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There is a particular tendency in European history to try and pin down the ethnic statistics of a given area in a given time. Within my own field, the interest is in how much of Anglo-Saxo England was populated by ‘genuine’ Anglo-Saxons? Were there Celtic holdovers? Classicists and Celticists alike wrestle with questions such as ‘What is a Celt, anyway?’ ‘How widely spread across Eurasia were they?’ Tracking the movements of pre-literate peoples is difficult, and it is tempting to combine genetic evidence with archaeological.

I don’t really object to this sort of thing in principle. After all our sources describe ‘Saxons’ or the ‘Jutes’ or what have you, and it is pretty apparent that a ‘Celt’ -whatever that may be- is a very different thing from a ‘Roman’- whatever that may be, particularly in the late Empire. Celtic scholars still quibble (rage is a bit strong a word) over how to define Celticness; should it be linguistically defined? Should it be defined on the basis of material culture? Which groups/artistic techniques are ‘Celtic’? Defining an Anglo-Saxon is almost as difficult. The primary sources list three tribes of people, and there is archaeological evidence for some others, but it is all a bit higgledy piggledy and scholars are only human: we want solid, reliable facts.

Or, at least, as close as we can get to such things.

I sympathise when historians and archaeologists turn to the apparently-reliable ghoul of genetics to identify the ‘ethnicity’ of a particular corpse. Tell us if this is a Welshman, we might say. Or an Anglo-Saxon. Or a Roman rather than a Frank or a Goth or an Alamann or a Saxon or a… wait. What IS the difference between an Alamann and a Saxon, anyway? They are both German, after all. Both spoke similar languages, and seem to have had similar material cultures. What makes genetic evidence so sure-fire?

Obviously we can’t go with linguistic evidence. For one thing, skeletons don’t speak dead languages any better than living ones. For another, languages are memetic, and memes don’t rely on ethnicity to travel. The more important reason is that people subordinated and/or neighbouring another tend to learn the language of the other guy. This is pretty obvious, but it means that a dead guy speaking Greek in Egypt during the reign of Justinian is not necessarily a Greek. The Germanic invaders of Italy adopted Latin as their language, and it has evolved into Italian.

Material culture is similar. The richness of early modern Irish and Anglo-Saxon art seems pretty closely intertwined; pottery techniques can and are mimicked, and so forth. Archaeologists have been long aware of this. The basic problem is that a given corpse may well be clad in the jewellery and robes (and language?) of Ethnic Group A, but ‘genetically’ belongs to Ethnic Group B.

So, we use genetics to prove things one way or the other and hurrah! now we know.

Except. Do we? I am incredibly suspicious of genetic evidence. If a guy wears the clothes, carries the spear, and speaks the language of the Old English, does it matter that much of his DNA is Celtic? Clearly he did not belong to that social group in any meaningful sense. It could mean that he rose above his station, or was a hostage fighting alongside his captors, or any number of situations which would mean that he did belong to his ‘genetic’ group. It could mean that he no longer considered himself part of his ‘genetic’ tribe. Women tend to be taken by invading groups, after all. The colonisers of Iceland stopped off at Ireland to collect some wives- would anyone then claim via genetics that an Icelandic corpse is Irish? It would be silly.

Humans are not our DNA. We are as whatever we identify ourselves. In early medieval France, different peoples retained their own laws, but there was no genetic test. While I am sure there are examples of individuals straddling boundaries, so far as I am aware it was simply based on an individual declaring himself of a given people- or obviously being so, thanks to his parentage. He, or she, would have been identified based on those pesky things I just dismissed for being too flexible: material culture and language.

I have yet to say anything new here. Scholars who like to play with genetic evidence know all this. It is obvious if you think about it; of course genetic evidence must be taken with extreme caution.

Research from the latter half of last year sheds doubt on the very existence of ethnicities. I suspect the journalist may be overstating it slightly, but nonetheless it seems clear that ethnicity has more to do with social boundaries than with genetic disparity:

The boundaries used by individuals to distinguish themselves from members of other ethnic groups are generally cultural, linguistic, economic, religious and political. Heyer and her colleagues confirm the absence of common ancestry in a specific ethnic group; there were on average more differences between members of the same ethnic group than there were between groups.

Ethnic groups are not based on genetics. They are based on human interaction with one another.

Human interactiona do not leave much in the way of evidence. This is inconvenient, and genetics offers us an easy way out, a means of identifying ethnic groups over the long years of history. If this article is followed by others of its kind, then we must discard genetic evidence. At the very least, we must approach such evidence with new scepticism, and be prepared to ask questions of the relevancy to a particular find.

Frankly this can only be a good thing. If ‘Celt’ is a linguistic term as some -as I- think it is, why were we using genetics to find specimens anyway?

[I would also like to point readers to this post at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe as being relevant to the discussion.]


Dorothy Porter is one of my favourite modern poets. This may not mean as much as it sounds, because what I know about modern poetry could scarcely fill whatever small container you prefer for your analogies. I am a medievalist, folks, not a lit major. Her most famous work, The Monkey’s Mask, is a verse novel following the murder investigation of a lesbian private eye. It is exquisite; the imagery is vivid, the detective work tense; the sex scenes exciting. While I am trapped still in ‘I knows what I likes’ when it comes to modern poetry, I definitely likes Porter.

Wild Surmise (2002) is Porter’s fourth verse novel, and so far as I am aware the only verse novel in the world which incorporates astrobiology. For that reason alone I would urge this upon you, the fact that it is a beautiful read notwithstanding.

Alex is an astronomer obsessed with the possibilities of life beyond Earth; she falls from fixation upon Europa to the exclusion of all else into love with her hard-souled colleague, Phoebe while her husband Daniel slowly perishes of cancer. Metaphors of ice and fire, hard vacuum and sea life are used to detail the slow collapsing of these elements as Alex’s twin obsessions lead her husband to feel abandoned and helpless before his disease. She will realise what she has done until after his voice speaks, and is silenced.

Toward the final parts, Wild Surmise switches ‘voice’ and we hear Daniel’s bitterness with academia, the wry resignation at his ineptly arrogant undergraduates and the terrified, wavering voice of a man confronted with the infidelity of both wife and body. He turns increasingly to Dante in his pain, and the final verses of his life and peppered with quotes from the Inferno. What better, I found myself wondering, to help someone through death than the descent and return from Hell?

Of course.
I will take Dante.

Dante and I will weep

as the leopard and the lion
and the gaunt grey wolf
all take their bite
and the Dark Wood
tangles us together
in a brotherhood
of shivering necessity.

Oh Dante.
Wrap me close
in your warm brave eloquence.
[from ‘Hospital‘, p. 150]

For all the joy Porter took in weaving classical poetry into her work, the real pleasure of Wild Surmise is the poetry clearly inspired by astronomy. Dawkins has written about how poetry and science could, if combined, create astonishing works of art. Wild Surmise does so, word-painting boldly of the possibilities of the endless void out there. An example, from ‘The wonder’ (pp. 73-74), where Phoebe is speaking with Alex:

‘Astronomers are the chosen ones,
how can anyone go out at night
look up
and not want to be one of us?
I wet myself once
because I couldn’t leave the telescope
because I was looking back
to the beginning of time.
I was looking at the real dragons, Alex,
quasars with blow-torch jets
as long as three galaxies.[…]

When I was five, I did. Reading Wild Surmise, I do again. The sex scenes are breathtaking, Porter’s use of language shines like the stars, but the scientific poetry of this verse novel is what continually brings me back to it, over and over.

There are weaknesses here; her characters seem similar to some of those in The Monkey’s Mask; some of the classical allusions are close to pretension; for a novel there is insufficient plot. These weaknesses would cast shadows on the fact of the work if Wild Surmise were a traditional novel, but this is a work of poetry. Here, the beauty of the composition outweighs other considerations, and Wild Surmise is gorgeous.

In the latter half of 2009 there was increased discussion of climate change, mostly as a result of the hacked emails scandal. I steered clear of the debate for the most part: having been long convinced of the accuracy of anthropogenic climate change, and knowing that grumpy emails between colleagues are not the same as final research, I saw little worth in getting bogged down. Claims that the emails reveal climate change science to be hoax, or that the scientists involved were fraudulent are amply refutated already. My interest lies in the discussions that the fracas opened about the Medieval Climate Anomaly (also called the Medieval Warm Period).

[I use the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘Medieval Climate Anomaly’ instead of ‘global warming’ and ‘Medieval Warm Period’ because these events are not just about warming. They refer to (sometimes catastrophic) changes in climate, which can and does incorporate cold, drought, famine, storms and the like as well as the increase in average temperature we all know and loathe. Besides there is the fact that ‘warming’ tends to sound quite nice to folk who dwell in Europe and North America, where cold and snow is unpleasant. This is not true for Australia, where heat is bloody awful, and ‘global warming’ sounds like the catastrophe it is. Still, better to pick titles that sound less pleasant to the majority of readers, I suppose.]

For some reason, climate sceptics hang on to this period as evidence that modern climate change is not caused by human events. This is when they even acknowledge that the anomaly exists. I generally do not find climate sceptics to be worth the time given to respond to them, but if the medieval period is indeed warm/er, then that has an impact on the historical study of my period. I am quite fond of the historical study of my period -as you are no doubt aware- and feel these claims must be examined.

The most cursory glance at climate change studies reveals evidence that temperatures were indeed higher in the High Medieval peroid. The dates vary across the studies, but the period for the MCA falls into  c.950-c.1300 A.D. The United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Paleoclimatology branch offers us this graph:

From the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (2007)

Here we can clearly see the warmer period of the MCA before the temperature drops slightly during the Little Ice Age (LIA) (c.1580-c.1850), a period of intense cooling. The anomaly clearly does exist, which is of great use to historians wishing to use this sort of data in (for example) 11th/12thC Catalonia. The problem for the anthropogenesis theory is whether or not this evidence of a warm period followed by a cool followed recent warmth means that a natural cycle is occurring.

It must be noted that the MCA can only apply to the Northern Hemisphere. Hughes and Diaz, over fifteen years ago, place it thusly:

Because of generally sparse data worldwide around the turn of the first millenium, it is impossible and present to conclude from the evidence gathered here that there is anything more significant that the fact that in some areas of the globe, for some part of the year, relatively warm conditions may have prevailed. This does not constitute compelling evidence for a global ‘Medieval Warm Period.’ [p.136]

The evidence has continued in this direction. The 2009 Science paper of Mann et al notes warmth over much of the “North Atlantic, Southern Greenland, the Eurasian Arctic, and parts of North America,” contrasted with “anomalous coolness” in “central Eurasia, northwestern North America, and (with less confidence) parts of the South Atlantic”, while other regions are comparable to the present day. Put simply, the Medieval Climate Anomaly is precisely that- an anomaly, and one confined to a rather specific period of history.

In fact the specificity of the period may be even narrower. Crowley and Lowery (2000) conclude that the warming intervals falls into three relatively short periods within the MCA (1010-1040, 1070-1105, and 1155-1190). I confess to being somewhat sceptical of how they could have achieved such accurate dates, but they go on to note that mean MCA temperatures were only about 0.20°C warmer than the following ‘Little Ice Age’, itself 0.45-0.50°C cooler than the warm period in the middle of the last century. These are tiny changes, over comparatively long stretches of time, in a small section of the globe, when set alongside the swift and sudden spike in temperature we see in the last two decades. Look at the graph above, and tell me that the year 1100 shows anything similar to the latter part of the twentieth century.

The debate over climate change -does it exist? did we do it? can and should we stop it?- is beyond my abilities to discuss as a whole. It has been long since I last did any science, and the climate sciences are difficult and complex. Yet the debate impacts on medieval studies. Evidences for climactic shifts could point the way to furthering answers on Norse colonisation efforts in the Atlantic (Greenland and Iceland), wine-making in Catalonia, pressures upon Constantinople. Fundamental questions, such as the development of the feudal system, could be answered by looking to weather patterns. Jonathan Jarret wrote about this some time ago, and I have used his essay as a starting point for this. He notes, and I would emphasise, that the political debate over the science is leading to distortions about the facts of the MCA. Needless to say, this is very distressing. Climate research could be another avenue, along with genetics or ultraviolent scanning, toward new discoveries in our period.

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May 2018
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