Bringing Scotland to Oxford: the O’Donnell Lectures for 2013

The medieval history of Britain outwith England is not terribly well covered at Oxford. I got into the habit of saying that by virtue of my appointment there I was now England’s only professional historian of the Picts even though I haven’t worked on them since last century: this was to stupidly forget Dr Meggen Gondek, but it was still far truer than it ought to have been, especially in the largest history department in the world outside Moscow.1 And this is all very mystifying, because every year in Oxford there is a lecture series on just such matters, the O’Donnell Lectures, in 2013 they were on the theme of Early Medieval Scotland, and they were absolutely packed with interested Oxonians, including of course me. This was a half-day event, organised by Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards, and the running order was as follows:

Alex kicked off with a typically controversial paper that opened with a typically controversial statement, which was that the term Celtic Scotland was rubbish: when it was Celtic it wasn’t Scotland and Scots is a dialect of English anyway. He went on from there to argue that in fact the whole concept of national languages is anachronistic for this period and area: while everyone would agree that there must have been many dialects across the area we now call Scotland, what was missing was any acrolect, the ‘official’ or master language of which they formed versions. If there was one of those, after Christianization it would have been Latin, effectively disconnecting the vernaculars from each other. Alex argued for Pictish as essentially being several dialects in a P-Celtic continuum of various sorts of Brittonic that had nothing to bind them together, yet still shared changes due to pressures from Old Irish or Old English that didn’t come from any controlling centre. Some kind of British acrolect seems to be evident by the seventh century that may have been centered on the Severn basin in the fifth, when that was the richest and least affected part of the old Roman province and apparently also generating pennanular brooches, but even that had lost its centre to the Anglo-Saxon culture by the time we can see it in names and texts. There was lots to think about here, and many parallels from elsewhere, but the lack of simple categories is not going to make it easy to work with however accurate it may in fact be.

A Romano-British pennanular brooch now belonging to the Shrewsbury Museums Service

Badge of an acrolect? A Romano-British pennanular brooch now belonging to the Shrewsbury Museums Service

Professor Broun, whom I’d not met before, followed in the noble tradition of G. W. S. Barrow (who I now discover sadly died a few months later, unconnectedly) by looking at the high medieval Scottish kingdom’s structures and wondering how old some of them might be.2 He focused particularly on the officer known as a mormaer, who from a Carolingian perspective looks a lot like a count: he seems to have held a court with a bishop, collected fines, coordinated military service, or at least he seems in the twelfth century to have done such things. This was not part of their family status but it was that status that made them appointable to the rôle, and they could be quite hard to manage without. On the other hand, the kingship provided a centralised aspect to this system that nothing else did, which meant that the king was important to these people as a link to any wider importance. Again, this all looks pretty much like a thinly-resourced Carolingian system and as tenth-century as it is twelfth when you look from across the Channel, but how tenth-, or even eighth- or ninth-century, might it have been here? Well, we have basically no evidence, but we can see firstly that Pictish kings could raise large armies, and secondly that mormaers had rights and lands that were not associated with kindred in an age when almost everything else was, suggesting that these were relics of some older system into which new leading (and presumably Gaelic-speaking) kindreds had moved.

If that was true, then (argued Professor Broun) Pictland would arguably have been more of a state than Scotland for a good while!3 And that is so, I guess, but it means we have a picture of a system running on ‘public’ obligation to rulers who had nothing to offer to their distant subordinates except not drowning them, which shouldn’t be a sustainable model without some kind of pull factor too (which is probably what is marked by the symbol stones, as Professor Broun and I seem to agree,4 but what significance travelled with their masons dammit?) Here, questions mainly raised the possibility that in the phases of either Pictish or, let’s call it Alban kingship that were less successfully centralised mormaers would probably have been able to be kings or at least reguli of their regions, especially (said Alex with good reason5) if that region was Moray, whose ruling line eventually became kings of the whole kit and caboodle. But I still feel as if we are missing a mechanism that attached those regions to the centralising operation: I think that mechanism is the development of what we classify as Pictishness, and I don’t understand how it worked. At least by the end of the day I could be sure that Professor Broun shared this frustration…

The Pictish stones of Inveravon, Speyside

Monuments of membership? The Pictish stones of Inveravon, Speyside (Moray)

Then there was Thomas’s paper, ably if sometimes sceptically read by Richard Sharpe. This was much more agonised about our state of knowledge than the other two. Basically, it argued for a plurality of competing churches in what is now Scotland in the seventh and eighth centuries, Irish, Northumbrian and Pictish, although the sources that tell us this are arguing about things we just can’t see and are overweeningly concerned with purely local matters when they talk about Scotland, all of which sounded very reasonable to me of course, but that then between 800 and 1100 we just know nothing. Even the very few hints of structure or change we have in the exiguous sources are more confusing than helpful: royal involvement in the tenth-century Church is later claimed by Dunkeld and Abernethy among others, but is there anything in this or were they just then competing for the earlier origin myth? By the time our sources speak again, the Celi Dé, an ascetic monastic order who nonetheless tended to run in families, are obviously very important, and the reform movement is busy trying either to stamp them out or co-opt them, but when did they start to become influential, or even start at all? When we see bishops turning up in this area in records of the tenth century, what or whom are they bishops of? We just don’t know. About as far as we can safely get is that the kings of the tenth century back some Church foundations and that the Celi Dé may be part of this.

There is some hope for a better texturing of the local church, too, by better, finer-grained work on place-names, especially hagiotoponyms, place-names based on the names of saints, and names in Kil- and Eccles-, both of which seem to be specific to areas where Old Norse and Old English influence was felt, respectively. But even then it’s not simple, because of how late they are recorded and what their other components are: we wind up with Old English names Gaelicised under Old Norse influence, which is hard to think about. It all suggests that the system was still varied in the ninth and tenth centuries, and that any royal system of big houses (dare we say minsters? the paper did) is bigger dots in a landscape full of other dots of older or newer and different colours. Alas, even after so long working on this stuff, Thomas felt he had much more still to do.

The nineteenth-century church building of Logierait

The nineteenth-century church building of Logierait, probably on top of the medieval church of Laggan Mochaid, attested in 1214 but probably older since two Pictish stones have come up here…

As you can probably even tell, part of the problem we seem to be facing here is that of Scotland as an early medieval entity. The current national division encompasses rather a lot of cultural zones and the divisions between dominant cultures, languages, Church organisation and whatever else were not just shifting throughout the early Middle Ages but did not match up at all. Indeed with the Church structures a distribution map might be the only way to catch it, not anything zonal. When we know that there were, nonetheless, kings of Scots and of Picts who apparently ruled these areas, one is forced to ask how such a disjointed uncharacterised polity could be ruled at all and what stuck it together, and at that point one either does as Professor Broun did and argue for a very very light-weight definition of ‘polity’, or remember that there were also subordinate rulers we hardly see and worry that the whole thing is probably a tombola of variegated and mingling relationships between the powerful that didn’t stay put for two minutes together. Both are in fact possible! But one of the nice things about studying early medieval Scotland right now, as Professor Charles-Edwards pointed out in his introduction, is that the field has advanced as far as it has in the last decade or so—even if what that means is that our ignorance is so much better constructed now—largely because it’s being led by these three people and a few others all of whom talk to each other a lot and get on, without which we wouldn’t have even this much of a coherent picture. There’s a lesson here for the Academy at large, but there were also lots of new things to think about early medieval Scotland! Just, a strange place to be hearing them…

1. Such, at least, had been the claim of Chris Wickham at my induction. But seriously, folks, the Picts and Catalonia before the year 1000! How did I manage to wind up with two specialisms about which no institution in England gives a stuff?

2. Referring mainly to G. W. S. Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots: Government, Church and Society from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth Century (Edinburgh 1973, 2nd edn. 2003).

3. Cf. Wendy Davies, “States and Non-States in the Celtic World” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 155-170.

4. Largely, it seems, on the basis of Isabel Henderson, The Picts (Edinburgh 1967) and “Primus inter pares: the St Andrews Sarcophagus and Pictish sculpture” in Sally Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 97-167.

5. See Alex Woolf, “The ‘Moray Question’ and the Kingship of Alba in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 79 (Edinburgh 2000), pp. 145-164, DOI: 10.3366/shr.2000.79.2.145.

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