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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.


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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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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Becoming Charlemagne

I am a terrible person, you know. Jeff Sypeck sent me a copy of his book some time in 2008, in return for a donation to the Paralyzed Veterans of America. I was happy to do so, because I am pretty fond of disabled people getting better care, and also because it meant that I received a copy of an excellent book about one of my favourite medieval figures. At the time, I promised that I would review the book. It took me over a year to get around to it, and this is a repost of that review.

Becoming Charlemagne (2006) narrates in vivid detail the events that led a Germanic barbarian king to become Charlemagne, a name now associated with the idea of a greater Europe, the Holy Roman Empire -a term Karl would have never heard- and tainted by Hitlerian pseudo-history. It is not a complete biography of the man, and I think Sypeck did the right thing by focusing on the handful of years surrounding the coronation and constructing an image of the era in as much detail as possible.

The book is split in two parts; the first half details the setting, the empires and peoples of the late 8thC. There is one chapter on each of Aachen, Byzantium, Alcuin,1 Baghdad, and European Jews. The second draws together narrative threads from the first to construct the events which help define the next millenium or so of European history. The first half of Becoming Charlemagne is the most fascinating to me- I have studied Charlemagne before, and the details of his accession to imperator do not intrigue me nearly as much as the Sypeck’s portrayal of the powers of the time. Your mileage may vary.

As a general rule, this is most unusual for me. The kind of history I prefer to read is the dry, dull stuff so derided by generations of bored schoolchildren. I like political history, the careful analysis of sources, and king-names (even if I can never remember them). Then again, I enjoy etymology.2 Sypeck doesn’t write this kind of history, although his love affair with the oft-ambiguous source is clear in his notes and his attention to detail.

What Sypeck writes is more narrative, more flavoured with real people, real consequences, real emotions. He describes the medieval world in taste and scent as much as in political movement. One can imagine the riotous marketplaces of Baghdad, the mud-splattered contempt of Greek emissaries to the pathetic German capital of Aachen, the exhaustion of Isaac as he leads the elephant Abul Abaz across the entire world.3 The court of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid is described in terms which make me wish a West Wing-style television drama would be set therein:

When duty called [Harun] rode into battle or made the pilgrimage to Mecca; otherwise, he quietly enjoyed his world of earthly delights. He delighted in the company of his pious and wealthy cousin Zubayda, who was also his favourite wife and the mother of his heir apparent. His friends all came to him, among them the physician Jubrail bin Bakhtishu, who dined with him nightly, and Ibn Abi Maryam al-Madani, a storyteller and legal expert who lazed around the palace and haunted the harem.

These kind of details brings a level of detail to the political and social changes rippling across Europe a clarity and a narrative power exactly as required in popular history. Sypeck does an excellent job.

He is careful not to get carried away and ascribe as historical fact things which his imagination has conjured, but sometimes these things are some potent images. The events leading to King Karl becoming Karolus serenissimus Augustus are exciting and bloody, and would make for wealth-making film. After the famous botched blinding attack on Pope Leo, the pontiff escapes over a wall, perhaps lowered by his chamberlain. Sypeck speculates about details which medieval chroniclers would never give us:4

Albinus the chamberlain sneaking along a cloister in the dark or bribing a guard to look the other way; the pope, accustomed to fine robes and flattery, being lowered over the wall like a latrine bucket; and the furious Paschalius and Campulus [the conspirators] berating their flunkies at daybreak while wondering, with growing desperation, what in God’s name they were going to do next.

Screw the latest cartoon series from the 80s, Hollywood. Write me a movie about that.

[An aside: I have long bemoaned the loss of the Frankish epics and grammars to history, despite Charlemagne’s attempt to preserve them. Yet who could not grin at Sypeck’s note that “the monks who collected the old pagan songs probably had to extract them from weird old coots”?]

If I must, as I always do, bring up a note of discord in Becoming Charlemagne, it is this: there is so little about the women. Women are near-invisible in much medieval history, and Sypeck is hardly to be blamed for that. Indeed, if only because of Empress Irene of Byzantium, he includes more than some writers of medieval history do. Yet aside from noting that Karl loved his daughters, and turned a blind eye to their affairs, there is little about the women in this world. Is this caused by lack of evidence? Probably.

Yet when speaking of Irene, the impressively fierce empress who blinded her own son to ensure her rise to power, Sypeck falls back on stereotypically gendered language. This is irksome. She is described as ‘brooding’ over her fragile reign with ‘motherly zeal’. Seriously? Motherly zeal? This woman had her own son blinded. ‘Motherly’, whatever that means, is the absolute last word I would use to describe her. When describing the moment of her son’s butchering, he wonders if she prayed for a moment for Heaven to help for the way she is.

I find it difficult to believe that he would write such words into the mouth of any fierce, male usurper. Why write them into the mouth of a fierce, female usurper? Irene is one of the powerful women of the whole period, and she would surely not brook such disrespect.

On the subjects of Becoming Charlemagne, on the rise of Karl to become Charlemagne, on the intricate and fragile international state of Aachen-Rome-Constantinople-Baghdad, and on the eventual collapse of the empire, Sypeck writes with careful attention to detail and -to mix metaphors- paints an intricate picture of medieval Europe as the western half of the continent changes into something new.

I recommend Becoming Charlemagne as an good, solid starting point. It is a good book to start reading about Charlemagne, and his time, and the middle years of the early middle ages. It is a good book to get some personal details about peoples and lands. High schoolers and undergraduates in history who don’t know very much will alike find it a good place to start on the ninth century- as will anyone who gets their learnin’ about the middle ages from the movies.

Jeff Sypeck blogs about matters medieval, gargoyles grotesque, and applied paleobromatology over at Quid Plura?, one of the more consistently interesting blogs in the medieval blagocube.

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I am drawing up a political map of late 7thC Northern Britain. It is incredibly difficult work which requires me to sift through the sources, dozens of papers, chasing down exactly what Bede means when he says imperium or rex, exactly how the Cenél nEógain interacted with Dál Riata, how everyone interacted with the Picts, how the church politics influenced the secular. It is a lot of fun, for all that I complain about not getting any sleep.

In the latter half of the century there are several men whom I’ve taken to calling the “B-men”, after the first letter of their name. Their roles appear to be vaguely defined, but they clearly held positions of great importance on Northumbria’s Pictish frontier. Lately I have been reading into these men, and the titles which are assigned to them by our sources. If I can pin down exactly who they are, and what they are doing, it will go a considerable way to explaining international relations in our period.

The three men are as follows:

Beornhaeth: Described by Eddius Stephanus as audax subregulus (brave underking) in his description of the Ecgfrith’s Pictish war, 671. He also occurs in the Durham Liber vitae, although I have to check that. While whatever region over which he was subregulus is not named, the connections the other two ‘B-men’ have with the Picts and Irish could point toward a location for his dominion.

Fraser claimes that the region of Niuduera, in southern Pictish territory, was held by Bernicians.1 If we accept his argument, it could be reasonable to suppose that Beornhaeth and his kin held the region beneath the imperium of Ecgfrith’s Northumbria. As only Beornhaeth of the three is actually named subregulus by our sources, it may be going too far to title the region a petty kingdom, but it is not inconceivable that it was a high office of some kind, potentially transferable to kin. Eddius may have named Beornhaeth audax subregulus to emphasise this importance rather than ascribing to him royal status.

Berht: described by Bede as dux and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (and the Old English translations of Bede) as ealdorman. It is this Berht who led the 684 attack upon the Irish at Mag Brega. It ‘seems probable’ that this Berht is the same man as the Berctred dux regius killed in 698 in battle against the Picts during the reign of Aldfrith.2 Irish sources tell us that this man is the son of Beornhaeth [AU 697/8].

Berctfrith: Described by Bede as praefectus (ealdorman in ASC), he also fought against the Picts in 711 [HE V.24]. He is described by Eddius as secundus a rege princeps and regis princeps, and appears to have acted as regent for Aldfrith’s son Osred.

I intend to look into the titles used in more detail. My starting point for this is a very useful article from A. T. Thacker whose hand I would now very much like to shake.3

rex: Bede only ever describes English rulers as rex, even as he may describe a dominion as imperium as he does for Oswiu or Ecgfrith. This means that even powerful English rulers have this as an upper limit for their title, relegating all inferiors to lesser titles. Significant men who might well have regarded themselves as full kings are given titles such as subregulus or princeps. My supervisor pointed out to me that Bede was a philologist who knew what words meant; his careful usage here is suggestive. Hrm.

imperium: While Bede is sparing with imperium, it is clear that Ecgfrith retained that kind of power over the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, as well as various other regions during his reign. Overlordship is a fragile thing, as a dominated region lacked any kind of natural unity. It took the greater part of the 7thC to transform Deira and Bernicia into Northumbria; the modern institution of ‘Great Britain’ is scarcely any better despite having existed for centuries.

praefectus: While often translated in OE as gerefa and then in MnE as ‘reeve’, this term was generally applied to men of the highest rank. When it comes to Bercfrith, the term is generally translated ealdorman, signifying that the translators thought of the position as a kind of ‘chief minister’. A significant number of praefecti appear in our sources, describing various figures important to Ecgfrith and his successor Aldfrith. Some appear to be tied to cities, one (Waga) was entrusted with Queen Iurminburg during Ecgfrith’s ill-fated 685 war with the Picts, and another was visited by Saint Cuthbert both as prior and bishop of Lindisfarne.

dux: In the seventh century, dux was not the standard word for an official. Eddius uses it somewhat less frequently than Bede, but for both it generally appears when describing a figure at the head of an army or in another military capacity. It is used in the Vita Wilfridi describe the Frankish mayor of the palace, Ebroin. Those who arrest the saint in 680 are described as duces regis.

dux regius: Among the Anglo-Saxons, men of the royal blood appear to have had prestige similar to that of their reigning kin. Charles-Edwards cites the example of Mul, brother to Caedwalla- the weregild paid for his death was royal.4 Presuming that this also applied to other family members, then it seems likely that Berht and Berctfrith may have had the same petty-royal status as Beornhaeth. This would mean dux regius is translated as ‘royal leader’ rather than ‘king’s leader’. Conversely, Bede describes the leaders of Penda’s army defeated in 655 as duces regii. As there are thirty of them, it is less likely that they are all of royal blood.

princeps: The term was used as a general term for ‘both rulers and their chief subjects’, and was used by the Frankish mayors of the palace during the seventh century. In England the title was used of kings and other royal or possibly royal figures. In the case of Beornhaeth, it could have also been used to describe a powerful member of a family once royal but now subordinate to an overlord. This seems likely, given the subregulus at the top of the group here.

It is difficult to describe these men and their power in modern terms. My supervisor suggested ‘regal’ when we discussed duces regii, before pointing out that ‘regal’ does not have connotations of political power in the modern world. It is clear from the careful use of the Latin titles that these men were not merely warlords or frontier generals. They were cabinet leaders, ministers of war, whose domain appears to have been relations with Pictland- and along with that, perhaps Ireland. That Berht and his family were important is of clear significance to my interest in the 684 attack ordered by Ecgfrith upon Ireland, and unravelling these terms in critical to my understanding.

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May 2018
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