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Gosh. How did no-one tell me of HistoryTeachers, the best channel on the whole of the YouTubes? Dozens of tubes, covering topics ranging from prehistoric anthropology through the classical and medieval worlds up to the modern period. The formula might be simple (take pop song, make historical, profit) but damn if this isn’t relevant to my interests.

Okay, so the formula means that a few of the more interesting tidbits get sliced away to cram things into three-to-five minutes. She mispronounces scop (hint: it’s like ‘ship’) in the Beowulf video. The Crusades falls into traps about the Children’s Crusade and old-fashioned claims that it was about land-grabbing economics. These are the sorts of things that annoy me.

On the other hand, they acknowledgin’ the tradin’ inherent to goin’ a-vikin’.

The project is a great way to break folks into history-learnin’, and that is the point. You can open up the discussions about historical nuances and the more obscure facts after you get bored high-schoolers with their facetwitters and tumbooks to actually pay attention. Which these do. They are so much damn FUN, guys. SO MUCH. I wound up singing along to Charlemagne the first time I listened to it.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Mrs. B, the star of the videos, is gorgeous.

I wrote a long post here, deliberately prolonged and ready for the posting on September Eleven. I counted the dead in the Twin Towers, and contrasted it with the numbers killed by American and Coalition troops in the wars the United States is waging, and noted how larger numbers have died and those days of remembrance are not pointedly and constantly waved in the face of the world.

I deleted it. I am tired of discussion of this day, tired of the hysteria the Right whips into his mobs, frothy-mouthed about vengeance and bloodshed. Tired of American jingoism. People died. It was nine years ago. America has killed a lot more, since. fin

It is difficult to write on the topic of my thesis. The political history of 7thC northern Britain is complicated, with threads of alliances marking the map in my mind’s-eye like one of those webs spiders spin when on hallucinogens. Whenever I try and explain one piece of the puzzle, I find I must explain some half a dozen other items first- but in order to explain those, I must start with the first.

The human mind evolved to eat gazelle and flee lions, not think about things. Sheesh. This post is therefore awfully rough, and kept briefer than I’d like, stripped of my precious footnoes and the bibliography left to squint in the sunlight without any historiography to give the nuance. Questions would be helpful.

It has been some time since I wrote, so as a reminder: my thesis on the raid sent in 684 by Ecgfrith of Northumbria to Ireland- specifically, his soldiers raided the area called Mag Breg, a túath within the territories of the Southern Úi Néill. The month appears to have been June. The leader of the army/raiding party/gang of violent thugs was a chap called Berht whom I have mentioned previously. This raid is fascinating, not least because it is the first such recorded attack on Hibernia prior to Strongbow, but because we don’t know why. Bede just says that it was unprovoked and the Irish never did nothin’ to nobody.

A few scholars seem to suspect Ecgfrith’s successor and older half-brother Aldfrith. Certainly he had very close ties with Ireland -son of an Irish princess- and one could, as some have, make an argument that he was plotting against Ecgfrith and so the king sent troops into Ireland to take captives for use as hostages. Certainly the swift movement of Aldfrith from Iona to Northumbria to be crowned, after Ecgfrith’s death in (modern) Scotland is supicious.

The problem with this hypothesis lies in Aldfrith’s supposed connection to the area laid waste by the English swords. Mag Bega lay within the overlordship of the Southern Úi Néill, a group of people who claimed descended from Nial of the Nine Hostages. Aldfrith’s mother’s people, on the other hand, were among the Northern Úi Néill. Specifically, theCenél nEógain.

While in exile amongst the Irish, the father of Ecgfrith and Aldfrith, Oswiu (the famous ‘Synod of Whitby’ Oswiu) fathered a son on a daughter of the Northern Úi Néill king, Colmán Rimíd. The specific evidence for this must be considered very carefully, as the genealogies of royal families are suspect to tampering and this is particularly true when the king in question (i.e., Aldfrith) is famous. The specific genealogy in question reads as follows:

Cōic meic Bāetāin meic Muirchertaich .i. Fergus a quo Clann Fergusa, Forannān a quo Hūi Fairennāin, A[i]lill pater Cind-fāelad, Māel-huma in rīgfēinnid. Colmān Rīmid athair Fīna, māthair īside Flaind Fina meic Ossu regis Saxonum.

[Five sons of Báetán son of Muichertach; that is Fergus from whom [comes] Clann Fhergusa; Forannán from whom [comes] the Uí Fhorannáin; Ailill the father of Cenn Fáelad; Máel Umai rígféinnid. Colmán Rimíd the father of Fína, the mother of Flann Fína son of Ossu king of the Saxons.]1

Flann Fína is the Irish name for Aldfrith, and the two are specifically conflated in his obit in the Annals of Tigernach:

Altfrith mac Ossa .i. Fland Fína la Gaedhelu, echnaid, rex Saxonum.

[Aldfrith, son of Oswiu, called Fland Fína by the Gaels, a wise man, king of the Saxons.]2

Ossu is the Irish form of Oswiu, and can be verified by comparing Bede and the Annals of Ulster. Muirchertach can be traced back to the founder of the Cenél nEógain, Eógan, and thus to ancestor of the Uí Néill, Nial Noígiallach.5 While there is uncertainty about which túath Oswiu dwelled amongst while in exile, and therefore the specific political circumstances which led to the fathering of Aldfrith, this discussion is quite complicated enough. We can say with certainty that Aldfrith is descended on his mother’s side from a túath of the Northern Uí Néill, specifically the Cenél nEógain. Aldfrith therefore has close ties with the Northern Uí Néill.

Early Christian Ireland AD 400-700.

Taken from John Haywood, Atlas of the Celtic World, (Thames & Hudson: London, 2001), p.97.

It is tempting to conflate the Northern and Southern Uí Néill, but the two are titles claimed by overlordships. Connacht and Airgalla were also provincial overlordships, and one could not make this attempt to tie Aldfrith to them.

Túatha even within kingdoms were not completely unified, as the Cenél nEógain fought against their own cousins in the Northern Uí Néill during battle of Mag Roth (637). While there were alliances among the Uí Néill and people in (what is now) Scotland, all of these alliances -broken and otherwise- are among túatha of the Northern Uí Néill, not the Southern. Any connection between Aldfrith and the Irish of Scotland and Ireland does not lead us inevitably to Mag Breg.

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On Wednesday, P.Z Myers will discuss a movie about the Classical mathematician and philosopher Hypatia. I do not know a lot about this woman, although her wikipedia entry seems pretty reasonable. She looks like a fascinating figure; a female scholar who led the neo-Platonist school in Alexandria in the opening years of the fifth century. I hope that, if nothing else, a popular movie will inspire her works and life to be more widely studied. [Is she widely studied already? I’ve never studied the Greek-speaking half of the late empire; the earliest I know about is Justinian.]

I do have some concerns about the movie, as an historian. It appears to be set in A.D 391, and appears to incorporate the destruction of the Library of Alexandra. This, despite the fact that the great Library burned before the birth of Christ. It seems that the movie’s producers are conflating Hypatia’s death with the closing of the pagan temples in 391 AD. This was commanded by the Emperor Theodosius, the first emperor to make Christianity the only state religion- a significant event (although it occured in 380), and one can understand why the writers would wish to fold it into their story. Yet Hypatia died in 415 AD, and did not even become a leader of her school until 400. She is being murdered over two decades early!

I also all but guarantee that there will be some pointless love subplot  in opposition to the fact that Hypatia is agreed by the ancient sources to have refused advances and perished a virgin. I will never understand why moviemakers feel the need to add such things to stories which already possess great emotional depth. Maybe I will be wrong. One can hope.

On the other hand, I hope the manner of her death is toned down. Re-creating a mob of monks flaying her with pottery shards before dismembering her corpse and setting it aflame would be torture porn at its very worst.

EDIT: Armarium Magnum, the author of which appears to be a fellow Australian medievalist, has written a thorough post detailing the historical and philosophical flaws of the movie- as well as telling us where they did the right thing. It is well worth a read.

Whichever Spaniard first coined that proverb really had no idea. I am busy with at least three devils, with the potential for more depending on how you count them. Although Beowulf is an aglæca rather than a feond. Not that either word has a specific meaning which can be pinned to the paper. The term aglæca applies to Grendel as well as Beowulf; does it mean monster, or hero, or something in between? Does it refer to ferocity? Does the application to Beowulf make him monstrous? The application to Grendel make him heroic? Robinson once got irritated at this conversation, stating that the word meant something like ‘troubler, vexer’.1

At this point I want the adjective applied to the poem Beowulf. It is certainly vexing, troubling- and monstrous. Writing a commentary on only a handful of lines I already want to borrow Unferth’s sword and hack away at the sodding thing. I cannot imagine the heart-strength and mind-ferocity that it takes scholars to spend their careers studying this impressive piece of verse.

At some point I lost track of what I was supposed to be talking about. Oh! Why I am behind on blogging. The reason is simple: I am busy. All those devils which trouble me, the chief of whom is not named Beowulf, but ‘procrastination.’ A lot less heroic, that one. So while we wait for me to have some spare time:

Those of you with some northern European language skills may like to try your hands at this runic puzzle over at the Omniglot blog. I have not studied runes enough to be able to tell, offhand, the difference between the Elder and Younger Futharks, let alone transcribe or translate from them. Worse, I suspect that this may well be Tolkein’s Cirth runic system. Anyone want a challenge?

Evan Dahm, creator of the brilliant webcomics Rice Boy and Order of Tales, has commented on his tumblr that he would love to do a comic biography set in our period:

I’d like to do something (though it would probably be more historical fiction than biography) about a monk during the Byzantine Iconoclasm, or about a viking living in the midst of Scandinavia’s conversion to Christianity, or about someone during the Reconquista in Spain. These are all ideas I’ve worked on a bit but don’t have time for! I’m really interested in how individuals cope with these big cultural paradigm shifts, and I’m interested in religion, as a complete outsider to it.

While his work-to-date is psychedelic fantasy rather than historical fiction, I know that Dahm would more than merely do these ideas credit: his take on these would be incredible. A number of medieval themes are discernable in his work; the fall and inheritance of empire, the weakening grasp of ancient, isolationist powers, the problems of religious power.2 The Iconoclasm is a topic I would particularly like to see rendered in comic form; a text-as-images discussing the forbidding of religious imagery during the wounded trashings of an empire being pounded from without? Yes please. Dahm is a dab hand at allowing silent images form scenes (spoiler) in his comic work. He could do amazing things.

I wish I had more time and energy to devote to discussing this. In the meantime, what piece of history would you like to see rendered in comic form?

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February 2017
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