01 July, 2010

Iago Gwynedd

Iago son of Beli was King of Gwynedd, in what is now north-west Wales, in the early seventh and/or late sixth century (the chronology and genealogy of the seventh-century kings of Gwynedd was discussed in an earlier post). His death is recorded in Annales Cambriae in the same year as the death of Selyf son of Cynan, King of Powys, at the Battle of Chester (see earlier post on the dating of the battle).

This line in Annales Cambriae is often interpreted as meaning that Iago died alongside Selyf at the Battle of Chester. In turn, this interpretation is sometimes further extrapolated as indicating that Powys and Gwynedd, two of the major Brittonic kingdoms at the time, had formed a military alliance against Aethelferth of Bernicia/Northumbria, and/or as indicating that Gwynedd had some sort of territorial interest in Chester. What do we know about the manner of Iago’s death?


Annales Cambriae

613 The battle of Caer Legion [Chester]. And there died Selyf son of Cynan. And Iago son of Beli slept [died].
--Annales Cambriae

Welsh Triads

And that was one of the Three Hatchet-Blows. The second (was) a woodcutter of Aberffraw who struck Golydan with a hatchet, on the head. And the third, one of his own men struck upon Iago, son of Beli, with a hatchet, on the head.
--Red Book of Hergest Triads


Annales Cambriae records the death dates of four out of the seven kings of Gwynedd listed in the genealogies for the seventh century (see earlier post on Chronology of the Kings of Gwynedd] for details). This may be pure chance, reflecting the material that happened to be available to the scribe compiling the Annales. Alternatively, it may be a deliberate judgement about events that were considered important enough to record, or events that were sufficiently important to act as landmarks distinguishing one year from another. If this is the case, then the fact that Annales Cambriae recorded Iago son of Beli’s death may indicate that he was a significant figure.

Did Iago die alongside Selyf son of Cynan, king of Powys, at the Battle of Chester? This is certainly a possibility, since his death is entered in the same year. However, it may be noteworthy that Annales Cambriae treats the two deaths separately. That might be chance or the scribe’s personal style, or it may indicate that Iago’s death was not directly connected with the battle. Furthermore, the Annales record Iago’s death as ‘slept’, which implies a peaceful death and might be a further indication that Iago did not die in the battle. I have suggested in an earlier post that Iago may have been well into his sixties in 613, as this fits with the dates recorded for his predecessors and successors. If Iago was of advanced age, this does not preclude a death in battle if he retained sufficient health and fitness to join the campaign, though it might be considered a slight point in favour of a natural death.

On the other hand, the Triads list Iago’s death as one of the Three Hatchet-Blows, implying a violent death, and one of some note. This would be consistent with death in a major battle. A fatal blow from one of his own men could have happened in the confusion of battle (leaving aside sinister conspiracies, out of which a tale might be spun), and is the sort of thing that might have been considered worthy of comment. It seems not to fit well with the natural death that might be implied by Annales Cambriae.

So what to make of this apparent contradiction? Quite possibly, not a lot. Both Annales Cambriae (early tenth century) and the Triads (thirteenth century or so) date from centuries after Iago’s time, leaving plenty of time in which they could have been misunderstood or mis-copied. Either or both might be mistaken, or the Annales’ choice of ‘slept’ might be merely idiosyncratic, perhaps a scribe using elegant variation to avoid repeating the same word used for Selyf ap Cynan’s death in the same entry.

One possibility is that the Triads may be referring to a different Iago of Gwynedd. Iago son of Idwal son of Meurig* is recorded in the Annals of Ulster as having been killed by his own men in 1039, in one of the various dynastic struggles for rule of Gwynedd:

All these were killed: Iago, king of the Welsh, by his own people; [...]
--Annals of Ulster

It may not be beyond possibility that the patronymics of two different Iagos got mixed up at some point, either in copying the Triads or in oral stories and sagas, and that the Iago in the Triads who suffered the hatchet-blow by one of his own men was Iago son of Idwal son of Meurig (1039) instead of Iago son of Beli (613).

It is not unknown for the Triads to incorporate names of figures who do not belong to early medieval Britain. For example, Alan Fyrgan or Fergeant, Duke of Brittany in the late eleventh century, appears in the Three Faithless Warbands Triad. The Triads featuring men and women who received the might of Adam or the beauty of Eve feature Helen of Troy, Paris son of Priam, Hercules and Hector from classical mythology. This does not strike me as surprising; one might expect a living poetic tradition to evolve to accommodate new material, adding the exploits of new heroes as new stories came into circulation.

If the Iago of the Three Hatchet-Blows Triad was a different Iago, perhaps the eleventh-century Iago son of Idwal, then the Iago son of Beli whose death was recorded by Annales Cambriae in 613 could have died a natural death, which may not necessarily have had any connection with the Battle of Chester except a coincidence of year. This would fit with the choice of ‘slept’ by the annalist, and also with the separation between the mention of the battle and the mention of Iago’s death.

As usual, multiple interpretations are possible. It remains a possibility that Iago Gwynedd was killed (possibly by a hatchet wielded by one of his own men) at the Battle of Chester. However, this seems far from proven, and I would say the very limited evidence can equally support the less romantic possibility that he simply happened to die in the same year as the battle.

Annales Cambriae, available online
Annals of Ulster, available online
Red Book of Hergest Triads, available online

*A patronymic of a patronymic (a patronymic squared?) is needed here, to distinguish him from Iago son of Idwal Foel (Iago son of Idwal son of Anarawd) in the tenth century. See the Wikipedia article on Iago ap Idwal ap Meurig and Iago ap Idwal Foel. Given the recurring use of names across centuries, it would almost be more remarkable if individuals didn’t occasionally get mixed up.


Rick said...

The coincidence of one Iago being the victim of a famous hatchet job, and another being killed by his own men, does sort of jump out. But I'd also be curious how 'slept' was used in Welsh poetic tradition - whether it was generally used for peaceful deaths, or could be used for any death including in battle.

Carla said...

I can't speak for the whole of Welsh poetic tradition, but for Annales Cambriae (which is the key source here) the answer seems fairly clear. In the Harleian manuscript of Annales Cambriae (the oldest version, sometimes called the A text), there are five entries using 'slept' - Latin dormitatio or dormit - in the period from 500 to 750. These are:
544 - Sleep of Ciaran
574 - Sleep of Brendan of Birr
613 - Iago son of Beli slept
704 - Sleep of Adomnan
735 - Bede the priest slept

You can see a transcription of the Latin original text here.

Ciaran is Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, an important early Irish saint, who died of plague.
Brendan of Birr is another important early Irish saint, roughly contemporary with Ciaran but longer-lived. St Columba apparently saw a vision of angels carrying his soul up to heaven on the night he died, according to Adomnan's Life of Columba, which sounds like a natural death rather than a death in battle.
Adomnan was abbot of Iona and wrote the Life of St Columba, among other things. I don't know what he died of, but he seems unlikely to have died in battle (if a prominent churchman was killed by violence, one would expect the church to make some outraged comment on it somewhere).
Bede died a natural and peaceful death from illness, as recounted in some detail in an eyewitness account written by Cuthbert Abbott of Jarrow.

So these four examples of 'slept' all refer to prominent churchmen. We know two of them died of natural causes, and Bede is explicitly said to have died '...with great devotion and peace'. For the other two, a natural death seems likely though not proven.

Deaths explicitly said to be in battle in Annales Cambriae use the Latin 'correrunt' or 'cecidit', usually translated 'fell'. The entry for Selyf at the battle of Chester uses 'cecidit'.

Other terms used in the Annales and translated as 'death' include 'moritur' and 'obiit'. So the annalist had other terms to choose from if he didn't want to repeat 'cecidit'; he didn't have to use 'dormitatio' for Iago's death.

Assuming the choice of 'dormitatio' for Iago's death was intentional and not just whimsy on the annalist's part, it would seem logical that it was intended to be seen as similar to the other 'dormitatio' deaths, i.e. a natural and/or peaceful death.

Gabriele C. said...

Heh, I was actually surprised when I first researched Welsh names for my historical Fantasy novel monster to find that Iago is a Welsh name. I had always connected it with Venice. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - yes, I expect most of us first encounter it there :-) I wonder if Shakespeare nicked it from a Welsh source somewhere along the line?

Annis said...

Interestingly Iago is also a Spanish Christian name. Both the Welsh and Spanish versions have the same meaning, which is similar to the English name Jacob, and originate via Greek translation of the Hebrew testaments from the Hebrew name Ya'aquov. Jacob has undergone many variants throughout he ages, from the Greek translation Lakobus, to Latin Jacobus, to the modern day "Jacob."

Whether Shakespeare had a duplicitous Welshman or Spaniard in mind when he named his famous villain I don't know, but given that the Spanish were not too poplar during the reign of Good Queen Bess, and that she had Tudor descendants, I'd go for the Spaniard :)

In Cornwell the name is spelt Jago.

Carla said...

Annis - do you know how the Spanish name Iago is related to Diego (James)? Is it something as simple as a prefix (something like d'Iago, 'of Iago', or a letter from the end of a previous word like the 't' from 'Saint') getting taken up as part of the name?

Wikipedia says that the character of Iago in Shakespeare's play can be traced to an Italian story, but apparently the original Italian character doesn't have a personal name, so that doesn't help with where the name Iago came from. A dig at the Spanish seems entirely likely!

Jago looks much like Jacobus with the ending dropped, a plausible transition. As I understand it, Welsh doesn't have a 'J', which would explain the shift from initial J to I. Maybe the old Cornish language had a J, or maybe the Cornish spelling might reflect proximity to England.

Tacitus in the 1st century AD remarked that the inhabitants of what is now Wales were similar in appearance to the inhabitants of what is now Spain (and quite distinct from other population groups in other areas of Britain), which is exactly what one would expect from long cultural contact up and down the Atlantic coasts. Maybe names travelled the same routes.

Rick said...

I also wondered about 'Iago.' Wherever Shakespeare picked it up from, to anglophones it has the feel of a Romance-language male name, which was probably good enough for Will.

Annis said...

Sorry - I meant to say that Elizabeth 1 had Tudor ancestors, but accidentally hit "Publish" instead of "Preview" and missed my error :)

The Spanish "Diego" (variant Dago- origin of the derogatory term, perhaps?) is related to the name "Iago", and both are related to the name "Santiago", which may be how the "d" appeared, "d" and "t" having a similar sound. "James" and "Jacob" come from the same Hebrew source linguistically.

Why both Spanish and Welsh converted "Iacobus/Jacobus" into "Iago" I don't know - it may have been quite coincidental. I'm guessing that the name made its way into Welsh originally through the teachings of the Christian Church.

Carla said...

Rick - which it is, given the Spanish connection, so that works out very well. I imagine Shakespeare also took practical matters into account, such as avoiding names that could be easily confused with each other.

Annis - a church connection seems quite likely, and that may even help explain its distribution. All that luxury Byzantine pottery at sixth-century elite sites in Cornwall and North Wales implies contact with the Mediterranean world via the Atlantic coastal trade, and maybe names travelled alongside.

Carla said...

Annis - PS, yes, as far as I know Dago/Diego is the origin of the derogatory term

Gabriele C. said...

Well, Tacitus' ethnologies are a bit shaky sometimes. And I don't think the Judeo-Christian name Jacob was arund in 1st century AD Spain, or Wales. So either sound shifts led to the same name in both Spanish and Welsh at a later point, or the Welsh name is older and has nothing to do with Jacob.

It's one of the cruxes with the history of the northern Roman provices and should-have-been-provinces (*wink*) that we have so few tribal names, and what we have is corrupted by Latin spelling.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Not so much that the name Iago was around in Tacitus' time (possible, but more likely that it arrived later after Christianity had become more widespread), as that Tacitus' comment is consistent with long-established connections between Wales and Spain that would also be consistent with the two regions later sharing some of the same name forms.

Yes, it's a great pity that the north European tribes didn't write things down, so that everything got filtered through Latin en route to us. Most inconsiderate :-)

Rick said...

Iago is a pretty straightforward developments from Latin Iacobus, and might arise in two different language traditions by simply dropping off the last syllable and softening the 'c' to a 'g'. Much less change than needed to get James!

But to judge from other examples given in these posts, 6th-7th c. proto Welsh names don't often seem to have been of biblical origin, so Iago in this case might be a coincidence, not a derivation from Jacob.

Carla said...

The name David was in use in sixth-century Wales, famously St David. That could be another biblical name, in which case Iago derived from Jacobus would have company. On the other hand, the name David could have evolved independently from Demetae, the Roman name for the tribe occupying SW Wales which later gave rise to Dyfed. I don't know if the origin of St David's name is known for sure. It may be a bit of both, if a native name was reinforced by a Biblical name that it resembled.

Gabriele C. said...

Yeah, too bad those people only had songs. Tacitus - writing about 90 years after the event - says the Germans still had songs about Arminius then. It would be so great if we had those.

Of course, some people (even in the academic world) have tried to connect the Song of the Niblungs with Arminius, but that doesn't really work. Very questionable linguistic gymnastics, turning the Roman army into a dragon because they looked like a wrom when marching through the woods, the gold in the Rhine which is said to have been a Germanic sacrifice custom (and ignores the fact that Arminius was rich enough to try and lure the Roman auxiliaries over to him in the years after the battle by promising them better pay than the Romans) the fact that Arminius and Siegfried both were killed by family - heh, that was totally unique, right? ;) Plus, no one ever found any connections between Arminius' fate and the second part of the Song of the Niblungs (the whole Kriemhild/Attila and the death of her brothers episode).

Carla said...

Yes, wouldn't it? When Tacitus was writing there would have been people around whose parents and grandparents remembered and/or had taken part in the events. It would be fascinating to see the other side of the story.

Um, connecting Arminius directly to the Nibelungenlied looks a bit tenuous, for all the reasons you mention. I daresay the Arminius songs and the Nibelungenlied drew on some common poetic tradition of how to tell a good saga, especially if they were both in circulation at the same time, and the Rheingold might hark back to an ancient tradition of water-sacrifices (as at sites like Flag Fen). It's a big jump from there to say they represent the same story.

I once came across a novel in which Beowulf was killed by a Roman flamethrower, later (mis)interpreted as a dragon, and I thought it was ingenious but rather far-fetched.