British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Appendix 12: More evidence for direct contact between Franks and Celtic Britons, ca.535

Fabio P. Barbieri

Nennius opened chapter 10 of his compilation with a clear statement that he knew of two separate traditions as to the first men to reach Britain.  Chapter 10 was one: Nennius took it, because of its "Roman" colouring, as the more trustworthy account, and accordingly placed it as the first item in what he regarded as the canonical list of British peoples and their origins, followed by a sequel of notices about surrounding nations - Picts; Scots of Ireland; Scots of Britain; even a brief mention of the Saxons, who could not be left out of any list of peoples of Britain though their origin would have to be treated later.  In the typical manner of his time, Nennius (or his sources) describe the peoples in question in terms of their earliest ancestors; but, given that, chapters 10-16 must be regarded as a systematic ethnography of Britain, touching on the name and origin of each of its component nations.  Chapter 16 sums it up.

Having done this, Nennius turns back to warn the reader that, however much more credible the "Roman" account of British origins may be, there is another in existence.  It is no mere oral tradition; it is written, ancient, and in Latin, ex veteribus libris veterum nostrorum, out of the ancient books of our ancients; and therefore not to be disregarded, however unlikely it may sound to educated contemporary ninth-century ears.  In effect, chapters 17 and 18 are in the nature of a footnote.  (Nennius, in fact, knew a third document, that which underlies ch.18; but he seems to have seen it as a mere variation on ch.17, or as a compromise between two rival accounts.)  Ch.10 and ch.17 seemed to offer him a neat dichotomy between Roman and British tradition, and ch.18 - which, on the surface, has a little of both - is placed after them as a sort of attempt at resolution.

The difference from any Classical tradition is indeed blatant.  The liber veterum nostrorum seems not even to have been cast in annalistic form; ch.17, as we have it, has no chronologies and synchronicities.  It is the skeleton - only the skeleton, alas! - of a legend of First Men, in the genealogical form typical both of Biblical accounts and of Celtic bardic traditions.  Alanus, descended through several generations from Japheth son of Noah, is the first man to come to Europe.  He has three children, Hessition, Armenon and Negue.  Each of these has a number of children, from which all the races of Europe are descended.  Hessition's son are Francus, Romanus, Britto and Albanus; Armenon bears Gothus, Walagothus (obviously other names for the peoples history records as Ostrogoths and Visigoths), Gebidus and Burgundus; and Negue has Wandalus, Saxo and Boguarius.  From Francus, Romanus, Britto and Albanus come the Franks, Romans, British and Albans; from Gothus, Walagothus, Gebidus and Burgundus come (notice the discrepancy) Goths, Walagoths, Burgundians, Gepidi and Longobards; from Wandalus, Saxo and Boguarius come the Vandals, Saxons, Boguarii and Thuringians (another discrepancy).

The notice that the genealogy came not from oral tradition, but from written books (veteribus libris) must be taken seriously.  Nennius, we know, worked only from written and Latin sources.  As for the original of ch.17, its written origin is obvious, it is clearly a copy of a lost document.  Alanus’ eleven named grandchildren all belong to the same period of history: they are the patriarchs of peoples that were powerful as the Western Roman Empire faded away - Franks, Romans, Britons, Alamans, Goths, Visigoths, Gepidi, Burgundians; Vandals, Saxons, Bavarians.  (The reason to read Albanus as Alamannus and Boguarius as Baiouarius will become clear in a minute.)  Albanus and Boguarius are misspellings, but misspellings that conceal real contemporary entities.  No fake could be so consistent: as everyone who has read Geoffrey knows, it would be bound to include anachronistic elements.  And while I am no palaeographer, the spelling seems to me to show a source both ancient and original; would the names of long-extinct entities have kept the original spelling if the text Nennius consulted had been a copy of a copy, or else a fake?  Of the eleven peoples mentioned by ch.17, no more than six were still recognizable entities by the time Nennius was writing - Franks, Romans, Britons, Burgundians, Saxons, Bavarians; and the Bavarians were among those who had been made unrecognizable by a misspelling.

The Frankish Codex Augiensis CCIX, written roughly at the same time as Nennius, carried the following notice: Alaneus is the name of a man who bore three sons, that is Hisision, Ermenon and Nigue.  From Hisision four births were born, that is the Romans, the Franks, the Alamans and the Britons. From Ermenon five births were born, Goths.Walagoths, Cybedi, Burgundians[1] and Longobards.  From Nigue four births were born, Vandals, Saxons, Thuringians and Bavarians.

It is pretty obvious that what we are dealing with here is a couple of descendants, both one or two stages removed from a common original.  The Augiensis misspelling Cybedi is explained by Nennius as the Gepidi, a tribe settled in Hungary until it was destroyed by an alliance of Avars and Longobards (567); the Nennian misspellings Boguuarii and Albani are certified by Augiensis as Baiovarii (Bavarians) and Alamans, members of a federation that held the upper Rhine (modern Alsace, Baden-Württemberg, and Switzerland).  The discrepancy between the number of sons of Armenion and Negue is preserved in the British document, but edited out of the French by the simple device of writing out the national patriarchs and connecting Hisision, Ermenon and Nigue directly and unexplainedly with the nations they generated.

Despite its vast time frame, the genealogy has no real historical perspective.  It treats the politico-ethnic landscape of the later fifth and early sixth century as if permanent; as if these nations, few of which had been known or even existed two centuries before, had always been in place and represented all that needed be said about the collective entity Europe - or "the children of Alanus". Properly speaking, the author meant what we would call "the West", a common culture, rather than a geographical entity.  The Vandals were settled in Africa, and it is clear that by Roman he means all the citizens of the old Empire, Latin and Greek, settled all the way to Asia and Arabia.

From the point of view of Roman culture and civilization, this does not merely bespeak ignorance: it bespeaks complete alienness.  Apart from the Latin language, the person who compiled this list had no idea whatever of the tradition of Greece and Rome.  He was a barbarian in the literal sense of the word: he came from a wholly different culture, and what he regarded as education was not what even the most uneducated Roman or Greek would have regarded as education.

We can understand his mind better if we realize that, while the Germanic peoples of ch.17 were new presences in terms of the thousand-year history of Greece and Rome, they had been on the scene long enough to go beyond living memory.  Roman writers first mention Franks and Saxons in the fourth century; the two Gothic tribes go back even earlier, to the third century and the empire of Eormanric.  Anyone writing only from personal memory and oral accounts might indeed have thought that these nations had always been there.  And as he took Goths, Saxons, Franks and Vandals as immemorial presences, he would also have been predisposed to take other entities, perhaps of more recent appearance, in the same light; he probably just had not heard of them himself.  If, reading up on the modern European scene, he found that Alanus had a few children whose names he himself did not know, he is not going to assume that it is modern Europe that is at fault.  It was more likely to be his memory.

Our author wrote in Latin, and felt himself a part of the West, regarding all the peoples of the Roman Empire and the closer reaches of the Germanic world as related.  He did not exactly cover the whole Germanic world: Scandinavia, for instance, is notable by its absence.  Nor does his world correspond exactly with that of Christianity: pagan nations - Saxons, Thuringians, Bavarians - are allowed in, and Ireland, soon to produce generations of great saints, goes wholly unmentioned.  His view is what one would expect of someone whose world was centred on the Rhine, with Romans and pagan Germans, Britons and Arian Goths, all within reach of trade and policy.  Ireland and Armenia are Christian, but distant; Ireland and Armenia go unnoticed.  Saxony and Thuringia are hated and pagan, but close: Saxony and Thuringia are recorded.  The origin of his people, and of the West to which he felt he belonged, is what he was trying to establish.  The genealogy of the West represents the attempt of a culture with no relation to Rome bar language, to find its own way around the European map.

There is no direct statement in the genealogy about our author’s religion, but it is easy enough to discover.  Our author divided nations and peoples among their three patriarchs according to criteria that flagrantly have nothing to do either with ethnicity or geography.  The Vandals were neither ethnically nor politically close to Saxons, Thuringians and Bavarians.  They were separated by a sea and a continent, the Vandals settling in Africa, the Saxons on the two sides of the North Sea and the Thuringians and Bavarians fringing the Frankish kingdom to the east.  The Vandals were Arian Christians, the Saxons and others still pagan; I know of no occasion in which the two groups ever cooperated.

What, then did they have in common?  That they were hateful to Catholics.  The savagery of Vandals to Catholics set them aside from other Arian Germans, and earned them a bad name to this day[2].  The Baiovari or Bavarians[3], like the continental Saxons and the Thuringians, were direct objects of Frankish aggression in the 500s, and while their religion in this period is a mystery, the fact that they are associated with the pagan Saxons and Thuringians and with the odious Vandals does not suggest that the Franks found it orthodox.  It is at any rate difficult not to link the name of Negue with the universal Indo-European root for evil and negation, n(e)-.  He is the father of villains.

The sons of Armenon have an equally distinctive character.  The groups they represent, while not as hateful as Negue's children, are religiously and politically very separate from the central Roman entity.  Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Burgundians and Gepidi were all powerful entities led by strong monarchs, whose thin veneer of ultimate allegiance to the Emperor of Constantinople was a juridical fiction that barely disguised their effective independence.  Their most significant token of disloyalty was their common, heretical Arian faith, a national as well as a religious barrier separating conquered Catholic Romans from victorious Arian Germans.

Finally, we have Franks, Alamans, Britons and Romans.  Apart from being all settled in Gaul and under the rule of Clovis and his successors, these nations have in common that they are Catholic.  Some doubt might be raised about the Alamans, who were conquered by Clovis and whose conversion to any form of Christianity is not recorded anywhere to my knowledge.  On the other hand, Gregory of Tours’ semi-legendary account of the conversion of Clovis and the Franks tells us that Clovis became converted after making a vow that he would if he managed to conquer the Alamans - and he did.  This suggests that the conquest of the upper Rhine was remembered (one century after the events) as having an organic connection with the conversion of the Franks to the Catholic faith.  Certainly one thing we never hear of is the kind of difficulties that the Franks had with their Arian neighbours, Burgundians and Goths: one has the impression that the Alamans were swallowed up in the Frankish commonwealth, politically and religiously.

There can be little doubt that what we have here is a typical origin legend of two reprobate brothers and one triumphant one, whose virtue and right choices win him his father's inheritance, or at least the best part of it.  The sons of Negue, Armenon and Hessition describe the moral character of each patriarch.  Armenon is strong, proud and rebellious; Negue is not only that, but vile and violent as well; Hessition is good, royal in character as befits the father of Francus and imperial Romanus, and obedient to the Church (however this is expressed in the story of a hero, Hessition, dated centuries before Christ).  The legend almost writes itself.  The names of Hessition, Armenon and Negue stood for realities other than, and higher than, tribal kinship: they designated different ways to be, different political and religious paths that a tribe might follow.

If the language used to designate such things is that of kinship, that is not too hard to understand.  Certain nations were seen as more close kin than others, children of Hessition rather than of Armenon or Negue, because in actual fact kinship with them was far more easy to achieve.  The common Catholic faith bound together the children of Hessition, Romans, Britons, Alamans and Franks, and made intermarriage possible, where Arianism and Paganism all but forbade it.  Marriage was a sacrament, and to marry in an Arian church would have been not far short of taking Communion there, and as for marrying a Pagan - !  Religion was parallel with ethnicity, and meant that all Catholics, whether Roman, Germanic or Celtic, were in a sense marriageable kin, and all non-Catholics were not[4].  As Europeans - or rather Westerners - involved in a common web of political and cultural relationships, heirs in some fashion of the universal empire whose memory was surely not lost even on our author, they were all children of Alanus; but as separate groups, not easily or at all marriageable, some of them clearly reprobate and a disgrace to the name (and those were the children of Negue) they cannot be more than descended from the hero's two lesser sons.

What strikes us today is how fleeting was that map, which its author thought so solid.  Historically speaking, many of the "children of Alanus" were soon to vanish from the stage: the Gepidi were annihilated by the Longobards in the mid-sixth century, the Ostrogoths melted in the flames of the Justinianic war (535-553) that had already devoured the Vandals (535), the Burgundians were swallowed up into newly Catholic Frankland in 534, though the writing had been on the wall for decades.  The 530s, therefore, are the terminus ante quem for the original of ch.17.  The Terminus post quem is supplied by the conversion of the Franks to Catholicism - a notoriously difficult event to date, but one which was at any rate complete by 507.

The ancestral document of Augiensis CCIX and Nennius ch.17 should receive more attention than it does: it is the closest that we will come to the mentality and thoughts of a Frank of the earliest post-conversion period.  It was written in Latin by someone who thought like a Frank but distinguished the varieties of mankind according to their attitude to the Catholic Church.  This suggests a religious figure of some sort.  Gregory of Tours’ Lives of the Fathers shows us that, even in the first decades of Christian history, the Frankish tribes of Gaul were producing a tolerable crop of attractive religious figures.  Only, the nature of the document testifies that these Fathers - to use Gregory’s term - had taken more trouble acquiring the Christian faith with its language and writing skills than even the rudiments of the old culture of Rome and Athens.  Our author, in effect, was like some African Pentecostal Christians I met a few times: lovely people with wit, charm, excellent manners, more faith in their little finger than I can boast of in my whole body - but who will admit, not only candidly but with a certain innocent confidence, that they can’t see any point in Beethoven and classical music, and that they “did not believe in evolution”.  They had learned little of Western culture but the religion.

This document reached Britain very early and produced a crop of further writing.  Though unknown to Geoffrey, Alanus, Hessition and Britto turn up in the following chapter, ch.18, whose origin cannot be Frankish or Continental.  They even had the time to change pronunciation slightly: rather than Alanus, Hessition and Britto, they are now Alaneus, Hissition and Brutus, ridiculously descended from Aeneas through Ascanius, Numa Pompilius and Rhea Silvia.  Alaneus is the name preserved in Codes Augiensis, which proves that in this it is Nennius who innovated; and the different spelling also proves that we are dealing, not with Nennius' own attempt to unite incompatible accounts, but with a different document. The milieu from which ch.18 originates pronounced their hero-names differently from that of ch.17, and made no attempt to conform; also, unlike ch.17, it Romanized Britto into Brutus.

Ch.18 presents an alternative genealogy, and there are indications that its original author had used a source that was not Roman but Greek in origin.  The absurdity of making Rhea Silvia a daughter of Numa, and he a son of Ascanius, stops there; the preceeding terms - Ascanius filius Aeneae, filii Anchisae, filii Dardani, filii Flise, filii Juvani, filii Japheth - make up a good sound Homeric dynasty, except that where we expect Zeus, we find Elishah (Flisa) son of Javan - Genesis 10.4.  Its ethnography has nothing to do with that of ch.17.  The list of peoples is attached, not to the children of Alan(e)us, but to those of Noah, and, so far as it overlaps that of ch.17, it contradicts it: for instance, the Itali are made children of Tubal, while ch.17 had Romanus as the son of Hessition.  But it includes no European names other than Classical-age ones[5].  Some of them would have meant nothing to a dark-age Briton: Medes, Thracians, Cappadocians.  The source for this genealogy knew the East Mediterranean well and was interested in the origin of its peoples, but it had nothing to say about any Germanic tribe[6].

The spirit of ch.18 is as different from that of ch.17 as the detail.  The author of ch.18 meant to insert his national genealogical tree into a greater Classical tradition, though the Classical tradition to which he had access was Greek rather than Latin.  (There must therefore have been a part of Britain at some point in which the first access to Classical culture was by the Roman East, to whom the learning of Constantinople was genuinely more accessible than those of Rome or Gaul.)  Unlike that of ch.17, this genealogy cannot be dated with any confidence, for the Greek document or documents which were used in its redaction may have slept in a library for decades before they were drawn out and used.  It is certain that no educated Greek or Easterner was involved in its redaction: even if they had no written account of Roman legend with them, they could not possibly have made such howlers.  The source is bound to have been written; there is both too much precision in the things he has got right - all those Homeric names, and such an abstruse word as Cappadoces! - and too much wild error in those he got wrong[7].  He is like a man trying to line up card-index entries.  The best that can be said is that it is likeliest to date after the regular trade with the Greek East, carried on throughout the sixth century, ceased, but before Wales re-established contact with the Latin West.  I think we would be on reasonable ground if we dated it some time between 650AD and 768, when Elvodug led the Welsh Church back into the West.  A number of allusions to Alaneus, his sons and his grandson Britto can be traced even after Nennius, in spite of the success of the alternative tradition that made Britto the grandson of Aeneas.

This story is evidence of contact between Frankish and British Celtic Christian groups, neither of which had any contact with Roman culture except for religion.  The contact is likelier to have taken place in Gaul than in the island of Britain - why would a Frank go there? - and seems to suggest the presence of tribal Celtic British Christians in territories where tribal Frankish Christians could also be encountered, without any mediation from Roman Christian environments whatever.  The document was actually more fertile of results in Britain than in Gaul, where it only seems to have survived in a Carolingian-age copy - this in a period where monastic scribes were copying down everything from previous ages, whether they understood it or not, including such manifestly useless documents (to anyone but a historian, obviously) as the Notitia Dignitatum.  In front of this fervour of preservation, an astonished modern is apt to ask “but what on Earth can the details and insignia of local officials of the Roman Empire have mattered to Carolingian monks?”  The answer is, they probably did not know themselves, but we are glad that they made the copy.  The document quickly lost relevance to Frankish ecclesiastics, and remained altogether unknown to Gregory of Tours.  In Britain, on the other hand, Alanus and Hisitio were close to entering the national mythology altogether; and, before Nennius had reached it, an intelligent systematizer had fitted on it a large fragment of a learned Irish genealogy, to connect it ultimately to Noah and his sons.  This means that it had been present in British culture a long time.

That being the case, much the best date imaginable for a Frankish monk or priest to have transmitted the document to an equally tribal British counterpart, is at some point early in the story of the document; that is, before it stopped losing actuality (because of the swift disappearance of ethnic groups mentioned in the genealogy) and interest (because of an increasing integration between Frankish and Roman priests, that produced the first few Frankish bishops in the second half of the century).  There would be no reason for a Briton to copy a Frankish document unless he saw that the Franks themselves took it seriously.  And this takes us really very near to the dates in which Arthur was driving deep into Gaul, probably occupying enough previously Frank-held territory to put the local sovereign, Lothar, in a very unpleasant situation.  There is plenty of evidence that tribal British war-bands went to the continent with their own tribal bishops or presbyters - think of Rigocatus with his Britions, of Lovocatus and Catihernus practising “among the cabanas of their people”, of the Britons of Galicia having their own Bishop Mailoc: one side effect of a British invasion, therefore, would be that the territorial organization of a Roman church would be overlain by another, the clerical following of a number of war-bands fighting their way across the country. If contact between the British and local clergy was not entirely hostile, this seems to me the best way to imagine the transmission of this essentially local, tribal and contemporary document from one group to the other.


[1]Slightly misspelled: Burgundio.

[2]It is also possible that the fact that the Vandals straddled the sea route to the Eastern Roman Empire may have made them still less lovable: the sea power of Vandal North Africa would have represented a continuing threat to anyone west of Italy who wanted to trade with the rich East.

[3]Incidentally, the British misspelling of their name - Boguarii - could suggest that someone among the British clergymen involved understood the language of their Saxon enemies, since it goes easily into Old English (boga+ware, men of the bow, archers).

[4]There are of course cases of Christian princesses marrying Pagan or Arian kings, as Clothilde with Clovis, Bertha with Ethelbert, Clothsuinda with Alboin, Theodolinda with Authari; in most known cases, however, the marriage was followed after a few years by the conversion of the infidel king. It is possible that the scheme may imply an uneven right to marriage, by which female descendants of Hessition - Catholic princesses - may, with due precautions, marry royal children of Armenon or even Negue, but male children of Hessition are not allowed to marry women of the other two groups.

[5]According to the Phillimore edition, a line has dropped out of the manuscript tradition altogether, losing two children of Japheth, Magog and Madai, and two or three of their descendant nations; this argues a copyist at some stage who was far less familiar with Genesis than the author, and certainly shows how little these names meant to Welsh monks.

[6]If the names that follow Ascanius - Numa Pompilius, Rhea Silvia - mean anything, and if they are not chosen for sound or at random, then Alan(e)us was the son of a consecrated virgin who was the daughter of a royal sage or priest and who was impregnated by a god or spirit. There is nothing unlikely about this: in fact, such things happen all the time in Celtic legend, and it is the fact that they are so typical (as well as the very absurdity of making Rhea a daughter of Numa and so on) that suggests that the names were chosen with the roles of the characters in mind. The impossible sequence in which they are placed can only be explained if the writer had access to a list of Roman characters, but no chronicle or summary of Roman legendary history. On the other hand, he knew Homeric genealogy as well as Biblical. This strongly suggests the Greek world as the source of all the non-British part of the genealogy, with a dictionary or list of Roman figures, not unlike a lexicon such as Souida. Another consideration is that, while the author of ch.17 clearly regards all Romani, Latins and Greeks, as one nation, the author of ch.18 draws from a source which distinguishes between Greeks, Thracians and Cappadocians, and between Italians and Spaniards; the attitude of someone at the centre of the Roman world as opposed to that of someone who watches it from outside.

[7]The misspelling Flise for Elise indicates the use of a Western script; it is obviously impossible in the Greek alphabet, where eta and phi are sharply different signs.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright © 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

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