The Heroic Age

Issue 4

Winter 2001

A Letter from the Editor

Anglo-Celtic Relations in the Early Middle Ages

The title of this special issue of The Heroic Age will, for many, conjure up images of Arthur fighting the Saxons, of Colman confronting Wilfrid at the Synod of Whitby, or any number of scenes from Bede's Ecclesiastical History in which English princes and prelates triumph over their Celtic-speaking foes. To be honest, these dramatic confrontations first drew me into the study of early medieval Britain and no doubt many other scholars as well. Then, as is the inevitable process in academic training, we start tearing down the myths and discover that everything is just "more complex" than Bede and Nennius led us to believe!

While myths have indeed been shattered left and right in this field, certainties have not replaced them. Not only is the issue of Anglo-Celtic relations truly complex in each of the disciplines examining it (history, archaeology, art history, literature, and others), but it is also fraught with conceptual perils. For, as Keith Matthews puts it in the title of his contribution to this issue, "What's in a name?" like Celts and Anglo-Saxons? These essentially ethno-linguistic labels, used by historians and archaeologists for centuries, have come under attack by a group of scholars in the last ten years or so. Like Malcolm Chapman, John Collis, Simon James, and others (mostly archaeologists studying Iron Age societies), Matthews prods us to examine more carefully the theoretical bases (and biases) of our ethnic constructs. Few early medievalists have done this in respect to the Celts and the English (or the Vikings for that matter), despite the conversations which European (and some American) scholars have been having over the past twenty-five years regarding the "ethnogenesis" of the Goths and other continental barbarians.

Having said that, I personally do not follow the hard-line skeptics in their reductio ad absurdum of not trusting any of the contemporary written sources because of their alleged prejudices and misunderstanding of ethnicity. Indeed, I consider their prejudices and perspectives most illuminating about the mentality of the age (even if we are only glimpsing the mindset of a few elites). Martin Grimmer tackles these prejudices head on in his article on Aldhelm and Geraint. Since most of our myths about Anglo-Celtic relations derive from Bede's account of events in northern Britain, it is refreshing to turn south and examine relations between an energetic bishop from Wessex and a powerful British prince in Dumnonia. Grimmer underscores the complexity of Anglo-Celtic relations in showing us an English bishop who can retain an attitude of superiority toward British clergy (as, indeed, they showed to him) while treating a British ruler with great respect and diplomacy.

Still, our fullest information regarding Anglo-Celtic relations comes from northern Britain, where Northumbrians and Mercians interacted with Picts, Dalriada Scots, Irish prelates, and a variety of Britons. Michelle Ziegler illustrates this variety of contacts in her biographical sketch of Oswald of Bernicia, an English prince raised in exile on Iona who maintained deep contacts with Scottish Dalriada. Also in this issue Ziegler interviews archaeologist Graeme Young about his important recent discoveries at Bamburgh, the famous Northumbrian royal fortress which is yielding, in its adjacent cemetery, important clues about early Anglo-British contacts. Another instance of English and Celtic contacts in Northumbria, though in an entirely different milieu, is the great tradition of insular manuscript illumination conducted in monastic centers like Lindisfarne. Paleographer Michelle Brown of the British Library discusses her exciting discovery of several new illustrations in the Lindisfarne Gospels, and gives us a sample image in this extended abstract of her recent Jarrow Lecture.

While the Lindisfarne Gospels may be seen as the splendid culmination of nonviolent cooperation between insular Celts and Saxons, the roots of Anglo-Celtic relations lay in the dimly understood tumult of Roman Britain's last days. Craig Cessford turns our attention to the Roman fort of Cramond, on the south side of the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, which passed through successive phases of Roman, British, and English control between the fourth and tenth centuries AD. Both royal and ecclesiastical possession of this valuable site are possibilities explored by Cessford. No royal figure looms larger in the history of post-Roman Britain than Arthur. Yet, as Kurt Hunter-Mann argues in his contribution, the more historical Ambrosius Aurelianus may have been a more seminal figure in the transition from Roman diocesan government in Britain to dynastic kingship in what I have termed Britain's Brittonic Age. Hunter-Mann gathers all of the documentary evidence we posses for "the last of the Romans" in Britain and presents a biography for Ambrosius which is sure to provoke much thought and discussion.

Lastly, we are exceptionally blessed in this issue with reviews! Not only do we have our usual roundup of archaeological and internet discoveries, but we also feature here a large number of reviews of some of the most significant books in the field in the last couple of years (including Norman Davies' bestseller The Isles, which I had the good fortune to read in manuscript form). On a sadder note, we mark in this issue the recent passing of some of the great scholars of ancient and medieval studies, including the numismatist John Kent and the Arthurian Beverly Kennedy. Though working in disparate fields, the contributions of these two individuals in particular have made a contribution to my own understanding of early Britain and its legacy, and I am sure that other readers join me in expressing the deepest regret for their loss.

In conclusion I would like to thank all of our authors, readers, and editors for their hard work in putting this issue together (in particular Michelle Ziegler, who, as usual, has shouldered the bulk of the editorial tasks). I had high hopes that my invitation to write on "Anglo-Celtic Relations in the Early Middle Ages" would elicit a few novel and thought-provoking contributions. In my admittedly biased opinion I think we have surpassed that, and I hope you enjoy the quality scholarship which these authors have set before you. As always, we value your feedback and, if so guided, we may perhaps revisit this important theme in a future issue.



Christopher A. Snyder



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Copyright © Christopher A. Snyder, 2001. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2001. All rights reserved.