The Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian's Wall
One aspect of the current debate on Scottish independence is the depiction of Hadrian’s Wall as a symbolic boundary between England and Scotland. Newspaper journalists and other media folk, especially those based in London, seem to like the idea of an Anglo-Scottish border defined by a massive stone rampart. The fact that the Wall has never marked the actual Border is evidently less important than its value as a symbolic frontier between North and South, between ‘Us and Them’. This is nothing new, of course. Back in the sixth century, a writer called Gildas used the Wall for a similar rhetorical purpose. Gildas presented it as a barrier between the Romanised Britons and the barbarous Picts whom he regarded as pagan savages lurking in the untamed, unchristianised northern lands. As far as he was concerned, Hadrian’s Wall was designed to keep the Picts at a safe distance. Not strictly correct, but it made a good tale for his readers. In common with some present-day journalists, Gildas didn’t really know much about the history of the Wall, but its solid permanence helped him to make a point about the difference between Us and Them.

Hadrian's Wall
In a recent article at the Almost Archaeology blog, Adrián Maldonado looks at the various ways in which Hadrian’s Wall has been perceived since Roman times. He considers the monument’s use as a symbol – not only in modern political writing but also in fictional narratives such as movies. Along the way he examines how people living north of the Wall have often been portrayed according to a stereotype – the ‘blue-painted ginger maniac’ – which is still a familiar caricature. Variations on the theme turn up in movies such as Braveheart, King Arthur and Centurion (see image below).

Centurion movie

Adrián’s article is well worth reading – a fine blend of ancient history, modern politics and movie criticism. Take a look and share it around.

Adrián Maldonado: The Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall: Archaeology and the Matter of Britain

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8 comments on “The Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall

  1. Can anyone explain why woad – commonly accepted as the essential ingredient for painting yourself blue – is nowhere found growing in the wild in Britain, north or south of the Wall?

    • Tim says:

      I recall reading an article which said woad isn’t native to Britain, so maybe the warriors who faced the Romans used something else for their blue warpaint. Woad was being grown at York around.900 AD but was presumably imported by the Vikings.

      • There is v full explanation about woad on a website called A Modern Herbal as follows:

        Dyer’s Woad, French Guède (supposed to be derived from Gaudum, now Gualdo, the name of a town in the Roman States, where it was extensively cultivated), was formerly much cultivated in Britain for the dye extracted from the leaves. It is now nearly superseded by indigo, but is still cultivated in the south of France and in Flanders, as its dye is said to improve the quality and colour of indigo, when mixed in certain proportions. Woad is cultivated to a small extent in Lincolnshire and Woad mills are still worked at Wisbech, but not for the dye itself, the produce fixes true indigo, and is also used to form a base, or mordant, for a black dye.

        Woad belongs to a genus spread over Southern Europe and Western Asia, and from having been much cultivated in many parts of Asia and Europe, has become established in stony and waste places as far north as Sweden. It is found in many parts of Great Britain, but not fully naturalized, except near Tewkesbury, where, according to Hooker, it appears to be indigenous. At the earliest time in the history of Britain it must have been plentiful in the country, since Caesar found the natives stained with it, but afterwards, probably from its extensive use, it became less common, and we find our Saxon forefathers importing Woad to dye their home-spun cloth. Their name for it was Wad or Waad, whence the English name woad.


        —Description—Gerard tells us:
        ‘Glaston or Guadon, Woad is about three feet high, with long, bluish-green leaves growing round and out of the stalk, growing smaller as they reach the top, when they branch out with small yellow flowers, which in turn produce seed like little black tongues. The root is white and single. The Wild Woad is similar except that the stalk is softer, smaller and browner, and the leaves and tongues narrower. Where Woad is cultivated in fields, the wild Woad grows. It flowers from June to September. Caesar in his fifth book of the French wars mentions that the British stained themselves blue with woad. Pliny in his 22nd book, Chapter 1, says the French call it Glastum and British women and girls colouring themselves with it went naked to some of their sacrifices.

        ‘Garden Woad is dry but not sharp, Wild Woad is drier and sharper and biting. The decoction made of Woad is good for hardness of the spleen, also good for wounds and ulcers to those of strong constitution and those accustomed to much physical labour and coarse fare. It is used as a dye, profitable to some, hurtful to many.’

        Culpepper says:
        ‘Some people affirm the plant to be destructive to bees, and fluxes them, which if it be, I cannot help it. I should rather think, unless bees be contrary to other creatures, it possesses them with the contrary disease, the herb being exceeding dry and binding. . . . A plaister made thereof, and applied to the region of the spleen which lies on the left side, takes away the hardness and pains thereof. The ointment is excellently good for such ulcers as abound with moisture, and takes away the corroding and fretting humours: It cools inflammations, quenches St. Anthony’s fire, and stays defluxion of the blood to any part of the body.’

        He also says that the seeds, if chewed, turn the saliva blue.


        —Cultivation—The cultivation of Woad was formerly carried on by people who devoted themselves entirely to it, and as crops of the plant are not successful for more than two years on the same piece of land, they never stayed long in one place, but hiring land in various districts, led a wandering life with their families and gained their living by their crops. Later, many farmers devoted a portion of their land to the growth of Woad, alternating the spots year after year.

        Good loam soil is needed, land in good heart, repeatedly ploughed and harrowed from autumn till the following August, when the seeds are sown in drills, being thinned out by hoeing when about a fortnight old, to a distance of about 6 inches apart. In the spring, careful hoeing to remove weeds is necessary. The first crop can be gathered as soon as the leaves are fully grown, while perfectly green. The leaves are picked off when the plant is coming into flower. If the land be good and the crop well husbanded, it will produce three or more gatherings, repeated at intervals of a few weeks, but the first two gatherings are the best. An acre of land will produce a ton of Woad, and in good seasons, a ton and a half. If the land in which the seed is sown should have been in culture before for other crops, it will require dressing before it is sown – about twenty loads of stable manure to the acre being laid on and ploughed in with the last ploughing before the seeds are sown, this being enough to keep the ground in heart till the final crop of Woad is gathered.

  2. esmeraldamac says:

    Very true, that. The number of people who are surprised that the English can live north of the wall… in England!

    And I clearly must give up the use of blue eyeshadow… 😉

  3. dearieme says:

    I’ve recently read someone who said that even after the Antonine Wall had been abandoned, parts of the area north of Hadrian’s Wall were still treated as Roman territory; the wall was a control line, built on the sensible short route across the isthmus, not the border. (Sorry: I can’t remember who the writer was.) In other words, not only has the wall never been the Scotland-England border, it may never have been the Roman-Barbarian border either.

    • Tim says:

      I think this is the correct interpretation. Hadrian’s Wall seems to have ignored tribal boundaries and was probably more like a police checkpoint than a political frontier.

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