Tag Archives: early Scotland

Questionable interpretation: early medieval church sites in Northern Britain?

I’m all for a bit of free-thinking archaeology, as I hope the blog makes clear—in fact, for this post I finally caved in and created an ‘archaeology’ category that has been variously retrospectively applied—and as someone who works with people who work with metal detectorists, I am not one to diminish the rôle of the amateur in the unearthing of the past. All the same, sometimes ya gotta wonder.

Standing stones at Baliscate, Tobermory, Mull, Scotland

Standing stones at Baliscate, Tobermory, Mull, Scotland

For example. Very near the site of these standing stones, reports News for Medievalists on the back of several newspaper stories, it is being reported that two amateur archaeologists have located the site of a fifth- to tenth-century chapel, and the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland have been called in and said that it seems to be so. But really, the evidence is no more than that there is a square building there, it hasn’t been dug or anything and the dating and purpose is being deduced entirely from the building’s shape, which I don’t think will really do; I’ve seen what kind of leaps of logic that can lead to when there’s no digging done. It’s noticeable for one thing that even in the news story it’s evident that the RCAHMS team disagreed among themselves, and for another that they’re not prioritising digging it, which I think if there was good evidence of such an early date they genuinely would, what with the plethora of such sites just lately. Some might of course argue that what with the standing stones, it was a good candidate for conversion, and this may be true, but that really isn’t evidence enough to record a chapel here.

Carved stones from the churchyard of St Oswalds Lythe

Carved stones from the churchyard of St Oswald's Lythe

On the other hand, this exhibition of carved stones from the churchyard of a little-known Northumbrian church is certainly the real deal, and it is therefore reported both by Medieval Material Culture and the Whitby Gazette, with considerable pride on the part of the latter. On the other hand, though a first glance might make it look as if these were new discoveries, they were actually found in 1910, and though that means that they just about missed the standard big textbook on the subject, and they have at least been restored in the previous year and are going freshly onto exhibition, I’m slightly less excited than I thought I was going to be by this news. All the same, the irony exists, in that though at least one of the pieces they hauled out of the ground here in 1910 had what seems to be a depiction of Ragnarok on it, not at all Christian, I’m a lot surer there was a Christian place of worship here in the tenth century than at Baliscate.

Seminary XXXIII: Martin Carver asks us if he’s crazy

Second seminar of that week that was was by Professor Martin Carver, who had come to Cambridge to be the second speaker ever at the new Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar. Although his own dig at Portmahomack is still one of the most exciting things in Scottish archaeology right now, and has an initial book just out about it by him,1 and although Inchmarnock across the country is also generating lots of new stuff (as mentioned here previously), he was taking on more than just a sit-rep of finds, and was talking to the title, “What were they thinking? Some reflections on the archaeology of Christianization”, which was a brave attempt to get at the mindsets of conversion in early Britain through the monumental remains of religious practice.

Jewellery from the Anglo-Saxon bed burial at Street House, Loftus, 200 yards from a Neolithic and a Bronze Age burial mound

Jewellery from the Anglo-Saxon bed burial at Street House, Loftus

Those who have read some of Professor Carver’s more adventurous work may understand why, as in the title, as he wound up he was asking us if he was just sounding crazy now. I think in fact that my answer would have been, “you are hanging on to the evidence by one hand while trying to take in as broad a possible range of explanation as you can with the other, but you are in touch with your evidence.” The argument was reasonably easy to synopsize. Firstly, religious practice in Britain was very diverse, and broad categories such as ‘Christian’ and ‘pagan’ or even ‘Roman Christian’ and ‘Celtic Christian’ don’t begin to do this justice. Secondly, many phenomena that are often used as diagnostics of Christianity in Britain, especially Celtic Britain, such as “monastic” valla or long-cist burials, actually spread over a much wider area and period, because these things usually have roots in pre-Christian practice. The argument from there was basically that this pre-Christian inheritance was much much larger, and also more deliberate, than is often reckoned. For example, he had some isolated evidence of a Neolithic cult of the head, and when he talked about this I wished that I’d tried to make Bo of The Cantos of Mutabilitie come along as he would have been able to do more than just squeak “Brán the Blessed!” by way of literature parallels (which I did do, at least; Prof. Carver and I laughed about wishing for site reports with literature sections as a future hope for the field, before it struck me with something of a cold shock the next day that actually that was very much the approach that Leslie Alcock took in his Kings and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests that I reviewed here a while ago…) One particularly sharp example was from Portmahomack,2 where as well as the extensive monastic cemetery about which they can be pretty sure, they also had a lot of long-cist burials, which they had assumed were palæo-Christian conversion-period burials until some radio-carbon dates came back 1st-millennium B. C…. Now we have to accept that the first church of St Colman there was set up on a site with extensive funerary, and therefore probably pre-Christian religious, associations.

One of the cist burials from beneath St Colmans church, Portmahomack

One of the cist burials from beneath St Colman's church, Portmahomack

Professor Carver was however not arguing for long continuity from prehistoric to Christian (at which point we might have had to call him crazy) but for the conscious choice by the new cult’s managers to imitate, reference or adapt old practice. This was why he had chosen monumental evidence, which we can still see now, because it was clear that that would have been available to such decision-makers, and be something they would have to explain or ignore. He argues moreover (and this bit he’s been doing for a long time3) that because even northernmost Celtic Scotland is not cut off from but plugged into the general European iconographic conversation, as its art and symbolism shows (and here again Professor Alcock would have very much agreed), these are conscious choices where they are made from a large range of options, new and Christian, Roman Christian, Celtic Christian, sub-Roman, actually Roman-period, Iron Age, Bronze Age, and whatever variants of any of those were known to the people at the time. That makes such choices deliberate strategies of reference to the past, so that the foundation on an old burial ground is not just a takeover but an appropriation of its surviving symbolism for their own spiritual capital.

The St Andrews sarcophagus, famous for its combination of Celtic and Old Testament artistic motives

The St Andrews sarcophagus, famous for its combination of Celtic and Old Testament artistic motives

There’s enough stuff with the reuse of church sites that we needn’t have a problem with this,4 I think, but it did occur to me to say to someone afterwards that if the people aren’t as fully connected as Prof. Carver told us that we “had to believe”, the repertoire of symbolic construction could be very much smaller, viz. the community’s sense of custom versus one garbled report of how the Romans do things by the new missionary with his royal backing, which might not make such choices so significant. I also thought he didn’t allow enough room for these choices to be deliberately conflictual, not appropriating the past but abrogating it by literally hiding it with one’s own customs. That said, certainly he is right, I think, that we need to allow for a great deal more very local syncretism in conversions, and even if I was a little anxious that Christianity is a normalising religion, both the previous day’s and, could I but have known it, the next day’s paper would have weakened my sense of how far its norms can be preserved without central contact. (Michael Wood’s paper had mentioned that the cult of Shiva, who is a dancing god, has affected Indian Christianity sufficiently that at Easter-time now you get dancing Virgin Maries acting out the story of Christ’s resurrection…) When Professor Carver introduced the work of Natalie Venclová on tonsures by way of suggesting that even the Roman/Celtic division over monastic hairdos had such pre-Christian roots, however, I did wonder briefly about revising the question of ‘crazy’.5 All the same, a thought-provoking paper and a highly entertaining one, and also perhaps the only time I have seen people from at least four faculties (History, Archaeology & Anthropology, Classics & Anglo-Saxon Norse & Celtic) wilfully come to listen to an academic paper in Cambridge, and for both of these things speaker and convener need to be congratulated. I’m looking forward to the next one in this series already.


1. Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh 2008).

2. But only one: it was a broad-ranging paper, and included some fabulous illustrations of the slates from Inchmarnock, which include drawings—I’ve found one drawing by a chap called Thomas Small which I include below but it’s not the one I really would have liked, which was apparently an illustration of the theft of St Ernan’s reliquary by a mail-clad wild-haired Viking and his shield-adorned longship…):

Drawing of an inscribed slate from Inchmarnock, by Thomas Small, licensed under Creative Commons

Drawing of an inscribed slate from Inchmarnock, by Thomas Small, licensed under Creative Commons

3. Since at least Martin Carver, “Introduction: Northern Europeans negotiate their future” in idem (ed.), The Cross Goes North: processes of conversion in northern Europe, AD 300-1300 (Woodbridge 2003), pp. 3-13.

4. See Mayke de Jong & Frans Theuws, “Topographies of Power: some conclusions” in de Jong, Theuws & Carine van Rhijn, Topographies of Power in the Early Middle Ages, The Transformation of the Roman World 6 (Leiden 2001), pp. 533-545.

5. Natalie Venclová, “The Venerable Bede, druidic tonsure and archaeology” in Antiquity Vol. 76 (London 2002), pp. 458-471.

The Wester Ross antiquarian

I did say that my recent holiday was going to be non-academic. But very shortly before going I discovered that there had once been a Pictish symbol stone found at a burial site where I was headed, among others nearby, and therefore apparently-Pictish burials. Also, the town website speaks of a vitrified fort, just as recently described. Well, these things merited investigation. Apart from anything else, this is almost as far west as Pictish culture is deemed to have spread, and without the word of Adomnán some people might doubt that you could really have been looking at Picts this close to Skye, because we’re also an easy boat ride from Iona and Kintyre. As it is, he tells (I.27) of the conversion of an aged noble on Skye to whom Columba could only speak through an interpreter.1 So this is fringe Pictish stuff potentially of great importance. Of course, since material culture is portable and language partly a chosen thing, there’s a debate to be had about what it takes to actually qualify as Pictish in such a context, but close confrontation with the material remains never hurts all the same. The fact that they were on a simply gorgeous beach in warm high summer, well, this is just the kind of cross the determined antiquarian has to bear…

A certain historian, er, \'field-walking\'

A certain historian, er, 'field-walking'

But it’s not so easy once you start looking. The town museum, which holds the symbol stone, was closed when we got to it, which also meant that we dithered around not being sure where the fort was supposed to be either. I mean, while standing in it, this looked a lot like a fort’s ramparts:

But almost any outcrop along this coast could look like that. We eventually spoke to a locally-based archaeologist, and he gave us to understand that it was certainly somewhere around there, and that it certainly wasn’t vitrified, but might perhaps have been an Irish-style dún, where the builders had added to already natural ramparts so as to guard the harbour and rivermouth. But, on the other hand, it was such an obvious place for a fort. Does that mean it’s more likely that there was one? or that it’s more likely we’ve imagined one? It’s never been dug, so there’s no way of knowing. And the burials were found in clearing ground for building, which means that they’re now of course built over; so we’re probably looking at them here. Of course we had to spend some time on the beach getting our bearings… If I understand my informants right, then, the tiny headland protruding to the left in this picture is where the fort is supposed to be. You may well go “hmmm” at this assertion, I’m still not sure of it myself.

Strath Bay and the town of Gairloch

Strath Bay and the town of Gairloch

Even the Pictish stone, sad to say, is not very impressive. As said I couldn’t get at it for real, but the following picture gives you the lowdown. A salmon and an eagle, and what they mean is anyone’s guess, an argument for which you can read better things than I could write here. Still, there they are; Picts at Gairloch. Of course the place-name is Gaelic; but St Columba needed an interpreter for the man he converted in Skye, so I imagine it was Pictish spoken here too, when the stone was laid down over whomever it covered. The stone was associated with burials but they weren’t recorded; the article I borrowed this image from was however published after another grave was found, of a middle-aged woman apparently in good fitness and medium height. Rest easy in Pictish madam, beneath the houses where even Gaelic is now a rarity.

More certain archaeology does however exist in the area. Out at a place called Sand, on the way to where I was actually staying, there is a marked-out archaeology trail. What is not so clear about this is whether anyone who actually qualifies as an archaeologist of the relevant period has so qualified it. There has been some digging here, but it’s not clear that it was actually on this site, and anyway what it produced was Neolithic remains. There are, down the river valley it’s set round, a variety of ancient ruins and turf and stone walls used to divide the hillsides up into ‘rigs’, which are a Scottish sort of strip farming with some resemblance to terracing except without the laborious levelling of the ground and the concomitant effects on soil fertility and moisture. How old that is, is anyone’s guess. There is some hint offered by the form of the buildings. Some were clearly roundhouses. I think we also found another one that wasn’t on the map, as a two-metre thick stone wall is hard to miss, though with the bracken as thick as it was on parts of the trail, it was actually possible to miss not only well-preserved ruins but also, very nearly, the route back to the road.

Sand Archaeological Trail Waypoint 5, with a roundhouse lost in the bracken at left

Sand Archaeological Trail Waypoint 5, with a roundhouse lost in the bracken at left

No shoes were however lost in the occasional marshy patches and I still got back in time for a beer before the departing bus. All the same: this trail needed some clearing, and it would benefit from someone who knows what they’re talking about giving it a once-over and maybe some proper signage. There were rectilinear buildings too; one overwrote a roundhouse, making it fairly clear which we could expect to be earlier, but as some of the rectilinear buildings were in use in the eighteenth century, seeing in this a replacement of old-style Scottish/Pictish buildings with new tenth-century ones such as we certainly are seeing at Pitcarmick (now there’s a Pictish place-name) is a bit of a leap. The roundhouses, though, they probably were medieval and quite possibly early medieval and I have little qualm about saying that, even if it’s not identifiable, I was walking amid medieval ruins in places here.

One last piece of praise. Out in this part of the world, if you have no car, you must rely on those who do. Public transport, in the form of a minibus, just about reaches Gairloch. Beyond that, you’re hitching. Sometimes, of course, this does not work out; but sometimes, it really does. We did this trail on my last day there, on the way into town to meet the bus. After walking for a quarter of an hour we were kindly picked up by two travellers. My companion, who speaks good Spanish, tried it immediately after noticing that a book on the back seat was in Spanish, and it transpired that we had in the car her, interested in her area and Spanish-speaking; me, historian of medieval Catalonia, poor grasp of Castilian and little better in Catalan, some knowledge of early historic Scotland and its material remains; and, two tourists from Barcelona who told us they’d been hoping to see some of the archaeology but hadn’t found any. This could not have worked out better. They kindly not only lifted us up to the trail, but stomped round it with us with my companion interpreting my guidebook-based guesswork, enthusing, not minding when we got lost, and then dropping us in Gairloch for that beer, all in kindest of spirits and friendliest of miens, with, furthermore, Elvis on the stereo. So this entry is for José Manuel and Teresa; you are stars, and I hope your holiday continued perfectly. Mine was pretty much perfect, after all, so it seems only fair.

view down the valley

Sand Archaeological Trail: view down the valley

Edit: minor details emended and better images used in places.


1. Note, however, that he doesn’t actually say that the man was a Pict; this is just implied by his unintelligibility. I also think that the text implies that while Columba can’t speak directly to the old man, the young men who greet his arrival are apparently intelligible. So I think this is actually evidence for Gaelic acculturation in progress. I gather there is detailed work on this, though I haven’t yet read it, in David N. Dumville, “Primarius Cohortis in Adomnán’s Life of Columba” in Scottish Gaelic Studies Vol. 13 (Glasgow 1978), pp. 130-131.

Leslie Alcock book review

Somewhere in the two, or maybe three, entries I already wrote about Leslie Alcock’s Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), I promised a review once I finished it. This time actually came some time ago but there were other things in the way. Now however I’ve got to it.

Cover of Leslie Alcock\'s Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850

Cover of Leslie Alcock's Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850

It is a slightly odd book. This feeling starts with the ampersands in the title, and persists throughout the maze of headings and subheadings; the book is very finely divided, and although there are 23 chapters and 460 pages each actual section is quite short: few are more than two pages and some as short as a paragraph. Sometimes that’s just all there is to say about Northern British drinking vessels or whatever, but sometimes it’s because the section bearing the title only introduces the topic, which is then actually explored in a following section about some particular example under a heading of the same weight. If I’d been copy-editing I’d have shunted a lot of these bits around; as it is the whole thing flows rather intermittently, and one is never quite sure if what one is reading is a summary of knowledge or an argument in a debate. In those 23 chapters there’s quite a lot of, not repetition, but return to points now illustrated from a different angle. This contributes to the weirdness of layout: he actually gave the general set-up first and the detailed explanations afterwards, and this is the right way around, because where he went into detail you know what difference it makes; all the same, it is almost like someone sandwiched a bunch of big lectures and a lot of snippets about sites and objects together and published it, which since it was based on lectures initially may even be what happened. It is also overbalanced towards certain subjects: warfare, especially, gets three solid chapters, only partly justified by Alcock’s insistence that not only was it the ruling class’s primary pursuit, but that many books all but omit it and this needs redress. On the other hand there is, when Alcock had little to say on a subject, little said.

When he did get involved in the debates here, Alcock was usually pretty careful to summarise scholarship on any issue, and although he very often opted for a safe “we can’t know” point of view, sometimes he was quite willing to throw his hat into the ring. This is faintly dangerous, because as he was at several points almost proud to admit, some of his views were old-fashioned, at least among archaeologists—that texts have anything to tell archaeologists, that religion is a relevant subject for understanding and so on—and he was not fully up to date with the latest scholarship: “To give a striking example of the problem: as I wrote this Preface [in September 2001], I received a bookseller’s flyer listing six major books highly relevant to my period, all of them published in early 1999.” (p. xv) So although he was involved with the debates and the evidence, he was so from a position slightly behind the curve. That said, it’s rarely possible to discount his views straight off. An example for you: he discusses the Hilton of Cadboll stone, a section of which is depicted below. He notes that most people have read the uppermost middle figure, who appears to be female, as riding side-saddle, and somewhat caustically suggests that anyone who’s done any riding, as the sculptor must have known, knows that people side-saddle don’t look like that; he instead suggests that she’s seated sideways on the horse, and therefore that perhaps she is watching a hunt laid on for her as a spectacle, rather than taking part. The interpretation is of course questionable, though imaginative; but, she is certainly not in a side-saddle position as we recognise it. So: was the sculptor a numpty? Was there some other compulsion acting on him (or her)? Or was there something different going on here, and if so was it as Alcock here suggested?

Detail of the central panel of the Hilton of Cadboll 2 cross-slab

Detail of the central panel of the Hilton of Cadboll 2 cross-slab

This quite nicely illustrates what will, for some people, make this book worth reading. Alcock’s imagination and insight made him a sympathetic and interesting writer, and very few people can have known the archaeological material so well, or contributed as much to its exposure and, most importantly, its publication. He refers throughout to excavated evidence and objects, which are often as not illustrated, albeit not necessarily close by because any given Pictish stone or Scottish dún is probably serving to illustrate about five points. But on the other hand, although he is often careful to say that we cannot know, as I emphasise, some of the writer of Arthur’s Britain was still left in him to generate these occasional flights of fancy which aren’t really justified, even if they may for all we can tell be correct sometimes… So some slight caution is necessary.

But there are such a lot of sites and objects! and read, often, in stimulating and interesting ways, and usually without going beyond the evidence. I used to work on this area and there was plenty I’d not heard of here despite Professor Alcock’s supposed loss of touch with the current field. And there are, as I’ve mentioned, many many (grayscale) illustrations, half-tone and drawings, and a good few maps. The paper is all gloss: it’s a very heavy book, and the marbled endpapers add a certain old-fashioned grandeur even though it’s hardback, not cloth. The contents table lists all the headings and subheadings, like a French thèse‘s would, so that it’s very easy to find where something should be discussed. There is also a site gazetteer at the back, so you can at a glance see what was published about and an idea of what was found at any of the sites mentioned in the book. Also, the bibliography is huge and not as outdated as you might fear from Alcock’s initial caution.

What this all means is that the book is more use, once you’ve read it, as a work of reference. You will go back to it to look things up but you probably won’t need Professor Alcock’s arguments about them: though they are all well-founded in some sense it won’t give an impression that you know the field. It’s hard to know what market would be the target for this book. Since the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland published it, the obvious one is `antiquaries’ and that’s probably fair; it is a summary of the knowledge of one of the field’s greatest scholars but it’s not exactly a crowning statement of his career. It is a very handy reference manual but, although effort has been put in to make it easy to use like that, that’s not what Alcock was writing. It’s not a course-book because it’s so thick and involved, although the actual writing, what is not unimportant, is easy to follow and pleasant to read. What it is is a thorough and complete guide to what one major scholar thought could and should be known about the Early Historic period in Northern Britain and I’m pleased to have it, and will use it a lot. But I don’t feel that I have the latest news for having it on my shelf.

Call my Bluff, Northern British history style

In my 2006 tour of Scotland, sadly concluded before I began this blog, one of the places my then-partner and I flitted briefly through was the Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie, where I’d insisted we go when the name came up on a roadsign because of a dim conviction that there were Pictish symbol stones there. This wasn’t quite correct, but the tiny Museum was a definite recompense. Also, and here we reach the point, they had a bookshop. And since then, sitting in my to-read pile behind all the stuff that’s right-now-urgent-I’m-teaching-on-this-tomorrow important, has been Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 by the late Leslie Alcock. You see, for a while I’ve had an itching feeling that really, although early Scottish history is very obscure and there isn’t a great deal that one can safely say happened, all the same one could, with suitable caveats at every stage, write at least a short book that tried to tell you what we think happened. You know: formation of a Pictish overkingdom, arrival of the Gaels, successions, a few battles; it wouldn’t be a complete story and half of it would have to be explaining why this can only ever be guesswork, but it’d be much less frustrating than the currently fashionable trend of refusing to do any such thing and talking in terms of immutable culture groups, one of which (the Picts) suddenly disappears for no adequately explored reason. Sally Foster’s Picts, Gaels and Scots (Edinburgh 1996), I’m looking at you.

The Great Glen, central Scotland, from the air

So, because what most people know Leslie Alcock for is his 1971 book Arthur’s Britain, in which he did pretty much that for the allegedly Arthurian period, to the permanent staining of his reputation among historians it must be said, when I saw Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests it somehow leapt into my hands, because I thought there was a good chance that Alcock had written the book I thought needed to be written. If anyone was going to… But it seems not. In fact, what he seems to have done is write Picts, Gaels and Scots only properly.1 I will perhaps write a proper review of it when I get closer to finishing it, but it’s not on-topic for my current work, and it’s quite long, so I’m just sneaking sections of it while the computer (still not replaced) boots and so on. However, what I’ve read so far has mainly had me going “yes, fair enough” and not seeing much to argue about or celebrate, until today. There follow three quotes, two of which had me emphatically nodding in agreement, and one of which had me spitting metaphorical feathers. I shall give you a moment to decide which was which…

As for Ecgfrith’s treatment of Wilfrid, much of Stephen’s account may be discounted because of the large element of the miraculous. Moreover, even his adulatory biographer cannot conceal that Wilfrid was a quarrelsome and contumacious power-seeker. (4.1.2, p. 36)

[TRUE]

In various written sources we find that kings were related to peoples rather than to territories, so we read of a named rex Pictorum, ‘of Picts’, or rex Ultrahumbrensium, ‘of the dwellers north of the Humber’. Consequently, the definition of a particular people was not wholly linguistic [pace Bede, whose ‘five gentes he began by discussing]. More realistically, it was political, so that the Picts were those who, at any one time, paid tribute, and especially military service, to a rex Pictorum (4.2.1, p. 37)

[TRUE]

Above all these were the seven successive outstanding overlords for whom Bede uses the term ‘Bretwalda’. (4.2.1, p. 38)

[BLUFF]

Come on Professor! You knew better than that! I am quite disappointed. Look, let’s get this sorted out. Bede did not call anyone bretwalda. He doesn’t use the word. Yes, he gives a list of seven overlords (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II cap. 5), but he describes their power as follows: they “had the sovereignty of all the southern provinces that are divided from the northern by the river Humber”. The word ‘bretwalda’ only turns up in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, sub anno 827 when the chronicler, in describing the position of King Ecgberht of Wessex at that time, says:

And the same year king Ecgberht conquered the kingdom of Mercia and all that was south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king to be bretwalda; and the first who had so great a rule was Ælle king of the South Saxons; the one after was Caewlin king of West Saxons; the third was Æthelberht, king of the inhabitants of Kent; the fourth was Rædwald king of East Anglia; fifth was Edwin king of Northumbria; sixth was Oswald who ruled after him; seventh was Oswiu, Oswald’s brother; eighth was Ecgberht king of West Saxons.

Now this is Bede’s list, but with Ecgberht added on, fine. But where the word came from is a whole big range of debate.2 I’m not going to have that debate here, I don’t really have a view, but I do know this: it wasn’t from Bede. And I would have expected Leslie Alcock to know better.


1. He seems to have gone back rather on Arthur’s Britain, in fact; as well as saying that he now believes that no history worth the name can be written of Britain before at least 550, and really before 600 except that one has to explain the starting positions of the book at least a bit, he also cites Arthur’s Britain, in two different editions, as an example of work that attempts this and fails!

2. If you feel like pursuing the debate, though, I guess I should point you at Patrick Wormald’s “Bede, the Bretwaldas and the origins of the Gens Anglorum“, in idem, Donald Bullough & Roger Collins (eds), Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society: Studies presented to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill (Oxford 1983), pp. 99-129, and Steven Fanning, “Bede, Imperium, and the Bretwaldas” in Speculum Vol. 66 (Cambridge MA 1991), pp. 1-26.