that Jarret is pouring forth opinions about a period before the term ‘Fortriu’ is used (as he acknowledges) might excuse him for continuing despite this, as he seeks only to designate an area by the name, rather than ascribing an organised structure to it; but all the same, can he really be unaware of articles in the foremost journal of the field on his immediate subject? If so, should he really have been published, even in a minor one?

With such provisos made, the paper is not without its interest, but much hampered by its author’s rather young style. Jarret lowers hopes at the start by simultaneously apologising for and trying to defend the practice of hypothesizing where evidence lacks. He then leaps into the source material, but he is only at p. 5 before he is using sources which he has not explained, and does not until several pages later when he needs a deus ex machina source to extract himself from an irredeemable tangle over the fates of Áedán’s grandsons. It may be that he intended to mention the sources in proper order but was carried away by a lengthy and perhaps unnecessary, however correct, passage arguing with Benjamin Hudson’s theories on the Prophecy of Berchán; Jarret’s theory about it is hardly better-supported, though, and he or his editor (again, if there was one) would have done better to stick to whatever structure he had originally envisaged. Jarret at least shows a reasonable awareness of the difficulties of the material (although little enough care is taken about this when the author has a pet theory which it can be twisted to support), but the structure is an unhappy compromise between geographical and chronological. Again, editing could have made this clearer (and the paper shorter!)

The core of the paper is a suggestion that some of the successions recorded in the Pictish king-list could be best explained if, firstly, it be accepted that Pictish king-ship regularly proceeded down the female line, which is at variance with Bede’s testimony on the issue—the author’s rather outdated anthropological references do little to increase his pretence to authority here—and then, secondly, that a number of Áedán’s sons were found political marriages which allowed them so to succeed in those kingdoms. He is not of course the first to suggest such explanations for the king-list’s oddly familiar names, but he draws a far greater significance from the marriages suggested than, for example, Marjorie Anderson ever would have. The complexity involved in his suggestions would in fact have been much clarified with a family tree; one might generously and regretfully suppose that this was one of the ‘lost graphics’.

Most interestingly perhaps, Jarret envisages many kingdoms under the Pictish political umbrella, and this idea would make Pictland, with its various material cultures and obscure royal lineages, much more like other medieval states and thus more comprehensible if more fully developed. On the other hand, the idea of Bruide map Maelchon as a kind of high king agreeing these marriages with the briefly-mighty Áedán goes far beyond the evidence of that ruler’s control over the area’s supposedly-lesser entities, unless the evidence be the Vita Columbae‘s natural concentration on the one, distant, Pictish ruler its subject managed materially to affect. Jarret therefore follows his sources’ bias here rather than countering them. As a result his picture of a partly Gaelic-ruled Pictland is terribly Ionan, and will have to remain the hypothesis of which he warns the reader at the outset.

In the grand scheme of things far more sketchy and less well-researched things have been published on the Picts, frequently indeed in this same journal although it also once deservedly had a good name for scholarship, and while one hopes that Jarret’s new work on Catalonia is better-founded (as, with the vastly superior levels of evidence from that area, it obviously could be), he would not have needed to be ashamed of this paper in 2000, when it seems to have in fact been drafted. Unless however he was in fact unable to prevent the journal’s editors (the journal, worryingly, is ceasing publication with this final issue) from using a text, apparently unreviewed and unedited, dating from then rather than its much-subsequent publication date, it will be something of an albatross on his CV should anyone be able to find a copy to read. Even if the fault lay entirely with the editors, hopefully unlikely, Jarret will find it hard to convince outsiders of his blamelessness. His comfort may lie in the fact that those who will read it and be qualified to comment were probably already aware of his work in 2000, when he seems first to have been presenting this paper. This reviewer can only wish Dr Jarret better luck with his new work!

1. For example, all authors are credited as authors, none as editors, even where it is well-known that the texts are ancient—the author appears well aware of this but this seems an inexplicable alteration for an editor to make. Likewise, all primary sources are identified by sigla but there is no note explaining the sigla used—indeed there are no footnotes or endnotes at all!

Or, to put it another and less contrived way: before I got mail from them two weeks ago saying it was in print, I hadn’t heard from these people since 2001. They’ve lost the family tree, though admittedly even I can’t open that file in anything any more—but I could have redrawn it much better in Flash if they’d only asked, as well as fixing the other flaws that seven years’ detachment lets me now detect. They have deleted all the endnotes, which made quite a lot of difference. They’ve not done any corrections except mangling the bibliography; I certainly didn’t get to see any proofs; and a previous editor told me it would never come out and that I should submit it elsewhere, as a result of which a couple of people reading this who’d expressed an interest are now owed my sincerest apologies. If I’d ever thought they’d do this I would not have offered you the paper, I’m sorry. I suppose I’m glad it’s out at last, but really, when speaking before of the particular fringe of fundamentalist ethnists that inhabit amateur Pictish studies, I have before now, I admit, childishly hyperlinked the phrase “blue-rinse loonies” to the Pictish Arts Society’s pages. And now that they can hardly bother me more, I have to say: well, this is why…

On the other hand, as they have also not done anything as serious as making me sign over copyright, I can also say, if you can’t get hold of this but would like to, and are willing to take into account the modifications I would have made, the paper (still as of 2000 but this time with endnotes intact!) is up for download on my web-pages and I’d much prefer that version to be cited, however amateur it looks. (Bibliography here.)

15 responses to “Let no-one say I can’t take criticism as well as I give it

  1. Yikes! Journals are fun things, aren’t they?

  2. Some more than others… :-)

  3. Before I say much else, who is this editor and where does his quote begin and end?

  4. Hmmm, makes my current troubles with a journal I won’t mention, but work for, look comparatively minor. Deleting the endnotes though, ouch!

  5. Michelle, all words are my own. I was originally just going to post a rant, and then one of my housemates suggested that at least the situation meant that now I could publish a refutation of myself, and that sounded like more fun.

  6. Oh, and Gesta, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds; there are lots of references inline with the text (Jarrett 2008, pp. etc.) style. So it’s only the detailed stuff that’s been lost, which may even lighten the paper a bit. All the same: grr!

  7. That’s the third blog on my sidebar that has an article about Picts this week. :)

  8. They misspelled your last name?

  9. Professor Muhlberger, yes, they did. So at least it won’t show up in searches for my actual name.

    Gabriele, I saw Carla’s post; where were the others?

  10. Kirsten Campbell who alos commented on Carla’s post, wrote about a Pictish stone.

    Now I feel like digging out that old essay about the King Lists, but it would need a lot of reworking.

  11. Pingback: The perils of publishing: another of Gesta’s rants. « On boundaries

  12. Pingback: Yet to be wrong about Pictland « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  13. Pingback: Picts in many places, if ‘Picts’ is the word « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  14. Pingback: Getting to grips with James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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