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

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Chapter 2.3: The Picts destroyed?

Fabio P. Barbieri


Historical though it is, the Rescript is also a fundamental moment of A, the triadic traditional history. It is the point at which the British find themselves alone against the Picts, who - in Gildas' view of things - have gained their large foothold in north Britain, and now launch into their third and final invasion.

Gildas' account is full of his version of racial theory. Left to themselves, the British will not be able to fight for their country because their nature is neither noble nor soldierly. From the moment the Romans depart, leaving the defence of the Wall in unmilitary British hands, he is clearly bent on exaggerating matters as far as he can. Nobody can take seriously his account of feeble and shiftless British soldiery (19.2): he tells a single anecdote of the horrible weapons used by sneaking Pictish raiders - barbed spears designed to rip down single soldiers, probably to kill sentinels before they could sound the alarm - and enlarges it absurdly into a description of wholesale slaughter. The notion that this happened continuously is nothing short of ludicrous: how many barbed spears could have been thrown, how many soldiers ripped off the walls, before this sort of assault made any impact on the numbers of a standing army? And wouldn’t even unmilitary individuals learn to defend themselves, out of sheer self-preservation? Here, Gildas' genius fails him, as it does even the greatest writers, from Plato on down, when they ride a hobby-horse too hard.

This incongruity can either originate from A or be Gildas' own contribution, coming from goodness knows what original anecdote or memory. If it came from A, it would mean that A took its final form in the minds of people who, though aware of the Wall, no longer had any idea of the kind of manpower and organization it commanded, who saw the defence of the Wall in the same light as that of an earthwork like South Cadbury, with full-time defenders numbering in the hundreds rather than in the thousands. If it was his own, it would prove that the Saint had fairly little understanding of war. He might even have misunderstood some more credible account in which Pictish attackers surprised some small section of the Wall by such means as he described, eliminating a few sentries before the alarm could be given. Given Gildas' knowledge of Roman army manuals, the latter is less likely, but I see no way to decide. The point is that, whatever the origin of this particular episode, it is completely incredible as Gildas gives it. He has blown it out of all proportion, and by the same token I would not be surprised if he had deliberately suppressed stories more creditable to British courage and resource.

Whatever the Britons' "unmilitary" nature, Gildas has to admit that their war ended in a thunderous and decisive victory (20.2). The Picts got a trouncing that lasted them for years; Gildas says clearly that, though they indulged in minor plundering raids, their next big adventure was the one that caused Vortigern to send for the Saxons, and which can hardly be dated (as we will see in the next book) before the 430s. This victory is presented as the result of the self-consecration of Britain: in their nearly final despair, in the absence of any human help, the British call on God - and take up weapons. Human help, we remember, stands for the Romans; and what this is saying is that, in their third and final encounter against their ancient enemy, God has taken the semantic space of the Romans, as wielder of the royal role of military protector and leader to victory.

I think this battle is the concluding element of A. No triadic elements may be found in Gildas' history after it, and the next episode is the decidedly historical chapter 21. What is more, the Picts all but vanish from the stage, though so far they had been the one, only, dominant problem. Though Gildas knew the Roman defences on the island's south shore (18.3), he seems to know of no Saxon threat to Britain until Vortigern's time; from his narration, you would never know that 409-411 was notorious to Roman annalists not for a Pictish invasion but for Saxon raids.

This is the more significant since, to Gildas himself, it is the Saxons, and not the Picts, who are the Big Problem; after their arrival, he never mentions any other kind of barbarian; and it is against them, not against the Picts or any other barbarian, that he urges the Crusade. Now if he had been constructing this legend for himself, one can hardly doubt that the Saxon Shore forts, whose ruins are majestic to this day, would play the kind of role that the two Walls do; in fact, they have no part in the narrative whatever. Gildas knew that they existed, but had no story to tell about them. And this cannot reflect his own mind, which was turned to the Saxon issue as to a magnet: it must come from A.

So: the final defeat of the Picts is the end of the story of A. The ethical world of A therefore hinges on the defence of Britain against Picts and Scots. Indeed, the victory stands not only for Britain's deliverance, but also for the consecration of the British nation to God, Who proves a more reliable royal defender than the Romans, and probably far less demanding ("for His yoke is light, and His burden is easy"). In Gildas, it is independent Britain's last serious war for a generation, putting an end to the Pictish threat until we are fully within recorded history.

A cannot have been written close in time to the Pictish defeat it claimed to describe. It is unaware that the Romans had been a permanent garrison on the Wall; it sees them as auxiliares[1], helpers from overseas. The legend imagines a continuity between the defenders of the Wall before and after the Rescript; all British, all defenders of Britain, all enemies of the Picts, with no break or change. Whether the Romans come or not, the Picts must still be fought, and there is nothing to indicate that it is anyone but the same groups, who oppose them each time, in the name of Britain, Roman or post-Roman. And though A presents the Picts as defeated, the strength with which their danger is felt suggests that it was still a live issue when A was written: it is describing the great battle of the past, when the Great Enemy were given the greatest pasting in memory.

A surprising question must therefore be asked: did such a Pictish invasion as Gildas describes take place at all, during or shortly after the end of Roman rule? Except for A, we have no evidence for it. Continental documents, Zosimus and the Gallic Chronicles, only mention Saxon raids; and A makes it the final term of a wholly, you might say outrageously legendary epic cycle, none of whose other terms have any relationship with historical fact.

However, that continental sources never heard of a Pictish war does not mean much: the continent could hardly be expected to be precise about what was happening in Britain’s north after the Rescript, and even the Saxon raid is mentioned at least as much for what it did to Gaul. And the dominance of the Pictish threat in Britain before the Rescript makes it extremely unlikely that it should just have vanished from the stage after 410. That a Pictish invasion should have coincided with a Saxon raid is not unlikely, especially supposing that the news of the fall of Rome had gone around the world and encouraged all the Empire’s enemies. But the fact that Saxons are not even mentioned - Gildas seems to imply that their settlement in Britain under Vortigern had been the first time they had ever been to the island - shows, at least, that A originated in a cultural reality in which conflict with the Picts was the central issue, with the Scots/Irish as a subsidiary but lively matter.

In other words, the legend of A must have originated in northern Britain; it was northern tribes who claimed to have inflicted the third and last defeat, the defining defeat, on the Picts, alone, against all odds; "and plundered them in turn", says Gildas - a form of behaviour that suggests northern marcher chieftains rather than settled southern gentlemen, to whom plunder as such would not be nearly as important (let us remember that we are still talking about an essentially late-Roman Britain, a few years at most after the Rescript), as part of a mentality in which ferocious cross-border raids were justified by the memory of enemy assaults of the same kind.

The legend incorporates one surely historical event, the Roman refusal of help to Britain (the Rescript of Honorius), which precedes and motivates the third Pictish invasion. There are suggestions of credible history in such details as Gildas' description of defeated British forces taking refuge from the triumphant enemy in ipsis montibus, speluncis ac saltibus ("those same mountains, caves and woodland heaths"; a northern rather than southern landscape, 20.2), or the famine that accompanied the invasion - famines are regular concomitants of major wars, and if the Pictish invasion was on a large scale, mass starvation seems inevitable[2]. This is the more convincing since Gildas does not seem to see the connection, and mentions the famine as something that happened independently of the war: Interea famis dira ac famosissima uagis ac nutabundis haeret - "meanwhile a dreadful and celebrated hunger clings to those who wander and totter..". This is, alas, an all too familiar picture: great crowds of houseless refugees wandering blindly, starving to death with nowhere to go. The adjective famosissima, "celebrated, most famous", is as interesting as the adverb interea, "meanwhile"; for while interea tells us that the "hunger" appeared to Gildas (and, presumably, to his sources) as something that happened alongside the war rather than a direct result of it, the famosissima - a superlative adjective, indicating something altogether unique of its kind - indicates that this was remembered as the famine, the greatest, the most hideous anyone had ever heard of.

What Gildas describes is a prolonged war in which, while refugees were driven in enormous numbers to starve without help, British forces, defeated and driven from the Wall, had at first to take refuge in "mountains, caves, heaths and thorny thickets" (this describes several separate forces), until they were able to counter-attack and inflict a "massacre" on the Picts. This was a defeat so decisive that it took a generation for the Pictish kingdom to mount another major attack, suggesting that a large part of the males able to bear arms had been massacred or enslaved, and that the enemy had to wait for the next generation. The ferocity of the clash described seems to justify its lingering long in the memory, and even becoming the centrepiece of an epic tradition; and the savagery with which the eventual victors appear to have handled the defeated hillmen seems justified by the losses suffered at their hands.

We are not, it seems to me, talking about a legend, but about the memory of actual facts, the effects and final result of a war, such as we often see on the evening news. With the third and last war against the Picts, I mean, the triadic pseudo-history of A comes to earth. It hinges on the Rescript, and the Rescript is a historical fact[3]. And Gildas' bizarre account of Pictish barbed spear has nothing of the legendary about it, coming across, rather, as an inflated anecdote. Lovers of paradox might like to consider that, if Gildas distorted the barbed-spears episode, this means that there was something to be distorted.

There are a few thin, wispy strands of evidence which also point to a major Pictish defeat in the 410s. First, Gildas clearly states that no major Pictish invasions were attempted or even thought of until the one that brought about the call to the Saxons; and this in spite of the fact that he regarded it as their more solito, their usual habit, to try and conquer Britain. This is a credible statement, since nothing we hear about Vortigern's period, as we will see, suggests major Pictish efforts: the British could even afford the luxury of overthrowing a king and indulging in religious division without fear of harm. Now, the Picts had been a thorn in the flesh of Roman Britain throughout the fourth century; if we find their ambitions suddenly silenced for as long as a generation, there must be a reason - and a defeat as catastrophic as that of A seems the likeliest.

Second, St.Patrick twice associates the words "Picts" and "apostates", suggesting that the northern kingdom had been at least nominally Christian for a while, but had thrown the new religion off again. If the Picts had suffered such a shattering defeat as that of A, they might well have been forced to accept Baptism afterwards; only to throw it off as soon as their strength began to recover. Patrick wrote, by any reckoning, long after the Pictish defeat of A.

And we do hear of a conversion of the Picts about this time, though the context is quite obscure. Bede and later writers claim that St.Ninian, first bishop of Whithorn, said to have died in 428, had converted "the southern Picts". Bede, our first surviving witness (about three centuries too late), said that Columba, from Iona, completed the work by evangelizing their northern section. This is an improbable story: Columba comes almost two full centuries after Ninian, and the Picts being a cohesive people ruled by kings, it is highly unlikely that they should have remained divided by religion for so long. This sounds like another of Bede's attempts to reconcile irreconcilable accounts, as in the case of Gildas' account of the Wall; apparently Iona and Whithorn had two separate traditions of the evangelization of the Picts, both backed by documentary evidence (for what that was worth). Bede had good contacts with both, especially Whithorn, whose bishop Peohthelm was a friend and source of information. Had he come across two completely contrasting accounts from two such venerable places, he would have been bound to take them both seriously.

I am disposed to believe that Bishop Ninian was involved in the forced conversion of what was left of the Picts after the defeat. The brief account of his mission in Ailred's Life of St.Ninian (written three more centuries after Bede, and quoting him) is full of militant, not to say military imagery - the Saint as God's athlete or armoured warrior, going out to do battle with Satan[4] and expel him from the furthest bonds of Britain. Also, Ailred gives a most extraordinary description of Ninian's "missionary" efforts: in one single mission, his hero "began to ordain presbyters, consecrate bishops, distribute the other dignities of the ecclesiastical ranks, and divide the whole land into parishes"! All this in one journey? The whole land? If there is any truth in Ailred's account, Ninian cannot have been a missionary in the St.Patrick sense of the word; this is not a mission building up a Church of converts, but the construction and imposition of a Church structure from above, a political act such as might have been forced on a subdued nation in the aftermath of an overwhelming defeat. Of course, as soon as Pictish strength recovered, such a church would fare no better than such forced constructs normally do fare; and Patrick would then have reason to call the Picts "apostates". It would then be left to the Irish coming in from the West to evangelize the northern nation from top to bottom again. But the evidence remains terribly thin, and I do not propose it as more than an idea worth thinking about.

The arguments for an overwhelming Pictish defeat in the early 410s, however, seem to me rather stronger. The prosperity which, as Gildas claims, followed their massacre, is confirmed (as we will see) both by other written sources and by archaeology; it would be hard to imagine unless the stubborn northern enemy who had given Roman Britain so much trouble had been silenced for good - or at least for decades. Gildas' own account has many credible features, and the legendary nature of the rest of A does nothing to deny the possibility that its final episode was historical. Quite to the contrary, if the various episodes of the war - defeat, atrocious famine, regrouping of defeated British forces, final victory - had dominated relatively recent history, to the point of becoming the war, the famine, then it would be natural to see it projected across time to a great mythological past. It is a natural instinct of historians, and even more of journalists, to see the past as the necessary, inevitable and exclusive preparation to the present; like those Italian writers castigated by the historian Gioacchino Volpe for casting the whole of Italian history "as if teleologically orientated towards Caporetto" in the aftermath of the great but temporary 1917 defeat; or the still unbroken dynasty of writers and historians who insist on seeing the whole history of Germany as leading inevitably to Nazism - a forma mentis pushed to its extremes in the otherwise excellent work of William Shirer, who saw even Kant as a precursor. Great events create their own pre-histories in people's minds; and if even the resources of the twentieth-century historian, with their wealth of evidence for the strangeness and frequent aimlessness of life, cannot cure us of the habit of thinking as though our own great events were foreshadowed and foredoomed from all time, then a fortiori must that have been the case for a British writer seeking to reconstruct his nation's past in an almost complete void of evidence. The great event that conditioned the early years of independent Britain cast its own enormous shadow over the earlier past, and became the defining shape of relationships, past and future, with Picts and Romans.

In this historical defeat, the last great war before the Saxon catastrophe, the northern tribes of post-Roman Britain must have been able to claim a share; and thereafter it became to them an epic, defining, paradigmatic event. They looked back to it as to the episode that defined their role in the world, and built upon it a whole epic mythology in which the Romans, though awesome and terrible, are not as effective in ridding the country of the Pictish threat as the north Britons from their caves and mountains and woods. Also, A has a definite Christian colouring. The Britons finally win because they put their trust in God; which implies that the difference between them and the Picts is that between the servants and the enemies of God.

It is worth underlining the fact that A shows no trace of any pagan background such as we find in so many Celtic stories. It was Christian from the beginning, though it is an ethnic, a racist, and a very warlike Christianity, more like the party allegiance of a border people seeking to distinguish itself from hated neighbours (a forma mentis not unknown in Scotland – and Ireland – later on) than any real understanding of the worship of He in Whom there is no Jew or Greek, slave or freeman. But, in view of all the attempts to “prove” from pure supposition that post-Roman Britain “must” have had a strong surviving Pagan component, it is important to show that the evidence of A is that, as the legend was taking form, the people who formed it had an absolute, if rather bigoted, allegiance to Christianity.

Notes


[1]Gildas and Nennius use related words - Nennius, auxilium, one of the three motives for a Roman expedition; Gildas, auxiliares egregi, outstanding helpers, describing the role of the Romans in such an expedition. There are in fact several different Latin words for help - subsidium, praesidium, ops, adiuuatio, subleuatio, opitulatio, subuentio - practically every one of which may be used in a military sense; so the coincidence between Gildas and Nennius may be another instance of A's influence. If so, it has a definite echo of half-forgotten and misunderstood Roman army realities: auxiliares is the standard word for irregular native troops, surely applied by the Romans to the British natives themselves, and probably passed on down the generations in ignorance of its original meaning. It would have either offended or greatly amused the Romans to hear the regular Army itself so described.

[2]Although these things might have been to some extent part of a traditional picture of war and invasion, since they occur in somewhat the same order in the account of the Saxon wars. Mention of hunger may also be a part of Gildas' account of the Roman invasion (it was ob inopiam that the Romans left Britain; though inopia means, etymologically "poverty" rather than "hunger", and may even be made to mean "helplessness" - all things that Gildas would know, and would take into account when choosing words).

[3]If Gildas had happened to know the Rescript from any other sources, it is even possible that its presence at a decisive stage in A may have convinced him that A as a whole was a reliable historical account; and it seems likely enough that he did. For instance, if he had received enough information from abroad to have a certain acquaintance with facts about Magnus Maximus and the two Roman expeditions of Theodosius the elder and Stilicho - and, as I suggested, to have heard that in 410 “the Britains were eternally taken away from the nomen Romanum”, he could hardly not have been told about the Rescript. But, so far as I can see, this cannot be demonstrated; which is why I leave it to a footnote.

[4]We do not know what it was about Pictish religion and/or society that so horrified contemporary British Christians, but mention of Satan among them does not seem to disagree with Patrick's shuddering description of a country ubi peccatum manifeste grauiter impudenter abundat, where sin abounds heavily, openly, shamelessly. Patrick was familiar with Irish paganism and was not likely to be shocked by little things: whatever it was that the Picts did - especially with respect to female slaves, in whose name Patrick protests - must have been decidedly beyond the pale.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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