26 May, 2009

A Bishop of Chester?

In an earlier post, I discussed the likely survival of Chester’s Roman defences into the early medieval period. Clearly some of the Roman fortress wall was still standing at the time, since parts of it are still standing now, but it may not have been fully intact.

During Roman government, Chester was a legionary fortress situated in the territory of the Cornovii, whose tribal capital was at Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum). Could it have become an important ecclesiastical centre in the early medieval period?


Annales Cambriae

601 - The synod of Urbs Legionis [Chester].
Annales Cambriae

Some of the dates in Annales Cambriae are two or three years different from those of the same events given by Bede (e.g. the date of the battles in which Edwin of Northumbria and Catwallaun of Gwynedd died), so this is very likely the synod referred to by Bede at which Archbishop Augustine of Canterbury met a group of Brittonic bishops at a date in 603 or 604 (Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. 2). Bede doesn’t specify the location of the meeting, but says that it was attended by seven bishops and many very learned men mainly from Bangor-Is-Y-Coed. Bangor-Is-Y-Coed is about 18 miles from Chester, so this would be consistent with the synod being held in Chester.


A lead salt-pan discovered at Shavington, near Nantwich, bore the inscription Viventi [Epis]copi (White & Barker 2002; Keith Matthews website). The first word translates as “of Viventius”, and the second could mean either that Viventius was the episcopus or that Viventius was subordinate to the episcopus.

Episcopus was used of a bishop (whence the modern term “episcopal”). However, it could also mean “overseer” or “supervisor”. So the inscription could refer to a bishop who owned a salt works, or to the foreman of a salt factory. It is impossible to rule out either, although as Viventius is the name of a Christian saint, I’m inclined to agree with Keith Matthews that a bishop is a more likely interpretation than a factory overseer.


The Synod at Chester must have been an important event, at least in the opinion of whoever thought it worth recording in Annales Cambriae. So it is a reasonable interpretation that Chester in 601/603 was a centre considered suitable for such an event. This may reflect surviving infrastructure capable of accommodating a large number of VIPs – seven bishops and their retinues, plus “many learned men”, probably amounted to quite a lot of people. It may also indicate that Chester was a prestigious site, the sort of place where one would choose to invite a foreign dignitary (Augustine). If it was also under the control of a wealthy churchman, that would fit very well.

Salt was a vital commodity, needed for preserving food over the winter, and so salt production can be expected to have continued in some form long after the end of Roman administration. If the bishopric of Chester controlled the income from a salt works, that could have provided a substantial source of revenue in addition to whatever income was gained from the local agricultural population. An additional source of revenue would have helped to maintain Chester as a prestigious site (since it had the resources to maintain, repair or replace buildings), and contributed to the bishop’s ability to put on a big event like the Synod.

Cities run by bishops existed in fifth-century Gaul, where Sidonius Apollinaris, bishop of what is now Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne, governed his city and negotiated with the local king (of the Goths) in 470-480. The other city known from the civitas of the Cornovii, Wroxeter, had a complex of impressive timber houses in Roman style built on the site of the baths basilica in the late sixth century, and it has been suggested that the frigidarium of the baths was used as a church (as happened in Leicester) and that the rebuilding was organised by a bishop who controlled the city (White & Barker 2002). Perhaps Chester was also run by a bishop in the early 600s – and perhaps his name was Viventius…

Annales Cambriae, available online.
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X
Mason DJP. Roman Chester: city of the eagles. Tempus, 2001, ISBN 978- 0-7524-1922-0.
White R, Barker P. Wroxeter: Life and death of a Roman city. Tempus, 2002, ISBN 978-0-7524-1409-7.

Google Maps Links


Rick said...

As an aside, this is the first mention I've seen of whose capital Wroxeter might have been.

Another argument favoring 'episcopus' in the sense of bishop is that a salt pan is production equipment, more likely belonging to the owner of the salt works rather than personal property of the superintendent.

On bishops running cities, I recall reading somewhere that medieval Italian city-republic governments often replaced government by bishops. I don't know the back-history there, but as Roman era local government dissolved, it would be no surprise for bishops to step in. They'd have both prestige and administrative skills.

And thanks for the map links! It really helps to know where this stuff was happening!

Carla said...

Wroxeter is a very interesting site and I'll have more to say about it in due course. The bishop isn't the only theory about who might have been running (and rebuilding) the place in the sixth century. I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that it's one of the many suggestions for The Real Camelot and The Real King Arthur.

Your point about ownership of production equipment reminds me of something else that also fits. From what I know of inscriptions on Roman objects (which is not by any means a comprehensive survey), the common format was "Property of X", whereas some Germanic inscriptions say "Made by X". The famous examples are the Ulfbehrt Viking swords, but there's also a delightful example from Lincoln of a comb case with an inscription in Norse runes that translates approximately as "Thorfast Makes a Good Comb" - all that's missing is his website address and orderline phone number :-) That may indicate that craftsmen had a higher status in Germanic society than Roman society. In which case, the Latin inscription on the salt pan would be consistent with the Roman pattern of indicating ownership and would fit better with a bishop than a foreman.

Early medieval bishops were generally part of the aristocracy, so the (hypothetical) Bishop of Chester was quite likely the brother, cousin or nephew of the local king. The distinction between religious and secular authority might have been more apparent than real - which makes the bishop an even more plausible candidate for the boss, as they had the right social status and connections as well. E.g. Sidonius in Auvergne was married into the family of one of the late Emperors.

I'm glad the map links were useful! It took me a while to get them to work, which is why they're all clustered at the end of the post instead of integrated with the text. I daresay I'll get the hang of Google Maps eventually.

Rick said...

I'll look forward to more about Wroxeter! No surprise that it would emerge as a 'Camelot' candidate. It doesn't seem to have been on the 'traditional' list - at least I'd never heard of it, the way I'd heard of places like South Cadbury. I take it that its post-Roman significance wasn't preserved in tradition, or recognized till the archeologists found classical style architecture dating to a time when everyone in Britain was supposed to be a barbarian. :-)

Interesting about ownership v making in inscriptions. The Pantheon does have a surviving inscription, 'Agrippa built this,' but that is rather a special case!

Yes, bishops were typically aristos, just trained in a way suitable to administration rather than warfare!

Having the map links together at the bottom actually worked well for me, so don't sweat putting them inline!

Carla said...

No, Wroxeter doesn't seem to have featured in folklore, apart from the Canu Heledd poetry (more on that in due course too). Which is interesting, given that somebody with power and access to resources lived there in the sixth century. I suppose that serves to illustrate quite how patchy the record is! It was fortunate that Wroxeter's baths basilica was excavated with considerable care and skill and the post-Roman levels weren't just dug through in a hurry by somebody looking for mosaics! I do wonder whether similar evidence might have been destroyed elsewhere before anyone knew what to look for...

I wasn't thinking of monumental inscriptions on buildings, many of those are of the "X built this" form, as you mention. I was more thinking of inscriptions on portable objects like utensils and jewellery, which seem closer to the salt pan. But I'm not exactly an expert on Roman inscriptions (!) so it may be selective memory.

One or two medieval bishops happily went in for warfare as well - Bishop Odo of Bayeux leaps to mind, as does Anthony Bek, Prince-Bishop of Durham, who was an army commander under Edward I in the Scottish wars. Maybe some of their early medieval counterparts had similarly belligerent tendencies! I don't suppose muscular Christianity was invented in 1066. I do wonder if the Prince-Bishops of Durham might not be a reasonably plausible model for a bishop running a city-state in an ex-Roman civitas.

Anonymous said...

I think that Bede is by far the strongest evidence for a bishop of Chester in this period, if only because it's very hard to think of seven functional urban locations for sees in that part of the world without including Chester! I think the inscription could go any number of ways however.

One interesting parallel for the sort of thing you're suggesting here is Rhun ap Urien, who has been seen as a seventh-century bishop of Carlisle. Michelle of Heavenfield has a couple of posts covering him here and here.

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - I've speculated on where the seven bishops might have come from, too. It depends a bit on how far the attendees might have travelled to get to the Synod, which was presumably a major event. Chester was a major port as well as being on the Roman road network, so people could have come by sea, and that might well have expanded the catchment area to anywhere in Britain that considered itself Brittonic (which was probably a lot in 601/3). The four old bishoprics in Wales (St Asaph, St David, Llandaff and Bangor) are all supposed to have been in existence by the mid-ish sixth century, so that's four. If we accept that Whithorn in Galloway was really founded by St/Bishop Ninian in 450-ish that's five. Marwnad Cynddylan mentions a chief bishop at Caer Luitcoet (usually reckoned to be Lichfield), so that's six. Wroxeter, if the rebuilding was done by a bishop, makes seven. And I haven't even started on possible bishoprics in ex-Roman cities in what's now western England - places like Carlisle, Winchester, Hereford that have early English bishoprics recorded - and perhaps smaller settlements too. Wasn't it only after the Norman Conquest that bishoprics all had to be located in major cities? Also, I don't know whether the early British church had assistant or subordinate bishops who could be referred to by the same title (rather in the way that the West Saxon kingdom could happily have five kings in the same period). I reckon there are ways to get to seven without necessarily having to have Chester on the list, and it may even be possible that the synod was deliberately held on neutral territory and was therefore in the one town that didn't have a bishop. That said, I agree Chester is likely to have had a bishop.

Rhun of Rheged is a very interesting figure, and I've met Michelle's posts on him already. I wonder if he might have had connections with Whithorn in Galloway, as well as Carlisle. Carlisle's the traditional centre of Rheged (not that we have any real evidence of Rheged's location), but for a seafaring culture it's not hard to cross Morecambe Bay to Whithorn. Bede knew Whithorn as the seat of an early and important bishopric, and it may be a significant straw in the wind that Whithorn came under the Archbishop of York's authority until some time in the medieval period (Wars of Scottish Independence? Or thereabouts). If Whithorn was part of Rheged, that would be consistent with the suggestion that Rheged became absorbed into Northumbria, perhaps after Oswy's marriage to Rhianmellt in the 630s, if ecclesiastical power transferred along with political power.

Rick said...

Wroxeter might have fallen into the memory hole because (so I gather) the late impressive architecture was built of wood. Once abandoned the buildings would soon collapse, leaving no imposing ruin for grandparents to explain to their grandchildren, eventually passing into legend.

About cities and bishoprics, one thing that strikes me is that our whole concept of a city as a commercial center has medieval roots. To the Romans it meant first and foremost a local political center - civitas, whereas the town as such was urbs.

Naturally the two would tend to coincide, but by the 5th and 6th century political 'cities' might no longer coincide with towns, even if the geographical offset was small. (Compare Londinium v Lundenwic.)

I have no large conclusion to draw from this. But Bede, an Englishman writing in Latin, might well understand 'civitas' to mean an administrative center, not a direct translation of the English word 'town' (in its OE form), which I imagine is what he'd call a city in our sense.

Carla said...

Mostly wood on a rubble platform. Though some of the Roman masonry elsewhere on the Wroxeter site is still standing to this day (The Old Work, part of the baths complex), so there was no shortage of impressive ruins. Perhaps the early medieval ruler, whoever or whatever he was, just didn't inspire tales, or they got swept up and attached to more famous figures like You Know Who.

Bede uses "Urbs" for Chester. He calls it Urbs Legionis, and then explains "...which the English call Legacastir and the British more correctly call Caerlegion..." One would expect late Roman bishoprics to have been established in big towns, but whether they all necessarily stayed there, or whether bishops were later created in non-urban locations, are different questions. It's worth noting that Bede calls St Ninian (mid-5th century, if he wasn't legendary) "Bishop Ninian" and says his episcopal see was at Whithorn in Galloway. Whithorn was not a major late Roman town. This might be Bede using the wrong terminology, erroneously assuming that because Whithorn was a bishopric in his own time it must have been a bishopric when founded, and calling Ninian a Bishop when he was nothing of the kind. Or it may indicate that post-Roman bishops didn't all have to be based in ex-Roman cities.

Rick said...

So much for inconspicuous, thus forgotten. 'No spectacle is crueler than a beautiful theory hunted down and killed by a pack of cold unfeeling facts.'

Which kind of goes for my speculation about Bede and Urbs Legionis as well - though there could have been an sizeable town there, though the legion had long since decamped. I wonder why he regards the British name as more accurate?

Do we know how many bishops there were in late Roman Britain? Sees may have been established in areas that had no towns to speak of, but a substantial rural population with parish churches. I haven't the faintest clue how the 4th-5th century church made those sorts of decisions! It seems that all we really know are that there were at least seven in Bede's time. (But probably not many more, or they'd have shown up for a major synod.)

Carla said...

That's a more poetic version than the one I know: "many a beautiful theory has been slain by an ugly fact". However, there aren't that many facts in early medieval Britain, so it's one of the safer habitats for beautiful theories. Yours could still stand up if we say that the visible Roman remains were clearly identified as "Roman" and required no further explanation, and that the post-Roman buildings disappeared and their owner was forgotten. I'm stretching a point a bit here :-)

Good question. An expert in early medieval linguistics would be needed for a definitive answer. My guess is that the Brittonic form "Caerlegion" clearly preserves the Latin "Legionis" with hardly any alteration, whereas the Old English "Lega-" has mangled it a bit. BTW, I think it's rather attractive of Bede to go out of his way to say that the Brittonic name is more correct than the one used by his fellow countrymen.

Three bishops from Britain (from York, London and a garbled name that's perhaps most likely to be Lincoln) attended the Council of Arles in 314, and three turned up at the Council of Ariminum (Rimini) in 353 and accepted the Emperor's hospitality for their travel and subsistence costs. So at least three in the early-mid 4th century. I doubt that was the full set, as one would expect somebody to stay and run church affairs in Britain while the top brass travelled to the South of France and Italy, but there's no list so we don't know how many there were in total. And the number might have gone up (as Christianity became more popular) or down (as the economy declined and/or got taken over by non-Christian Germanic elites) over the next couple of centuries. I can imagine every little early medieval Brittonic kingdom wanting its own bishop, just so that their priests didn't answer to somebody else's bishop, for example.

The Synod of Arles complained about the practice of bishops ordaining other bishops all by themselves, and said that a bishop should be ordained by at least three other bishops and preferably seven. So assuming the British church followed that rule, they could have ordained extra bishops amongst themselves provided at least three existing bishops agreed, and they didn't have to get permission from an outside authority. So if they thought a group of rural churches needed a bishop they could have created one, I think.

Rick said...

When did the area around Wroxeter go from being 'British' to 'English?' The early English had no interest in the Arthurian cycle, for natural reasons. And if the poem 'The Ruin' is anything to go by, they didn't try to associate ruins with their own heroic tradition. Instead the poet takes a lost-civilization view - a bit of Ozymandias, a bit of Gibbon. Which comes off as very, well, English. :-)

Bede's comment on name accuracy puts me in mind of another discussion we had, about how he provided evidence to challenge his own interpretation of Whitby.

Given the almost complete lack of evidence, you guess about bishops seems as good as any!

Carla said...

Good question. Presumably before 780 or so when Offa of Mercia built Offa's Dyke (Wroxeter is well to the Mercian side of the Dyke). Presumably after 642, if the Cynddylan poetry relates to Wroxeter, as the poetry describes Cynddylan as allied with Penda of Mercia at the battle of Maes Cogwy in 642.
It might not have been a point event, of course - the area might have been independent, part of Powys or part of Mercia by turns at different times as the fortunes of war and diplomacy dictated. (Think of Alsace-Lorraine. When did it become French? Er - which time?). Also, if the local ruler was 'British' but answered to an 'English' overking, does the area count as British or English? If you're the English overking tallying up your tribute you probably think it's English, but if you live there and British law and custom is applied by a guy who speaks British, you probably think it's British - and both of you are equally right.

It was Bede's description of this same Synod at Chester that we were discussing last time. He gives the Brittonic bishops some sort of rational reason for refusing to accept Augustine's authority, rather than just dismissing them out of hand.

Rick said...

Yeah, a frontier territory could have bounced back and forth. Alsace-Lorraine, indeed! We don't know when the Welsh triads and such were first composed, only when they were set down. But my (sheer!) guess is that if Wroxeter fell off the radar of Welsh elites before 800, local folklore would more likely miss being incorporated into legend cycles that would encourage its preservation.

Compare to South Cadbury. It isn't recorded as 'Arthurian' till the 16th century, but it remained in the Britosphere well after the Arthurian tradition was established, so local folklore had something to hang its hat on, so to speak.

My oops about which synod Bede was discussing!

Carla said...

It's worth noting that there are no early traditions whatsoever from the kingdom of Mercia. No foundation legend, no stories about early heroes and kings like Penda, hardly anything even about Offa himself. I can't believe stories and sagas didn't exist, but for whatever reason none of them have come down to us. I daresay the Norse invasions and the Dissoluton between them made a fair job of trashing any monastic records. Any tales about Wroxeter might well have vanished into oblivion along with tales of Penda.

Stories about the rulers of Wroxeter may never have been on the radar of kingdoms in what is now Wales. My feeling is that regional identities counted for much more than 'national' or 'ethnic' ones. So the royal court of Gwynedd had an interest in, and a reason to preserve, tales about their own distant ancestors such as Maelgwn Gwynedd and Cunedda, but they had no particular reason to be interested in stories about distant ancestors in other kingdoms with which their dynasty had no direct connection.

Rick said...

Curious about Mercia. What early English kingdoms do we have surviving legends/traditions about?

Your remarks on what local elites were interested in hearing about seems entirely likely. Popular traditional heroes (e.g. Arthur) might be retrospectively linked to royal lines whether there was any real connection or not, but this wouldn't extend to the local traditions of unconnected kingdoms.

Carla said...

There are foundation stories for Kent (Hengist and Horsa, Historia Brittonum (HB) and Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC)), Sussex (Aelle and his three sons (ASC), ceded by Vortigern (HB)), Wessex (Cerdic and Cynric, ASC), Isle of Wight (Stuf and Wihtgar, ASC) and Bernicia (Octha and Ebissa, HB). The Hengist and Horsa story is by far the most detailed, and the others in HB are offshoots of it. The ones in the ASC are of the "X came with his sons in N ships and landed at a place called X-something" format, as is usual for the ASC's condensed style. Nothing for the origin of East Anglia, Mercia, Lindsey, Deira or any sub-units that might have made up parts of them. There are genealogies for them, but those are just name lists with no foundation legend attached. Bede's history mentions some of their kings starting around 600 AD or so, e.g. Penda of Mercia, Raedwald of East Anglia, when they encountered the Christian Northumbrian kings who are the focus of his account, but not in their own right.

Rick said...

It sounds like most of the surviving early English references were southern. (?) Weren't Hengist and Horsa mixed up in the Vortigern thing? That would explain why the HB remembers them. (Are they even in Gildas?)

And about the ASC, weren't its versions largely compiled after the Wessex line was dominant? I don't know if that would explain who got covered and who didn't, but I vaguely guess it might.

Carla said...

Yes, Hengist, Horsa and Vortigern are all actors in the same story. Gildas tells a condensed version of what is clearly the same story, referring to a "proud tyrant" who invited Saxon mercenaries, but doesn't name any names. (Gildas names very few names; Aurelius Ambrosius is the only person named from this approximate period at all). Bede repeats Gildas, with the addition of the names of Hengist and Horsa which he evidently knew from somewhere else. The ASC version is lifted more or less wholesale from Bede. HB's version is much fuller, which may reflect access to lost source material, a more narrative saga style of writing (as opposed to the ASC's condensed annals format), more years/opportunity/inclination for vivid imaginations to get to work, or any combination thereof.

The ASC was probably written down at the court of Alfred the Great in late ninth-century Wessex, by which time all the other royal dynasties were extinct owing to internecine squabbles or the Danes or both. Sussex and the Isle of Wight were part of Wessex by then, as was Kent, so those were all of at least passing interest to the ASC's patrons. Aelle of Sussex gets a mention in Bede (as the first in his list of Bretwaldas), so that would be another reason to include his legend. The ASC chronicler(s) clearly had little interest in, or knowledge of, the development of the Deira/Bernicia/Northumbria dynasties because they have mixed up Deiran and Bernician kings into a single line and made a right mess of the chronology as a result, saying that Aelle of Deira died in 588 when Bede (in On the Reckoning of Time, so not his most famous work) clearly says that Aelle was king in 597 when Augustine's mission arrived. This is consistent with your suggestion that the ASC focused on the Wessex kings, which is what we'd expect both for reasons of political patronage (you write up the ancestors of the guy who's paying you) and likely access to source material (a Wessex chronicler is more likely to have records from Wessex and Wessex sub-kingdoms in his library than records from kingdoms hundreds of miles away).

Rick said...

The HB seems a partial exception to the familiar rule that the winners write the history. Only partial, because I somewhat gather that the tragic (from HB's perspective) 'matter of Britain' is sort of a back story to Gwynedd, presumably thriving and successful at the time.

Carla said...

If history were written by the victors, we really ought to have an account of Badon written by Arthur :-)

HB says in its text that it was written in 829 or 830. It's usually ascribed to the court of Merfyn the Freckled, King of Gwynedd. Merfyn was highly successful and married the sister of the king of Powys, through which connection his sons and grandsons ended up ruling Powys as well as Gwynedd (and parts of what's now South Wales as well, so they came pretty close to being rulers of the whole of what's now Wales). I imagine, though I don't know, that the pre-eminence of Gwynedd among the Welsh princedoms in Llewellyn Fawr's time has its roots in Merfyn and his dynasty. So, yes, HB was written and maintained when Gwynedd was successful and thriving. Merfyn's claim to Gwynedd came through his mother (he wasn't a direct descendant in the male line), so he probably had more reason than most to want to record (or construct) a suitable history. Merfyn is supposed to have family connections with 'Manau Gododdin', somewhere in what was at the time north-east Northumbria and is now south-east Scotland, which was the traditional home of Cunedda, the (legendary?) founder of Gwynedd. If correct, this would account for HB being full of stuff about the history of what's now northern England and southern Scotland, as this would have been of relevance to Merfyn's immediate forbears. Some people suggest that the Cunedda migration story was invented lock, stock and barrel for Merfyn, together with matching genealogies, as a way of claiming that this incomer from the distant north had a dynastic right to Gwynedd. Myself, I think a complete fabrication would have been tricky, but building up an existing shadowy tradition would be entirely plausible. It's a lot easier to make political spin stick if there's a grain of truth in it. Apply large caveat that Merfyn is 300 years later than my main period of interest so I don't know that much about him in detail.

The Matter of Britain, i.e. all the Arthur legends, don't seem to have been used as backstory by any of the medieval Welsh kings. None of them claim to be descended from Arthur. The founder figure of Gwynedd is Cunedda, who has nothing to do with Arthur in any legend I know of, and the founder figure of Powys is Cadell, who is supposed to have been given his authority by St Germanus and again has nothing to do with Arthur. Clearly the legends of Arthur were remembered and told in medieval Wales, since he turns up in stories like Culhwch and Olwen and is all over the Triads, not to mention in HB itself, but nobody went round claiming to be reviving his government or his authority. You can say that shows he was legendary (and many people have, and they have a point), or you can say that it indicates that his family origin and/or his political base wasn't in the lands that became medieval Wales.

Another wrinkle re HB and 'history written by the victors'. Merfyn was a highly successful king in Gwynedd at the time of HB's composition. If I'm correct that regional and family identity is what counted, then Merfyn's territory and people may have considered the conflict between Vortigern and Hengist in HB to be nothing much to do with them, except perhaps as a dire warning to have nothing to do with perfidious Saxons, and not regarded themselves as part of the losing side.

(Does the phrase 'can of worms' come to mind?)

Rick said...

I can easily imagine that northern 'Cymru' elites fled to Gwynedd as the northern kingdoms collapsed, and intermarried with the local elite. And given the small size of these early kingdoms, I imagine pretty much any aristo could claim a royal connection - especially going back a few generations, and given no way to check. :-)

'Backstory' was perhaps too strong a term. As you say there is a discontinuity, evidently in the 6th century. But some memory or tradition of a former Britain was preserved, and used to draw a distinction between real people and those English pig-dogs.

Lurking under this whole discussion is how 'ethnic' identities were created and defined. Surely it was mainly if not exclusively along linguistic lines, especially the languages of elites.

Carla said...

I expect that was the case. The new dynasty of Northumbria in the early 8th century claimed descent from King Ida of Bernicia (c. 547) and one of his concubines - I bet that couldn't be checked!

Ethnic identity - now that really is a big subject, and one for another thread! Drawing a distinction between "real people", i.e. us, and "that other lot" seems to be characteristic of Homo sapiens, which seems to like defining in-groups and out-groups. Whether it needs an actual tradition or can invent one to suit is open to question.

My guess is that language would probably have been an important ethnic marker. There's no convenient physical characteristic like skin colour to use, after all, and it's not as if DNA testing had been invented :-) It's also noticeable that regional accents, mixed up with class accents, are still recognisable and still important in Britain even now. That may have very deep roots indeed.

Rick said...

Definitely a topic for another thread!

I imagine language would be the big driver in Britain, with a boost from things like clothing. Maybe in Italy 'Germanic barbarian' auxiliaries looked physically different on average from Italians, but hardly in Britain. Where the owners of those villas, who presumably mostly looked like British people, nevertheless likely thought of themselves as Roman, till eventually they didn't anymore.

Carla said...

Yes, clothing and personal items like jewellery and belt buckles. These are the markers that turn up in the archaeological record (unlike language, unfortunately). Brooches are among the key items for recognising and dating 'Anglo-Saxon' graves, as fashions seem to have varied by region and evolved at a quite a pace over time.

Rick said...

And however beautiful and finely made, no doubt they were 'barbarian' in Romano-British eyes.

Carla said...

Oh, undoubtedly. Fashion snobbery never changes :-) And not just the Romano-British, either. I wish I had a penny for every time I've seen the phrase "barbarian splendour" attached to the Sutton Hoo jewellery.

Rick said...

'Barbarian splendor,' LOL.

When I read 'The Ruin' in course of this discussion I was most struck by how thoughtful and sophisticated it is. The thumbnail descriptions I'd read had not led me to expect that. They gave the impression that the poem was pretty, but was written by an ignorant, mead swilling barbarian who thought the ruins were also built by mead swilling barbarians.

Carla said...

If you read The Ruin as a result of this discussion, I'm delighted! Old English poetry is more thoughtful and sophisticated than some of its modern "commentary".

When I first read The Ruin, I thought of Ozymandias as well. Have I said that somewhere, or did you come to the same conclusion independently?

Rick said...

Yes, I did read it because of this discussion, and so far as I can recall hadn't previously seen the comparison to Ozymandias.

I haven't exactly delved deeply into the modern commentary, but the potted bit that sticks in my mind is the implication that the author couldn't have known a thing about Romans because he pictures the people who lived there as drinking mead. Which strikes me as saying more about the author's (and audience's) assumptions about party drinks than what he knew or didn't know about Romans.

Speaking of drinks, today's LA Times has a piece about how pubs are dying out in rural England. :-(

Carla said...

Mead and the mead-hall had a deeper significance than the fuel and location for a party; they symbolised order, prosperity, society. Civilisation, if you like, as opposed to chaos, cold, hunger, misery. When the poet pictures the ruins as the remains of a mead-hall, I'd say he's meditating on the transience of human life and human works, rather like Bede's sparrow story.

Rick said...

Really we're saying the same thing, I think. order, prosperity, society. Civilisation, if you like, as opposed to chaos, cold, hunger, misery is exactly what I took from his imagery.

Wine vs mead matters only in modern stereotype - Romans getting drunk on wine are civilized (if perhaps growing decadent by the moment), but anyone getting drunk on mead, especially in a 'mead hall,' is by definition a barbarian.

Family story about my parents when young adults attending a church (!) party where someone had made some mead. After drinking it, a partygoer remarked, 'No wonder they were always slaying dragons!' :-)

Carla said...

Indeed, it doesn't matter what people were drinking, the point is that once there was power and wealth and luxury here and now it's gone.

Mead can be fairly potent stuff :-) Sometimes more like a fortified wine than an ordinary wine. Sharon Penman has Eleanor de Montfort (Ellen) make a similar comment in The Reckoning.

Rick said...

I figured it must be strong stuff! Curious that it has fallen almost completely out of use. Either it is expensive to make or it is rotgut. (Grossly sweet, maybe?)

Everyone has heard of it, more or less, and you'd think the 'barbarian' connotation would be a positive selling point in dude/lad culture!

Carla said...

No idea. Honey tends to be expensive so that may well be a reason for the decline of mead, or it may just be fashion.