A new Pictish frontier

I’ve placed this post in two subject categories. It’s mainly about the Picts, so that’s the first category, but it’s also about Blogging, so it gets added there too. I rarely write about being a blogger – probably because Senchus is more of a scrapbook of historical notes than a traditional weblog – but this post is different to most of the others here. It mentions two other blogs, one of which provided the initial spark to write the post, the other subsequently publishing an expanded version of the main points.

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Drifting through the blogosphere last Friday (February 18th) I called in at one of my regular haunts – Jonathan Jarrett’s medieval blog. Scrolling down to Jonathan’s ‘currently reading’ section, I spotted Guy Halsall’s 2007 book Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West. By coincidence, this book should also be listed here at Senchus in my own ‘currently reading’ section – if I had one. I started reading the book last Friday, then had to put it on hold for a while because I’m already working through something else (Dennis Harding’s The Iron Age in Northern Britain). I am however looking forward to settling down with Halsall’s book as soon as I finish Harding’s (which, btw, is an excellent archaeological ‘prequel’ to early medieval Scotland).

Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations & The Roman West

One thing I couldn’t resist, before putting Barbarian Migrations back on my bookshelf, was a glance at Chapter 4 ‘Society beyond the frontier’, especially the sub-heading ‘North of Hadrian’s Wall: the Picti’. In this section, Professor Halsall questions the conventional view that the Picts of Roman times (as opposed to those of the 7th-9th centuries) dwelt north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus. He points out that the peoples below the isthmus as far south as Hadrian’s Wall (whom we usually think of as simply ‘Britons’) are absent from the documentary record between the 3rd and 5th centuries. In this period, he reminds us, the only people north of the Wall who get a mention are the Picti (‘painted men’). Thus, if we had no preconceived ideas about Late Roman or early medieval political geography, we might reasonably infer that anybody living north of the Wall was regarded by the Romans as a ‘Pict’. By the same argument, the ‘tribes’ located by early Roman geographers between the Wall and the Forth-Clyde isthmus (e.g., the Votadini and Selgovae) would cease to be described merely as ‘Britons’ in the 3rd century and would instead be viewed (by the Romans) as members of a southern Pictish confederacy. Halsall envisages this confederacy dissolving during the collapse of Roman Britain, after which the Votadini and their neighbours reasserted their separate identities by shaking off the foreign label Picti to become ordinary Britons once more. The northern Pictish confederacy, less directly affected by the Roman withdrawal, retained its identity to emerge as the familiar Picts of early medieval times.

It’s certainly an interesting theory – and no less plausible than the conventional one. It makes us think about complex issues such as ethnicity and identity, and about the impact of Rome on people living north of Hadrian’s Wall, and about the dramatic Pictish attacks on the Wall as described by Gildas. One drawback with my plucking this theory out of the book is that it gets presented here in isolation, whereas its correct context is Halsall’s wider study of barbarian peoples on the frontiers of the Western Empire. Thus, Halsall adds weight to his Pictish theory by pointing to the situation in Germany, where large barbarian confederacies formed along the Rhine frontier. If relations between Romans and barbarians in North Britain replicated the Rhine pattern, then a large and hostile confederacy – composed of the dreaded ‘painted men’ – should probably be expected in the region immediately beyond Hadrian’s Wall.

In the book, the Picts (and Scots) make their first appearance at the beginning of Chapter 4, in consecutive sub-sections. These are followed by a longer study of the Germanic barbarians east of the Rhine and a final (shorter) section on the Moors. All of these peoples turn up later in Chapter 12 which deals with the 5th and 6th centuries. I haven’t yet given either of these chapters a full reading, but even a brief glance shows them to be useful ‘compare and contrast’ studies of the various groups lurking beyond the imperial frontiers.

Having returned the book to its slot on my bookshelf on Friday night I resolved to write a brief blogpost about it. What I didn’t know was that on the same evening, in St Andrews, the biennial Anderson Lecture was being delivered by Professor Halsall himself, on the very topic I intended to blog about. On the next day, the text of the lecture appeared at Halsall’s own blog, ‘Historian on the Edge’, but it was Monday 21st before I spotted it during a leisurely cyber-ramble. By then, I had already written a draft of this post. My first thought was to not bother posting after all, because the main points were now available in much greater detail elsewhere. But I figured it might still be of interest, especially if it contained links to the lecture text, together with an account of how a couple of journeys around the blogosphere prompted it and shaped it.

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The two books mentioned in this post are:

Guy Halsall, Barbarian migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Dennis Harding, The Iron Age in Northern Britain: Celts and Romans, natives and invaders (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004)

I’ve drawn attention to Guy Halsall’s ‘compare and contrast’ approach in an earlier post on the Picts. A link from there takes you to his blog or you can go directly to the text of his Anderson Lecture.

17 comments on “A new Pictish frontier

  1. Just curious, in his book does he talk about the Huns moving into Europe and putting pressure on the Germanic tribes?

    • Tim says:

      Chapter 6, The Gothic Crisis, has a sub-section The Hunnic Storm which questions the notion that the Huns ‘induced a mass Gothic panic’. Later, in Chapter 8, The Triumph of the Generals, there’s a section on Aetius and Attila.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Amerikanaki, William Wallace. William Wallace said: Senchus: A new Pictish frontier http://bit.ly/fleTvL […]

  3. Phil says:

    I quite like the idea of the Votadini, Selgovae etc being ‘Southern Picts’ – might these be the peoples St Ninian (if he existed)is said to have converted? Interestingly, Stuart McHardy has for a long time been describing all those north of Hadrian’s Wall as ‘Picts’.

    • Tim says:

      Here’s a quote from Stuart’s book A new history of the Picts:
      ‘It appears possible then, if not probable, that the terms Caledonians and Picts were used to describe all the peoples living in what we now call Scotland.’ (p.39)

      His standpoint is basically the same as Guy Halsall’s, namely that the Romans viewed everyone north of Hadrian’s Wall as a Pict.

      On the preceding page, Stuart suggests that the Votadini, Selgovae and Damnonii might have merged to become the Maeatae confederation. I think this idea is worth exploring alongside the conventional view (to which I subscribe at present) that the Maeatae lived north of the Antonine Wall.

      All of this is old news to you, Phil, because you’ve read Stuart’s book, but it might be of interest to those who haven’t.

      Turning to Ninian, I wonder if the ‘Southern Picts’ idea doesn’t seem so outlandish after all, in light of what Halsall and McHardy are saying. Even the fabled Galloway Picts might be in line for a reprieve, and maybe someone should take a new look at the symbols on Trusty’s Hill?

  4. Phil says:

    Stuart bases his idea (in part) on Dio Cassius’ statement “The Maetae live by the wall which divides the country into two halves and the Caledonians beyond them; and they both inhabit wild and waterless mountains and lonely and swampy plains, without walls, cities, or cultivated land…”. He believes the wall referred to is Hadran’s Wall rather than the Antonine. As you say, worth exploring. Some place the Maetae north of the Antonine based on place-name evidence eg Dumyat (fort of the Maetae) in the Ochils – however this could simply indicate the northern boundary of the confederation. Sure I recall Stuart, in a lecture I attended, saying using this definition meant that the Scots in Argyll were Picts in the Roman’s eyes – finishing off with the statement “See – we’re a’ Picts!”.

    • Tim says:

      With all the old ideas about ethnicity and identity dropping like ninepins, it’s beginning to look as if a Roman soldier around AD 350 would peer over the parapet of Hadrian’s Wall and (with a nod to Stuart McHardy) utter some Latin equivalent of “They’re a’ Picts”.

  5. What about the differences between the Cumbric and Pictish languages?

  6. Phil says:

    If, as Katherine Forsyth attests,Pictish was Brythonic,then perhaps for a period the languages spoken north of the Antonine and between the walls were mutually intelligible – but by Bede’s time had diverged. Or – as Jon Jarrett alluded to in a post nearly a year ago (‘Iron Age’ Picts and their spoken language)- areas under Pictish hegemony spoke several languages….

    • That is a pretty small area for language to diversify. I suspect that Bede could tell the difference between a dialect and a different language. He knew for example that there were different dialects within Old English.

      • Tim says:

        In Bede’s time, I imagine, the Pictish branch of Brythonic/Brittonic was being influenced by Gaelic. If so, then the speech of some Picts might already have sounded like gibberish to Cumbric speakers.

      • I continue to wrestle with this, but my current suggestion is probably that Bede knew that some Picts (perhaps most especially those in the south-west) spoke a language that wasn’t British. He may indeed have defined them as a ‘gens’ because of that. But we don’t have to then follow that because Bede says there are four languages spoken in Britain, that everyone inside his culture groups necessarily spoke the appropriate one. I think we may have differing ways of calling a Pict a Pict here.

  7. […] that there were some strong Pictish women. Another interesting topic concerns the theme of Pictish ethnicity and it’s interplay on the interaction between the Picts and various other peoples. And the […]

  8. Tim says:

    Jon Jarrett wrote: ‘I think we may have differing ways of calling a Pict a Pict here.’

    And differing ways of calling a Gael a Gael, especially if he/she lived outside whatever vague zone Bede had in mind when he wrote of Scots settling in northwest Britain. Any blurring of firmly-drawn lines between ethnic/cultural groups works for me. A pity, really, because Bede’s four language blocks make our maps look so much neater…. 😉

  9. […] week, Tim at Senchus put up a post on Pictish ethnicity and frontiers, and also has a post leading us to a 3D image of the Dupplin cross this […]

  10. badonicus says:

    Looking forward to reading this book in the near future.


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