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Dark Age Essays

Essays and papers concerning early medieval Britain and Europe.

By Dane Pestano

Reconstructing late sixth century chronology - The twelve year hiatus. In this essay I seek to reconstruct the chronology of the second half of sixth century northern Britain, from the time of Ida onwards. The difficulties in the chronology are apparent in the various sources that are used to construct it. Our current understanding of the chronology is based on the work of Bede in the early eighth century and the Historia Brittonum in the ninth. The tenth century Anglo Saxon Chronicles then use a combination of both of these to construct its own chronology. I show that there is a twelve year hiatus in the chronology caused by Bede, that once removed reconciles all the chronology.

King Arthur in Irish Pseudo-Historical TraditionThis paper, that expanded into a small book, examines the story of Muircertach Mac Erca, a legendary king of Ireland in the late fifth to mid sixth century and his links with Arthurian legend and origins. Having researched all the manuscripts that mention this character and having spent a year translating medieval Irish verse into English for the first time, the story that unfolded bore a striking resemblance to the earliest tales of Arthur of the Britons. This work introduces the charcter of Mac Erca to Arthuriana and a wider public audience for the first time by telling his complete story. Blog page is here.

Riothamus and the Visigoths :  Where did the battle that Riothamus, king of the Britons, fought in around 470AD against Euric and his Visigoths in Gaul, take place? It has always been said by many scholars that this was the battle of Bourges Deols, just south of the Loire river, but nowhere in any source is Riotimus linked with this battle. This blog post examines the evidence and reveals that Riotimus did not fight the battle at Deols, had nothing to do with the treachery of Arvandus, nor did Riotimus flee to Avallon after the battle. Instead the battle took place much further south in Auvergne, now Clermont Ferrand.

Coroticus Rex Aloo, Saint Patrick and Irish Kings. Coroticus was a late fifth century Romano British ruler in Ireland and possibly Britain who came into conflict with the apostle of Ireland St.Patrick when some Picts and Scots under the authority of Coroticus captured, enslaved and killed newly baptised Christians in the late 480’s to early 490’s. This post examines the evidence for Coroticus and St Patrick and suggests Coroticus was resident in Ireland and a suggestion for the place he ruled is given.

Marwnad Cynddylan and the mention of Arthur. This post examines the mention of king Arthur in the poem Marnwad Cynddylan and comes to the conclusion that Arthur is not actually mentioned at all!

Defining the Dark Ages.  In defining the Dark Ages one must start with the period proceeding it to determine the events, wars and characters that led to the Roman withdrawal from Britain and western Europe. In these series of blogs I will briefly look at the history of Britain and to a lesser degree Europe, from the beginning of the fourth century AD to the beginning of the fifth.

The letters of Cassiodorus to Clovis, King of the Franks, late 5th early 6th Century. This post looks at the lettters addressed to Luduin (Clovis), King of the Franks by Cassiodorus on behalf of the Roman Emperor Theoderic.

By Dr Alex Wolf of the University of St Andrews. 

Great papers by Dr Wolf that certainly try to break the boundaries of conventional thought and reserarch.

Reporting Scotland in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In this paper Dr Wolf explores the changing way that the Anglo Saxon Chronicle reports events in Northern Britain beyond the Anglo Saxon territories in a hope of gaining a better understanding both of events in that region and perhaps, more interestingly, the way in which the chronicle was constructed. From Alice Jorgensen (ed.) 'Reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle', Turnhout, 2010.

Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Picts. In this paper Dr Wolf explores the suggestion that Geoffrey of Monmouth's description of Pictish affairs may have been closer to the truth than we have previously thought! Some very interesting points are made inlcuding the idea that Geoffrey had before him an unknown version of the Historia Brittonum. From Bile ós Chrannaibh: a Festschrift for William Gillies, 2010.

Apartheid and Economics in Anglo-Saxon England. Excellent look at the difficulties in the comparative studies into the Anglo-Saxon invasion theories. Well worth the read.

The Origins and Ancestry of Somerled. This paper examines the difficulties with this character of Scottish history and his ancestry.

By Mak Wilson,who describes himself as an enthusiast of the Early Medieval Period and Arthuriana. He writes on his online Blog Badonicus.

All Quiet on the Eastern Front?  What could have caused the supposed two or three generational peace after the Battle of Badon between the Britons and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’? Mak’s essay looks at the various sources and discusses the implications of them all.

Dux erat bellorum. The discussion about what Nennius (or whoever the compiler(s) and translators where) meant by“dux erat bellorum” in the Arthurian section of the Historia Brittonum (H.B.) c. 830 AD, has gone on for decades. Some have used it as an argument to say he was given the old Roman command of *Dux Britannium but others point out that if heʼd been given the title then why didnʼt the H.B. say so? 

Many more essays are available on Maks Blog Bodonicus - Late Roman and Arthurian Britain.

By Professor Guy Halsall author of  the Historian on the Edge blog.

Battles in the Early Medieval West. The study of battle in western Europe between the final dissolution of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century and the beginnings of the world of ‘knights and castles’ in the tenth, is not easy.  Partly this stems from the problems of the sources for the study themselves, and partly it originates in the historiography of medieval military history.  It will probably be more useful to begin with the latter.  

Archaeology and Migrationn - Rethinkng the Debate.  "The argument is essentially that by concentrating on debating the existence or scale of migration we are missing the really important questions, which concern why migration took place in the first place.  I also argue that the terms of the debate need radical rethinking, to  place fifth-century migration in a longer-term perspective looking at both sides of the divide between the 'Roman' fourth century and the 'migration-period' fifth century and to see the Roman and 'barbarian' regions as interlinked parts of the same world rather than as two antagonistic, opposing, confronted worlds.  Doing this will not only allow a better understanding of the migrations themselves (as I suggest by a quick look at the North Sea regions) but also permit a more politically responsible contribution to modern debates on migration"

Nenius's Numbers. "Essentially I'm supporting the argument that most of what we read in the HB ("Nennius") is to be understood as a composition of 828-9, usually on the basis of sources we still have, occasionally on the basis of possible sources which are lost but which weren't contemporary or other than legendary - rather than a patchwork of fragments of 'accurate' lost historical sources. Not a new line, I admit; just a development of what I consider to be the most plausible approach."

Northern Britain and the fall of the Roman Empire. "The argument goes essentially as follows: we ought to think about Roman-barbarian relations in the north of Britain more in the context of those on the other frontiers, African as well as Rhenish; we ought to think about Roman-barbarian relations much less exclusively in terms of conflict and confrontation - the two worlds were inter-twined; on the Rhine frontier it is possible to suggest a rough three-band conceptualisation of barbarian polities, with those in the middle, intermediate band most affected by the imperial crisis around 400 AD.."

Ethnicity and Early Medieval Cemeteries. In this lecture I will focus on two recent articles by Michel Kazanski and Patrick Périn . I do this, first, because I imagine that their work will be well known to those here, especially that of Kazanski who, after all, has written extensively about the Goths; second because it these writings make an extended and sustained attempt to make a case in favour of archaeology’s ability to recognise and identify ethnic identity, particularly in cemeteries: not, in Britain at least, a fashionable position to take; and, thirdly, because Périn’s knowledge of the archaeological data from France, particularly the burial record, pertaining to the Merovingian era, is second to none. Indeed one wonders whether it will ever be matched. For all these reasons these publications deserve to be taken seriously but the ideas they contain must be subjected to close scrutiny. This is a mark of the seriousness with which this work deserves to be considered. 

Goths and Romans. Alaric’s sack of Rome was always going to cause shock waves across the Empire, and thus in our evidence. The first sack of the city by people claiming – or called by – a non-Roman ethnic name for almost exactly 800 years would have been reason enough, but this attack took place against a backdrop of heated controversy and debate.