Maternal Naming Among the Picts

Pictish symbol
A Pictish symbol

I was reading in Tim Clarkson’s The Picts: A History today. Clarkson was discussing how the Pictish kings have a very small number of names, even though they all have different fathers and are from apparently different patrilinear families. Clarkson supports the traditional matrilinear succession.

He discusses various ideas about why there is such a small number of Pictish names used for their kings — Bridei, Talorc(an), Drust [Drustan/Tristain], Domangart, etc.  The one idea he doesn’t mention, and no one has that I know of, is that there is such a small number of names because they are being named by their mothers. If it is matrilinear succession then it is a female kindred that power passes among the sons of a group of related women.  These women give their sons names that are common in their families, names of their brothers in particular. A fairly small group of related women, all cousins, would have a fairly small group of familial names to give.

There is this idea that the Picts had matrilinear succession but that their women were powerless. I don’t think that is true at all. Their women had prestige and honor. I only know of two sources of information about Pictish women, a Roman era account that talks about the arrogance of Pictish women ( not unlike the queen of the Brigantes, whose husband was the ruler.) These women certainly had prestigue. I actually think the role of women among the Brigantes at the time of the Roman conquest could give us a great deal of insight into Pictish practices. I also recall reading an archaeology report of a Pictish cemetery were the highest status pagan burials were all female. Like the queen of the Brigantes, Pictish royal women may have had religious roles that trumped political actions by their husbands or sons. Ironically, that reminds of of a very high status Scythian female burial found several years ago (Pictophiles will understand why I’m reminded of this.  🙂 ). If matrilinear succession and female status was based on female religious roles then it may follow that matrilinear succession broke down within a century or so of the conversion to Christianity.

I know some of you are thinking that this is impossible because fathers name children. Really? Give me one good reference for that. I can give one to the contrary. I remember reading in Ian Wood’s book The Missionary Life how Alcuin’s Life of Willibrord actually says that his mother named him, but that translators always change this to his father in the English editions — translator’s bias. Also, if you think of about Anglo-Saxon naming there is good reason to think that mothers did name the children. It explains why there are so many name elements common in the mothers family among the children. Consider the names of Eanflaed of Northumbria’s children: Ecgfrith (pronounced Edgefrith), Ælfwine, Osthryth, and Ælfflaed. These names match better with Eanflaed, daughter of Edwin (Eadwine), sister of Eadfrith and Osfrith, neice of Ælfric than for the family of Oswiu son of Æthelfrith. Note that Os- and -frith are also found in Eanflaed’s family; indeed, an Osfrith was her eldest brother. Now it is in the interest of a woman for her children to be successful among their fathers family because sons are a mothers social security, so mothers will take this into consideration in naming children. Also it is usually mothers who insist that sons are named after their fathers. I recall reading that boys that are named after their fathers today usually sons of single mothers. Naming a child after the father is a way of declaring paturnity. It was unusual for a medieval boy to have the exact same name as his father, but they often alliterate.  It also fits for a mother to name the children because children are part of the woman’s sphere until they reach at least age 7. Consider how many children didn’t survive infantcy (age 7); many children never left the mother’s sphere of authority.


11 thoughts on “Maternal Naming Among the Picts

  1. Marvellous, that was one of the things I was about to ask about. Picts are back on the blogosphere it seems, I’m arguing matriliny elsewhere today too. As to this post, well what you say sounds perfectly sensible but not at all Pict-specific. Certainly I could find you solid stuff to support what you say about mothers choosing names–but it would be Frankish, and seeking to explain the huge number of Bernards in the family of Toulouse, or indeed all the Carolingians called Charles and Louis. There the names are repeated because the previous holders’ success was worth evoking; do we need to see anything more than this in the Pictish names?

  2. As to high-status female burial, again, doesn’t need to be Pict-specific; there was a big square-cairn burial somewhere in Sussex I could find a reference for if need be where they found a female burial of the sixth or seventh century in the middle of a cemetery, and the grave had been opened up again later on one side to bury a child in it too. I’ve always been caught by that one, a sad story we’ll never get to hear. As I’ve said elsewhere, just because some women are important doesn’t give you a matriarchy or matriliny (and you don’t often get both of those at once); likewise, just because inheritance, for example, is matrilineal, doesn’t make women powerful, as it may merely make them prized.

  3. First, I didn’t say that women didn’t name their children in other cultures. I give you examples where I think it happens among the Anglo-Saxons. Yet, Pictish studies always talk about the small group of royal names and never consider that their mothers account for the small group.

    I asked for one reference that says that fathers only name children.

    I am saying that Pictish women had high status. Again, I’m not saying that women elsewhere didn’t. The cemetery I link above has more high status female burials than men.

    I think it is more than evoked status. The same names are too frequent to evoke a particular person anyway. Unlike the Franks we have more than one royal patriline going at once.

  4. I seem to have something magic in my fingers this week causing me to offend people on the blogosphere, I do apologise if, as it seems, I got you too. (They deleted my comment at Melissa Snell’s… ) What I was trying to get at is that whereas in other medieval cultures people tend to expect that women with influence are the exception, and a lot of work’s been done to redress that and put them back in their proper place in society, with Pictland, because of the matriliny question and the attention it’s drawn, the argument almost has to work the other way round. I was merely trying to suggest that the Picts perhaps weren’t as special in this respect as some people would argue, and that the woman in your Pictish cemetery and the one in that Sussex cairn might have recognised each other’s position without too much trouble. That cemetery’s very interesting though. I wonder how much we can put down to socially-defined practice and how much to the family’s or area’s particular genealogical circumstance; perhaps they had a number of powerful women outliving their husbands. Again, I could find you a Frankish parallel with three dowager noblewomen in the tenth-century Midi (Narbonne, Toulouse and I think Nîmes) who make gifts to each other in their wills and seem to have basically run the area for about five years in collaboration while their sons grew up…

    Back with the Franks, indeed, if you drop below the royal level, and consider just how many men called Bernard and Raimond you have to keep sorted out to understand ninth- and tenth-century Carolingian history, I think we could still have a convincing parallel to this Pictish name-stock.

    It’s not that I don’t think that some Pictish women were powerful and influential, but I’d be surprised if that was because of matrilineal succession you see, because elsewhere the lucky women don’t need it.

  5. The one big problem with your theory here is that none of the fathers have royal names. Now these guys were pretty important. They married royal Pictish women and sired kings, but none of them have a royal Pictish name. None of them are named Brude (Bridei) or Drust or Talorc. In late Pictish times, we have fathers named Wid, Fergus, Eanfrith, Oengus, Ferat, etc. None of them gave their sons names from their dynasty and how would they know which of their sons would succeed? Surely there were many men who could succeed at any one time since all cousins would be capable.

  6. There is something going on with the names, certainly, Of course we don’t know that the kings succeeded because of being sons of Pictish royal women; are we really going to assume that all these successions were within whatever rules there may have been? And there were of course both fathers and king called Oengus, Fergus and Talorc, albeit few. But I have to admit that these bits aren’t explanations by themselves. I think I’m just trying to argue against a perfectly-working system of succession of whatever kind, because that really would be unusual!

  7. Picking up on an earlier comment by Jonathan: “It’s not that I don’t think that some Pictish women were powerful and influential, but I’d be surprised if that was because of matrilineal succession you see, because elsewhere the lucky women don’t need it.”

    I agree. Pictish matriliny and the socio-economic status of Pictish women are two separate themes. There are obviously connections between the two but the one is not dependant on the other. Societies where matrilineal succession is the norm do not routinely assign power and authority to women of the royal kindred. Anthropological studies of matrilineal societies in Africa show them to be thoroughly patriarchal, with high-status women consigned to traditional roles. These studies provide useful models for the situation in Pictland and have been cited in the fairly recent “matrilinear debate” among Scottish historians.

    This is not to deny that some female members of the Pictish elite held real power in the midst of the prevailing patriarchy. It would be strange indeed if none of them did. Royal kindreds in contemporary England produced powerful female warlords such as Aethelflaed of Mercia and Aethelburh of the West Saxons so we should perhaps envisage one or more Pictish equivalents. But these Pictish women, like Aethelflaed and Aethelburh, were surely exceptions to the rule. Their authority would have derived from their individual qualities rather than from a system of royal succession that favoured their sons and brothers.

  8. Just noticed the comment by Tim Clarkson “Anthropological studies of matrilineal societies in Africa show them to be thoroughly patriarchal, with high-status women consigned to traditional roles”. Which studies and by whom? Surely not studies on the Temple of the Moon in Yemen…the seat of power for countless generations of ruling queens whose empires covered large areas of Africa. Have we also forgotten the powerful queens of Ireland whose succession depended on matrilineal bloodlines? On another point, who told you that a traditional role is not a powerful role?

Comments are closed.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: