Tag Archives: Æthelstan

Leeds 2010 report I

Since I’ve already been to one other conference that I’m already opining about on other people’s blogs, and since I there plugged all heck out of this blog (not that this seems to have brought any great slough of visitors) it’s probably time I wrote something about Leeds. This year’s was a good Leeds despite the weather; I’ve said before now that bad weather can ruin Leeds because everyone is crammed inside small overheated rooms and can’t find each other, but although it bucketed down for much of the conference I didn’t find that to be the case this year. I had the impression that there were fewer people there than usual, in fact, although there were as many sessions as far as I can tell so I guess it was non-presenters who decided they couldn’t spare the money this year. Fair enough I suppose, but those who were there had a good time I think.

1. Keynote Lectures 2010

Gerald of Wales's Map of the Atlantic Sea

Gerald of Wales's Map of the Atlantic Sea, c. 1200

The theme of this year’s Leeds was travel and exploration, and I did as usual and basically entirely avoided the theme except for the keynote lectures. These were also about the only point when I didn’t have timetable clashes, too; for some reason the early medieval sessions were unusually conflictual this year, which I think may also reflect that there were an awful lot of them. Anyway. The keynotes were both good, and the first of them was Patrick Gautier-Dalché speaking to the title “Maps, Travel and Exploration in the Middle Ages”. What he was addressing here was the fact that to us, often, a medieval map looks worse than useless, used as we are to measurable scales and Mercator’s Projection. In fact, he argued, although maps were largely representational rather than scientific in the Middle Ages, they were far from useless. Some might be just for looking at, in the old picture worth a thousand words scenario, because a map, even a distorted one, is still a very good way of encoding geographical information.1 Then, they could even be useful for actually getting to places, if you approached them in the right way. The Map of the Atlantic Sea by Gerald of Wales above, M. Gautier-Dalché claimed though if the image above really is it I see no sign of this, is marked up with not just the pilgrimage routes through Western Europe, but the distances between their various stopping points. As long as you could find someone to put you on the road to the next destination, therefore, you would still be able to use the map to budget your provisions and journey time and maybe carry some very basic local information. In cases where precision navigation was a bit more essential, to wit at sea, maps perhaps served as aides-mémoire more than literal graphical information; a reminder of what a certain coastline looked like when you approached it, what the hills round the port are like, and so on. Not much use for doing it first time, but perhaps quite useful for doing it first time in say, ten years. The last example was maps’ use in judicial cases; unlikely, you might think, but apparently Columbus’s maps were produced in court in 1535 to prove that he had actually discovered, and indeed drawn, the coasts of South America. So a map might be a teaching tool, a contemplative resource, a planning aid, a piece of judicial proof, and was above all an interpretation, but Mercator has perhaps spoiled us to their possibilities.

An ancient stitch-and-glue boat hull on display in a restaurant in Zadar, Croatia

An ancient stitch-and-glue boat hull on display in a restaurant in Zadar, Croatia

The second keynote was given by Dionysius Agius, and was entitled, “‘In these Seas Horrors beyond Count Befell [Us]: travel in medieval Islam”. This was less of an argument and more of a tour of the evidence for medieval Islamic travel, which was fine by me as I know very little of it beyond the names of Ibn Battuta and al-Mas’Udi, and it was also accompanied with some fabulous, and indeed very presentist pictures, illustrating continuities of construction technique, goods trafficked, routes and so on, not least the stitched boats of which an older example is shown above. He talked us through the trade routes, both overland and overseas, without leaving much time for detail on any of them, just telling us a good story or two, and you know, this too is a skill, especially for a keynote on a specialised theme before a general audience. I did sort of know, for example, that the ends of trade routes across desert zones (and indeed the middle of them) tend to shift according to where the nomads who run the entry-points to them have currently got their shops set up, but it was as well to be reminded in the same few minutes as having the seasonal cycle of the currents of the Indian Ocean explained, there being a large part of the year when it’s far easier to go one way than the other, which is then reversed for another equally large part. After all, some people were plotting to get goods all the way along both routes. The other thing that I technically knew but which was well linked up here was that, at the period when Islamic ships were breaking out into the Indian Ocean (and indeed further) they were far from the only ships sailing it; indeed, as Professor Agius pointed out, they were sufficiently outsized and outnumbered by Indian and Chinese vessels that sometimes those groups were induced to provide warship escorts to keep away fleets of cannibal pirates (or so the travel narratives earnestly tell us, anyway). Whether the stories of Sindbad the Sailor really have a medieval context may, as we have said here before, be doubted, but Professor Agius happily brought them in anyway to illustrate the sort of stories that were probably told. So, not afraid to indulge in anachronism, and perhaps even Orientalism, but not to a bad purpose I thought and an entertaining lecture to attend.

105. Texts and Identities, I: Merovingian Queens – Narratives and Politics

Fifteenth-century illuminatiion of Queen Clothilde offering prayers to St Martin

Fifteenth-century illumination of Queen Clothilde offering prayers to St Martin

This was where the clashes started. I probably wanted, in retrospect, to go to 104. Popular Politics and Resistance in East and West but I hadn’t fully absorbed what I’d be missing (Robert Moore insisting there was no popular heresy that counts in early medieval Europe, Andrew Marsham saying what were apparently really interesting things about rebellion against the Umayyads and Bernard Gowers, whom I already needed to meet, talking about peasants, which I am very sorry I missed but may at least be able to get a copy of) until I’d run into one of the speakers from 105 and assured her I’d be at her paper. A man of my word, therefore, I was there for the following:

  • Julia Hofmann, “Betrayal or Portrayal? The Depiction of Fredegund and Clovis in Gregory of Tours’ Decem Libri Historiarum V. 39-49″. I mainly attended this so as to have seen Julia Hofmann and Julie Hofmann in the same room, in fact. Here the argument was that whereas Gregory of Tours was usually hopelessly partial in his depictions of Merovingian court politics, which is an obvious problem for working out whether he can be trusted to tells us about them, in this particular bloody and skulduggerous episode of family in-fighting he appears to have loathed both protagonists about equally, which suggests that it may even be a fair depiction. I’m not convinced we’d think the same if it were Liutprand of Cremona, myself, though I do understand the great emotional need not to write off so much of our evidence for the sixth century as Gregory represents.
  • Erin T. Dailey, “Merovingian Polygamy”, a title that drew me in but disappointed rather as it largely concluded that there probably wasn’t really any Merovingian polygamy per se, and did so largely by refusing to nuance the category of concubine, which as a couple of people pointed out to me afterwards needs doing because sometimes concubines’ children become kings. So, while marriage may be an important distinction (and valuable security for the wife, as long as the mother-in-law wasn’t Brunhild) it isn’t a total one, and the fact that there’s only ever one queen at a time doesn’t remove the need to ask how far queens are different. Only twenty minutes, I know, but he was pressed on the matter in questions and didn’t get much further with it.
  • Linda Dohmen, “The Adulterous Queen in Early Frankish Historiography”. Full disclosure requires that I admit that I’ve known Linda for ages and it was her I’d promised to come and see, but I thought this genuinely was a good paper, carefully balanced between spice and analysis. It also did something useful by balancing Gregory of Tours out with other sources covering the same era, in their equally biased ways, the Liber Historiae Francorum and ‘Fredegar’.2 What stories like the classic one about King Chilperic, coming home early to Queen Fredegund fresh out of the bath, catching her unawares with a slap on the rear and she telling off the lover she assumed it was rather than the husband it actually was, illustrate, other than in some ways there’s not much difference between a sixth-century court and a twentieth-century soap opera in terms of plot, is that a lot of people were prepared to get into risky situations for a chance to get with the queen, and not, we presume, simply because Merovingian kings selected irresistible brides Balthild not withstanding,3 but because it was a position of power; queens could bring legitimacy to a pretender or an arriviste, could be grounds for launching a coup or mounting a rebellion and could, also, be vital tokens of continuity when those events were unrolling for other reasons. Here as often happens we need a way to express this sort of position of power often occupied by women in the Middle Ages, power which is not the same as agency, which they often didn’t enjoy (Fredegund as with so much else an exception here), being unfortunate prizes to be contested between men who certainly did, but still incredible focuses of… what? One almost wants to use ancient anthropological terms like tabu, did I not know that modern-day anthropologists of my acquaintance (and indeed modern-day feminists) would probably kick me in the constructs for it. But the word ‘power’ doesn’t really get there, and it’s very hard to discuss without accepting the sources’ language of objectification. So yes, this one is still making me think.

209. Between a Rock and a Hard Place: reassessing politics and culture in the 10th century

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

My colleague Rory Naismith and I have been at the same conferences several times now, and at Kalamazoo we were somehow scheduled against each other, which has happened before too. This not being the case this time, I told Rory I would go to his session (221. The Anglo-Saxons and Rome, II: routes, coins and manuscripts) and then gathered that one of its speakers had pulled out and that this one was on in the same time-slot… I think I’ve still seen more of his papers than he has of mine but he definitely has the moral high ground for now. However, I struggled to find the session I was going to instead and so arrived in a terribly full room slightly after the beginning of…

  • Theo Riches, “Once Upon an Iron Age: telling the story of the long 10th century between Carolingians and ecclesiastical reform”. Some day I hope Theo will write a follow-up to Tim Reuter’s contribution to the feudal transformation debate; I’ve heard Theo discuss this and his Germanist’s perspectives are really interesting.4 However, he keeps letting some excuse about that not being his actual subject get in the way, and so this was not that paper but instead a likewise interesting one about bishops and ritual. He was picking up on a recent piece of Steffen Patzold‘s about the use of ritual in Ottonian court society, as propounded by Gerd Althoff, which makes the very useful distinction between the rules of the game and manœuvres in the game, and the need to be aware which the evidence is showing us.5 This fits well with my objections to some of the French school of dispute scholarship that emphasies competing norms; sometimes, I like to point out, people are actually abnormal, and this was implicit in Theo’s discussion.6 Theo also wanted us to remember the audience, and that it is not necessarily passive; these rituals may be worked out beforehand, but they are pointless unless they are seen, which means that they are also open to interpretation. Patzold sees a change in bishops’ rôles in these contexts in the 820s, from potestas to ministerium, moving from being in charge of their own subjects to the whole of God’s people, with a consequent distancing from politics in detail. Theo suggested seeing this as move from being a player of the ‘game’ to being an umpire, and that the 820s are the point when episcopal lordship starts to become qualitatively different. This was music to my ears as my very first Leeds paper suggested that bishops in my area were lay lords plus, with extra means of recourse and a few corresponding restrictions, but essentially doing the same things;7 Theo’s take here, and Steffen’s behind it, may give me the means to nuance this. I also really liked Theo’s statement in questions that “Canossa breaks deditio, you can’t use it any more” (deditio being a ritual of simulated self-abasement to demand forgiveness from a ruler for disobeying him). This is one of many ways in which the contest between King Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII overdrives medieval politics, he’s right, things do break in that contest, and arguably not least the Holy Roman Empire…
  • Steven Robbie, “The Duchy of Alemannia in the Early Tenth Century: an ethnic community?” followed Theo, which is hard enough to do, but Theo speaks quite loudly and Steven speaks quite softly; also, it was after lunch and the room was hot and stuffy. I fear Steven may have lost some of the attention of his audience for what was quite a subtle take on the question of the Stamme, the core ‘ethnic’ territories that are supposed to underlie German duchies in a certain old-fashioned sort of historiography. Steven illustrated that this won’t work for Alemannia, which is reconstructed pretty much as needed in the political circumstances of each age and only maps to later Swabia in fairly transient ways. When all of Alemans, Thuringians and Swabians are supposed to be the same ancestral community, you realise that ethnogenesis is a game that many can play.
  • Simon Williams, “Playing to the Gallery: reinterpreting Liudprand of Cremona’s Antapadosis in its contemporary context”, did indeed play to the gallery in as much while I may some day hear a Liutprand paper in which the speaker does not tell the story everyone’s favourite Italian scandalmonger reports about Queen Guilla hiding a valuable belt where only a woman could, this was not it (and neither, of course, is my report of it). However, he did do some interesting stuff pointing out how quickly Liutprand’s work circulated, well within his lifetime too, so even if he was initially writing for a small audience that wasn’t what he revised for. Simon in fact suggested that the target audience was Bishop Abraham of Freising and perhaps Bishop Dietrich of Metz as well as Bishop Rather of Verona, and that we underestimate Liutprand if we see him as a marginal player. Liutprand writing about you, in other words, was something like being mentioned in Tatler; probably unpleasant and trivial but unfortunately read by people whose good opinion of you may be important some day…

Coffee break next but I find it combines badly with adrenalin, so I didn’t, because next was nothing less than my paper!

301. Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: strategies of legitimization on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” is actually one of my better pieces of work, I think, and compares three contemporary Catalan counts’ reactions to what I’m now arguing is a resurgent Carolingian royal self-assertion by King Lothar III. This is kind of part two of my Haskins paper from 2008 and I hope to have them both in process soon so I’ll say no more here unless people are curious enough to ask.
Grant of King Æthelred II to Abingdon Abbey, 993 (Sawyer 876)

Grant of King Æthelred II to Abingdon Abbey, 993 (Sawyer 876)

  • Levi Roach, “The Voice of Æthelred?” explored the group of lengthy royal charters of King Æthelred the Unready in which he apologises for the misdeeds of his youth and makes compensation gifts. Levi was arguing that the imagery employed here is sufficiently consistent, across several archives and many scribes, that these documents must represent an actual statement of sorts by the king, even if he probably didn’t choose the actual written phrasing. Charles Insley, who gave a not dissimilar paper a few years ago,8 was generous enough not to point this out in questions, but Levi rallied to what I think is actually new ground in reaction to a question from Steven Robbie about how long it can possibly take to be sorry; these documents after all span most of a decade. Levi’s response was that the only way it all makes sense is a rather paranoid policy of penitence till the bad stuff stops happening, which after these charters stopped was shifted onto the whole kingdom under the influence of Archbishop Wulfstan; in other words, this court’s response to crisis is to escalate repentance until the handles come off and it all goes to Hell… Which, even if it’s overstated, gives one to wonder how neutral a perspective on things anyone at Æthelred’s court could possibly have maintained… What price groupthink? and so on.
  • David Woodman, “The Rewriting of the Anglo-Saxon Past: a Middle English Rhyming Charter of King Æthelstan and the Beverley Cartulary (BL, MS Additional 61901) in context”, lastly, dealt with a rather lovely piece of Middle English fabrication in which Beverley Minster tried to claim foundation by the selfsame rex totius Britanniae in the fourteenth century. The result looks and reads nothing like an Anglo-Saxon charter, and nor does much of the stuff it’s put into a beautiful cartulary with, but it still won them several cases. David set out exactly who the enemies were in this case, and explained the success of the claim not in terms of the cluelessness of the panel judging but of opposition between the abbey, Archbishop Neville of York and Richard, Second of That Name, Kynge, but one was still left with echoes of the story in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the eponymous publication’s lawyers successfully argue that beauty is truth so the prettier story is automatically true, as one would like rather like Æthelstan to have been one of those congenial souls

Now. I want to talk to you, Internet, about the Problems and Possibilities strand and what’s happening with it, but this is long enough already. I’ll do it in a separate post later on. Instead let it be noted that I managed to miss two separate receptions where free wine was available, somehow, mainly to get lightly drunk with such fine upstanding members of the Internet as Another Damned Medievalist and Ealuscerwen, in the same place but not with Gesta, which seems to be the usual way of things, and a few people who have real names, and I went to bed merry and exhausted.


1. Something that all of us who were in Siena and now also commenting at In The Medieval Middle seem to be agreeing on; a conceptual map of that city might be a lot more use than a strictly geographical one.

2. Pronounced, as I once heard Roger Collins say in a paper he was giving on the author in question, “with the inverted commas silent, like the P in Psmith”.

3. In fact, it surprises me that in a session about Merovingian queens not only did Balthild only get a passing mention, but her supposed seal was completely omitted. It’s got to be part of any discussion about how queenship is visualised, hasn’t it, especially since if it is what is claimed, it’s actually a source generated by or at least for the queen. I begin to wonder if there’s a perhaps a case for asking medieval historians to ask themselves, “is there a good reason your paper is entirely text-based?” And I am not just saying this because it’s lewd, I am saying this because I think we were already dancing near the lewd and it would have been a way to let it in without risking sounding as if one actually wanted to talk about sex.

4. Referring to T. Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195.

5. Referring here to Gerd Althoff, Spielregeln der Politik im Mittelalter: Kommunikation in Frieden und Fehde (Darmstadt 1997) and S. Patzold, Konflikte im Kloster. Studien zu Auseinandersetzungen in monastischen Gemeinschaften des ottonisch-salischen Reichs, Historische Studien 463 (Husum 2000).

6. See, if you should really want to, my review of Stephen D. White, Feuding and Peacemaking in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (Aldershot 2005) in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2006), pp. 124-125.

7. J. Jarrett, “Sales, Swindles and Sanctions: Bishop Sal·la of Urgell and the counts of Catalonia”, paper presented in session ‘Telling Laymen What to Do’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 21 July 2005, available to you as J. Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of London 2005), pp. 289-313, online here.

8. His webpages mention a chapter, “Rhetoric and Ritual in Late Anglo-Saxon Charters” in P. Barnwell and M. Mostert (edd.), Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 19 (Brepols 2009), which will probably be worth consulting on this if it’s actually out; a rapid web-search reveals publication dates of 2008, 2009 and ‘in preparation 2008-2009’, but the publishers seem less sanguine. In fact, damn, I need that book even though I heard half the papers…

Rex totius Bretanniae?

Obverse of a silver penny of King Athelstan of Wessex (924-39) from the Winchester mint by the moneyer Wulfheard, legend reading +ÆÐELSTAN REX TO BRI, now in the British Museum, SCBI 34 no. 162

Obverse of a silver penny of King Athelstan of Wessex (924-39) from the Winchester mint by the moneyer Wulfheard, legend reading +ÆÐELSTAN REX TO BRI, now in the British Museum, SCBI 34 no. 162

Apropos of a local postgrad seminar paper around here the other day which I think it would otherwise be inappropriate to blog, this question arose in the discussion. King Æthelstan of Wessex, or indeed England or yet Britain, as you can see from the coin above used the title Rex totius Britanniae, King of All Britain. In 936 this aspiring king landed the eventual Duke Alain II Barbe-Torte of Brittany, with whom he had grown up, at Dol to take over the rather Viking-battered principality for his own, which with his English support Alain duly did.1 Æthelstan must have known it was called Brittany by analogy with Britain; did he think his claimed “totus Britanniae” included it, do you suppose? Was this a takeover, or just a spreading of his friends? Is there a difference in tenth-century Europe? From one corner to another, I just wonder.


1. Source for this is Flodoard’s Annals, ed. Philippe Lauer as Les Annales de Flodoard, publiées d’après les manuscrits, avec une introduction (Paris 1903), online at the Internet Archive where last mod. 19th June 2008 as of 9th February 2009 (warning: the OCR’d plain-text is unusably garbled, the PDF is your only resort), cap. ΜΓ, and now transl. Steven Fanning & Bernard S. Bachrach as The Annals of Flodoard of Reims, 919-966, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures (Peterborough ON 2004), s. a. 936. For background see Joëlle Quaghebeur, “Norvège et Bretagne aux IXe et Xe siècles : un destin partagé” in Pierre Bauduin (ed.), Les fondations scandinaves en Occident et les débuts du duché de Normandie (Rouen 2005), pp. 113-131.

Scots, lies and videotape: historians argue while Neil Oliver makes up Scotland’s history

Sensationalist subject lines ahoy! For lo, BBC Scotland seem to have successfully created a small controversy with the first episode of a new series called A History of Scotland. A post at News for Medievalists, repeating word-for-word an article in Scotland on Sunday, goes to the length of opposing two reputable historians of Scotland, to wit Clare Downham at Aberdeen and James Fraser at Edinburgh, over this new series, presented by Scottish archaeologist-turned-journalist Neil Oliver. Now, they’re not exactly throwing daggers at each other: Downham is quoted as saying: “I think the BBC are trying their best to be contentious here. I would half agree with some of their assertions, but not the entire package”, whereas Fraser says: “The kind of thing that Neil Oliver is saying is more or less in line with the views that have been taken recently by professional scholars”. And Fraser, who’s been working on getting sense out of annals for years, sometimes stretching even my credulity in so doing, and Downham, who was a student, among other things, of David Dumville, and would therefore be trained to read the sources with absolute maximum scepticism, might be expected to disagree more than that, if anything. But the reporting will get the programme a few extra viewers, I guess, and I can say this with confidence because having seen the NfM post, and finding that the programme is viewable for free online, I went and had a look. And now I’m going to add to the controversy by saying: this is excellent TV, but should have been cut at the thirty-five minute mark and then they could have left out the bit where they resorted to making things up and lying about texts. I do not exaggerate, but I will elaborate. But first the good side, because there genuinely is one.

Neil Oliver being showy at the University of Aberdeen

Neil Oliver being showy at the University of Aberdeen

[Edit: what follows lightly altered from its original state to reflect Alex Woolf’s input about the production process in comments; this basically means that where I was previously being nasty about Neil Oliver specifically I’m now being nasty about the production team who apparently gave him a fixed script.]

There are far far worse ways to pass an hour while you potter with other things, and occasionally make spluttering notes, than watch this. Firstly, the director was keenly aware how photogenic Scotland is, and the country is the real star, Mr Oliver graciously allowing it to fill the screen nearly as much as does he. Several things in this episode, which he narrates in passionately excited style, are not only excellent television but also examples of what the resort to a visual medium can provide that other things can’t. Apart from hordes of re-enactors lurching through the mist in what may or may not be period armour, which I could take or leave I must admit, it brings the Pictish stones (or at least, those currently being laser-scanned in the National Museum of Scotland) into full play as coded but gorgeously-carved visual evidence, and the reconstructed crannog they show early on really made them real to me in a way that I hadn’t previously got. Also, several of the fortified sites that feature just do look really good viewed offshore from a helicopter and that’s hard to argue with. The section in the National Museum of Scotland is guided by Peter Yeoman, and was really good, though they cut very freely between symbol stones, never for example making it clear that there is only half of the St Vigeans “Drosten” stone left but cutting from it to another intact cross slab as if they were the same piece. As a result, I don’t know on what stone was actually to be found an intriguing little grotesque with horns and wings to whom they briefly cut just as Oliver was using the word “angel”. Horns? Hmm. But I can tell you no more because they didn’t tell me.

The Drosten Stone from St Vigeans, from Wikimedia Commons

The Drosten Stone from St Vigeans, from Wikimedia Commons

Of course, this is a program made by Scots for Scots and so it does come over more than a bit nationalistic. And since there is little argument that England did, you know, conquer Scotland time and again and subject it to all kinds of indignities, even if Scotland did give England a royal family and now receives heavy subsidy from England, it’s understandable when the Anglians enter the story exactly at the halfway point that we get sentences like: “England was not enough for Athelstan” (and what was this England thing exactly, hey? not what it is today that’s for sure). An attempt to recast the Battle of Brunanburh (whose location Oliver is certain about, plumping for Bromborough on the Wirral without mentioning the debate of which that is only one side) as a kind of Hastings of the North in which it was attempted to settle once and for all whether Britain would be ruled by “a single imperial power or several independent kingdoms” is, well, at least arguable, though there is this weird double-think going on where when the Angles and West Saxons overrun their borders (obviously exactly equivalent to the modern English-Scottish border… ) that’s evil, whereas if the Picts do it it’s a sign of strength. And because this is TV I rather expect to see the debates cut out and only the production team’s favourite answer presented, and it pains me but it’s the nature of the genre. It’s just a pity that only a very few TV programs can handle not having a definitive answer (Michael Wood wins the crown here I think). So I wasn’t surprised to see the Aberlemno stone read assuredly as a monument of a defeat of the Angles, which I know from good old Leslie Alcock is less than wholly accepted.1

Battle scene from the Aberlemno II stone, supposed by some to depict the Battle of Nechtanesmere

Battle scene from the Aberlemno II stone, supposed by some to depict the Battle of Nechtanesmere

On the other hand some things are just stupid. The Rev. Malcolm King, warden of the current community at Iona, being brought on to explain what the political benefits of conversion might have been for the Picts, should really have been allowed to talk about Ogham to nuance the suggestion that it was principally writing and the administrative potential it contained that would have made Christianity appeal to a king. And of course, there’s really very little evidence of any written administration even in Christian Scotland outside of cloisters and cathedrals till much later. But leave that aside. I’ll also leave aside the assertion that the “Picts were notorious for head-hunting”, which as far as I know comes only from the fact that there are lots of decapitated bodies on Sueno’s Stone, that they had tattoos (which is no better evidenced than the skin-painting that I think more likely) and I’ll even ignore the fact that Oliver was made to call Broichan, chief wizard (magus, is the word Adomnán uses) of Bruide map Maelchon King of Picts a ‘druid’. Or even the idea that in the great Pictish expansionist phase the “Britons and the Gaels had to pay homage to the Pictish king”, for which there is just no evidence or clarity about what it would have meant if they did, and the idea that Picts were a single unified people who can be mapped by their stones, if only because I’ve attacked that last idea elsewhere… And lastly, yes, it is true firstly that Columba did not, apparently, convert many Picts; and secondly that the Gaels in Scotland at least knew Christianity before he arrived, though it is far from clear how widespread it was beyond the leading cenela (do I have that right?) and how much work still needed doing. The Vita Columbae has enough stories about pagans and evil men in it.

The replica Stone of Scone at Scone Palace

The replica Stone of Scone at Scone Palace

But we then get to the stuff that is actually misleading. You could tell it was coming because we switched from named sources to “historical records”. The Vita Columbae, which stands between Oliver’s script-writers and their myth-busting, is “more like a fairy tale than a true story”, but what “records tell us” must never be denied. Mr Oliver does in fact show us a source, and he finds it, to his surprise, in Paris, a manuscript which he describes later as “the birth certificate of Scotland”. In it, he assures us, we find otherwise unknown facts about the first real kings of Scotland. The program hypes up the obscurity of the manuscript, with Oliver asking the French curator whether many people come to see it? She answers, in French, that ‘only specialists in Scottish history’ really use it, “seulement les spécialistes en histoire de l’Écosse”, but the translator says instead that such people as access it do so in microfilm. As you will see, whoever translated the text for Oliver was similarly free with it… Oliver of course gets to sit with the actual codex, and to my eye, because I was still struggling at this point to remember what it must be, it’s quite Gothic, later than I was expecting from his hype. He points at king’s names, and then we disappear into a huge and enthralling reconstruction!

The story is made to revolve around Constantine, grandson of Kenneth mac Alpin, because, Oliver reveals, Kenneth is never called King of Scotland; he was a King of the Picts. This is perfectly fair, though Oliver is not allowed to mention that Constantine’s father Alpin is usually thought a Gael; Alex Woolf has recently unhinged that piece of argument, so it may not be needed.2 Oliver goes on to narrate, over dramatic reconstruction events, with lots of bearded men and worried boys sitting by fires looking moody, how the grandsons of Kenneth were not allowed to succeed, and they, cousins Constantine and Donald, were sent off to exile in Ireland when King Giric took power from the do-nothing King Áed by sticking a dagger in him (which is not said, but shown in reconstruction). Then eventually Constantine and Donald come back, but different; once Giric is displaced, the cousins succeed to a Pictish kingship but as Gaels by upbringing, and bringing Gaelic courtiers with them. It’s on Domnall and Constantine that Oliver is made to place the blame for the Gaelic takeover, not Kenneth. Somehow the Gaels and Gaelic bishop whom Giric is said to have installed don’t achieve this in the same way. Oliver then takes us through the rest of Constantine’s long life, which involved fighting King Æthelstan of England twice and losing both times, before finally retiring to Kilrymont (St Andrews) as a hermit.

It’s a fantastic story, and one I really thought I should have remembered. So, I have done some digging to see why I didn’t quite remember it, and the answer is, because Oliver or his writer has enhanced it quite considerably. Let’s start with the manuscript.

First folio of the Pictish King List, from Paris BN MS Latin 4126, facsimile by Brantonei Draiktan Spurlock

First folio of the Pictish King List, from Paris BN MS Latin 4126, facsimile by Brantonei Draiktan Spurlock and taken from Bran Mak Morn's Pictish-Elven Witchcraft site, acknowledged here as their copyright requests and linked through the image

The manuscript is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Latin 4126, otherwise known as the Poppleton Manuscript. It is as it stands thirteenth or fourteenth-century (you see? Gothic) but is thought to be copied from an twelfth-century compilation, and obviously the original texts may have been older. May. I discover in web-searching that Oliver has started with this program a campaign to bring the manuscript back to Scotland, which is a sort of fair enough as it does contain many unique texts. The one Oliver means, which he once calls “The Chronicle of the Kings”, making it sound terribly official, is one of these, the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba. (Oliver translates Alba as ‘Scotland’ throughout, explaining once after several uses that this is “a Gaelic word meaning ‘Scotland'”, which is somewhere where others might disagree…3) Now this manuscript is so painfully obscure and unknown, that there is an online text and parallel translation of it for you to peruse. And if you do, you’ll find a few differences between what Oliver should have read, and the story he is made to tell. Let me quote you some significant bits of Timothy Weeks’s translation, linked there with the text running in parallel.

Áed held the throne for 1 year. The shortness of his rule has left nothing memorable to history; but he was killed in the town of Nrurim.

Oliver’s words manage to imply, by saying that the Vikings raided Scotland for two years and that Áed “did little to stop them”, reigned twice as long as he did, but leave that for a minute, there’s worse to come.

On the other hand Eochaid the son of Rhun the king of the Britons, grandson of Kenneth by his daughter, ruled for 11 years. Admittedly others say that Giric the son of [a gap in the copy, but other texts name his father as Dungal] ruled at that time; because he became teacher and ordinator to Eochaid. In his second year Áed the son of Niall died; and in his 9th, on the very day of St Ciricius, there was an eclipse of the sun. Eochaid, with his alumnus, was then thrown out of the kingdom.

Now Oliver says Giric killed Áed (or at least, “Áed is killed by his own men; all the evidence points to Giric”), and makes him Áed’s right-hand man, Eochaid never being mentioned. He doesn’t actually call Giric king but he certainly doesn’t say there’s anyone else in power. Also, the Irish exile of the heirs is not here. I’m not even sure where he has got it from, although Wikipedia currently notes it as a suggestion of Alex Woolf’s. It’s certainly likely, but we don’t actually know where they went, which rather knocks out the program’s Gaelic acculturation theory. And then Oliver is made to hypothesize that Giric was killed at Dunollie by the returning cousins, because there’s evidence of burning there, which would be fine as a hypothesis if the manuscript didn’t say that Giric was thrown out, so that even if he was killed it can’t have been in the kingdom if the manuscript—I’m sorry, “the records”—are to be believed. Then we reach the cousins.

Donald the son of Constantine held the throne for 11 years. At that time the Norsemen laid waste to Pictavia. During his rule a battle was fought at Innisibsolian, between the Danes and the Scots: the Scots were the winners.

It’s still between Scots and Picts here, you notice. But it’s Donald! or, if I may, Domnall, the returning outcast, grandson of Kenneth mac Alpin—ach, I’m going Gaelic from here except in the quotes—Cinaed mac Alpín. There’s nothing of Causantín here, although because Oliver has to make much of him later he is clear that the younger son was present, for which there is no evidence. Oliver does mention Domnall’s death, but none of the events of his reign. Let’s go on.

Constantine the son of Áed held the throne for 40 years. In his third year the Norsemen raided Dunkeld, and all of Alba. Certainly in the following year the Norsemen were beaten in Strathearn, and in his 6th year King Constantine, and bishop Cellach, vowed that the laws and teachings of the faith, and the rights of the churches and gospels, were to be protected equally with the Scots on the hill of Credulity, near to the royal city of Scone. From that day the hill earned its name, that is, the Hill of Credulity.

Aaaand it’s Alba. Though the Scots and… who? The Albanese? still seem to be separate. Oliver says this text calls Causantín King of Alba, but it doesn’t. That’s a different text in the same manuscript, a list of the kings of Scotland, which unlike some texts in this manuscript also survives in other copies. Some of these do indeed call Causantín King of Alba, but one still calls him King of Picts. Meanwhile, across the sea, both Annals of Ulster and Chronicon Scotorum, both reflecting what was at this stage a common text that later became associated with the abbey of Clonmacnoise, first use the title of Domnall, not Causantín. Oliver admits this but for some reason the program pins the real honour on Causantín. And yet it’s clear from the Chronicle itself that it was still possible to see both peoples separately even if Causantín is said, apparently, to have placed them under the same law, which might have been worth a mention but doesn’t get it, pity as it would have been good evidence of the “cultural takeover” that was ‘just as effective as genocide’ of which the two Gaelicised kings stand accused in the program.

So. A manuscript that doesn’t say what this program says it does; extra details silently supplied from elsewhere, these details usually being theories without evidence but otherwise usually being uncredited lifts from Alex Woolf; several kings missed out to streamline the story; an allegation that the text in which the royal titles occur is unique to that manuscript when in fact it’s a different text that isn’t; royal murders imputed without base in the evidence to succeeding kings… I think I’ve made my point. Alternative views better founded are not hard to locate.4 So I can see why Dr Downham had her reservations, there is a serious degree of fast and loose with the truth here, and the fact that the BBC Scotland website labels this as “factual” will bother me for a while yet. Actually the best image for it is a fantastic one they managed to get of a falcon, just after discussing the massive slaughter at Brunanburh. It darts its head down off camera, comes up with something and champs its bill, nom nom nom, and one has to sort of shiver because of the association with carrion. But what it’s actually got in its bill is down, because it’s preening. And that just about sums up parts of this spectacular but seriously distorting programme for me: fluff and preening, and an implication of meat that isn’t really there.


1. Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 172-173, concluding, “This discussion of possible interpretations of the Aberlemno battle-scene in politico-military terms has been necessary to demonstrate their essential frailty.” I do wish I’d met this man.

2. Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh 2007), pp. 87-93.

3. For example Dauvit Broun, “The seven kingdoms in De Situ Albanie: a record of Pictish political geography or imaginary map of ancient Alba?”, in E. J. Cowan & R. Andrew McDonald (edd.), Alba: Celtic Scotland in the Middle Ages (East Linton 2000), pp. 24-42.

4. Apart from Woolf, Pictland to Alba, see Broun, “Scotland before 1100: writing Scotland’s origins”, in Bob Harris & Alan R. MacDonald (edd.), Scotland: the Making and Unmaking of the Nation c. 1100-1707. Vol. I. The Scottish Nation: Origins to c.1500 (Dundee 2006), pp. 1-16, with a detailed discussion of the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba pp. 8-14.