Celtic Traditions and the Summer Solstice

Please help me welcome our guest today, John Cunningham, owner of Celtic Cross Online, which sells jewelry handmade in Ireland. He’s here with a wonderful infographic to help us celebrate the Summer Solstice, which is today in the northern hemisphere.

Did you know that this year the Summer Solstice will be celebrated on June 20? What is the Summer Solstice exactly? It occurs when the axial tilt of the earth is at its closest to the sun. This means it has more daylight hours than any other day of the year and it is known by many as the longest day of the year!

The Celtic people considered it a very special day and celebrated it in many ways. The Celts used ‘Natural Time’ which they took from Solstices and Equinoxes so that they could determine the seasons. It was their belief that it was a time to honor their Goddess who has many different names depending on which Celtic region they were in. For example, in France she was Epona, but in Ireland she was Etain.

The Celts believed that evil spirits would be banished during this time and that as a result their harvest would be in abundance. They celebrated with great bonfires, feasts and dancing. For a visual depiction of Celtic Traditions around the Summer Solstice, have a look at this infographic produced by Celtic Cross Online.

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Another Top 10 Fun Facts About the Celts

This is Soay ewe. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This is Soay ewe. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

One of my most popular posts of all time is A Celtic Primer (Top 10 Fun Facts). Since that one was such a hit, I thought I’d give an encore. This post, like it’s predecessor, focuses on the British Celts before the coming of Rome. (I’ve listed the source at the end of each one, just in case you want to learn more.)

  1. The term Celts, as commonly used, is a misnomer – The Celts were not a single race, but a people defined by their language, which dates back to the eighth – sixth century BC. Q Celtic is a version where the “qu” sound is pronounced as “k” but written as “c.” P Celtic replaced the “qu” sound with a “p.” This may have been brought to Britain during the Neolithic period. and is the basis of the native language of the Britons. (Alcock, Daily)
  2. The Celts spoke multiple languages. Most British Celts were bilingual within a generation of the 43 AD Roman conquest, speaking their native dialect at home and Latin for business. It’s also believed that the Druids knew Greek. (Southern)
  3. Female slaves were an actual unit of measure. A female slave was called a cumal in Medieval Irish law. A cumal is a unit of measure equivalent to 3 oz of silver or 8-10 cows. (Wyatt)
  4. Sheep are more interesting than you think. The early Celts kept a type of sheep called Soay (see right, they still exist) that shed their wool naturally (who knew?), though shearing, which took place in May, produced a softer wool. They were plucked by hand until the Iron Age invention of the shears. (Alcock, Daily and Life, Lawrence)
  5. Names held great importance. The Celts believed that to name a thing was to give it power. A Celt had two names: a personal name and that of his/her father, which is like having a first and last name. (Lawrence) For example, I would be Nicole, daughter of Richard. (Many times the father’s name included a characteristic like “the bold” or “the brave.”)
  6. Beware their women drivers… The early Celts fought in chariots with a pair of small horses (which had their tails and manes plaited to avoid tangling in the reins). Each chariot had three people: a driver, archer and spearman. Boudicca is famous for this method of fighting. (Moffat)
  7. I can see how this Wolfhound could do a man in... (By Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927) (Druck ca. 1920) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

    I can see how this Wolfhound could do a man in… (By Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927) (Druck ca. 1920) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

    Dogs were more than pets. The Celts used wolfhounds, which some say were the world’s tallest dogs, in war and hunting. In war, they could not only brutally attack the enemy, but once the enemy threw their spears at them, they (the enemy) were rendered defenseless. (Duffy)
  8. Barter wasn’t their only method of payment. The use of coins may have come about in Britain as a result of trade with Greece. We know coins of the Belgae came to Britain before they started making their own. The first British minted coins were in 100-70 BC. (Alcock, Daily and Cunliffe)
  9. The Celts could float your boat. Traditional Celtic boats were hollowed out logs or coracles, leather or skin stretched over a light wood frame. There is reason to believe that the British Celts may have modeled larger vessels after  the Veneiti of Gaul, who had a large fleet of ships they used to trade with Britain. These had flatter bottoms to sail in shallow water, high bows and sterns to sail in rough seas and gales, and sails made of raw hides or leather.  (Lawrence and Alcock, Daily)
  10. Cooking happened even before the cauldron. One early method is the potboil, in which stones were heated and  placed in a trough of water, which has been proven to cook food just as well as heating over a central cauldron (which came later). Fish could be wrapped in river clay, left to dry, put in a shallow pit filled with hot firewood and left to bake. (J Alcock, Daily) 

Sources:

Alcock, Joan. Daily life of the Pagan Celts
—–  Life in Roman Britain.
Cunliffe, Barry. Iron Age Communities in Britain.
Duffy, Kevin. Who Were the Celts?
Lawrence, Richard Russel. Roman Britain.
Moffat, Alistair. The Borders.
Southern, Patricia. Roman Britain: New History 55 BC – 450 AD
Wyatt, David. Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain

Do you have questions about the Celts? If so, leave them in the comments or hit me up by email and I’ll see if I can answer them.

The Celts in Britain circa 470 AD

Roman Britain in 410 A.D.

Roman Britain in 410 A.D.

We’ve talked a lot about the Celts here – their culture, religion, what they ate, in what kinds of houses/castles they may have lived – but I don’t think we’ve ever touched on exactly what the Celtic world looked like in the period of my novels (roughly 470 – 530 AD) and who lived where.

First of call, the Celts would not have called themselves Celts. That is an outside term from the Greek “Keltoi” or Latin “Celtae.” The Celts may have referred to themselves as Brythons or Britons. (They were not called English until after the rise of the Anglo Saxons later on in history.)

The term “Pict” meant “the painted people” and was used by outsiders to refer to anyone north of the Forth-Clyde line, an area that’s come to be called the Highlands. The Picts probably would have called themselves Cruithni, which translates into “the native people.” Their neighbors to the south usually called them Prydein or Priteni.

In Britain, there were many, many tribes (complete listing and some cool maps here) and kingdoms, but to summarize about the people, there were:

  • The Saxons – This map doesn’t show it because it’s before the major influx of Anglo-Saxons, but by the end of the fifth century, pretty much the entire eastern coast from Dover up to Hadrian’s Wall was inhabited by the Saxons, who relentlessly kept pushing north and east. Within a century or so, they would gain influence over most of the country, driving the Celtic people into what is now Wales and Cornwall or forcing them to emigrate to Brittany.
  • The Romanized Celts– Most of the country, roughly the areas in yellow and pink in the map above. Roman influence seems, logically, to be most keenly felt in major Roman towns and forts. The extent to which their influence spread into the countryside varies by location. The Roman towns and villas are likely where Christianity first touched the Celts of Britain.
  • The less-Romanized Celts – In the west, the kingdoms of Gwynedd, Dyfed, Gwent and Powys  (in modern Wales) were influenced by Rome, but perhaps not as much as in other areas. Laing nad Laing suggest that though they had major forts at Careleon and Caernarvon, the Roman influence was more of “regularizing” the government (110) than superseding it, especially in the western reaches, though they admit the influence Roman life was strong in the post-Roman era. In the south of Britain, the areas of Devon and Cornwall were relatively untouched by Roman influence, despite the town of Exeter being Rome’s westernmost holding.
  • The Lowland Britons – The lands between Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall (what is today southern Scotland) were peopled by four main tribes of Britons: Votadini, Damnonii, Novantae and Selgovae. These “Men of the North,” as they were sometimes called, lived in a military zone in the first two centuries of the Common Era and some of the tribes were frequently attacked by the Roman army. But after that, Rome pretty much left them alone. This area is pinkish-purple in the map above.
  • The Highlanders – Today, we would call them Picts, but the were really a group of many tribes (some were thought to be nomadic). The Caledonii are the most well known, both for their fierceness and ability to live in extremely cold and bleak landscapes, but we would be remiss not to mention the others: Taexali, Vacomagi, Cornovii, Smertae, Caereni, Carnonacae, Creones, Venicones, and Epidi.

Obviously, my books focus on the area that is today the Britain and Scotland. But there were also Celtic people in Brittany (the Bretons) and Amorica/Galaicia (Gaul) at the time. And of course, the Irish were also Celts, perhaps the only ones completely devoid of Roman influence, since the Romans left them alone. I’m saving the Irish stuff until I write about Tristan and Isolde, so we have something to talk about then.

Sources
The Britons by Christopher Snyder
Celtic Britain and Ireland
 by Lloyd and Jennifer Laing
The Celts by Jean Markale
The Native Tribes of Britain (BBC)

What questions do you have about the Celtic peoples of Britain?

Marriage in the Celtic World

The Uninvited Guest by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Uninvited Guest by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Marwage. Marwage is whaught bwings us togethor, today. Marwage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam within a dweam.”

(If you don’t know where that quote is from, get thee to Netflix!)

Celtic marriage was very different from what we think of today. It was very rarely done out of love, usually out of political gain for the families/tribes involved. It also was not a religious event, but a contractual agreement. (Celtic law is very complex, so what I’m going into here merely skims the surface. It’s based in Brehon Law, which is the only extant law we have for the Celtic people. It is known as the law of Ireland, but likely similar laws existed in Britain as well.) The laws governing marriage were set up to ensure children were protected (illegitimacy did not exist – more on that in a future post), make clear the rights of the husband and wife, and protect the property rights of both parties.

You may have heard of the practice of handfasting, trial marriages that lasted a year and a day. These did happen, most commonly on Lughnasa when the tribes were together, but when this occurred, it was more like an engagement. The realities of contractual marriage were much more complex. (If you want details that will make your head spin, read Thompson’s book, p. 129-175)

Under Brehon Law, there were 10 forms of marriage, each diminishing in importance, legal rights and desirability (thanks to Epona Perry for this simplified list):

  1. A first degree union takes place between partners of equal rank and property.
  2. A second degree union in which a woman has less property than the man and is supported by him.
  3. A third degree union in which a man has less property than the woman and has to agree to management of the woman’s cattle and fields.
  4. A fourth degree union is the marriage of the loved one in which no property rights changed hands, though children’s rights are safeguarded.
  5. A fifth degree union is the mutual consent of the man and woman to share their bodies, but live under separate roofs. (And ideal situation for some, I’m sure!)
  6. A sixth degree union in which a defeated enemy’s wife is abducted. This marriage is valid only as long as the man can keep the woman with him. (We see this a lot in Arthurian legend and traditional Welsh tales.)
  7. A seventh degree union is called a soldier’s marriage and is a temporary and primarily sexual union (a one night stand).
  8. An eighth degree union occurs when a man seduces a woman through lying, deception or taking advantage of her intoxication (equivalent to the modern definition of “date rape”).
  9. A ninth degree union is a union by forcible rape (this also occurs in Arthurian legend and Celtic folk stories).
  10. A tenth degree union occurs between feeble-minded or insane people.

Under the law, women had the right choose their husbands and could not be forced to marry. Although, given the nature of some of the types of marriage listed above, and the likely influence (read: threats) of family members, one has to wonder how much choice some women really had. Dowries were very important, as brides were purchased from their fathers by their husbands for what became known as a bride-price. Some of this was kept in reserve for the woman, should her marriage end at the fault of her husband, so she would not be left destitute. (More on divorce in a future post.) There was also a virgin-price that guaranteed the wife’s purity. It’s also interesting to note that if two people of unequal rank wanted to marry, the person of lower rank was responsible for the financial burden. We can assume this was meant to keep Celtic nobility from “marrying down.”

The Celts were believers in polygamy, so second wives and concubines were common, especially before the Roman invasion of their native lands. Multiple husbands were less common, but not unheard of. There were even laws that stated a first wife could legally murder the second wife within the first three days of marriage! She would still have to pay a fine, but other than that she was within her rights. (Brehon Law used the payment of fines to solve just about every problem, from divorce to murder.) Some say this is where the tradition of a honeymoon, or a husband and second wife going away for the first few days of their marriage, originated. (Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.) A chief wife had rights to her husband’s estate, while other wives were govered by informal contracts that often didn’t require the first wife to provide for them at all, or for the husband to leave them anything in the event of his death.

It’s hard to tell how Roman law, and then Christianity, affected these practices, but I believe it’s safe to assume polygamy and some of the more scandalous forms of marriage fell out of favor once Christianity became a major factor in Celtic life. We know that by the time these laws were written down by Irish monks, they were already amending pagan-era rules to suit their Christian audiences.

In my books, I use these laws as the basis for my characters’ actions, but I don’t stick strictly to them since we know so little about where and when they were really applied. Besides, the threat of death is much more dramatic than just paying a fine, and I find it hard to believe that the war-like Celts didn’t exact bloody revenge when they were wronged.

—–

Sources
Ancient Celts: Celtic Marriage by Epona Perry
Women in Celtic Law and Culture by Jack George Thompson
The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook by Laurence Ginnell

What about you? What have you read/heard about Celtic marriages? How have you seen them portrayed in books and in Hollywood? What do you think about these laws?

Cooking with the Celts

Celtic iron age roundhouse WyrdLight.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Celtic iron age roundhouse WyrdLight.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ever wondered what it would have been like to eat with a Celt? What do you mean, “no?” Go with me on this anyway.

The answer depends on the location and time period. I’m confining my discussion to Britain because that’s what I know best.

The pre-Roman Celts ate with fingers and dagger off of plates made from wood or bread. Food was either passed around or served at a low table. They sat crossed legged or squatted on floors covered in rushes or animal skins. Food was usually cooked over a central fire in a round house. We know the Celts ate well, with pork or beef being boiled in large cauldrons or roasted on a spit. It was also salted for later use. Fish, bread, honey, butter, cheese, venison, boar and wild fowl were also common. A favorite was salmon with honey. Porridge was a typical breakfast, possibly along with ale or mead and maybe a few bannocks (flat cakes made from barley or oats).

Hospitality was highly valued, so much in fact that strangers were allowed to eat before being asked their name or what they needed. At banquets, the chief or king gave the “hero’s portion,” the choice thigh, to the bravest man in the clan.

Replica of a Roman kitchen by Linda Spashett (Storye book) (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Replica of a Roman kitchen by Linda Spashett (Storye book) (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the Roman invasion, kitchens of Celts who adopted the Roman ways weren’t too different from yours, at least in terms of cooking implements. They didn’t have microwaves, but they did have ovens to bake bread and stoves/hearths on which to boil, fry or stew. They also had sieves and ladles, chopping boards, baking sheets, and pots and pans of iron or bronze. They could even adjust the heat level of their stoves by placing the cooking vessels over metal tripods of varying heights.

The Romans brought with them many new  foods, such as onions, leeks, lettuce, lentils, celery, plums, apples and walnuts. They also brought herbs used in healing and cooking such as dill, garlic, fennel, sage and rosemary. Their love of food was accompanied by a great love for wine, which had been imported by the southern and eastern Celtic tribes before the invasion, but was in high demand after. Oddly enough, the Celts were known for their dislike of olive oil, something highly prized by the Romans.

With these new foods came new table manners. Roman men ate on couches, their left hand supporting them, right hand used in eating. Women sat on basket chairs. They used finger bowls to cleanse the fingertips and napkins to wipe their mouths. Napkins were also used to take home leftovers (ancient doggie bag!) According to Gifford, they ate with knives and spoons of bronze, bone or silver. Other historians claim the spoon wasn’t invented until much later on. Those people say soup was eaten out of a communal bowl that was passed among the dinners. (Eww…Soup is off the menu in my books just because I can’t verify which way is correct for eating it.)

What about you? What have you heard, read or seen in books (fiction or non-fiction) or movies about the eating habits of the Celts?

—–

Sources

Alcock, Joan. Food in Roman Britain.
Alcock, Leslie. Kings, Warriors, Craftsmen, and Priests: Britain AD 550-850
Duffy, Kevin. Who were the Celts?
Gifford, Clive. Food and Cooking in Ancient Rome.

Comments on this post have been closed due to spam.

Solstices and Equinoxes: Celtic Season Midpoints

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Own work) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Own work) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Tomorrow (December 21) is Yule, also known as Midwinter or the Winter Solstice. Have you ever wondered why this day is called Midwinter, yet we refer to it as the first day of winter? That’s because our calendar is messed up. In Celtic times, Midwinter was exactly that, halfway been the start of winter (October 31) and the beginning of spring (February 1).

There’s great debate over whether the Celts actually celebrated the solstices and equinoxes, or whether they only kept the four major holy days of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasa. You’ll find historians on both sides of the argument. Given that the Druids were very attuned to both nature and the movement of the heavenly bodies, I would think they did mark the occasions. After all, even though the Druids had nothing to do with building Stonehenge, Avebury, Newgrange or the other Neolithic stone circles, they no doubt understood they were there to at least mark the passage of time, if not for some greater purpose.

Let’s assume for a moment that the Celts did celebrate the equinoxes and solstices. If so, why? What did they mean? Well, they certainly would have been important to the cycle of the land, if not in the mythology in which the people believed. Here’s a look at each one, and what it may have meant in the lives of Celtic people:

Midwinter Solstice: This is the longest night of the year.  This was a great gathering of the clans, with many symbols of fire and light used to try to encourage the sun to wax stronger once again. Agriculturally, the land lies fallow and covered in snow, waiting for spring. Mythologicaly, it is the rebirth of the god (call him Lugh, Mabon, Mithras, what have you) who died at Samhain. The goddess, by whatever name you call her, pauses from her role as Winter Hag to give birth to her son/Sun, only to return to her dark form thereafter until spring. (Last year I wrote about three possible festivals the Celts may have celebrated on this day.)

Vernal Equinox: Day and night are in equal balance. After this day, the light of day will eclipse the dark of night. The goddess is in her aspect of the maiden, and the god is young, but the two have not yet married and mated (that’s Beltane). She walks across the land, waking it from its winter slumber, leaving flowers where her feet touched. Agriculturally, the ground has thawed and it is time for tilling and planting to begin. Many festivities around this time involve the blessing of tools, seeds and even whole fields to ensure a bountiful harvest – though many of those same things also happened on Imbolc and Beltane.

Midsummer Solstice: The Sun is at the height of its power and so is the god. He is the strong, virile warrior. The goddess is with child, proclaiming her fertility just as the land does. Light and fire are the themes of this festival, including fire wheels being rolled down hills and in to lakes, symbolizing the sun’s strength. This is an auspicious time for gathering herbs, especially magical ones, which the Druids likely would have participated in. Nature spirits were thought to be especially active this night, long before Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Autumnal Equinox: Again, night and day are equal, but this time night will take the upper hand. The god has been wounded at Lughnasa, but will not die until Samhain. His power wanes along with the sun. The goddess, heavy with child, reflects the fruits of the harvest in her swollen belly. All around, the earth is preparing for winter, feeding people and animals alike with bounty to store during the cold, dark nights that lie ahead. Trees blaze a riot of colors while preparing for their winter dormancy. The Celts held especially sacred the cutting of the final sheaf of the harvest (just as they did the first on Lughnasa). This was done by chance, rather than electing a specific person for the honor. The final sheaf would be plaited into a “corn dolly” in the shape of an animal or human, which was kept until the end of the next harvest and burned when a new one was created. The person who cut it was given a special elevated position for the day.

This is only a brief overview of what these feasts might have been. If you want more information, I recommend The Apple Branch by Alexi Kondratiev, from which much of the material for this post was taken.

What do you think? Do you think the Celts celebrated the solstices and equinoxes? Why or why not? Do you think they are important? If you lived during that time, would you have celebrated them? Do you celebrate them now?

Everything Old is New Again

First of all, I’m sorry this is kind of a cop-out post. I’ve been ill and we’ve had a death in my family, so I haven’t had as much time to devote to writing or blogging in the last two weeks as I’d like. But, we have lots of new readers here at Through the Mists of Time, so instead of skipping a week, I thought I’d share some old posts you may not have seen. Please, click around, explore and comment on as many as you like! (Posts are listed oldest to newest in each category.)

I’ll get back to new content next week, I promise. Oh, and I’m working on a guest blogging policy, so if you’re interested in guest blogging (or having me guest on your blog), please let me know!

Arthurian Legend

Why Arthurian Legend?
Arthurian Legend 101
Arthurian Legend 201
Avalon Part 1: Myth and Legend
Avalon Part 2: Glastonbury
Avalon Part 3: Avalon in My Books
Guinevereian Fiction
Historical Sources of Arthurian Legend
Literary Sources of Arthurian Legend (Part 1)
Literary Sources of Arthurian Legend (Part 2)
Guest Post: Searching for King Arthur in Turkey
Arthurian Legend: Historical Fiction or Fantasy?
E is for Excalibur
N is for Names, or the Identity Crisis in Arthurian Legend
British Identity After the Withdrawl of Rome

Celtic Society

Picture it: Britain 475 A.D.
A Celtic Primer (Top 10 Fun Facts)
Class in Celtic Society
Time in the Celtic World
Outlaws in the Celtic World
Celtic Warriors
P is for Pick Your Poison: Alcohol in Post-Roman Celtic Britain
Q is for Queens in the Celtic World
U is for Unguents and Celtic Herbalism
V is for Votadini, One of the Tribes of the Gododdin

Celtic Religion

Meet the Druids
Pick a God, Any God
Accessing the Divine – Celtic Inspiration
Samhain: The Celtic New Year
Imbolc: Herald of Spring
Beltane: Celtic Fertility Festival
Lughnasa: Gathering of the Tribe
O Holy Night, Times Three
Celtic Christianity
I is for Insight: Celtic Divination
M is for Magic: How I Handle it in My Books

Writing/Writing process

Writing Process? No Thanks, I Have Characters in My Head
The Casting Couch…er Book
In Defense of Editing Guest Post: Find Your Inspiration
On Historical Fiction Writing
Love/Hate: Ramblings About Research & Editing
The Author Platform or “What Is It You Do, Again?”
F is for Fearsome Heroines
J is for Jargon in the Writing and Publishing World
R is for Resources and Recommendations
S is for Songs that Inspire
T is for Tense: Past and Present Verbs in Fiction
Z is for Zilch, Otherwise Known as Writer’s Block

Books and Authors

A Dream Come True: Meeting Alyson Noel
Five Summer Book Picks
My Top 10 Favorite Fiction Books
Book Review: King Arthur’s Children
D is for Daughter of Smoke and Bone
K is for Kushiel’s Dart
X is for Xenophon, the Original “Horse Whisperer”
Y is for Young Adult Fiction
Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Other

An Aspiring Writer’s 12 Days of Christmas
Six Blogs to Check Out in 2012
Midnight in Paris: A Movie for Writers (comments are closed due to spam)
Photos from Ireland
Trinity College Old Library Long Room – Heaven on Earth
Pendragon University, School of Arthurian Legend

British Identity After the Withdrawl of Rome

Mosaic of a Roman villa in the Bardo National Museum. Image is public domain. Source: Wikimedia commons.

It’s a crisis of identity every country that has ever been ruled by another faces when gaining it’s independence. Who are we without imperial ties? This was a question no doubt on the minds of the generations of Britons who lived between the withdrawal of Rome around 410 AD and the rise of the Saxons around 600 AD. This is also the time in which I have placed Arthur and Guinevere, so it’s a question I, and my characters, have thought a lot about.

Bearing in mind that we have very few records for this Dark Age/early Middle Ages time period, this is a tough question to answer. Scholars have, until recently, ignored this time period, skipping from Rome to the Saxons, as though the time in between means little. But it meant a lot to the people who lived it. Many historians subscribe to the theory that almost immediately after the withdrawal of Rome, the native Britons returned to their pre-Roman way of life. This is due, in part to the writings of foreign historians like the Greek Zosimus who wrote of a Saxon attack on Britain in 409, “They reduced the inhabitants of Britain and some the Gallic peoples to such straits that they revolted from the Roman empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, and reverted to their native customs” (quoted in Synder, 81).

Recreation of a Celtic roundhouse, National History Museum of Wales, 2007. Image is public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A few days ago I was watching a mini-series on PBS called Michael Wood’s Story of England: Romans to Normans. I don’t know anything about Wood – I’m sure he’s a great historian – but the show made it seem like the Celts went directly from Roman rule back to the round houses and comparatively primitive lifestyle common before Boudicca led her revolt.

I’m not a historian (yet), but I find it difficult to believe that after 400 years of Roman rule, the Celts would abandon Roman influences so quickly. Yes, the money from Rome dried up, as did the imperial protection. I’m sure some, if not most, of the ruling class fled. It’s natural, as Synder states, that the Britons would have “reverted to native laws and local rulers” (82). That’s the system they knew and could live with. It’s also the reason for the myriad of civil wars that preceded the unprecedented moment when someone – possibly Arthur – united the Britons against the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon.

But just because the post-Roman Celts reverted in some ways to their tribal traditions doesn’t mean the population of Britain immediately became uncivilized. Rome brought great feats of architecture, technology and organization to the British tribes. The Britons of the time were used to a certain standard of living and, like any of us, likely would have done what they could to preserve it. I’m sure Roman villas were reused, some technologies were kept (although we know that by the late 5th century the baths at Aque Sullis were already in decline, though the town continued on for some time) and some people clung to the Roman ways. Even as tribal rulers reoccupied the Celtic hillforts, many Roman towns and forts continued to be centers of power.

So in the end, we have no clear answer to how the Celts self-identified after Rome departed. Until archeology gives historians a clearer picture of the time, we will have only speculation. But comparing that time period to other post-imperial cultures, it seems likely that the people were of a mix of mindsets. Some probably clung vehemently to the Roman ways, while others were happy to shake off the yoke of the empire and embrace the tribal identity of their ancestors. While a third group was likely somewhere in between, whether for the sake convenience and maintaining their chosen lifestyle or in an attempt to find peace in the middle ground. And in my books, you’ll find characters on all ranges of the spectrum, trying to survive and thrive in a world their ancestors likely never thought would come to pass.

What about you? What do you think life was like for the people of Britain after the Romans left? What theories have you heard or read? What do you think history tells us?

——

Sources:

The Britons by Christopher A. Snyder
Michael Wood’s Story of England: Romans to Normans

V is for Votadini, Tribe of the Gododdin

Ptolemy’s map of Scotland south of the Forth. The Votadini are called “Otadini” on this map. Map created by Notuncurious. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Chances are good that unless you’ve studied Celtic history, you’ve never heard of the Votadini. I hadn’t either, until I began my research. They are one of the four tribes of living in what is today southern Scotland, but was in Arthur’s time (approximately 450-550 AD) the northern part of Britain. The area is most easily defined as between Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall, or from the Firth of Forth to the Solway Firth. The Votadini’s land was in the southeastern section of this area. Other tribes between the walls included Damnonii, Selgovae and Novantae.

The Votadini, or Gododdin people, are best known from a 13th century manuscript of an earlier poem called Y Gododdin, which describes a battle fought at Catterick in Yorkshire in the late sixth century. In this poem, a group of British from the Gododdin, estimated at upwards of 2,000 footmen and cavalrymen set out from Din Eidyn (Endinburgh) to attack the walled palace of Catrarth, which was held by the Angles.  They were defeated, but their heroism was remembered in song, including one of the first known references to the man who is believed to be King Arthur: “He brought down black crows to feed before the walls of the city, though he was no Arthur.”

The daily life of the Votadini is a mystery. They were Britons somewhere between Pictish and Roman, and some sources say they were allied with the Romans, but allowed to keep their independence. According to Philip Coppen, the Votadini worshiped the god Llew and held Traprian Law as their capital. (For those who know Arthurian legend, that is the home of the fearsome King Lot.)

At some point around the time of Arthur, the Votadini were granted safe haven in the kingdom of Gwynedd (modern northern Wales).The Votadini provided formidable defense against the Irish in exchange for new lands on which to settle. Phillips and Keatman suggest this happened at the insistence of Ambrosius after the withdrawal of Rome, but don’t explain why.

This is only a brief introduction to the Votadini and other tribes of the area. I will probably do a longer series on these intriguing people once I’ve had the chance to read Tim Clarkson’s insightful books on the subject. (I own two, I just haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. It’s a shame research takes so long.) The reason I’m even bringing them up at all is that the Votadini are the ancestors several of my main characters (you’ll have to read the books to find out who) and the majority of book 3 will take place in the Gododdin.

Have you heard of the Votadini or their homeland of the Gododdin? Do you have additional details or sources to share? I’d love to hear from you!

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Sources:

Kings, Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests by Leslie Alcock
Land of the Gods by Philip Coppen
King Arthur: The True Story by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman

Post updated August 4. 2013 to rectify errors in previous source material.