21 February, 2008

The Female Royal Line: matrilineal succession amongst the Picts?

Most medieval and early medieval societies reckoned royal descent and inheritance through the male line (patrilineal descent). Surviving royal genealogies for the early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kingdoms and Brittonic kingdoms claim to reckon descent from father to son*. Were the Picts an exception?



Bede recounts the following colourful origin legend for the Picts:

….the nation of the Picts, from Scythia, as is reported, putting to sea, in a few long ships, were driven by the winds beyond the shores of Britain, and arrived on the northern coast of Ireland, where, finding the nation of the Scots, they begged to be allowed to settle among them, but could not succeed in obtaining their request. Ireland is the greatest island next to Britain, and lies to the west of it; but as it is shorter than Britain to the north, so, on the other hand, it runs out far beyond it to the south, opposite to the northern parts of Spain, though a spacious sea lies between them. The Picts, as has been said, arriving in this island by sea, desired to have a place granted them in which they might settle. The Scots answered that the island could not contain them both; but "We can give you good advice," said they, "what to do; we know there is another island, not far from ours, to the eastward, which we often see at a distance, when the days are clear. if you will go thither, you will obtain settlements; or, if they should oppose you, you shall have our assistance." The Picts, accordingly, sailing over into Britain, began to inhabit the northern parts thereof, for the Britons were possessed of the southern. Now the Picts had no wives, and asked them of the Scots; who would not consent to grant them upon any other terms, than that when any difficulty should arise, they should choose a king from the female royal race rather than from the male: which custom, as is well known, has been observed among the Picts to this day.

--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book I Ch.1

The Pictish king-list

The Pictish Chronicle is a fourteenth-century manuscript, though the text may have been copied from an earlier original. It contains a list of Pictish kings and their reign lengths. Here is an extract covering the late sixth to the late seventh century:

Brude the son of Mailcon ruled for 30 years. In the eighth year of his rule he was baptised by Saint Columba.
Gartnart son of Dolmech reigned 11 years
Nechtan grandson of Uerb reigned 20 years
Kenneth son of Lutrin reigned 19 years
Gartnart son of Wid reigned 4 years
Brude son of Wid reigned 5 years
Talorc, their brother reigned 12 years
Talorcan son of Eanfrith reigned 4 years
Gartnait the son of Donald ruled for 6½ years.
Drest his brother reigned 7 years
Brude son of Beli reigned 21 years

--Pictish Chronicle

There are two striking things about the list:
1. Fathers are never succeeded by their sons. This holds true across almost all the rest of the list, as well as the above extract.
2. Kings are identified by the names of their fathers, or occasionally the name of a grandfather or brother.


Bede’s story of the Picts requesting Irish wives may or may not be intended as an accurate description of a real historical event. For the Picts to have neglected to bring any women with them when they set out to colonise new land (like the rabbits in Watership Down) suggests a degree of bad luck or bad planning that is perhaps unlikely, and the story may be a reflection of some long-ago marriage alliance or an attempt to justify an Irish claim in the Pictish kingship. Bede’s use of the phrase “as is reported” suggests that he may not have been entirely convinced of its veracity either.

However, what is interesting about the passage is Bede’s comment that the Picts could select their kings from a female royal line in his own day. Bede was writing in 731 in Northumbria, so the Picts were his contemporaries and neighbours. At the time of writing he says there was a treaty of peace between the Picts and the English (Book V Ch. 23), so the two peoples were on speaking terms. It seems reasonable that Bede could have had accurate information about the customs of a neighbouring people.

The absence of direct father-to-son succession in the Pictish king-list is consistent with succession via the female line. If a man became king through his mother, then the obvious candidates for the succeeding king would be the previous king’s brother (son of his mother), nephew (son of his sisters, i.e. his mother’s daughters), or cousin (son of his aunts, i.e. his mother’s sisters). The one close relation who cannot succeed is the previous king’s son, unless the previous king contracted an incestuous marriage with his mother, sister or aunt. Since the absence of father-to-son succession continues unbroken after the Picts became Christians, when the Church would certainly have had something to say about it, we can reasonably rule out such a Ptolemaic practice.

However, since all the kings are identified as the sons of their fathers, the king-list doesn’t support a purely matrilineal system in which descent is reckoned exclusively through the female line. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘matrilineal’ is:

Of, relating to, or based on (kinship with) the mother or the female line; recognizing kinship with and descent through females.


The king-list shows clearly that the Picts recognised descent from the father, and thus were not purely matrilineal by this definition. This is not necessarily in conflict with Bede, since he says, “….when any difficulty should arise, they should choose a king from the female royal race rather than from the male…”. Unfortunately, Bede doesn’t say what constituted a “difficulty”, or how often one arose. Nevertheless, his statement implies that matrilineal inheritance applied in some circumstances but not necessarily in all. Examples of matrilineal inheritance in unusual circumstances are well known from other societies. For example, listing the Norman kings of England in the form of a Pictish king-list, we get the following:

William son of Robert (William I, “The Conqueror”)
William son of William (William II, “Rufus”)
Henry son of William (Henry I)
Stephen son of Stephen
Henry son of Geoffrey (Henry II)

Here we have one father-to-son succession, one brother-to-brother succession, and two kings who appear apparently out of nowhere. It doesn’t look so very different from the Pictish king-list, does it? Fortunately, we have the full family tree for the dynasty (see figure), so it can be easily seen that Stephen and Henry II both acquired the throne by matrilineal succession.

In the case of the Norman kings, maritime and biological accident meant that the throne happened to pass by matrilineal succession twice in two generations, although patrilineal succession was the norm. Perhaps all the Picts did was to apply the same principle more frequently than other societies.

Cummins (1995) makes a persuasive case for matrilineal succession as an effective method of maintaining a stable confederacy of different tribes. There seems little doubt that the Picts were composed of, or divided into, a number of sub-groups (see earlier post). Each sub-group had its own king, and these sub-kings were subject to a high king or over-king (for example, when St Columba visited the court of Brude son of Maelchon, King of the Picts, in 565, a sub-king of Orkney was a hostage at Brude’s court). Bede’s statement implies that the Picts could (to some extent) choose their king, so Cummins postulates a system whereby the leaders of the sub-kingdoms selected the high king from the adult sons of members of the female royal line. By precluding direct succession from father to son, matrilineal inheritance would reduce the chance of one family or tribe monopolising the high kingship, and thus reduce the risk of other members of the confederation finding themselves subjugated.

On the other hand, although the succession pattern in the Pictish king-list is consistent with matrilineal succession, it is not proof. We do not know who the Pictish kings’ mothers were, and with the exception of those who were brothers, we do not know how the kings were related. It is equally possible that the Pictish kings were not related to each other either through the male or female line. Compare the Pictish list with the other surviving list of high kings from early medieval Britain, Bede’s list of the English kings who “held sway over all the provinces south of the river Humber”:

Aelle, king of the South Saxons
Ceawlin, king of the West Saxons
Aethelbert, king of the Kentish folk [son of Irminric]
Raedwald, king of the East Angles [son of Tytila]
Eadwine, king of the Northumbrians [son of Aelle]
Oswald, king of the Northumbrians [son of Aethelferth]
Oswy, king of the Northumbrians [son of Aethelferth]

--Bede, Book II, Ch. 5

This list of English over-kings contains no example of father-to-son succession, and one example of brother-to-brother succession. In this respect it resembles the Pictish king-list. Fortunately, Bede’s history gives us rather more information about some of the kings on the list than we have about most of the Pictish kings. Oswald and Oswy were brothers. Eadwine was their maternal uncle, but they obtained the throne of Northumbria by military power, not by direct inheritance from him. Aethelbert, Raedwald and Eadwine were not related in the male line according to the information in the surviving genealogies, and there is no reason to think they were related in the female line either, since Bede had ample opportunity to mention any such relationship and does not (although the absence of evidence means this cannot be ruled out). There was probably a political connection between Aethelbert and Raedwald, since Raedwald was baptised in Kent (Bede Book II Ch. 15), and there was certainly a political and military connection between Raedwald and Eadwine (Bede Book II, Ch. 12). The relationships of the other kings are not known.

So, it seems that most of the English over-kings were probably not related to each other, and that the “position” of over-king (whatever it was) did not routinely pass from one incumbent to the next by means of inheritance. It is possible that the Pictish king-list reflects a situation like this, rather than one of matrilineal succession.


The Pictish king-list is consistent with a system of matrilineal succession, and the lack of father-to-son succession argues against a patrilineal system. It is equally consistent with a sequence of unrelated kings, as seems to be the case for the contemporary southern English over-kings mentioned by Bede.

Bede states clearly that the Picts employed a form of matrilineal succession in certain (undefined) circumstances. Since they were his contemporaries and neighbours, he was in a position to know something of their customs. While it is possible that he was mistaken or misinformed, I would be very reluctant to assume that we know more about the Picts than he did.

A form of matrilineal succession among the Picts is consistent with both Bede’s contemporary account and with the succession pattern visible in the Pictish king-list. It need not imply a society organised on dramatically different lines from its neighbours, since other societies also practised matrilineal succession to a limited extent when the male line failed. So, although not proven, it seems to me to be the simplest interpretation of the very limited evidence available.


Cummins WA. The Age of the Picts. Sutton, 1995, ISBN 0-7509-0924-2.

* Note the word ‘claim’. Whether these genealogies are fictitious, legendary or real, or some combination thereof, is open to debate, but the point for the purposes of this post is that they all claim to reckon descent from father to son, indicating that that was the expected method of inheritance. Not one claims to reckon descent through the mother; indeed women are under-represented in the genealogies.


tenthmedieval said...

There's all kinds of work about this question, some utterly lunatic and some relatively well-founded. Several interesting articles even since 1995. Would you like some further references?

Carla said...

Yes, please, especially if the full text is readily available without having access to a specialist academic library. Preferably the well-founded ones! (The lunatic fringe is fascinating in its own right, but not amazingly useful).

Gabriele C. said...

The emphasis on Pictish matrilinear succession was a Victorian product. They wanted to portray the Picts as alien as possible (just look at the paintings of stark naked Picts with tattoes everywhere), and since male succession was the norm in most of known history, matrilinear looked pretty exotic.

The King's List looks rather like a mixed form: male line when possible, female when it was the one left. I'm not sure about the age for marriage among the Picts, but it is not impossible we here have a similar phenomenon than for Medieaval noble families. Men usually married later than women, and so a son in the male line might sitll be underage while the sister's son already was old enough to take up responsibilites - nephews as squires to their uncles waere common, and that could go all the way to succession. Better a young man than a boy and a regent. Maybe the Pictish armour bearers often were nephews as well, and in case tanistry came into play - another thing that has been assumed for the Picts though it cannot be proven - a grown, and perhaps educated successor in the female line would have been prefered to a boy in direct line.

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Rick said...

An elective kingship would produce the same kind of non-sequential king list, and an elective element was not uncommon in early medieval kingship. But this is no reason to throw out Bede's statement, especially about contemporary peoples, where the journalistic rule, "when the legend becomes the story, print the legend," applies less.

On the other hand, what did Bede mean by when any difficulty should arise? That is not the way we speak of a standard rule of succession - the implication being that there is some other succession rule when no difficulties arise. Not also the several short reigns in the list. Repeated short reigns could be a sign of "difficulties."

A couple of points about the (pretty clearly legendary) origin story. One is the common early geographical error of thinking that Ireland was southwest of Britain, far enough south to be opposite Spain. It isn't that uncommon for colonists to make the (probably arduous) trip without women, intending or expecting to marry the local talent wherever they settle. Compare English v Spanish colonizers in the New World. But how the hell people from Scythia migrated by sea is also an interesting question.

As a sub-note, "long ships." We read it in an 8th c. Northern source and naturally picture Viking style drakkars. But "long ship" is the literal English translation of Latin navis longa, "warship," so Bede is saying nothing about the ships except that he presumed them to be warships. Some British port - I forget which one - was called Llongporth in early Welsh, presumably from Latin meaning "naval base."

Constance said...

Interesting. Confusing for me, but interesting. I have several books on the Picts I inherited from a previous roommate. Makes me want to crack them open. :)

Meghan said...

It's an interesting subject, and certainly makes for interesting debate. I admit I know nothing about the Picts, so I should probably remedy that as soon as possible.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Interesting article, Carla. It's nice to have all the information laid out. I agree that the foundation myth sounds more like an attempt to justify Scottish rule over the Picts, but the evidence does seem to fit the model.

What's also slightly suggestive - even if it is not proof - are the Pictish kings who had foreign fathers. Talorcan did not succeed his father Eanfrith of Bernicia, or his uncle Oswald, as king of Bernicia/Northumbria. The circumstances surrounding their downfalls may not have allowed Talorcan to take the throne (he may even have been too young) but the fact that his mother was Pictish seems to have been enough to qualify him for the kingship of the Picts in 653.

There is also the theory that Maelchon, Brude's father, may have been Maelgwn of Gwynedd. If that is true, then Brude obviously did not claim to the throne of Gwynedd (perhaps Maelgwn's son Rhun had more of a claim to that), but he could qualify for the Pictish kingship through his presumably Pictish mother. Of course, that depends on whether or not you believe the theory.

Perhaps this implies a system of tanistry, with preference given to candidates drawn from the female line?

Carla said...

Gabriele - the king-list can be interpreted any number of ways, since what it mainly shows is what didn't happen (father-to-son succession) rather than what did. It's quite likely that women married earlier than men, since that happened elsewhere, and the propensity of early medieval kings to get killed in battle might limit the number who had adult sons ready to succeed. In which case an elective system based on choosing the best man for the job out of a pool of candidates with the right descent, reckoned by male or female line or both, would be an eminently sensible system.

The naked tattooed Picts weren't entirely a Victorian invention - there's a print from 1588 on the same lines, perhaps influenced by North American Indians encountered by the settlers. There does seem to be a desire to see the Picts as somehow more exotic than other early medieval peoples, doesn't there? I have my doubts about that myself - distinctive, yes, but not completely off the wall.

Rick - Bede was in a better position to know than we are, 1300 years later, so I wouldn't throw his statement out without substantial evidence to the contrary. It's a shame he didn't explain what he meant by 'difficulties'. (Though if the poor guy had put in all the stuff we wish he'd put in, he'd be writing his book yet:-) My guess is that sometimes there would be an obvious leading candidate that most of the factions and sub-tribes and so on could agree on, for whatever reason, and then you'd get a succession without 'difficulties'. Other times you'd have several strong candidates, each with substantial support, and it wouldn't be so obvious who was the front runner. (Modern parallels, anyone...?) Then you'd get a succession with 'difficulties' that would have to be resolved, very possibly by fighting it out, perhaps over several short-lived kings until there's a last man standing.

I have read somewhere that Scythia was sometimes used to mean, more or less, "a barbarian land far far away and long long ago", and could be applied to various geographical regions distant from the writer, including Scandinavia. A migration from Scandinavia to North Scotland by ship makes perfect sense. Orkney and Caithness is full of Norse place names, and I don't suppose the Vikings were the first to think of it!

In the original Latin Bede's phrase is "longis nauibus". My Latin isn't good enough to tell whether that's best translated as 'long ship' or 'warship'. I doubt that Bede's source - which sounds suspiciously legendary - had a detailed description in any case, any more than a fairytale that says "he came to a castle" feels the need to specify whether this was a Roman fort, a Dun, a squat Norman keep or a twirly Hollywood castle with turrets and fluttery pennons.

Llongborth is in the Elegy for Geraint, an early medieval Welsh poem of uncertain date attributed to Llywarch Hen (if true, that would place it in the late 6th century, approx, but apply usual pinch of salt). John Morris identifies it with Portsmouth and the landing by "Port and his sons" in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for 501, but this is by no means a certain identification. Other people have placed it at Langport in Somerset, and no doubt other places too. The literal translation of Llongborth would be 'ship port' or similar, just as Loch Long in Argyll means 'ship loch' not 'long loch.

Constance - be prepared to get more confused if you do! There's so little evidence that everyone builds different towers of theory, and there seem to be at least as many opinions as there are scholars. Which is true of much of early medieval history, but applies to the Picts redoubled in spades. By the time you've read three or four books on the subject you want to lie down with a wet cloth over your eyes, or take up something simple like the physics of black holes :-)

Meghan - it's a fascinating area, and will make you very glad you've got Herodotus :-)

Kirsten - hello and welcome. Talorcan son of Eanferth is an excellent example. He may have been too young to make a bid for Bernicia when Eanferth was killed, since if he was born after Eanferth went to Pictland in exile he would have been no more than 17 in 633/4 when Eanferth was killed. But he doesn't seem to have been a candidate when Oswald died 8 years later. My guess is that he had made his life among the Picts and considered that he belonged there rather than to Bernicia. Maelchon might or might not be Maelgwn Gwynedd, there's no real evidence either way but the chronology doesn't rule it out. Brude son of Beli (victor at Nechtansmere/Dunnichen) is another with a foreign father, since his father Beli is usually reckoned to be the King of Strathclyde. There's a theory that Kenneth macAlpin was successful in uniting the Picts and Scots because he could claim the Scottish throne through his father and the Pictish one through his mother. I have to say that sounds a little too neat to me, but it could have some basis. I like the idea that female descent (possibly male descent as well) qualified you for being in the pool of candidates for king, and then the king was selected by some combination of election, diplomacy/horsetrading among factions, and success in warfare. The more flexible the system, the more confusing for us now (!), but the more chance of being able to pick a king who was up to the job.

Rick said...

Carla - that is a convincing scenario for "difficulties," and fits the short reigns in the list. You also bring up an interesting practical problem in patrilineal succession - the likelihood, in a dangerous age, of kings dying leaving only underage sons.

Remarkably, in this same geographical area, the Stewarts survived some 200 years of repeated long royal minorities without a usurpation, and it isn't like 15th and 16th c. Scotland was a famously law abiding country. Maybe the Scottish throne was not worth usurping?

If "Scythia" can include Scandinavia, there's no problem with a sea migration, and admittedly no one is going to get to Scotland any other way.

Nauibus/navibus longis is Latin for "with warships" of whatever sort. Any ship built to carry lots of men and be fast under oars is long, longer than all but the largest sailing ships, so long ship was the natural term for warships in the galley age. Bede would naturally picture drakkar types, but the Latin term goes back to classical antiquity.

Fun aside: Latin terms like trireme and quadrireme were purely literary usage - the Roman navy used the Greek terms. For example, a rock drawing of a Roman warship, likely done by a swab, was labeled navis tetraris longa, using Greek tetraris, "4-er," rather than quadriremis.

Llong - It looks to me as if the proto-Welsh borrowed the Latin term for warship and used it for ships in general. There's plenty of archeological evidence for trade, but in the 5th century people were understandably more preoccupied with warships than cargo ships!

Kirsten Campbell said...

Carla - See, that's what I find interesting. We have these kings who had (or may have had) non-Pictish fathers who went on to become kings of the Picts, but no records of Pictish kings who had non-Pictish mothers. Certainly raises a question or two! Of course, they could easily be answered if we had some female names in the chronicles. (grumbles) There could be any number of reasons for these kings not succeeding their fathers' kingdoms, but there still might be an element of the Picts seeing these kings as producing heirs for them, rather than the other way around.

As for Kenneth macAlpin, I've wondered about the theory that his mother was a Pict. Perhaps it lends a grain of truth to the legend of macAlpin's Treason. Disregarding the hidden bolts etc., it could be possible that he was eligible for the kingship through his mother and then took steps to eliminate other candidates...

tenthmedieval said...

Carla, okay, here goes with some references, and I am rather behind the field here, but I don't think much more has happened in it on matriliny because I tend to ask Alex Woolf when I see him.

Starting points (that you may already have read):

· M O. Anderson, Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland (Edinburgh 1973, 2nd edn. 1980)

· W. D. H. Sellar, "Warlords, Holy Men and Matrilineal Succession" in The
Innes Review
Vol. 36 (Glasgow 1985), pp. 29-43 (an extended review of Smyth's Warlords and Holy Men)

Then more recently:

· A. Woolf, "Pictish Matriliny Reconsidered" in The Innes Review Vol. 49 (Edinburgh 1998), pp. 147-167 (solid solid stuff, with useful comparisons to Wales and Ireland)

· K. A. Gray, "Matriliny at the Millennium: the question of Pictish matrilineal succession revisited" in Pictish Arts Society Journal Vol. 14 (Edinburgh 1999), pp. 13-32 (king of the lunatic fringe!)

· A. Ross, "Pictish Matriliny?" in Northern Studies: the journal of the Scottish Society for Northern Studies Vol. 34 (Dundee 2000), pp. 11-22.

There may well be more but if so I don't know where, I'm afraid; I haven't worked in this field for a long time. When I did though, I had some fun messing with the possibilities of the kind of foreign-prince-marries-Pictish-princess scenario that Kirsten brings up here, and if you or she were interested you could find that paper linked at my webpages as a PDF (with Bibliography here). It is in fact now out, as The Political Range of Áedán mac Gabrán, King of Dál Riata" in Pictish Arts Society Journal Vol. 17 (Brechin 2008), pp. 3-24, but as I describe on my blog it's suffered rather since the editors first got it in 2000...

Bernita said...

It seems sensible that matriliniar descent would be a default choice.
From a practical standpoint, blood royal would mean training in arms, leadership,and the neessary negotiation skills.

tenthmedieval said...

The biggest difficulty with arguments about matriliny is that it attracts people with agendas. Aside from the Victorian scholarship Gabriele mentioned, there's a more modern feminist agenda pursued by people who don't care too much about the facts. This minority tend to want there to have been a medieval kingdom where women were important. But matriliny does not equal matriarchy!

So that Gray article I cited there has a lot of Welsh and Irish parallels about the importance of women in various ways in those societies, mostly drawn from much later literature and art which is problematic in itself. But a cursory reading of some actual anthropology on the subject will rapidly expose to you that though lots of societies have matrilineal characteristics, very few of them have lots, and there's no obvious natural correlation from any one to another. So that if the early Irish let family property descend down the female line, that still doesn't mean that they chose kings that way; and the converse isn't necessarily, or even likely, true for Pictland. Nowhere where such practices can be studied would lead one to expect such practices to exist together. If women are privileged in one way in a society, they are often as not disadvantaged compared to men in another. And descent through the female line wouldn't necessarily make for any extra power or independence for the relevant princesses anyway, it might just make them higher-value tokens in a male-ruled game of arranged marriage...

Rick said...

Tenthmedieval - your points relate to a common tendency in historical fiction, or what perhaps should be called para-historical fiction - fiction set in early societies that are known to exist, but about which we have very little if any first hand account. (Para-historical is not intended as a diss; you can be just as accurate about the Beaker People as the 18th century, within the limits of our knowledge and plausible inference.)

The prehistoric Celts and Minoan Crete especially, however, tend to draw a lot of what might be called feminist social fantasy - picturing these societies as matriarchal paradises, till overrun by nasty sweaty Roman/Saxon/Mycenaean XY's with lots of weapons and far too much testosterone.

Because, of course, men in a male dominant society would never dream of covering their palace walls with frescoes of pretty women wearing might-as-we-be-topless outfits.

(Yes, I'm perfectly well aware that applying the assumptions of Maxim to Minoan iconography is precisely as tendentious as applying the assumptions of Our Bodies, Ourselves. I'm just sayin'.)

Gabriele C. said...

The feminist approach is one of my pet peeves as well. We know so little about the British and Pictish - or Germanic, for that matter - societies, and what we know is seen through the Roman lens and coloured by Roman agenda. Sure, Boudica and Cartimandua were different from Roman women, but how different were they in their own society? There are definitely a lot more male leaders mentioned by name. Tacitus' story about the capture of Arminius' wife jars so much I think it is an agenda rather than historiography. And female priestesses (one of the favourite features of feminist literature) can be found in evil, patriarchialic Rome as well. :)

tenthmedieval said...

Gabriele, this is it. Those who want to make of Pictland a matriarchy where women were loved and respected need to explain why on earth we don't know the name of a single Pictish woman bar perhaps Verb mother of King Nechtan. Historically-known Picts are few, but they're not so few that all being male isn't, well, like everywhere else and not like somewhere so radically different as that!

I mean historians here of course; fiction writers can have it however they'd like if it helps with a good story ;-)

Gabriele C. said...

Sure, fiction writers have more leeway (and I bet I'll get some comments about my portrait of Arminius' wife should the book ever get published) but I'm tired of those tree hugging, sexually empowered, matriarchalic Celtic priestesses woh are Better Than Men. :)

Carla said...

Rick - whether there was a widespread problem depends when kings typically married and started fathering heirs, how prolific they were and what the rate of attrition was. But it would seem highly sensible to have a contingency plan to cope with the situation of under-age sons. With regard to 15th and 16th century Scotland, I wonder if it was more profitable to be on the Regency council with your fingers in the till than it was to be actually king? Also if you usurp the throne, all the other factions will promptly try to usurp you, even if they can agree on nothing else. The throne was quite likely far more trouble than it was worth to a canny nobleman.
Ship names - presumably the Roman navy used the Greek terms because they got a lot of their seafaring skills from Greece, which had been a maritime power since the year dot?

Kirsten - to be fair, we don't know who the mothers of the Pictish kings were, so for all we know some of them might have been from other kingdoms. I wonder how a marriage between a Pictish princess and a powerful foreigner might have worked in practice? If the children of the marriage were brought up in the father's country, the Picts might justifiably be concerned about foreign influence if one of them became king of the Picts. You could solve this if it was a condition that the children had to be raised in Pictland (which would also mean they wouldn't develop a power base in their father's country and so would be unlikely to succeed him there) - but then this raises the question of how the marriage worked. It would be fine for an exile like Eanferth, who might just as well live in Pictland as anywhere else, but what about a powerful foreigner like Maelgwn Gwynedd? Would his wife and her children live in Pictland and just expect him to travel north from time to time, do his marital duty, and go home again? In which case, did he have a non-Pictish wife at home as well, who would produce heirs for his own country?
As a terribly un-academic aside, I remember seeing one of Michael Palin's travel series (Himalaya?) where he interviewed a woman whose society practised matrilineal descent. They have what she called a "walking marriage". If a woman takes a liking to a man, he comes to her, they have a baby together, then he goes away and her brothers bring up the baby. I wonder if the Picts did something similar if a royal lady married a foreign king?

Tenthmedieval - many thanks, those are very helpful. I've read your article (and your blog post - what on earth was the journal doing with it for seven years?!), and thought your suggestions about Aedan mac Gabran's possible marriage alliances were very interesting.

Bernita - it has all sorts of practical advantages.

Tenthmedieval/Rick/Gabriele - I agree about agendas! I thought twice before even putting this post up. You see the same in arguments about pre-Christian religions, where it's very easy to come up with an attractive theory and then look for evidence that can be stretched to fit. When there's not very much real evidence, insufficient to make a really definitive statement either way, it can be difficult to disprove an agenda-driven theory because it's hard to prove a negative. Rick's comment about para-historical fiction reminds me of a discussion we had here a while back about Oprah-type self-fulfilment in a novel set in Iron-Age Scotland. I don't think that's terribly likely or convincing, but in the absence of any real evidence I can't prove it wrong. Non-fiction can go in for agendas too (especially the 'narrative' type, which sometimes seems to me to be more or less fiction with footnotes instead of dialogue), which is one reason I try to start with the contemporary sources if there are any. The early medieval period seems to be particularly prone to agendas, perhaps because it has just enough evidence to be tantalisingly mysterious but not enough to be really sure about anything. Perhaps similar to the way the classical world always put the Amazons just on the fringes of the known world? You know there's something there, but you don't know what, so you write "Here be Dragons" (or "Here be a feminist utopia" according to taste).

It's noticeable that Norman laws allowed women to inherit property, yet nobody would call it a female-dominated society (!). I recall reading an anthropological book a while ago now, something about the evolution of humans, and the authors made the telling point that although human societies vary considerably, they are all either roughly equal or male-dominated to varying degrees. So while it seems plausible that the Picts practised a form of matriliny, I certainly agree that this doesn't mean they were matriarchal! Princesses were important in matrimonial alliances in medieval Europe because the throne sometimes happened to descend through the female line - Stephen, Henry II, the Hapsburgs getting Spain through Juana la Loca - or because a woman with a strong claim could be used to bolster a weak male claim - Henry VII marrying Elizabeth of York - but that didn't mean the women concerned had much of a say in the matter.

Carla said...
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Carla said...
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Carla said...

Isn't there a single Pictish princess with an obituary notice in the Irish Annals some time in the 8th century? So I suppose we could add her and - hey - two women mentioned by name in half a millenium or so. This is hardly evidence of matriarchy.

Arguably, a historical fiction writer only needs the absence of evidence against something. So all those Feministly-Reimagined Novels are safe from refutation. I suspect they say more about modern society than the one they are supposedly set in, though.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Carla - Yes, indeed. If we had some female names in the genealogies we would be able see if a Pictish king had a Pictish, Briton, or Anglo-Saxon mother, which could answer some questions. But we don't, and it's incredibly frustrating.

You brought up an interesting point regarding the practicalities of these marriages. They might very well have depended on the situations and parties involved. Perhaps the Pictish laws had a system similar to that of "chief wife" and "secondary wife" of early Irish law which had some bearing onto the marriage alliances they made? Tenuous, I know.

Tenthmedieval - And descent through the female line wouldn't necessarily make for any extra power or independence for the relevant princesses anyway, it might just make them higher-value tokens in a male-ruled game of arranged marriage.

The same thing has occurred to me, too. Surely that would just make their futures and prospects even more tightly controlled?

I'll need to make time have a look at all those sources you listed. It's a subject I'm very interested in. As you've said, however, we've got all these agenda-driven writers muddying the waters by stretching the facts as far as they can for their own ends. I like to let my imagination run away with me, but I also like my history to be academic!

Carla said...

Kirsten - There may well have been chief and secondary wives, which can be very handy when politics gets complicated. Like Cnut the Great marrying Aelfgifu of Northampton and then Queen Emma at the same time and having sons by both of them, both of whom went on to become king. As usual, I don't suppose we'll ever know for sure.

tenthmedieval said...

There then arises the question of what counts as `marriage', which gets a lot more complicated when the Church gets involved. There was a really good recent article by Ruth Mazo Karras in Early Medieval Europe 14 (2006) about this kind of `lay' marriage in early Germany which you might find interesting, I did.

Carla: glad Áedán was of interest. What the journal seem to have been doing was replacing one inactive editor after another with one no better, and they have finally sacrificed competence and academia just to get a final issue out. Oh well, nothing to be done now.

Rick said...

Tenthmedieval - I suppose the complications of marriage are greatest precisely when a society is becoming Christianized, and church-door marriage is just becoming the norm without yet banishing traditional usages. The distinctions between wives and concubines must become very hazy, and depend on who you ask.

At an earlier date, I imagine church marriage is still a novelty with mostly retrospective significance. Later on, as the church secures its primacy, any other wives fall to the status of mistresses, and the customs involved fall into abeyance.

stevent said...

Interesting read. Don't hear about the Picts very often. What eventually happened to their society? Were they absorbed by the Scots? I came across this book the other day called The Pict, by Jack Dixon. Didn't know if you had heard of it and/or were familiar with it.

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval/Rick - yes, marriage probably became very complicated for a while as one set of customs were giving way to another. Perhaps people had two or three ceremonies to make sure they were properly married and would be treated as such, in the same way that Admiral Cochrane in the early 19th C married his wife three times (civil ceremony and two different church ceremonies).

Steven - I've heard of Jack Dixon's book but not yet read it. Kirsten has read and reviewed it, I believe - there's a link to her review on Jack Dixon's site. It's set in the 1st century AD when the Caledonii and the rest of the tribes of what's now north Scotland were fighting the Romans. I could carp and say that the term 'Pict' didn't come into use until a couple of centuries later, but that would be nit-picking as there's little doubt that the people fighting the Romans were the same people who later became called the Picts. The title just jars me because I always think of the Picts as an early medieval society, spanning roughly the fourth to the ninth centuries. You don't see much of them in fiction, which is a shame.
Yes, they merged with the Scots of Dal Riada (roughly modern Argyll). Traditionally the first king to unite the Picts and Scots was Kenneth mac Alpin in around 850, but it was probably a gradual process. The people of the combined kingdom were referred to as Albans in Irish-language sources, Picts in Latin, and Scots in English, and their territory occupied what's now Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde valleys. Around the end of the ninth century the Irish annalists stop writing in Latin and start using Irish, so the name 'Picts' disappears. Doesn't mean the people did, though.

Gabriele C. said...

Carla, that's why I prefer to call my early 'Picts' for Caledonians, also used in Roman sources or use the tribal names like Selgovae, Epidii etc, though those are not what they called themselves.

Constance said...

*opened Pict books. Read several chapters. Closed Pict books, found 'A Brief History of Time', wet, wrung out, applied cool book liberally to forehead*

There, I feel better. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - that seems a very sensible approach, and I'd probably do the same if I was writing in the period.

Constance - now, that's a novel use for A Brief History of Time :-)

tenthmedieval said...

Just to say that, since comments here have died down a bit and I had some more stuff worked up to say, I've developed some of it in a post at my own blog if anyone would care to have a look.

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - thanks very much for the link.