Watchers on the wall


In George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, which gave rise to the series Game of Thrones, a vast wall of ice stretches across the North, 700ft high and hundreds of miles long. It staves off attacks by raiders and magical creatures alike. It’s inspired by Hadrian’s Wall, which the Romans built across what is now Scotland in order to stave off attacks by the Irish (Scotii) and Picts.

The wall was garrisoned by up to 10,000 men at a series of forts and towers, a considerable fighting force of ostensibly trained warriors compared to the more undisciplined raiders from the north.

There are actually two walls, the later Antonine at the Firth of Forth and the better-preserved, older, more southerly Hadrian’s, though much of it has been lost to quarrying and local construction. Having had a top height of about 10ft, It’s somewhat more modest than the wall in Westeros.


Gildas, the sixth-century British month, wrote about them, but gets their order of building wrong. The Antonine, he says, was built first, and he speaks despairingly of it. The Romans, after a plea from the helpless colony, had sent a legion which proceeded to smash Scottish/Pictish resistance and drive them back.

The British were told to construct across the island a wall linking the two seas; properly manned, this would scare away the enemy and act as a protection for the people. But it was the work of a leaderless and irrational mob, and made of turf rather than stone; so it did no good. (Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae 15)

In fact both the Antonine and southern wall were built from a combination of stone and turf; much like the Great Wall of China, it was built from whatever was closest to hand. Studies of Gildas sometimes look upon him unkindly for his portrayal of the walls, based on the paucity of his sources. However, this overlooks that he is making a very deliberate point – that the Britons have been habitually lazy (they “chose to relax in laziness and stupor”) and have preferred to look to abroad for aid rather than help themselves. We must bear in mind that Gildas was not writing history as we understand it; rather, he was using the historical section of his tract as a way of shaming the current day into moral and social reform.

The Romans, Gildas writes, having laid the barbarians low for a second time and, after offering advice on self-defence and urging the Britons to repel the invaders themselves in future, “built a wall quite different from the first. This one ran straight from sea to sea, linking towns that happened to have been sited there out of fear of the enemy” (DEB 18.2). The implication is that it was of stone, or at least better quality materials; there is a reference to a series of towers.

Sometimes I wonder what it was like to be a soldier on the wall in the middle of winter, listening to the howls of the wind and wondering if, somewhere out there in the darkness, one of the native tribes was preparing to attack. It’s difficult to imagine the strangeness and fear that would bring, fear of the unknown territory as much as unknown attack. The dark is foreboding enough without having to worry about a spear in the guts or an arrow through the brain. The garrisons might have had troops from abroad, but eventually they were mostly locals.

A force was stationed on the high towers to oppose them [Irish and Picts], but it was too lazy to fight, and too unwieldy to flee; the men were foolish and frightened, and they sat about day and night, rotting in their folly. Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground … I need say no more. Our citizens abandoned the towns and the high wall [and were scattered] (Gildas, DEB 19.2-3)

For fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, this might seem vaguely familiar, with the decaying defences paralleling how the forts along the Wall had fallen into ruin and the defenders, the Night’s Watch, had been whittled down to a fraction of what they had been thousands of years previously.


While Martin is using it for dramatic effect, heralding the danger of a supernatural invasion from the far north, Gildas is again using it for political reasons. For instance, he makes it seem like the walls were built and abandoned in quick succession. The Antonine wall (built c.AD140) was indeed abandoned within 20 years, and briefly restored by Emperor Severus (c.AD200). However, Hadrian’s, built from about AD120 was garrisoned up until the early part of the fifth century, when the Romans withdrew from Britain. Gildas is collapsing history to make a moral point.

This is the kind of thing I meant when I wrote a few days ago about interrogating documents. Gildas has an agenda, so there’s no point just dismissing or accepting what he says on face value – you need to look more closely at the text to see what he really means.

I’m sure he would have considered himself a watcher on the wall, trying desperately to alert his contemporaries of dangers (temporal and spiritual) he saw coming their way, railing against the follies of the modern world and despairing that nobody is acting upon his warnings. I suspect he would have made an interesting blogger. Mad, though.

Bede studies

Team Bede - assemble!

Working on a PhD can be a very isolating experience, even if you’re around loved ones. It’s never easy to explain what you’re doing – not only do you feel self conscious, but for those of us in what you might call more esoteric fields, it can be downright embarrassing.

It’s not that what we exegetical and intellectual historians are doing anything bad, per se. But explaining that you’re examining Bede’s Ecclesiastical History as an eschatological text is going to get you some strange looks. The “ecclesiastical” part will catch the attention for some. The “eschatological” will make others look at you strangely. Explaining what eschatology means is bad enough. I study how Bede built his mental world and how his beliefs about the end of time and geography influenced how he wrote. However, the mention of apocalyptic thinking concerning a Christian writer tends to get you pigeon-holed unnecessarily, and often without follow-up questions. You can tell by the look in the eyes.

So it was with some relief and not a bit of anticipation that myself and 9  fellow Bedans got together at University College Cork last week for a symposium on our research concerning the man himself.

No need to be embarrassed. No need to explain the basics for those who’ve never heard of the guy. Just a chance to talk about the research and bounce a few ideas around the table without an audience. It was also a chance to meet with Peter Darby, who has just published a book on Bede and the end of time (which gave me unfounded panic attacks concerning my own PhD). He’s rather nice.

What was particularly interesting was the breadth of our studies, and we were just a small band of Bedan scholars in one part of the world (from peoples once described by Cummian as “pimples on the face of the Earth“, I must add). Even where our work was in a similar broad field – such as mine and Peter’s – we have gone about it in completely different ways and looked at different source material in many areas.

Many of us, in fact all of us except for Peter, have been moulded in some ways by Jennifer O’Reilly, who also attended the roundtable. At a conference in Galway recently I and a couple of other graduates from Cork’s medieval studies courses were described as “the grandchildren of Jennifer O’Reilly”, which has a certain accuracy. Her analysis of Bede’s ouevre has greatly influenced all of our work, which was apparent during the discussion.

In many ways, we are following in her footsteps, while synthesising an array of different materials into new, original works. Bede might approve.

Stormy summers in Bede’s day

I read the new Wallis-Kendall translations of Bede’s De Natura Rerum and De Temporibus during the week as part of my research into Bede, nature, and time. One passage in DNR struck me:

Pestilence is born from air that has been corrupted on account of the deserts of men either by excessive drought or rains [Isidore, De Rerum Natura]. When the air has been absorbed by breathing or eating, it engenders pestilence and death. Hence we very often observe that the whole of the summer season is transformed into tempests and wintry blasts. These are called ‘storms’ when they come in their own season, but when they come at other times there are called ‘portents’ or ‘signs’.

Although this was written in the early AD700s, The whole air/pestilence thing was a common belief until the nineteenth century, as Wallis and Kendall note in their commentary. But Bede’s line “we very often observe that the whole of the summer season transformed into tempests and wintry blasts” tells us a good deal about the world in which he lived.

It’s fair to say that Bede, living in Jarrow, Northumbria, in the north-east of what is now England, probably did not experience temperatures in the high-30s Celsius. However, Northumbria is not exactly Arctic either. Coming from a country that often experiences rains during summer, I can empathise with the feeling that summer seems full of “tempests and wintry blasts”. This line, which is Bede’s own observation and is not, as far as I can tell, derived from a secondary source such as Isidore, suggests then that Bede lived in a time of frequently cold, wet summers, probably exacerbated by Jarrow’s proximity to the North Sea. Whether he is speaking symbolically is another question though…

Using the past

We all use the past for our own purposes. Some of these are quite innocent, some are not. I’m sure we can all thing of examples for both cases. As you might expect, it has gone on since the invention of writing. Skirmishes became major victories, minor rulers become emperors, and so on and so forth. I’m watching V For Vendetta as I write this, in which a man in a dystopian future uses ideas about the past to inform the present and future. Although there are no Guy Fawkes or revolutionary figures on show here.

Bede: “Should history tell of good men and their estate…”

Some medieval writers were very clear about why they were using the past. Bede, the subject of my PhD, wrote that “should history tell of good men and their estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful or perverse”. Bede’s interpretation is always religious, and for him, learning from “good men and their estate” would inspire people to live good, Christian lives. But by establishing this in the preface, he establishes the precise meaning that he wants the audience to derive from the work. It’s only one facet of the text, but it’s a very important one.

Bede, of course, was not an innovator in this. The Classical world had paideia, and education by good example was an important part of this; consider the qualities extolled in The Odyssey or The Aeneid (although neither are actual histories, they were intended and were understood to be such).

People’s use of the past is often determined by what they need for the present. In Bede’s case, it was to encourage moral and religious reform amid what he believed to be a deep spiritual crisis. By using examples from Anglo-Saxon and continental history, his Ecclesiastical History became a “gallery of good examples”, to quote the oft-repeated phrase of James Campbell. I, like most people working in the field, would hesitate to say that Bede invented aspects of an individual’s character, and he probably did not. However, that is not to say that Bede did not emphasise certain elements in order to inspire the most reform. There are enough facets of King Edwin’s character, for example, that work against him being an ideal Christian ruler when Bede could simply have written them out and made him the Constantine-style ruler that King Oswald is in the EH. Edwin, for example, promises to convert several times but always finds an excuse not to become Christian. Oswald is Christian from the beginning of his reign.

Edwin: Good but not as good as he could have been 

Oswald, for example, becomes more than just a great king in Northumbrian history, he becomes a Northumbrian Constantine who restores and renews Christianity in the kingdom and, in Bede’s account, makes sure the religion becomes so embedded in the realm that it does not flitter away, as it had when Edwin was killed. I wrote a whole MA thesis on this, so I won’t repeat it here. But suffice it to say that Bede thus presents a progression in his people’s history, where they become more solidly Christian and so greater culturally and politically. By implication, these good examples become symbols of what they can achieve and what they stand to lose should they stray too far from the path, as he believes they are. Bede sought to use the past to make the present and future better.

Oswald: Shinier than this picture suggests

Gildas, the British writer of the sixth-century, wrote history for the very same reason, although he was also writing against the backdrop of Saxon invasions and the threat of imminent conquest, which he understood to be divine judgement. He, in turn, used the Bible as a model for his history: prophetic history. Gildas, by identifying current events with ancient patterns, stitched his people into universal history and, in doing so, sought to expose corruption and “sting” the present so that society could be healed.

The Bible was, for Gildas, a “mirror” for his own times. It was a key for medieval writers to unlock not only the past but their own times. By studious analysis of the narratives and themes, they saw patterns in history that they believed were being replicated in their own days. Bede too looked into the Bible and saw it as a reflection of the present. When commenting on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Bablyon (in the book of Kings), he says that the “allegory of so lamentable a history fits so well with the negligence of our own time”, but with Jerusalem standing for the Church and Bablyon for “the city of the devil”. Much of what I’m doing is recreating this sort of early-medieval mindset, because by studying the historian I can more effectively study the history.

The study of the Bible and commentary on the texts, exegesis, informed a good deal of medieval history writing. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is, as Benedicta Ward noted, as much theology as it is history. I’m not much of a theologian, but I have always been a decent literary critic and analyst, so those skills are very much coming to bear on the structure and development of Bede’s writing. It is a very different intellectual world from the one we inhabit, and as such it becomes all the more of a puzzle.

I suppose a fair question to ask at this point is, ‘How do I use history?’ I am no prophet or theologian. For me, history is a way to explore the past, both at a cultural and intellectual level. I can pick up a book and chip a way into a world now lost to us. It’s probably why I favour ancient and medieval history; the modern is just too familiar. While I have learned much from my study of history, I seek to learn and teach rather than mould wider society. I don’t have the specific drive of a Bede or a Gildas, or perhaps I do but with a different focus.

Having scribbled thus I feel there is a lot more to be said on the subject. I will return to it now and again, methinks. But for now, I shall let history tell its own stories.

Bede, you drive me crazy

For the last few days I have been finalising and editing a paper I am going to deliver at the Imbas conference in Galway next weekend. To say it has been frustrating is to put it mildly.

Admittedly, part of this is my fault. I should know by now that no matter how simple or straightforward a Bede paper appears, it is much more complicated than at first thought. Or, even if it turns out to be relatively straightforward, fitting it all into a 20-minute paper is another thing entirely. I seem to have a habit of picking big topics.

This paper focuses on Bede and the lay pastor. But it’s showing that they were needed because of a sense of a coming apocalypse. I know, I know. Me and apocalypses.

The only really frustrating side of this was fitting it into a 20-minute argument. There’s easily 6,000 words of an article in this, maybe more. At least with the paper it focuses me to get my thoughts together and condense the information into key points.

I found that I had the bones of the paper done in a couple of days: most of what I’m talking about is now second nature to me. But trawling through his exegesis and homilies slowed things considerably, and the process of being more selective in my quotations even more so.

When I write, I tend to write so that everything is necessary. If I’ve included background, it’s because I think it’s necessary in order for people to understand what I’m talking about. In this case, I’ve boiled the background down to its most basic points, although I feel it’s detailed enough to show the complexity of the situation. Whether my supervisor will agree is another thing; he may well feel that I’m expecting too much of the audience. My writing demands quite a bit of the reader, apparently, or at least it has in the section of the PhD I’ve put together for the department’s review process (i.e. a section that proves I’ve done a lot of work and know what I’m talking about).

I’ll post the abstract once the paper has been delivered, and I’ll also add a link to the podcast once that’s online.


On Saturday, I will be speaking at this year’s Borderlines conference in Belfast. Borderlines is the biggest postgraduate medievalist conference in Ireland and possibly the UK as well, and it has an international reputation. I will be delivering a paper on the conversion of the landscape in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica and its place in the regulation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It is a little outside my PhD work, although as I wrote it I realised there are quite clear links. As such, I might look to publish a version of the paper somewhere, or else upload it here (depending on advice from my supervisor). Either way I am somewhat nervous, as it’s a tad unlike what I’ve written about before.

The abstract for Saturday’s paper:

Title: ‘“Where once beasts dwelt”: Defining and regulating the natural world in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica

Abstract: This paper argues that, in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica (HE), the conversion of the landscape of Northumbria was an important aspect of converting the people, and that this is connected to the role of kings and the elite in regulating an ideal Christian society.

In later generations, the erection of crosses across the territory served to remind people that they lived in a Christian kingdom. I will argue that the taming of this “wild” natural world can be seen as a metaphor for regulating a society and people in crisis.

When Oethelwald of Northumbria offers Bishop Cedd land on which to build a monastery, the cleric deliberately chooses a site that is “amid some steep and remote hills which seemed better fitted for the haunts of robbers and the dens of wild beasts” (Bede, HE 3.23).

Bede, our source for this story, says that this is an example of how “the fruit of good works shall spring up where once beasts dwelt or where men lived after the manner of beasts” (following Isaiah 35:7). However, the monastery, Lastingham, was not at all remote and was actually three miles from a Roman road – but the symbolism (aiming to be apart from the world) is clear. Bede, in his Letter to Ecgbert, which presents a kingdom in moral and military crisis, stresses the need to preach “in every hamlet and field”, while also stating that it is essential for kings and bishops to work together in order to achieve an ideal Christian society.

The Easter controversy

Anyone who does even cursory research into early medieval Ireland and Britain will come across a major – and bitter – controversy regarding how one calculates Easter. The significance is, naturally, lost on modern readers, who are far removed from this world (although some people still ask to be crucified). Most medievalists spend their careers trying to avoid any serious reading on the subject, and for good reason. It will drive you close to insanity, even if some, such as Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, are erudite enough to write about and publish on the subject.

To (perhaps grossly) simplify things, let us just say that there were a number of different ways to calculate the date of Easter. From what  I can tell, these seem to have existed from a very early period. Some Christians in the near East followed the same calendar as Jews regarding Passover, with the Easter feast being celebrated on the fourteenth day of Nisan, no matter what  day that fell on. These were called quartodecimans. The link to Passover is fundamental as the gospels say Jesus was executed then, and Jesus was held to be the new paschal lamb sacrifice. However, other Christians kept the feast on the Sunday, the day Jesus was resurrected.

However, in later years and particularly after the Council of Nicaea (if I remember correctly) the Church attempted to consolidate the celebration of Easter so all Christian communities kept the observance at the same time. I’m sure that part of this was the Church at Rome trying to assert its dominance over the other churches, but in part it was an attempt to ensure that the Christian world was united. This was important, given that many popes and Christian writers argued that the Church was superior to the Roman Empire, in that it had travelled to areas the empire had not conquered. It would therefore not do if Christian communities in neighbouring areas celebrated one of the central events in Christianity at different times. Think of what those pagans would say, if Christians didn’t even know when the founder of their religion was executed.

The tables used to calculate Easter are ridiculously complicated, as they are supposed to take into account the solar and lunar calendars and lots of other things including the date of the equinox. I’m deliberately not going into detail because I don’t want your brain to melt. All right, it’s because I don’t want my brain to melt. They varied from a 19-year cycle to an 84-year cycle to a 95-year cycle to a 532-year cycle. But the problem was that all these calendars had some sort of patristic or ancient authority behind them, which certainly came into play in Ireland and Britain in the sixth and seventh centuries.

Most of my reading has been of Bede’s various works, and he was a man who did a lot of work on the calculation of time. But his Historia ecclesiastica tells us a lot about the different attitudes toward Easter, as he makes considerable mention of communities that followed different calendars.

Bede’s main problem was that many of the Irish churches and preachers affiliated with Iona, the greatly influential monastic foundation off the coast of modern-day Scotland, followed the 84-year cycle, which was no longer held to be canon by Rome. Rome favoured the Dionysian tables and most churches had fallen into line with this, largely because they didn’t want to be seen as being out of step with the chief church.

By the Synod of Whitby, in 664, most of the Irish and English churches (but not the British) followed the canonical Easter, but some in Northumbria and Scotland/Pictland held to the 84-year cycle. This polarised attitudes on either side, with Bede going so far as to say he detested that people followed the old cycle. However, he notes pointedly that Bishop Aidan’s purity of life and industrious work in converting the kingdom outweighed this, and that this was why the dispute over Easter was tolerated during his lifetime. Even if he was out of step, it was through sincerity and out of respect for his monastic superiors, and all he was doing was honouring Christ (HE 3.25). At the synod, King Oswiu, in a Constantine-type role, decrees that since Peter gave authority to the popes, his kingdom should follow the Roman canonical calculation. It was only much later that Iona itself was converted to that cycle, which Bede presents as a fitting gift from the Anglo-Saxons to the church that brought his people Christianity (HE 5.22). He depicts it as a reward, not a forced conversion as punishment, and he also ensures that the Irish are not considered quartodeciman heretics.

But Bede is slightly calmer in his appraisal than some Irish writers of the 660s. Cummian’s paschal letter, for example, criticises the Irish and British churches for thinking that “pimples on the face of the earth” could know more than Rome. This shows that Irish writers felt as strongly about union with Rome as writers from other kingdoms and societies.

As far as Bede is concerned, this marked a sense of unity in the region, with the exception of the Britons, who in the 730s are presented as schismatics and marginalised accordingly (HE 5.23). So at the end of the Historia, the Irish and Anglo-Saxons are in full communion with Rome – and therefore with the rest of the Christian Latin world – and the Britons are wayward. The message here is that the Irish and Anglo-Saxons are following the same rituals and teachings as anywhere else, meaning they are part of the centre while being at the geographical edge.

That the Easter controversy still dredged up considerable ire decades after its resolution suggests that there was either a danger that some people would resurrect the old ways, or perhaps that this was part of a process that made those following the canonical way feel more strongly convinced that they were right. But it also stresses Bede’s message that unity was vital, and particularly that unity of faith could cross the borders of kingdoms and even the sea.

I believe that this is, in part, tied in to his apocalyptic and eschatological concerns. In his commentary on Genesis, Bede notes that the end of days would be characterised by lawlessness and corruption, while in De Temporum Ratione he mentions that the end would come suddenly. Therefore it was important that his people be united and fully converted, because if the end came and the English were out of step with the wider Christian world, this would put them in jeopardy at the Last Judgement.

I’m still working on how this determined how he wrote history, and Easter is only one line of inquiry in a much wider thesis (says he trying to ensure no smart-ass claims this counts as previously published material that can’t be included in his PhD). Thoughts, anyone?

Hello PG7009

Hello Orla and Digital Skills classmates,

If all has gone according to plan, this post has gone online shortly before today’s class and our presentations. If it hasn’t, then on screen right about now you will have seen me log in and frantically hit the “publish” button.

My PhD research is on the eschatology and apocalypticism of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica, the last book of which has largely been overlooked by historians, who are more concerned with Bede’s account of the politics and conversion of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. And if you’re wondering why I have differentiated between eschatology and apocalypticism, it’s because they are two separate, though related themes. Eschatology is the study of last things, including the fate of the soul after death. The apocalypse, as Bede would have understood it, was the end of time, although I think most of us have this or a similar image in mind:

The reason most historians ignore book five (a Latin version is here), or at least don’t treat it in its proper context, is that it is full of visions of heaven and hell as well as miracles, along with descriptions of Jerusalem, missions to Germany, a Saracen incursion into Gaul, and other eclectic things. This marks it out from the rest of the text, which is generally chronological and more tightly structured.

But Bede was a teacher, even though he is most readily associated with being a historian. My core argument is that this series of pious things is actually what the whole text has been leading up to. John Burrows has said that the HE turns to the visions and miracles because by the end of book four the English — Bede’s HE is responsible for English (Angli) being used as a catch-all term for all the Germanic peoples of Britain — have been converted: “Mission accomplished”, as he puts it. I argue the opposite, which is that Bede believes the English still need miracles because they have not been properly converted. Bear in mind that Bede was a providential historian, and as such saw a divine plan and direction in history. He would also have known of Matt 24:14, which says that the end will come after the gospels are preached to the whole world. In Classical tradition, Britain and Ireland were beyond the civilised world, and this was interpreted by Christians as meaning that their conversion was a pre-condition for the end of the world.

However, speculating on when the end would come was heresy (and Bede was accused of thisby someone who misunderstood his work on time): Bede himself said it would come suddenly, like a thief in the night. But the end would be foreshadowed by lawlessness and corruption, and Bede’s Letter to Egbert (or Ecgbert) presents his kingdom as being in exactly such a state. In the Historia, he says the people of the 700s were suffering “spiritual death”. He had read the sixth-century De Excidio Britanniae of Gildas and seen how the Britons, the Romano-Celtic population, had fallen into cycles of sin, repentance, and sin and were faced with a final, cataclysmic judgement – a preview of the apocalypse, as it were. In fact, Bede says the Britons were unable to awaken from spiritual death and so were defeated by the English.

My argument is that Bede sees the English falling into the same patterns, but that he knew the Britons had been supplanted by the English, and both Gildas and Bede saw this as divine punishment. Thus, at its most boiled down level, I am arguing that, because he believed the end was going to be sudden but that the preconditions had been fulfilled, and because he believed his people to be living in spiritual death, which would see them barred from heaven, Bede used apocalyptic concerns to shape his history writing in such a way as would do the most moral good.

Blog plan

I am trying to make this blog a research portfolio separate from my other internet possessions (insomuch as anything can be owned on the internet).

It will contain a research journal along with some thoughts on the subject of apocalytpicism and related subjects in the early medieval period. Pretty much anything history-related is eligible for a look-in. I will also devote a section to abstracts and upcoming talks, although for now I am using for that.

A long-term plan would be to upload podcasts of my conference papers, although this is where I run in to issues regarding copyright and publication of thesis material. I would ultimately integrate these recordings into the section on abstracts, etc.