Friday, March 15, 2019

The Bishop's Sea (And, incidentally and Minimally, a Technical Appendix): Coldingham

Since I'm in the very earliest stages of putting together Postblogging Technology, January 1949, I: Uhm, Something Clever I Hope, thanks to Lameen for starting an easily followed hare!

Besides, with Brexit speeding rapidly towards the next thing that happens, what better time to return to the theme of European immigrants overrunning sea-girt Albion?
By Tom1955 - Based on an extract of a small part of the map of Berwickshire in
Philips Handy Administrative Atlas of Scotland, 1900 (out of copyright),
which was then editted and enhanced to show Coldingham.
Previously published: No prior publication, CC BY-SA 3.0,

That's Coldingham, Berwickshire, Scotland, a little off centre courtesy of the Atlas of Hillforts site, via a piece of Microsoft software that's trying to compete with Google Earth. (Which reminds me of a new phrase I learned a few months ago. "Good hustle, Redmond.") It's off-centre because the hillfort in question is at St. Abb's Head, a brisk pre-lunch walk from Coldingham proper.

Britain being Britain, even an unoccupied nature reserve has a Wikipedia page, to which you can refer if you'd like to know a bit more about this bit of scenery. If the world already throws more links than anyone wants to follow at you, I have deployed my snipping tool for a bit more intellectual property theft: 
By Emoscopes - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
St. Aebbe's Head has been associated with St. Aebbe of Coldingham since at least 1200, when an official history of the Palatine Bishopric of Durham claimed that, at the time that a cell of Durham was established at Coldingham proper, there was a cult of St. Aebbe at St. Abb's Head. The Venerable Bede tells us that St. Aebbe, daughter of Aethelfrith of Bernicia and sister of Oswald, King in the North, founded "double monasteries" (monasteries for monks and nuns) at Ebchester and then at a place that he calls Urbs Coludi. Since "Coludi" is a British name, it follows that the "Urbs Coludi" is an antediluvian hillfort, or possibly a spectacular coastal setting similar to Lindisfarne. It is then inferred that the name got tired of the draft and wandered inland a bit to Kirk Hill in Coldingham village, where Coldingham Priory sat until its secularisation during the Reformation. 

This isn't exactly airtight, but it is solidly in line with the information that we do have, and points in various directions, so archaeological confirmation of a Northumbrian-era elite site at Coldingham is a useful contribution to the problem of the plantation of the Atlantic. 
. . . Unfortunately, after much futile searching, the Northumbrian remains were found not at St. Abb's Head, but underneath the ruins of Coldingham Priory at Kirkhill, the site of the village of Coldingham's parish church. This is . . . unfortunate, because rather in the nature of finding the body, we now have a crime scene. One way of making the obscurity of Coldingham between  Aebbe and 1100 or so is that the Palatine Bishopric of Durham slammed Coldingham Priory down on a pre-existing institution that was summarily suppressed.

Bad Cuthbertine Church!

To be fair, not completely out of line with St. Cuthbert and his church as Gary Gygax envisioned them. 
As for why that might have happened, Coldingham's history is a monument of antiquarianism. R. B. Dobson, an actual modern historian who has sorted through the antiquarians, says that it there is too much history to write a history, or words to that effect; but the reason for that is obvious and telling. Coldingham was a very, very wealthy priory, the largest and most influential of a very wealthy bishopric's nine cells. Coldingham's wealth comes up as an issue in Bede, where he tells us that it corrupted the manners of the monks and nuns of Coldingham, in spite of Aebbe's best efforts, and therefore God cursed it and burned it down, deferring action until after Aebbe's death in deference to the house of Aethelfrith. More cynically, 

This is where things get a bit puzzling, since the catastrophe of 683 is almost a half-millennium before Durham occupied the site. If there was a suppressed late-Anglo Saxon "Coldingham," it all makes sense. If not, it is hard to understand why there wasn't. As it happens, there is also a middle ground, with an monastery or nunnery at various later dates in the Northumbrian period inferred from various scraps of information. We still need a bad guy who isn't Durham. Enter Vikings, stage left; Exeunt nuns, stage right. The traditional date is assigned to 2 April 870 with far greater precision than the material would seem to support.

"The Eyemouth Disaster," By Christina Craig
I also find myself feeling a bit skeptical about Viking seafarers being out and about in late March. Tragedies on the scale of the Eyemouth Disaster don't happen every day, but they're an illustration of what can happen in these waters when you're out late in the season. On the other hand, picking on the martyrology of St. Aebbe the Younger is kind of mean. It's not really the kind of story that's meant to stand close scrutiny. 

So we have some flesh to add to the bones of a story in which the destructive role of the Vikings is overstated to cover the sins of Durham, York and, really, whoever might be seen as needing a scapegoat. The winners in Viking-era politics, really.  At this point, I have little confidence that this story will stand sustained criticism, and I do not see an immediate path to credibility that would justify spending more time on it, even as a critique of Brexiteer fearmongering. There's another story, better known, in which the "Anglo-Saxon" invasion is an ethnogenesis of indigenous populations. This one, I don't feel, needs special pleading. It's not mine, and there are many strong arguments for it and against it. Insofar as this post has gone anywhere with it, it is to report the finding that St. Abb's Head hillfort is not Urb Coludis, which is evidence against the continuity/ethnogenesis argument that appeals to me. Ongoing work suggests that sub-Roman hillforts are best understood as regional centres rather than as defensive works, thus in some sense precursors to monastic complexes. At this point, all that we can really say is that Aebbe's decision to move the Coldingham centre down to a cosier inland environment on the main road, makes logistical sense. It might also have been a political gesture. Who knows? All I can say is that it is time for me to make a contribution and stop wasting your time.

Without further ado:

These sketches are from David Petts, "Coastal Landscapes and Early Christianity in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria," [pdf] published in the Estonian Journal of Archaeology, 2009 (13: 2, 75--94).  The article is a somewhat schematic review of the role of coastal sites in the development of Northumbrian Christianity which does not focus on the matter that predictably excited my attention, the proximity and size of salt marsh resources to two Northumbrian holy sites that, unfortunately, brackets Coldingham to south and north, rather than including it. The Bamburgh-Lindisfarne area is also similar to Coldingham in that a rocky intrusion into a sedimentary basin provides a backbone of solid ground in a lower-lying and wetter ecology. 

Speaking of sketch maps, I like this one, stolen from David Rollason, for its larger scope of visualisation:

Northumbria is, in general, a low lying coastal plain backed by uplands, which come so close to the coast at Coldingham that even the old Roman road prefers to climb the "Coldingham moors" of the Lammermuirs.

(It's really hard to talk about Scottish geography as just geography, especially in Canada.)

One reason for Coldingham's prosperity is fairly obvious. It's well-watered, but in a rain shadow, and close to the coast, advantageous for both renewal of soil nutrients and shipping. Readily exportable grain surplusses were probably hard to come by in Roman and presumably sub-Roman times, and stylised evidence of British grain exports to the Roman Rhineland typically come up in these discussions. It seems on review of the Wikipedia article on the shrine to Nehalennia at Domburg, Zeeland, that the British connection is a bit forced --perhaps due to Dutch discomfort at the suggestion that the name is "Celtic," implying the non-Germanic identity of the locals? I don't know!

So that evidence is a bit weaker than I'd prefer. Here's the issue: What happens when we link Coldingham to the European context? If Aebbe's support for Wilfrid is the issue, then it is very striking that when Wilfrid was deposed as Bishop of York in 678, he fled to the court of Aldgisl, King of the Frisians. It is thought that he was guested at Utrecht, and that he specifically sought refuge there because of hostility on the part of Ebroin, the Frankish Mayor of the Palace, and as close to the leading figure of the Frankish kingdom in another of its periods of internal division as then existed; and if Ebroin were not hostile to Wilfrid before he arrived in Frisian Utrecht, he certainly was after Wilfrid's arrival. The Franks, under Dagobert, had conquered the Netherlands to the line of the Old Rhine and established a church at Utrecht. Wilfrid's hagiographer says that the bishop made considerable progress in evangelising the Frisians, something that Northumbrian Christianity can hardly have been comfortable with, given the central role of the Northumbrian missionary bishop, Willibrod, in the accepted story of the evangelisation of this coastal North Sea province. Willibrod's arrival coincided with the resurgence of Frankish power in Frisia in the 730s, moving our period from the time of Aebbe and Wilfrid to that of the composition of Bede's History.

There's room here, then, for a larger, North Sea-centred history. Having set the scene, it is time to move on to the meat of the post:

By my work - Higham's Rome, Britain and the Anglo-Saxons (ISBN 1-85264-022-7, 1992): cooler, wetter climate and abandonment of British uplands and marginal lands; Berglund's Human impact and climate changes—synchronous events and a causal link? in "Quaternary International", Vol. 105 (2003): Scandinavia, 500AD wetter and rapidly cooling climate and the retreat of agriculture; Ejstrud's The Migration Period, Southern Denmark and the North Sea (ISBN 978-87-992214-1-7, 2008): p28, from 6th century onwards farmlands in Denmark and Norway were abandoned; Issar's Climate changes during the holocene and their impact on Hydrological systems (ISBN 978-0-511-06118-9, 2003): water level rise along NW coast of Europe, wetter conditions in Scandinavia and retreat of farming in Norway after 400, cooler climate in Scotland; Louwe Kooijmans' Archaeology and Coastal Change in the Netherlands (in Archaeology and Coastal Change, 1980): rising water levels along the NW coast of Europe; Louwe Kooijmans' The Rhine/Meuse Delta (PhD thesis, 1974): rising water levels along the NW coast of Europe, and in the Fens and Humber Estuary. Sources are cited in the title box. Abundant material from other sources portrays the same information.The topographic map is from File:Europe_relief_laea_location_map.jpg, with copyright notice {{self|cc-by-sa-3.0}}, downloaded 9 Oct 2010, with modifications done by myself., CC BY-SA 3.0,
 Uhm, that's quite the image credit. It seems to be from Higham (1992), and illustrates a putative series of "marine transgressions," or sea-level rises (bonus topicality!) deemed to have taken place from Republican to sub-Roman times. The alert reader will notice a connection with the Cimbri and Teutones, said on Classical authority to have been driven to invade Italy by rising sea levels submerging their Danish lands. The last of the transgressions, occurring in sub-Roman times, is similarly assigned a role in forcing migration, but this time the Angles, Jutes and Saxons take to the sea rather than the roads over the Alps, and arrive in Britain to [insert Brexit-related comment here]. 

The idea of a "Dunkirk Transgression" seems surreally unhistorical without an authority, so you'll be glad to know that someone has bothered with a proper historiography and laid credit where credit is due: Belgian geographer Rene Tavernier formulated the thesis while working on a comprehensive postwar assessment of Belgian soil types. On the basis of layers of marine sand over and below peat layers, and inventories of archaeological goods found in sites in Belgian Flanders, Tavernier deduced cycles of inundation and drying, and assigned them to periods from the pre-Roman Iron Age to the sub-Roman. Transgression III was the one that drove out the Angles, Jutes and Saxons.I'm pretty sure I've noticed a discussion of his 1948 publication in Engineering without taking on its historiographic importance. It's a Technical Appendix and I didn't even know it!

I love these super-detailed European land use maps, so I'm stealing it. 
 In 1999, Anton Ervynck, et al, published "Human Occupation Beceause of a Regression, or Cause of a Transgression: A Critical Review of the Interaction between Geological Events and Human Occupation in the Belgian Coastal Plain During the First Millenium AD. doesn't like cut and paste, or I would cite all eleven authors of a paper that deserves wider attention, given the zombie-like status of the "Dunkirk Transgression" model that they dismantle here. The transgressions, it seems, did not occur. Human occupation of the coastal dunelands was light, and increased in Roman times mainly to exploit coastal saline resources. In a bit of a weak spot for the argument, the authors wander off onto the subject of Roman fish sauce. As nice as fish sauce is, I would suggest that, if we're moving beyond a simple salt trade, we might start with lye production rather than luxury goods. In any case, by removing the pull of the market, su-Roman times removed any incentive for wading through coastal marshes to these remote sites. Lack of human activity is not evidence for depopulation, but rather a reversion to a "level" society more interested in subsistence agriculture. 

This does not explain the peat and sand deposits, but as I read the article, upland erosion, now understood as a phenomena of forest clearance during the Iron Age and, more specifically, Roman times, does. Roman sites are scarce on the plain, but common along the springline, where the Boulogne-Cologne road runs. Land clearance there for farming or pasturage, is very definitely a Roman phenomena. Apart from the role of tree roots in restraining erosion, farming creates soil that builds up to an inconvenient degree quite quickly. (I know that this is heresy in modern discourse about soil conservation, but a 1948 article in Fortune said it, so it must be true!) Coastal infill will end when a larger surface is exposed to marine erosion, but until that happens, you will have a period in which the land advances into the water, creating new lacustrine resources.

The landscape changes: land use changes. Land value, and the nature of work changes. Most importantly, it is a common phenomena around the North Sea that demands new institutions. Coldingham's resources are there to be used. Aebbe picks them up, Wilfrid funnels them to a Continental partner --the loser, in the long run. It doesn't hurt Wilfrid's York, but it does throw a shadow over a more vulnerable Coldingham. 

The core takeaway here is that a bit about archaeology at Coldingham led me to a decisive takedown of the Dunkirk Transgression model; but the mechanism proposed to explain Tavernier's findings, erosion and coastal buildup, might also be an explanation for the wideranging social change that took place around the North Sea basin in sub-Roman times. It will be interesting to follow the iron axe out into the Atlantic. 

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