Pseudo-History and Historicization

After a long wait, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (New Edinburgh History of Scotland) by James Fraser has been published and arrived in my mailbox this week!  Its out in the UK, and should be soon available in the US. I’ve known about this book for several years so I’m rather eager to see what is here. Expect lots of Scottish blogging in the coming, oh say, months.  I wondered how long it would take before I couldn’t resist blogging and I didn’t get through the introduction. Sigh… it could take me a while to blog through a 434 page book!

So I think James makes a very good point in his discussion of sources when he notes that Bede and Adomnan of Iona (the two biggest sources for Scotland up to 795) as premier biblical scholars knew the value of parables in history. They had the gospel as their guide. In the gospel Jesus uses parables to convey truths.  A parable is a fictional story used to make a point, or a moral, to convey a truth. The fact that the story is fictional does not negate the truth or moral of the story. When previous historians referred to this era as full of fables (in a broad sense), they were partially correct. Much of what is written, particularly in Adomnan’s Life of Columba is parable/fable, but they were wrong to dismiss these sources as useless. An example from Fraser’s book:

“In Vita Columbae, Adomnan told a fable or parable of his own, adopting Jesus’ method of marrying surface fiction to deeper truth….He wrote that a man chased a girl down in Leinster. Fleeing from him, she came upon Columba and his teacher — real historical figures in a real place. The girl hid beneath their robes, but the man was not daunted and killed her with his spear. Adomnan had recently forumalated a law protecting non-combatants* from the scourge of war. Columba’s teacher in this parable, ‘in great distress of mind’ over the killing, represents the distress and sense of powerlessness of the whole Church prior to the introduction of Adomnan’s Law. But Columba, who correctly pronounces that the killer will be struck down immediately by God, speaks with a different voice: that of a Church newly armed with the Law. (p. 4)”

Fraser notes that this kind of story is called pseudo-history by academics. Pseudo-history of course means fake history, a disparaging term. Historians who don’t want to take the time to interpret and untangle historical parables dismiss these accounts as useless. It takes much more effort to understand these stories. At least we should understand that Bede and Adomnan didn’t view history as we do. Of course, neither did William of Malmesbury, Symeon of Durham or any other medieval historian. At least with Adomnan and Bede it should be obvious (though apparently not for earlier generations), where later medieval historians can fool even scholars into thinking that they view history the way we do. For medieval writers history, hagiography and biblical parables are viewed as being similar things. Its important to note though that Bede and Adomnna interpreted history the same way they interpreted the bible. They knew to look beyond the surface. They understood what they were reading, even if we don’t.

Getting back to Fraser… he notes that the Life of Columba is full of parables that tell spiritual or political truths, and the political truths refer to Adomnan’s day, not Columba’s. Indeed, I would add that the Life of Columba is more a collection of parables featuring Columba than a traditional hagiography. The Life of Columba has virtually no continuous narrative so we are left wondering about some very basic facts of Columba’s life.

“An important sub-category of pseudo-history in our sources sacrifices strict historical accuracy (as we might call it today) in the interests of more profound truths that were specifically historical, as monastic scholars understood the nature of history. Men like Bede and Adomnan were taught the great historical books of the Old Testament were, as St Augustine put it, ‘more concerned, or at least not less so, to foretell things to come than to relate things past’. …As top scholars, Bede and Adomnan thus expected history primarily to shed light on the predestined present or future. It is no surprise that they sometimes ‘discovered’ that it did so (and occasionally even helepd it to do so), reanalyzing historical scenarios in order to identify the hand of God at work.” (Fraser, p. 5)

If you think well, perhaps for Adomnan but not Bede, then recall how Bede rewrote the Life of Cuthbert. All hagiographers write history in this way, picking and choosing which tales to include by the moral or ultimate truth they wish to convey. We know from studying the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert and Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, that Bede was not above altering scenes to suit his purposes. He does the same in the Historia, and what else are those little moral stories Bede includes about common people or some nearly nameless monk but parables. Some may be historical and some may not be, almost all that aren’t complete fiction will have been reshaped by Bede to suit his purpose. As Fraser notes this kind of rewriting or reimagining of history is called historicization by academics. Fraser gives another example of historiczing that I think also illustrates the perils of interpreting these accounts:

“To see it in action, we may turn once more to Vita Columbae, this time to Adomnan’s story about a Pictish noble named Tarain, whom Columba assists after he is sent into exile. Did Columba really know a Pict with this name and these troubles? Maybe he did. On the other hand, Adomnna certainly did. Just as he was putting the finishing touches on his Law, a Pictish king called Tarain was cast out of his kingdom. He went into exile in Ireland, passing into obscurity. In Adomnan’s story, Tarain the Pict too finds sanctuary among Gaels. Historicizing of recent events by Adomnan may, therefore, be suspected here; in that event, the events described almost certainly never happened.

Does the story’s fabulousness render it useless? Not at all. Once we have caught him in the act, it becomes possible to learn more from Adomnan about the exile of King Tarain than any conventional source explicitly records. For example, Adomnan calls his character a mere nobilis or noble, not a rex or king — hinting that he accepted the validity of King Tarain’s deposition. Moreover, that Columba helps Tarain the Pict to find sanctuary hints that Adomnan, abbot of Columba’s monastery, was involved in helping King Tarain. Adomnan’s story ends with treachery: Tarain’s host murders him ‘my a cruel order’, and Columba pronounces that divine punishment will see his treacherous killed descend ‘to the infernal regions’. The underlying message will have been as clear to Adomnan’s contemporaries (assuming they were wise to his historicizing) as it is to you: whoever tries to have Tarain killed in exile ‘by a cruel order’ will earn a one way trip ‘to the infernal regions’.” (Fraser, p. 5-6)

I think it is without much doubt that historicizing went on in both Adomnan and Bede. However, as this story and indeed bibical parables illustrate, interpreting them is not so clear cut.  I might think that Fraser is drawing a bit too much out of this story, maybe you are ok with it. These parables are a double edged sword for the historian. I think its rather unlikely that the people who matter, Tarain’s secular hosts, will ever read or hear of Adomnan’s story. Perhaps this is Adomnan’s way of getting the message out to other monastics that the killer of Tarain is destined for hell. This would mean that either Tarain is already dead or Adomnan expects his death because of the number or power of his enemies. I’m sure Adomnan’s ability to prophecy or interpret contemporary politics within the Life of Columba is part of his superb legacy.


* Adomnan’s law is best known for its protection of women, more so than protection of non-combatants. Yes it protects the church and children, but the Law of the Innocents was famed even in medieval times for giving speical protection to women, especially from men in domestic situtations. So this parable could reflect the churches distress at domestic abuse or dangerous courtship (if you can call it courtship when her choice to to give in or die). See these are the various interpretations of parable, this story sounds more like a guy who can’t take no for an answer than an act of war to me.

12 thoughts on “Pseudo-History and Historicization

  1. I have come to expect this sort of thing from Fraser, he makes a very seaworthy-looking boat, makes all shipshape, and then pushes it out slightly farther than I at least am comfortable with. It does make his papers very entertaining and the foundations are always very solid but the last furlong ends up making me uncertain about the race as a whole. Sorry, mixed metaphors, but you probably see what I mean. So I really like the reanalysis of the Taran story up until the bit you quote seeing the fictionalised king’s death as a warning; I like you feel that this must mean that the historical Taran, whenever he was, was dead, and Adomnán was frustratedly forecasting divine vengeance.

  2. This is another fabulous article, and I am very pleased to see someone else also contemplates senses of “parable” – these I see to be the basis of the Arthurian Mystery Plays, and for example, to me “The Sword and the Stone” Mystery Play is – in senses of parable – all about “pulling the double edged sword of truth” from “the stone which renders true meaning useless when it is bound in the stone”.

    Although both Bede and Adomnan of Iona are perhaps “two bigger” sources for the geographical area of ‘modern day Scotland’ up until 795, the earliest sources are from a time that was well before Bede, and before the Scots (hence before Scotland) were between the Antonine Wall and Hadrian’s Wall, vis-a-vis Taliesin, and Aneirin, with the Welsh Triands (&c) following close behind.

    So I think that superlatives (such as ‘biggest’) depend upon context and of course context changes with focus – of course, little is said by the ancient Bards about the Picts, upon which perhaps Bede and Adomnan are the bigger sources, however, for between the Antonine Wall and Hadrian’s Wall, Taliesin, Aneirin, and such things as the Welsh Triads, were written by natives of the territories about which they were written, in a time before Scotland, even before the Scots Gaelic language or Old English existed between the walls.

    Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) didn’t fall from the Cymry to the Angles until 638 AD, which was coincidentally the same year that Rheged in the west was articulated to Northumbria (broadly Bernicia and Deira, depending upon which decade we are talking about around this time), so although I am in awe of Bede’s works because he writes from within living memory of Oswy, because Oswy was King of Rheged by marrying Rhiainfelt, then ‘through Oswy’ and Oswy’s peers in Northumbria, Bede in particular would have had a lot of material that was conveyed to him by people who more than likely, would have actually remembered Oswy’s reign.

    Yet Taliesin and Aneirin composed their works around three generations before Oswy, so in that context, Bede was writing down information that was around 5 or 6 generations old – but the former bards composed their works as first hand witnesses in a time that was even before the Angles had any foothold between the walls.

    But, this is not to say that I think that the bards are deserving of any superlatives just because they composed their works around 5 or 6 generations before Bede (etc), as their writings have a different context to Bede.

  3. Anthony these bards are not recorded for centuries after they reputedly lived. Scholars can’t even decide on which poems are the oldest and likely theirs. The Four Ancient Books of Wales that contain all these poems and the triads are from the earliest 13th century, and some as late as the 15th century. They can not be used as a basis for history. There are very few British sources: Gildas, Patrick, Historia Brittonum , and yes Y Gododdin is generally accepted to be that old but there is far from any consensus about what it says about history or its date.

    Again, Oswiu was not king of Rheged by his marriage.

  4. Hi Michelle, something that I think that we are going to find becoming prominent in the Cumbric Revival is the notion that it is racist to consider that the oral passage of information by Our Welsh Native Ancestors (tautology intentional) was (and is) is a substandard method of the transmission of information. In Cumberland, just half a millennium ago many of my fellow Statesmen had their land confiscated from them because its title was passed orally according to our native tradition, rather than by written deed – ethnic cleansing in the modern parlance – which is a strange and alien method according to our native ways. As these things become more and more evident, I think that historians are going to start to appreciate just how skillful an oral nation is, by virtue, in part, because they have to be just because they don’t write things down. That they were written down in the 13th and 15th century (and I’m giving you lee-way here as I have read expert views that suggest earlier, but had it been the 20th century my view would be the same) merely means that Scoti-Anglo-Saxon cultures were beginning to have such an adverse impact upon we Welsh that it was necessary to start writing them down, but until beforehand had not so much needed to. To say this conversely, communities in such as Bede existed, when compared with the Cymry natives, were inadequately equipped with oral skills that their communication skills were by large less developed that they needed external materials such as written text. But we natives have declined in our own capacities to something that is nearer the Anglo-Saxon capacity, having been so adversely effected by the Anglo-Saxons. (hehe, this is a pre-breakfast blog, I hope that it reads ok this-evening!) But to sum up, respectfully, although I don’t think that you have intended to be racist, I think that you have been: although I am not offended because I understand this age we live in, I shall start to become offended if in the course of time that the populace as a whole doesn’t start realising how racist things are against we natives. You are a great historian, I enjoy your blogs immensely, so I hope that you don’t see this as an attack on you, to the contrary I uphold you – but the action (which I see separate from you) is one that I am politely objecting to.

  5. The poetry attributed to Taliesin is part of the literary corpus of medieval Wales and is not a primary source for early North British events. This is not a slur on the Brittonic heritage of present-day Cumbria but an irrefutable fact of textual history.

  6. Anthony, there is a great deal of work done by anthropologists and psychologists on the accuracy or otherwise of oral and ‘racial’ memory. Some of it has shown that surprising accuracy is possible (though you would perhaps not be surprised) and some of it has shown that nonetheless, deformation is common and to be expected. If you are suggesting that the Welsh were abnormally able to retain the details of their poetic heritage, despite definitely having been a literate culture when they were only sub-Romans, as opposed to “the Anglo-Saxon capacity”, then it’s not we who are contending for racially-specific characteristics, but you. In any case, what is at issue is not whether someone could have memorised all this stuff and handed it down for generations; it’s whether we as historians can differentiate that from someone having made it up whole- or part-cloth like Geoffrey of Monmouth in the century when it’s first recorded. And of course we can’t. We can’t rule either out; but the other work on memory teaches us to be sceptical. These are not our casual assumptions but the results of genuine scholarly work. If you would like to do some reading round this I can recommend the papers from a small conference that were all printed together in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series Vol. 9 (Cambridge: CUP 1999).

  7. Hi Tim and Jonathan, I really appreciate your feedback, one of the reasons why I am engaging with people on this site is because of my respect for Michelle, the author of the site, and those others such as both of you who have given me feedback on the issues that I have raised … I guess that just like you, I am looking for real measures to size up what I discover here and there myself, but I am also hoping that people can provide me with a good basis to change my views where necessary, as well as, and to a lesser degree, I hope that I can make similar contributions to change other people’s views when my own people are adversely effected – for me I’m not involved here as a historian, but one who is not just trying to absorb his own heritage, but who is trying to cut a path forwards where we are able to enjoy our true heritage.

    To Tim, regarding his comment: I believe the case to be the contrary as there was a great migration from The Old North to the north west of Wales (Gwynedd) and a particular feature of this is that the material that they brought with them was from The Old North – the sections of the “literary corpus of medieval Wales” that I referred to was produced by those of The Old North and their descendants who had moved to the north of Wales, and in the north of Wales today the descendants of these people are actually “native” of The Old North and not the principality ~ and I hope that they rejoice in this matter – they too are my fellow countrymen and one of their great prides is that they and their ancestors have been excellent custodians of the heritage that they took from The Old North to the north of Wales!

  8. To Jonathan, yes by large I agree and shall dig out your reference!

    On your general paragraph either side of “…it’s whether we as historians can differentiate that…”, of course this rings true, but perhaps your perspective is as a “historian” however mine is not, my own perspective is merely as one who is living his own native heritage and in doing that, is trying to drive back the walls of prejudice that come against us from people who are historians (not yourself here, by the way, I have enjoyed your works so far!) but who as historians have a demonstrated propensity to prejudice we natives. To illustrate this, how many historians (indeed the public at large) refer to people of the The UK corporately as “Britons” when they are clearly not, we are living in an age when the identity theft of the ancient Britons is at an extreme (hence so is the prejudice against we their heirs). But I am not intending to slight anyone in particular here but to try to bring around a change amongst not just the historian community but also the public at large, as its all very well someone discussing history and drawing conclusions, but, when it prejudices our right of “correspondence” under the Human Rights Act, there is a clear measure of something being a-miss. By large I am waffling here as your comments rung quite true in my first reading of them just now but I am very interested in not being thought of as a historian, but merely one who is a native living his heritage and trying to protect himself and his people from perceptions that even unwittingly, prejudice us. I’ve had a long day today so I hope that I haven’t shot off the mark here, of course if I have, say something because equally I want to straighten my own ways where I err!

  9. PS. By the way, Michelle, the reason that I am engaging with you and others on this site is because of my respect for you, and because of the heavy weight of my last post, I hope you realise that!

  10. O my, I guess I can’t leave you all alone long enough for me to get a good night’s sleep and go to work.

    This blog is about medieval history, culture and literature. This blog is not concerned with modern nationalism or modern politics. I really don’t want to go into it any more than that. I’ll just start it up more and I don’t want to do that. As an American I’ll wind up insulting everyone all around.

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