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.
* * * * * * *
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).
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.
* * * * * * *
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.