The Makers of Scotland

Tim Clarkson, The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings. Edinburgh: John Donald, 2012. 224 pg.

In his third book, Tim Clarkson takes on the first thousand years of recorded Scottish history. It’s a huge task, but Tim was more than up to the challenge. I really enjoyed it. I tend to focus so much on my narrow time period that it’s really good to properly put it all in context. For example, I was struck while reading this the parallels between the Anglo-Saxon adventus and the Scandinavian contact and migration to Britain. Both begin as raiders seeking only loot from soft targets (villas vs monasteries), then both are either offered payments or mercenary positions to protect Britain from their fellows, and lastly by military and other permanent migration to the isles.  All food for thought and I do wonder by these parallels aren’t talked about more. By usually constraining most of my reading to the pre-Viking period I can often miss such important contextual associations.

Do the math, to cover a thousand years in 225 pages, you can only expect so much depth. I think Tim covers as much chronological detail as possible in a book this length. He managed to untangle the Scottish and Pictish families and succession clearly and briefly. I wish I could talk him into writing a Men of the North style book on Dál Riata! By choosing not to delve into academic controversies, Tim swept aside discredited theories, replacing them with well received  new paradigms, and sometimes making a choice where the there isn’t consensus. Countless updates and choices brings out the clear and consistent voice of the historian I have gotten to know so well over so many years. Tim doesn’t write much about historical theory but his historical paradigms are deftly woven through The Makers of Scotland, just as with his other books. In some ways his voice has more clarity here because of the expanse of time covered – and that is a good thing!  I highly recommend The Makers of Scotland as an ideal, comfortable read whether you want a contextual refresher  or are coming to Scottish history for the first time.

Tim Clarkson is a generous and accessible author. He can be found at his blog Senchus (highly recommended) and on twitter at @EarlyScotland.

Plague in a time of war

One of the oddities of the plague in Britain and Ireland is the absence of any visible impact on political history. The few kings who died of plague were apparently replaced peacefully from within their kingdom, if not their dynasty. The effects of the plague on the church, particularly in the loss of bishops, may suggest that the effects of the plague on political history have not been appreciated enough, though the infrastructure of the early medieval kingdoms was significantly stronger than the fledgling church in Britain. While churchmen were mourned in Ireland, it doesn’t seem to have caused a crisis.

The Northumbrian plague of c.684-688 gives us an opportunity to look at the effect of a specific wave on plague on politics and particularly warfare. We don’t know exactly when this round of plague began in Northumbria. We know that it began at least a year before Cuthbert became bishop, so at least 683-684.  So this means that the plague was present in the kingdom, indeed at Lindisfarne, when King Ecgfrith sent ealdorman Berht with an “army” to Ireland to wreck devastation and perhaps more importantly take many hostages. We know that they attacked several churches and monasteries and took clerical hostages. We can probably assume that they took secular hostages as well. These hostages, perhaps including secular exiles, living in the monasteries were probably Ecgfrith’s real goal. Regardless of King Ecgfrith’s motivation, the plague did not stop him from sending an army far from home. Indeed, this is the only known English war band to be sent on a campaign by sea to Ireland or anywhere else in the early Anglo-Saxon period.

This attack on Ireland was roundly condemned by churchmen including within Northumbria. King Ecgfrith had apparently been in contact with the wandering English bishop Egbert who urged him not to attack Ireland. Egbert was either living in Ireland or Pictland at the time, so King Ecgfrith’s Irish campaign was discussed long distance for some time before it was undertaken. Given that the Northumbrians were not known for having a navy it would have taken some time to build the ships necessary to take the warband there. This raid was no impulse by a rash king. Perhaps the planning that went into the raid made it more likely that it would proceed even during the plague.

The Pictish rebellion just a year after the successful raid on Ireland doesn’t seem very wise. King Ecgfrith had brutally put down the previous Pictish rebellion about a decade earlier. After such a display of power in Ireland, why would King Bridei ap Beli have thought now was a good time to rebel? Although Berht brought back over 20 hostages, they still may have lost many of their warriors in Ireland, potentially weakening their army. They could have lost more warriors to the sea or battle injuries. Perhaps after such a victory Ecgfrith’s tribute demands went up so high that Bridei couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. The plague, of course, is another factor. If the plague wasn’t in the north, as Adomnan implies, then perhaps Bridei thought that Northumbria had been weakened enough by the plague that he could not field a typical Northumbrian army. I don’t think the plague has been considered before as a factor in the Pictish rebellion or in Ecgfrith’s unexpected defeat before.

King Bridei did have a plan. He had been waging war on his other borders for several years, racking up victory after victory. Presumably his warband was at its peak in size and experience. Even so he planned an ambush for Ecgfrith’s war band that was a critical part of his success.  It is believed that the campaign is memorialized on the stone to the right with ravens picking on Ecgfrith in the lower right corner.

We will never really know what effect the plague had on events in 684-685. It didn’t stop King Ecgfrith from launching two major campaigns. If the plague did weaken Ecgfrith’s forces or give Bridei the belief that this time he could win, then it played a significant role in the unexpected death of Ecgfrith. In turn, the death of Ecgfrith in battle was one of the most significant events in the history of the Northumbrian kingdom. It was from that point that Bede marked the deminishing of Northumbrian power.

In an era when warfare is so frequent and local, it is difficult to to discern the role the plague may have played. It is likely that plague weakened regions were more vulnerable to attack, if the attacker would venture into a plague stricken area. Of course, it takes more than a few years for the population to recover a plague. The plague would also lower a regions ability to produce crops as workers are lost and crops go unharvested. It may have played a role in the smaller independent regions ultimately being incorporated into the larger kingdoms. They would be unable to resist incorporation and would have wanted the protection. It may not be a coincidence that many of the smaller independent regions listed in the tribal hinge disappear shortly after the plague of 664.

Primary Sources:

Bede, Life of Cuthbert

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Fostering Princes on Iona

A while back I mentioned that Michael Lapidge has placed Aldhelm on Iona, making him the second Anglo-Saxon prince to study there. This has made me wonder if Iona wasn’t running a school for princes and other nobles. There is one other possible example. Stephan of Ripon seems to indicate in his Life of Bishop Wilfrid that Bishop Wilfrid traveled with a retinue of young nobles who were being educated under his eye but who were not necessarily bound for the church. As kingdoms became complicated enough to need nobles who knew more than war, the church was ideally suited to educate them in basic reading, writing, math, basic theology, etc. In the church’s favor, these young noble men would grow into the nobles of the future who became civilized and pious men, who respected abbots and bishops, and understood the needs of the church (and its politics).

This would be true in Ireland as well as England and on the continent. Recall that exiled prince Dagobert had also been sent to an Irish monastery while in exile. Its also quite possible that pious King Sigebert of East Anglia had spent part of his exile in Burgundy in a monastery, perhaps associated with Bishop Felix. We might even suspect that Oswald and Oswiu had spent time on Iona while in exile among the Scots a generation earlier. Oswiu in particular since he was only about 4 years old when his father Æhtelfrith died, and this could explain how he met Aldfrith’s mother, Fin sister of Finnan (his future bishop). A child raised in the monastic system would have gotten to know male and female members of the monastic system and their families but lets get back to firmer ground a generation later with Aldhelm and friends.

If Aldhelm was on Iona in the 660s, as Lapidge postulates, then it was before Adomnan was abbot. He didn’t become abbot until 679. Cummene Find (d. 669) would have been the likely abbot when Aldhelm was there in the 660s. We know that Cummene Find was involved in scholarly activity. He was the first person to collect and write down miracles of St Columba. Cummene’s successor Failbe (669-679) had been on Iona since at least the time of King Oswald, so may have been there since he entered the church. We know that Failbe had a good and perhaps long relationship with Adomnan (abbot 679-704). Failbe would have also probably been well known to both Aldhelm and Aldfrith. Lapidge argues that Adomnan was a teacher of Virgil while Aldhelm was there and, if so, then Adomnan had been on Iona for many years before he became abbot.

How did Aldhelm make his way to an Irish house first rather than Canterbury? First, Malmesbury is named for an Irish abbot named Maildub and William of Malmesbury claims that Aldhelm was educated by Maildub (Yorke). It seems likely that Maildub may have been an abbot of an original monastery or a hermit who began Aldhelm’s education and then forwarded him to Iona for more complete training. Prior to 664, Iona was the mother house for most of England. Iona would be preferable to Whitby or Lindisfarne in Northumbria as the Irish would be more neutral territory than another English kingdom. We also know that Aldhelm was eventually educated in Canterbury also. Wessex was keeping its usual position of maintaining good contacts with both Ireland and Canterbury. Perhaps as importantly, Wessex was retaining good contacts with Northumbria who until 664 saw Iona as its mother house. We know that King Cenwealh, Aldhelm’s uncle was on good terms with Aldfrith’s half brother Alchfrith, son of Oswiu and Cenwealh’s successor Centwine, Aldhelm’s father, married a sister of King Ecgfirth’s second wife Irminburgh, though this was long after Aldhelm’s time on Iona.

We know that Aldhelm wrote King Geraint of Dumnonia shortly after the Council of Hertford in 672, so he was home in Wessex by then. We should also remember that Aldhelm was the godfather or confirmation sponsor of Aldfrith son of Oswiu. It makes the most sense that he had been Aldfrith’s confirmation sponsor while they were both studying on Iona. On the other hand, Yorke postulates that Aldhelm was indeed Aldfrith’s godfather in a conditional rebaptism that would have made him acceptable to Rome. If this is the case, then it probably would have occurred in northern Ireland, perhaps within the circle of the Englishman Ecgberht (who would send Willibrord to Frisia in the 670s and convert Iona to Rome in c. 719). We also have to wonder where among the Irish that Bishop , later bishop of Paris and one of Bishop Wilfird’s mentors.

Study at places like Iona would have been ideal meeting grounds for young nobles who were keeping their options open between the church and royal duties. Aldhelm was the nephew of the sonless King Cenwealh of Wessex and therefore a prospect for the throne. His father eventually did become a short reigning king in his old age. Regardless, Aldhelm seems to have thought that his chances were best in the church, possibly protecting family lands as an abbot. Cenwealh is bound to have had many nephews and cousins who could have made succession very messy indeed.

We know that Aldfrith spent a considerable amount of time on Iona. Bede tells us he was there when his brother Ecgfrith was killed by Pictish king Bridei son of Beli. We know that Abbot Adomnan considered both Aldfrith and King Bridei of Pictland to be his friends. It is quite possible that Bridei, another multi-ethnic prince, could have spent time on Iona as well. Bridei is the son of the British king of Strathclyde, became a Pictish king and yet was a cousin of King Ecgfrith, so he was part British, Pictish and even English.  While matrilines did not give them rights under the law, those ties would be exploited whenever they could use them. Another possible candidate for the prince’s school is Nechtan mac Derlei, the Pictish philosopher king about a generation after Aldfrith and Adomnan.

As Iona became more and more isolated over their stance over the date of Easter and Roman authority, the school of Iona would have become politically unusable to the royal families in Britain and even Ireland. Further as the churches in respective kingdoms developed each would have developed schools for training nobles. York and Canterbury each hosted a famous school, though we don’t have records of nobles attending theses schools. It is likely though that each major kingdom: Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex would have a favored monastic school or schools to send their young nobles and this could have changed with the personality and interests of the abbots or bishops. Bishop Wilfrid and Abbot Adomnan were surely not the only abbots/bishops intersted in training the nobility.


Michael Lapidge. (2007). The career of Aldhelm. Anglo-Saxon England. p. 15-69.

Barbara Yorke (1994) Wessex in the Early Middle Ages.

What’s in a name?

After discussing the linguistic changes and yet continuity in Dalriada yesterday, lets look at the names for the Britons and Picts in the Early Historic Period. Fraser points out that the usual explanation that Pict means ‘painted people’ doesn’t really hold up historically or linguistically.

What do you call an inhabitant of Britain in the early Roman period?

  • Prydyn (Brythonic)
  • Cruithni (Old Irish)
  • Britanni (Latin)

All three of these words denote a Briton. Fraser believes that terms for Britons and Picts were finalized after the Severen settlement in 211. He believes that only at this point when the Romans accepted their limits was there a need to differentiate civilized Britons from barbarian Britons. Fraser notes that both Old Welsh and Old Irish borrowed the Latin word Brittons for the inhabitants of the Roman province. He reminds us how proud Romano-Britons were of their Roman citizenship. For example, Patrick stresses that he and his accusers are fellow Romans. The spirit of fellow citizenship, initially Roman citizenship, is behind the term Cymry, which means fellow countrymen, in effect fellow citizens. We often like to think of the Romans as oppressing noble Britons who wanted their freedom, but there is certainly no evidence of this in late Romano-British written material. Quite the opposite, Roman citizenship is lauded and cherished. 400 years, twice as long as the United States has existed, is more than enough time for the Britons to embrace Romanitas.

This linguistic development seems to have rose in Roman Britain and doesn’t imply any unification among the Picts or even that the Picts initally accepted the term. (Pict seems to have developed out of Prydyn; Picti being the short form for Prydyn like Britto is the short form for Britanni) Fraser notes that it would have taken time for these terms to be universally accepted among the Romano-Britons, Barbarian Britons (Picts) and the Irish. We can see this in the Irish insistence to continue to call the Picts Cruithni, meaning Britons. The Irish just restricted their use of their ancestral term for Britain to the Picts and adopted the Latin name Britto/Britanni (Old Irish Breatain) for southerners.

I think this can also explain the fuzzy application of Briton and Pict in the northern frontier zone. We know archaeologically that ‘Pictish’ material culture is spread over what we usually consider an ethnic border. Pictish symbol stones and objects with Pictish symbols have been found south of the firths and probably shouldn’t be attributed to left-behind objects or carvings of Pictish raiders. How much were the Damnonii (Strathclyde) and Votadini (Gododdin) really different than that the Picts on the other side of the firth of Forth? Along this border was their language really that different? I doubt it.


James Fraser. (2009) From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795. Edinburgh UP, p. 47-50.

Bede’s use of gens

So I’m reading along in Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, and I’m reading through the Roman period.  Not really my period of interest, so not much has really caught by attention.

Anyway, Fraser points out (p. 47) that Bede uses the term gens Pictorum which has been used for ages to indicate that the Picts were a single, sovereign nation. Fraser correctly cautions that this term should not be used imply homogeneity of the Picts. This brought to mind Bede use of the term gens Anglorum and we certainly know that the English were not a single kingdom or homogeneous in religion or politics.

An important question that as far as I know has rarely been addressed is how Bede uses these three terms: gens Anglorum, gens Pictorum, and gens Scottorum. What did Bede mean by these terms and how did he define them? I think we have to study these three terms together.  As far as I know, he doesn’t use a similar term for the Britons. If that is so, what does that mean as well? Synder notes in the Age of Tyrants (p. 76), that Continental writers used the term gens for the barbarian tribes, but always referred to the inhabitants of the Roman empire as cives (inhabitants of civitas) or as populi. Likewise Patrick always refers to his native countrymen as citizens and otherwise stresses their Roman citizenship. Synder notes that Gildas used the term gens but also used the term cives regularly, though by Gildas’ time it was no longer Roman citizenship that was stressed (or hoped for). Snyder goes on to note that the name Cymry (countrymen) has a similar meaning to cives/citizens. Gens are invaders; cives are rightful owners. So this is the British point of view, but what of the English point of view.

Is Bede following continental convention by not referring to the Britons as a gens or does he have other reasons or biases? As Fraser notes the only difference between the Picts and Britons is the degree of Romanization. The Picts are barbarian-Britons while the Britons are Roman-Britons. Bede would have probably also thought that gens had for lack of a better word, rights, and would he want to admit that for Britons? Note that in his origin story for the Picts he has them as the gens Scottorum in Hibernia/Ireland for the right to settle in northern Britain. Why are the Picts asking the Irish for permission to settle in Britain? It is obvious that he recognized that the Picts were a different people than the Britons, but why doesn’t he have them ask the Britons for permission. If it is because there are Scots in northern Britain in his time, then why does he have them ask the Irish of Ireland (rather than Scotland)? If the gens Pictorum asked the southern Britons for permission to live in northern Britain, then Bede would be acknowledging that they had the right to refuse the settlement of outsiders (like the English).

The one time that Bede refers to the British as a gens is the famous claim that there are four races in Britain that are unified by the fifth language, Latin. Only when the Britons are included with the other three are they referred to indirectly as a gens. Yet, here by claiming that these four gens live in Britain, Bede is equating all of their claim to live there. Stephan Harris has written on Bede’s use of gens vs. natio (nation) and believes that Bede sets the Angles apart as equal to the Britons.

We can observe that Angles speak their own language and have left no portion of their gens waiting on the continent — while the Saxons and Iutae have. This suggests that the Angles have moved as an entire people, as gens, as the Israelites did during the Exodus, not as a group of marauders, exiles, adventurers, or scouts, that is nations. Unlike the Irish, Picts, Jutes, or Saxons, the Angles have a rightful and consistent claim as the ordinary British gens. (Harris, p. 74)

Harris notes that when the Angles first arrive they are there to fight the northerners, the gens Pictorum, the barbarian outsiders. They are protectors of the indigenous Britons, those born in Britain, even though according to Bede, their ancestors came from Armorica/Brittany. So in Bede’s time, there were also indigenous Angles, those born in Britain, and they had an equal right to the land as the Britons. Of course, this is all very convoluted because by the time the Romans leave there are indigenous Britons, Picts (even by Bede’s scenario), and Scots in Britain.

If Bede believes a right to the land is partially built on the claim that the entire gens Anglorum is in Britain, what did he make of the British in Brittany? According to Bede, the Britons came from Armorica/Brittany to Britain. Therefore, the British were always a split people.

What a tangled web we weave…

I don’t know that there are any conclusions to come up with here other than that Bede’s terms gens Pictorum, gens Anglorum, and gens Scottorum must all be considered together. None of them indicate a race unified politically in any way. Language may be the best unifier and, once mostly Christian, then religion though of course there were significant regional differences.

I don’t know how much we can really make out of Bede’s use of Angles rather than Saxons, other than his regional bias. Both the British and Irish continued to refer to all the English as Saxons for centuries and the Welsh word for the English is still based on Saxon. If the whims of politics had gone in another way, Saxon (or Jute) could have easily become the root of their name. It just happens that Northumbria and Mercia both considered themselves Angles and they were dominant in the critical 7th and 8th centuries.


Christopher A Snyder, An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons AD 400-600. Penn State UP, c. 2000.

Stephen J Harris. Race and Ethnicity in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Routledge, 2003.

Peanfahel and Catraeth

Still reading Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795…. today I read through part of his discussion on the Pictish language and I really enjoyed it. He noted that linguists are now secure in their belief that the Pictish language is a dialect of British, in fact Fraser refers to it as ‘Pictish British’. He also noted that the difference between Pict and Brit is the degree of Romanization. (more on this in another post) Therefore it would follow that the Pictish language is a non-Latinized form of British.

I read elsewhere (don’t remember where) that the Welsh language is as Latinized as any Celtic language could be. It may not appear very latinized to those who read Latin or other Romance languages, but the Celtic language is, apparently, only capable of incoroporating so much Latin. Fraser notes that that the very name Britain and Britto (Briton) are Latin, not from Old Welsh. Odd isn’t it that the names Britain, Wales, Briton, and Welsh are all imposed by outsiders.

Fraser also makes a suggestion that I’ve never heard before but makes a lot of sense. That is that the Pictish language incorporated Gaelic elements (not unlike modern Scots that blends Gaelic and English). Most historians now accept that Gaelic speakers had been living in western Scotland through the Roman period and quite possibly earlier. By Bede’s time Gaelic speakers and Picts would have been living side by side for probably at least 500 years. There are no Pictish texts to test this hypothesis. There are only a few inscriptions, a few personal names, and a few placenames. Bede gives us one placename that he specifically says is in the Pictish language.

“It [Antonine wall] starts almost two miles west of the monastery of Aebbercurnig [Abercorn] in the place which the Picts call Peanfahel, while in English it is called Penneltun [Kinneil]. It stretches westward as far as Alcluith [Dumbarton].”

Note how close this Pictish placename is to Abercorn. This suggests that this region around Abercorn between Dun Eidyn (Edinburgh) and Dumbarton was Pictish. But getting back on track, Fraser notes that the name Peanfahel “appears to mix what linguists identify as British and Gaelic terminology” (p. 53). Of course, it makes a lot of sense. Word elements get picked up by neighboring peoples all the time. As Fraser notes what Bede calls the Pictish language is probably the form of the language spoken by the dominant kingdom at the time. That language may have incorporated a blend of  unLatinized British and Gaelic elements. To the English this blend woudl have almost certainly seemed like a new language, as  it was at least on its way to becoming a new Scottish language.

This has brought me to my long-standing feeling that the placename Catraeth popularized in the elegy Y Gododdin is a British-Gaelic fusion: Cat/Cad = battle and rath= fort. (I probably read this somewhere but I don’t recall where.) Peanfahel, a Pictish British-Gaelic fusion placename is only about 16 miles east of  Edinburgh where Y Gododdin is set. In fact, part of Y Gododdin was preserved in Dumbarton due west of Peanfahel.  Having a British-Gaelic fusion placename (Peanfahel) between Dumbarton and Edinburgh surely means that Catraeth could be another British-Gaelic fusion placename. With a name that means battle-fort it is clear that it could be a mythical place where many heroes are said to die. It could be represent an every-place. In an area with so many borders, near what was later called the cockpit* of Scotland, it is possible that there was a frontier fort with such a name. Either way, as I said, it is a name that could be easily transported into legend/myth as clearly Y Gododdin collected many elegies that could not have been associated with the original battle at the core of the collection.  If Y Gododdin does memorialize a battle at a place much closer to Edinburgh than the usual localization at Catterick in Deira/Yorkshire, then it could have occurred over a much wider time span. It could have occurred much closer in time to when it was preserved in the mid-seventh century. Whether there was ever a central battle to the collection or not, Y Gododdin did collect elegies of others over a range of time and I think the entire range was not long before the mid-seventh century when at least one phase of it was recorded.

* Note that in this case cockpit means literally cock fighting, a brutal ‘sport’. The types of skirmishes and major battles in this area does fit the metaphor of two plumed roosters fighting to the death well.

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.