Merlin, Myrddin Wyllt, & the ‘Men of the North’

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Tim Clarkson, Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and Its Dark Age Origins, John Donald, 2016. Amazon US $22 PB, $8 Kindle.


Tim Clarkson’s new book, Scotland’s Merlin, was a lovely break from my usual plague reading. Merlin is one of the few Arthurian characters who can stand alone from the Arthurian corpus as the Welsh figure Myrddin. This is not totally surprising because he was constructed from several long free-standing figures of British history and legend.

My friend Tim strongly states that Arthur’s Merlin is a figment of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s creative process (and I agree). Geoffrey drew on three legends to craft his Merlin Ambrosius (Emrys): the Dinas Emrys origin story, the Carmarthen origin story, and the prophetic wild man of the north legend. He named him well because the Merlin in Geoffrey’s History of the King of Britain is primarily a fusion of Ambrosius (Emrys) from the Historia Brittonum and a lost legend of Merlin from Carmarthen. Merlin’s interaction with Vortigern and the dragons completely comes from the Dinas Emrys story in the Historia Brittonum. The wild man Myrddin Wyllt primarily comes to the fore in Geoffrey’s last work the Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin).

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The young Emrys and King Vortigern, with the dragons below the floor, originally from the Historia Brittonum

Now, I suspect that the Carmarthen origin story may have been as well developed as the Dinas Emrys legend so it may have contributed a little more than Tim credits, but what that is, is complete conjecture. It must mean something though that Geoffrey is so consistent in localizing Merlin’s hereditary lands in Carmarthen/South Wales.  Geoffrey’s first work, the Prophecies of Merlin, makes up a significant portion of Merlin material in this History of the Kings. We often forget that Geoffrey restricts Merlin’s role in Arthur’s life to his conception. Geoffrey claims that fans wanted more on Merlin so he produced his last work the Life of Merlin (Vita Merlini) that now begins to draw much more explicitly on the prophetic northern wild man of the woods motif. If this northern wild man, Myrddin Wyllt (the wild), is the only source of Merlin as a prophet, then he is indeed the primary source for the figure. Although Geoffrey’s Life of Merlin did not circulate nearly as much as his History, it never the less contributed to Merlin’s later development as a character, albeit without many direct textual references.

It is the northern figure, known as Myrddin Wyllt in medieval Welsh literature, that Tim traces to his origins in the Caledonian woods of southern Scotland. The name Myrddin comes from the Old Welsh word for Carmarthen, which was caer-fyrddin, a softened form of Caer-Myrddin.  The modern Carmarthen is the anglicized version of Caer-Fyrddin.screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-1-51-08-am Although linked to a place name that would usually support it being a person’s name, that is not true in this case. Caer-Fyrddin (Caer-Myrddin) is more likely derived from the Roman Moridunum, possibly meaning sea fortress, itself derived from the pre-Roman Brittonic name. Type Caerfyrddin into google translate and listen to its pronunciation. Looking at the map here we can see that Carmarthen is placed on a river leading to a wide three-pronged fork (trident?) shaped estuary. Although not on the coast today, it is possible that it was located at the safest area in an estuary wetland.  It has been the capital of the pre-Roman Demetae tribe, so indeed before the Roman period it is likely that a prince or ruler was seated at Mordunum or ‘the Sea Fortress’. Clarkson places the origins of the name as early as Caermyrddin as early as the sixth century when the Romans had been gone long enough for new placenames and origin stories to develop. Indeed, this may be a similar date and process to the Dinas Emrys story preserved first in the Historia Brittonum.

[On a side note, Merlin’s association with a ‘sea fortress’ may be the source of tales that Merlin has a glass house or glass isle (perhaps invisible house/fortress). Coupled with Mryddin Wyllt’s apple tree, it’s not a great fictional leap to associate Merlin with Avalon, the isle of apples.]

At some point before the ninth century the name Myrddin was transferred, or rather replaced, the name of a northern British mad prophet named Lailoken in tales told in Wales. Some of the texts of Lailoken’s northern exploits even mention that he is known to some as Myrddin. However, his name has mutated through storytelling there is a good reason to believe that a real man, Lailoken, is the historical nugget at the core of Myrddin Wyllt. Lailoken is the focus of the rest of Clarkson’s book.

The battle of Arfderydd, dated to 573 in the Annales Cambriae (AC), was one of the favorite topics of early Welsh bards. It has left its mark in the ninth century (?) Myrddin poetry, the Welsh triads (bardic memetic devices), Rhydderch Hael lore and St Kentigern legends.  It was mentioned in the oldest ninth century version of the Annals Cambriae listing the British leaders on both sides. A much later recension adds that “Myrddin went mad” to the entry. All sources claim that it was an especially ferocious battle even by Dark Age standards; no quarter was given, nor apparently expected. Lailoken/Myrddin is reputed to have been a sole survivor of the losing side who goes mad from the horror of battle becoming a recluse in the Caledonian woods. He is essentially suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome or shell shock. He retreats to the woods living with a pet pig and uttering prophecies or omens from the branches of an apple tree. One of the oldest sources for Lailoken (in his own name) is in his interactions with St Kentigern in hagiography.

Perhaps the most important contribution this book makes to early British history, beyond the evolution of Merlin, is Clarkson’s analysis of the sources for the battle of Arfderydd. I agree with him that there is enough to believe that the battle took place and probably it’s location, but practically nothing else is historically credible. It became a magnet to collect the heroes of the North, generally on the winning side (of course). There is nothing that we can draw about who was actually involved, beyond the brothers Peredur and Gwrgi who defeated Gwenddolau (listed in the AC). All of the other figures were drawn to the lore of this battle like moths to a flame. Geoffrey’s Vita Merlini even has Lailoken/ Myrddin/ Merlin change sides in the battle so he can side with the winners! (contra to all other sources)

Early Modern Antiquarians attempts to reconstruct the battle from clues primarily in the Welsh triads and Myrddin poetry jumped to the conclusion that it was a battle between pagans and Christians (for no reason whatsoever). Primarily based on this assumption, Merlin was rebranded a druid. Clarkson has a whole chapter on this that should be read by anyone who wants to claim that he was a druid! “Merlin’s underpants!” — Merlin’s reputed role as a druid or magician is based on a desire by fans of Celtic mythology and those who want to ‘enhance’ or reputedly make Arthurian lore more realistic. There is no medieval basis for any of this. Both Lailoken/Myrddin and Arthur are nothing but Christian in the medieval material.

From here Clarkson takes on a variety of topics related to the evolution of Merlin and Arthuriana particularly in northern Britain. It was all very interesting and is good material for novelists who want to use medieval lore. I really enjoyed the book and I think anyone who likes Merlin, Arthuriana, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s process,  or medieval lore will enjoy it, so I heartily recommend it.

Merlin and the details of the battle of Arfderydd are now firmly in the realm of literature. As fiction, authors are free to embellish and borrow from wherever they want. I suspect that any real Dark Age figures behind these figures would be just fine with becoming mythic heroes. They knew well that this was their best bet at gaining lasting fame and the details no longer mattered in the realpolitik of their land within just a few generations after their time. Our instance to know ‘what really happened’ would have been largely lost on them. They well understood Achilles’ choice to opt for fame over being grounded in the real world with a long mortal life but soon forgotten.

 

Filling the Gaps: Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons

Tim and I have been chatting about Strathclyde for longer than either of us would probably care to admit (even before his name was on the cover of any books!). So I was thrilled to tuck in with his latest book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age in the days running up to Christmas. I have to say my study of Strathclyde (or Alt Clut as Tim would remind me) is pretty much covered in The Men of the NorthI’ve pretty much stuck to the Age of Bede more or less, before moving on to the plague. So finally I was ready for Tim to update me on all the Viking Age goings on in my favorite part of the island, and he did not disappoint.

Tim draws the origins of the Viking era kingdom of Strathclyde from the rubble of the siege of Alt Clut by the Vikings in 870. The vulnerability of the old stronghold had been shown by the sustained siege and sacking. They moved down into the Valley of the Clyde, or Strathclyde, at Govan. While ‘Strathclyde’ begins with this shift, there was strong continuity between ‘Strathclyde’ and the kings of Alt Clut whose kingdom name, if it was ever other than the king of Alt Clut, has not survived. I know Tim has been very active in building up the conservation and visitor experience at Old Govan. It is possible to go to Old Govan be close to the centers of power for the old kingdom, unlike any other British kingdom I can think of.

Tim deftly reconstructs the political context for Strathclyde’s foundation at Govan in the ninth century. The kings of Govan were able to maintain their independence through Viking raids, and delicate relations with the newly melded Picto-Scottish kingdom of Alba, English neighbors at Bamburgh and the ambitions of Wessex.  While they sometimes had to accept the hegemony of their larger neighbors, they avoided outside direct rule. It’s intriguing how important the king of the Cumbrians / Strathclyde were to the kings of Wessex (at least on charters). Perhaps it was their ability to join forces with Alba to both increase the threat from Alba and open a much larger frontier for the English to defend against both Alba and the Vikings.  I really enjoyed Tim’s take on the influence of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians.

I’ve heard a lot of about the battle of Brunanburgh over the years but always from the sidelines. Tim did a good job of explaining the battle and its context. It was good to see his conflict zone analysis in action again. A lot of ink/electrons have been spilt over the location of the battle but Tim makes is clear that there is no clear placename winner. He argues for Lancashire location-based on his conflict zone analysis. While I don’t know the details of all the arguments for locations, I do believe that placename possibilities can’t be the primary evidence. It has to make sense in the entire context of battle and the combatants. To me, the most surprising aspect of Brunanburgh is that it didn’t change anything! It was apparently a very costly battle for everyone, so therefore it had to be built up in heroic verse to satisfy the folks back home, but it maintained the political status quo. Within a just a few years, the combatants were at war again.

Over the rest of the tenth century, the Cumbrians remained active in whole island politics and regional skirmishes with resulting border shifts. Tim does a good job of finding sources that reconstruct the borders and properties of late Strathclyde. By this point, intermarriage must have become common. The names of northern princes often reflected neighboring naming traditions or languages, like Gospatrick of Bamburgh and Mael Coluim of Strathclyde. It is possible that these names had become so common in the region that they don’t necessarily reflect a foreign mother, but if they have become common among the common people, then that speaks to regional mingling. Tim argues strongly and convincingly that the rulers of Strathclyde retained their independence right up to their annexation into Alba under Mael Coluim (d. 1093). Thus, Strathclyde retained their independence through the entire Anglo-Saxon period.

I’m left in the end with two impressions. First, that adding the history of Strathclyde into the mix plugs some significant gaps in the history of period. The major kingdoms tend to dominate narratives of the pre-Norman period with the assumption that lesser kingdoms and rulers fell into line or were unimportant. This study argues strongly against this trend and reminds us how much later royal power is projected back onto earlier periods. Tim’s book adds to Caitlin Green’s recent book of the British kingdom Lindsey in illustrating how adding the history of the Britons adds much flesh to the bones of early medieval history. Now we need similar studies on the kingdoms of Elmet, Powys and Dumnonia at least. Second, I’m struck by how circumscribed and negotiated Anglo-Saxon power was. Hegemony is nice and all, but it has real limits.

Although the relationship between Strathclyde and the English is highlighted in the title, relations with Alba and the Vikings are as important. The beginning and ending of Strathclyde are both indirectly tied to the Norsemen. Then again the Norsemen seem to have altered the trajectory of most kingdoms in the Isles, if not all of northern Europe. Strathclyde’s relationship with Alba was more nuanced. Although they were not the proving ground for Scottish princes as has often been argued, they had a long history of alliance, conflict and intermarriage tying these kingdoms together. All things considered, annexation of most of the kingdom into Alba was the best outcome for Strathclyde even if they lost their southern territory to the English county of Cumberland.

Captivated by the Cross

I’ve been captivated by this image since I found it earlier this week. It was taken by David W Coigach and posted at deviantART. Taken at Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway  (Southwest Scotland), this imagery seems so right for Heavenfield  with the ravens circling overhead. Ok, so I’ll admit heavenfield didn’t have a stone cross, which seems really odd, but I guess a miracle working wooden cross was enough!

Heavenfield Round-up 8: A Long Delayed Edition

Where did the summer go? I can’t believe that I haven’t done one of these since July! Well, its time to clear out my reader and share some of the late summer/early autumn links that got my attention. Enjoy

Curt Emanuel, the Medieval History Geek, is continuing his reading on Late Antique Christianity. He is currently up to the work and influence of Anthanasius.

Magistra et Mater has a interesting post on the personality of swords, and on medieval social networks.

Tim Clarkson of Senchus has announced his newest book of Columba, announced the latest issue of the Heroic Age , and wrote about searching for Bede’s Wulfaresdun.

Here at Heavenfield, I’ve reviewed Tim’s book on The Makers of Scotland, and looked at Bede’s account of Bishop Wilfrid’s coming to Sussex.

Guy Halsall, aka Grumpy Professor, of Historian on the Edge has posted a conference paper he gave on the decline and fall of the ancient triumph and an(other) manifesto on the purpose of history inflicted on unsuspecting students.

Sally Wilde is thinking about Autumn in England and the death of King Edwin ,the British bards Taliesin and Aneirin , and a while back about storing 7th century agricultural surplus while working on her novel.

Karen Jolly of Revealing Words wrote about a liturgical database she has been working on in conjunction with her last academic book.

Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of Tenth Century Europe wrote about exploring/imaging the medieval landscape of Catalonia, and on a seminar paper from Janet Nelson on the early medieval female author Dhuoda of Barcelona who wrote a book of advice for her son.

Andy Gaunt of Archaeology and History of Sherwood Forest writes about the tradition of Goose Fairs in the forest.

Katy Meyers of Bones Don’t Lie has posts on deviant burials in medieval Ireland, on the treatment of broken legs in Iron Age and Roman Britain  and on assumption of gender based on grave goods.

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.

Scotland’s Brave Princess

Merida is not a typical Disney princess. All this Scottish lass wants is to determine her own fate, to find love on her own time to who she wishes. None of the three goofball sons of the three other clans in Scotland appeal to her. There is no Prince Charming in this lot of awkward teens. Pixar also breaks the usual mold by the mother-daughter relationship being the real focus of the movie. Have you never noticed that  Disney princesses never have living mothers? Not Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid, Jasmine of Aladdin, or Cinderella, and if the others had mothers like Mulan, they were not part of the plot. The goal of all these motherless princesses was to get their guy. Merida just wants to pick her guy on her own time, not when her parents want (and not now).

There are many nods to Pictish culture in Brave, although it is probably not noticeable to people who don’t know about the Picts. The first stone shown in close up in the movie intro featured a Pictish beast and then next the broken arrow-double disk.  (I wonder if they are interpreting the Pictish beast as a bear? Bears are central animals in the plot.) Yet, the Picts are never named and these stones are not featured in the plot. On the other hand, the centrality of the queen and princess must have been inspired by Pictish matriliny traditions. The king is indeed the leader of the very rowdy clans but it is the queen who commands their respect and dignity. Queen Elinor is trying to teach her rebellious daughter that her power comes through her dignity and royal behavior. With lines like “Ladies do not put their weapons on the (dinner) table”, mothers will feel for the queen. Unlike the typical evil step-mother of Disney princess movies, Queen Elinor really is working for her daughter’s best interest and trying to train her to be a proper princess (Queen?). Interesting that the family tapestry shows the king, queen and princess but not her little brothers. All nods toward the centrality of the female line in Pictish culture? The great quest at the heart of this movie is that Merida must save her mother by repairing their relationship. I’m not going to spoil it anymore by telling you why or how.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie. I would say that it is probably aimed primarily at girls about age 4-6. (As the first Pixar film aimed at girls, it’s about time.)  It was enjoyable enough for us older folks and had enough fast paced, rowdy action to keep boys entertained. There was a boy about a 4 years old sitting next to me with his father; it kept his attention and got a few giggles out of him. I did see the 3D version, but I’m not a big fan of 3D so I don’t think it really effected my enjoyment too much. 3D a little too in my face for my taste. The kids did chap at the end, so I think they enjoyed it as well.

Heavenfield Round-up 4: A Golden Hoard of Links

Cross of the Trumpington 'princess', c. 650-680

The news of the last week or so has certainly been the announcement of the discovery of the 7th century Anglo-Saxon “Trumpington Princess” and the blogs have been all over it. Here is a mini round-up of the coverage:

  • I think I may have been the first blog on the story (based on the earliest news reports) here 🙂
  • Antiquarian’s Attic was also fast off the block with her story.
  • Nicola Griffith of Gemæcca has a post on Hild and the princess.
  • Past Horizons has a nice, complete post on the discovery.
  • Anthropologist Rosemary Joyce of Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives writes about nuns and princesses with a different focus on the finds at Trumpington.
  • Katy Meyers of Bones Don’t Lie writes about Anglo-Saxon bed burials.

I also posted a presentation I did a couple years ago on St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary.

Tim Clarkson wrote about Govan and the kings of Strathcldye on his new blog Heart of the Kingdom. Tim writes about his visit to the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Dacre in Cumbria and its stonework on his blog Senchus.

Karen Jolly of Revealing Words explores the early medieval history of Workington in Cumbria.

Gold plaque, Bamburgh. Found summer 2011.

Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History and Folklore writes about Loki the Trickster and the Norse who brought him to  Cumbria.

Bamburgh Research Project updates us on the analysis of their gold fragment from last year’s excavation. The photo of Dr Whitfield with the fragment really puts its size in perspective.

I don’t usually cover pre-Roman Celtic society but there have been a couple interesting posts in the last few weeks. Past Horizons has a post on the virtual reconstruction of the Celtic village of the Remi in pre-Roman Gaul. Katy Meyers of Bones Don’t Lie examines the diet and health of the Britons of Dorset during the late Iron Age and early Roman periods.

Moving on from Roman Britain, we have the Arthurian bloggers. Clas Merdin has an interesting post discussing the legends behind the standing stones named after the Sons of Arthur. Yes, its only in the post-Geoffrey world of Romance that Arthur is childless. Clas Merdin also has a second post teasing out the 40 tasks of Culhwch in the oldest Arthurian tale, How Culhwch won Olwen.

Mak Wilson of Badonicus continues his series exploring Arthurian lore with part IV on Arthur the Giant or Giant Slayer, part V on Arthur the Soldier, and part VI on the three types of Arthur in British lore – the giant, the superhero, and the soldier. Mak had an explosion of posts taking this series up to part 12! Just keep following the next post from the above links.

This time we have a little Beowulf to counterbalance Arthur. Michael Drout of Wormtalk and Slugspeak asks if Grendel can speak, how does he curse their weapons? I didn’t know there was a ‘current monster theory’… I learn something new all the time. In a second post, he muses some on the size and shape of the dragon in Beowulf.

Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of the Tenth Century has returned to his blog with a review of the Treasures of Heaven exhibit at the British Museum, and on an unfortunately misnamed boundary tree, and a couple more seminars written up.

Guy Halsall of Historian on the Edge writes about the historical assumptions expressed in a 19th century painting of Late Antiquity.

Andy Gaunt of the Archaeology and History of Sherwood Forest writes about Queen Joan’s tenure as the keeper of Sherwood and about a case of trespass and pig rustling from Bestwood Park in 1440.

Carl Pyrdum of Got Medieval brings us Cake month to replace pi day.

Whew! and that’s it for this round-up.