Friday, January 8, 2021

The Bishop's Sea (With a Literary Appendix to Postblogging Technology, 1950): The Fishing Event Horizon and the Great Forgetting

 Robert E. Howard was born on 22 January 1906, the son of an itinerant doctor, which doesn't sound like a real job, but, then, we're talking about Texas. In the postwar boom, Dr. Howard's finances improved  enough that he was able to settle his family in Cross Plains, Texas, where his son died seventeen years later by his own hand on 11 June 1936, predeceased by his mother. 

Howard is best known to  posterity as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, but his turn to the nascent "Sword and Sorcery" genre was initiated in 1928 by a hundred-dollar sale to Weird Tales os a story featuring "Kull of Atlantis."  Unfortunately, the success of that story was a fluke. While Kull is a literary prototype of Howard's much more popular character, Conan the Barbarian,  Howard sold no further Kull stories in his lifetime. Four years later, a rewritten "Kull" story, now featuring Conan, was equally successful and launched that character into the pulp magazines. Conan was popular enough to almost escape the pulp ghetto, winning a book contract for Howard from a British publisher. Unfortunately, the press failed and Conan the Conqueror finally came out from Gnome Press, in 1950.   

Kull wasn't only a literary precursor to Conan. Howard made an explicit family connection in an unpublished essay, "The Hyborian Age," which lays out his prehistoric imaginarium in some detail, further hinting at a connection with some of his other characters, notably Cormac Mac Art, a "Gaelic pirate" of the time of King Arthur, and not the quasi-historical High King of Ireland. The comic panel opposite makes Cormac the descendant of Kull's sidekick, Brule the Spear Slayer, but close enough, because Brule is the reason for this digression. 

"The Hyborean Age" presents us with a prehistory of the Earth that is catastrophism on steroids. Kull lives about 20,000BC, and is brought up on the barbaric island continent of Atlantis, to the east of the Pictish Isles. Further east is a blobby continent in place of Eurasia, where (Western) humans fight evil serpent-men. Some time later, but after Atlanteans and Picts have colonised the northwest bit of the blobby continent, catastrophe reshapes geography and causes the collapse of civilisation, such as it is. The Picts and Atlanteans became barbaric, the Atlanteans becoming Cimmerians, Conan's people. Another catastrophe brings an end to the age of Conan adventures, and reshapes the geography of Eurasia one more time, so that the Picts and Cimmerians are isolated on what becomes the British Isles, now as Celts, and, well, Picts. 

In Howard's writing, although not in the published fan fiction he has inspired, the later Picts are notably more barbaric than the Cimmerians, almost to the point of being subhuman. In defence --somewhat-- of Howard, this is the Picts of popular history at the time that he was writing. Speakers of a non-Indo-European language, of "Asiatic" phenotype, possessed of an unusual, matrilineal legal system, and in some writing, so "degenerate" as to live in holes in the ground, the Picts had become an object of racist fantasy. Of particular interest to this blog is the implication of a connection with North American First Nations, who notably also practiced matrilineal succession and are of Asiatic phenotype. 

How this could possibly work geographically has never been clear to me, although that's not saying that the crackpots haven't been making it work.  It is also an excellent example of fiction having the advantage over bare facts, since Howard can simply assert that the same catastrophe that sank Atlantis, raised the Pictish Isles into the tops of the Appalachian mountains, inhabitants included. 

Although it seems as though this is a story we've been telling since long before Howard. The historically rooted connection was  between the low-cost Highlander and Irish establishment regiments used to fight colonial wars in the southern United States between the foundation of Georgia and the Revolution; but the idea that the Picts were somehow Indians pops up independently here and there in the Nineteenth Century. It's probably no great surprise. The disappearance of the Picts was marked as one of the great mysteries of British history virtually at its foundation, by Henry of Huntingdon.

Well, no. This blog post is inspired by Siân Grønlie's introduction to his 2006 translation of the Kristni saga, the story of the conversion of Iceland. Grønlie's introduction discusses both the saga and its precursor, Ari the Wise's account of the conversion of Iceland in the Islendimgabok, assuring the reader that the lacunae in the two accounts are as important as what is actually said, because these accounts are intended to create an Icelandic nationality, and one of the key features of a national identity is a "collective amnesia" about alternative accounts of national origins. 

In this week of nationalism run amok, I have finally found an excuse to talk about Robert E. Howard and the Picts that is actually related to the topic at hand. "Collective amnesia" is a powerful concept, and the Picts may be its most spectacular victim.

The story is not, when reduced to bare bones, all that romantic. At some point in the late 600s or early 700s, the Kingdom of Fortriu expanded through the Eastern Lowlands, from roughly Inverness down to the north shore of the Firth of Forth, and came to be known as the Kingdom of the Picts. There is an old controversy over the location of the original "Fortriu," but it is now thought to have been around Inverness in the far north. By extension the little-documented bishop at Rosemarkie and the now-rediscovered monastery of Portmahonnack at the tip of Easter Ross were the ecclesiastical allies of the kings of Fortriu, more so than the earliest documented bishops of St. Andrews, far to the south. Thereafter, the centre of gravity of the combined monarchy slipped southwards. In 843, a king of the  western, Gaelic-speaking Kingdom of Dalriata, Kenneth MacAlpin, became king of the Picts as well, and by the reign of his grandson, Constantine (900--943), the combined kingdom was referred to as "Alba," and not the kingdom of the Picts. According to the 1314 Declaration of Arbroath, the Scots of Dalriata had "thrown out the Britons and completely destroyed the Picts," so that an appended king list going back to the Trojan (actually, Egyptian, but it's that genre) founder of the Kingdom of Scotland, way back in the age(ish) of Aeneas and his like. Unfortunately this zest for far-wandering progenitors did not elude the Picts, who were given Scythian ancestors as far back as Bede. 

Given that the Norwegians and Swedes, not to mention the Cimmerians/Cymru, are also said to be descended from the Scythians, one might have thought that people would have given that bit a rest, but that was not to be. Bede singles the Picts out as having a different language from their neighbours, to the point of requiring a translator. Since there was a Welsh ("British") kingdom in southwestern Scotland, while the Picts also  had Gaelic and Anglian neighbours, authors like Henry of Huntingdon were free to assume that Pictish was unique and unintelligible to its neighbours. At the high noon of Ino-Europeanism, this was extended to the claim that it was a non-Indo-European language, presumably brought to Scotland fresh from the high plains of Tartary. Furthermore, extinction of the tongue meant extinction of the people. Sometime between 900 and 1000, the entire Pictish race had been swept from the face of the Earth by the fire and sword of the Scot. And that without historic mention!

Alex Woolf's opinion of that is nicely captured in this here at, which is great, because

that means that the reader doesn't have to spring for his Alba.  Essentially, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Henry's contemporary, says that the Picts and Gaels of Dalriata fused in the ethnogenesis of the modern "Scots." Ethnogenesis doesn't usually involve a major partner, possibly a dominant one, taking on the name of the other, so "the Kingdom of Alba" is a necessary interim stage. That point is extended at some length in Woolf's monograph, but let's step back from that for a moment to the foundation document of Scottish history, the De Situ Albania. A collection of seven documents bound together in the Poppleton Manuscript, De Situ introduces the Pictish people by way of a summary of what various secondary sources such as Isidore of Seville has to say about them, before moving on to three extant Scottish or Pictish king lists, a genealogy of William I, "the Lion," of Scotland, and a foundation legend for St. Andrews. The king lists are of uneven quality, the most extensive, the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba, coming close to being a full-scale annalistic history of Scotland. Its ending, "Cinaed, son of Mael Coluim reigned . . . years" closes this source and inaugurates a dark age in Scottish history in which the Picts can be conveniently dispatched by a mystery assailant and the corpse spirited away.

As Alex Woolf points out, it is unlikely that the whole "reigned . . . years" comes to  us from the original annalist, since the De Situ chronicler has access to the other king lists and knows perfectly well that Kenneth II died in 995, but has to deal with claims that his reign started in either 971 or 973. In fact it is likely that the original Chronicle closed two reigns earlier, and that the list was then extended by another hand, an ecclesiastic of Brechin who closes the Chronicle by telling us that Kenneth II granted Brechin its original endowment. Brechin was clearly a very important place at the time, getting one of two surviving Irish-style round towers in Scotland, so it is the kind of place that might have an ecclesiastic historian concerned to preserve this important information for posterity, even at the price of including a brief and confused account of Kenneth II's reign.

The fact that the account of Kenneth's reign is brief and confused is evidence that something is going on here, and I suppose that the "something" has to be the genocide of the Picts, such as it was.   Kenneth was embroiled with a counter-king, Amlaib, who goes unmentioned in Scottish and English sources, and with his own eventual successors. Meanwhile there is some tantalising evidence that St. Andrews, if it did not acquire its pre-eminence at this time, gained substantially from the transfer of the patrimony of St. Serf. To the south, Kenneth appears to have added Edinburgh to the Alban monarchy, and indeed he may have been heavily involved in larger-scale British politics. As long as the title of paramount king of the island of Britain could be seen to rotate among its princes rather than being joined to Wessex, it was possible for even a ruler of faraway Pictavia to imagine himself a king of the white-cliffed isle of Alba. That is, that's Woolf's interpretation of the name, which by his logic was required less by a claim of hegemony stretching far to the south than to a composite state that now incorporated Anglian and British elements. 

Again, this probably explains why the Chronicle ends as it does. The Poppleton Manuscript didn't fall out of the sky. It was assembled by Robert of Poppleton, Prior of the Carmelite priory of Hulne, closely associated with the border fastness of Alnwick close by, and by extension with the Dukes of Northumberland. The purpose of the document is to establish that the bishops of Scotland are not subject to York, a dependency that is becoming a bit of a millstone around the King of the Scots' neck and something of a poisoned chalice for York as well. The purpose of the dossier is for a legal brief to gain a national archbishopric for St. Andrews, and such briefs are not going to include inconvenient facts about the difficult relationship between York and the "kings of Alba" that continued as long as those kings had legitimate ambitions of adding Northumberland down to York to their patrimony, a dream that only really died in the reign of William's grandfather, David I. 

Unfortunately, whether or not William's lawyers passed over documents giving a fuller account of "Alba's" history in the 1000s, we do not have them now. We have a good explanation for the end of the name, but what about the language and people?

By Jim Bain, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Ten miles south of St. Andrews, cutting across the neck of the little peninsula of Fife that forms the north shore of the Firth of Forth, is the former fishing town of Anstruther at the mouth of the Dreel Burn. St. Andrews first appears in history in the Irish Annals with the death of the Abbot of   Cenrigmonaid abbey in 747. The  name presents the linguists with some difficulties but seems to be a Gaelicised form of a Pictish name, which sort the abbot bears. It is interesting to note that Wikipedia thinks that there was a "Hexham connection," since both abbeys are dedicated to St. Andrew. This is, of course, exactly the kind of story that William's lawyers are going to pass over! Needless to say, the preserved version of the foundation legend of St. Andrews in De Situ Albania has nothing to say about a York connection. In any event, St. Andrews, like Dunblane and Scone and Brechin and Dunkeld, becomes more and more prominent as a church settlement and occasional royal residence in the centuries that follow. In the absence of any cities or even towns in Pictavia/Alba/Scotland, it was a very important place even before it became the seat of the Archbishop of Scotland.

Anstruther was not. In spite of being the most important fishing town south of the Mounth, it only appears in the historical record when a "teinds dispute" between Dryburgh Abbey and the fishermen of Anstruther somehow reached the desk of Pope Honorius III. I probably shouldn't be too bold in inferring that something has gone wrong in the Church hierarchy if the Pope comes to be ruling on something like this. The period was a tumultuous one, and the then-Archbishop of York might have been excommunicated for backing an anti-pope. The late afternoon sunshine is beckoning me on a ride, and I do not have time to investigate such footling matters.  I might guess that Dryburgh's share of the earnings of the catch of Anstruther was a significant amount of money by 1225. However, what does matter is that "Anstruther" is a robustly Gaelic name, and not the only one. Aberdeen, also a Pictish name, has an outlying fishing port with a Gaelic name, Balgownie, and I, not without an eye to the fading sunlight, declare a trend. Gaelic displaces Pictish, before both are displaced by English/Scots, on the wings of the Fishing Event Horizon. Just as in the Nineteenth Century, fishers from the Western Isles are drawn over by the greater dynamism of the east coast industry. 

The "collective amnesia" of the Scottish people in this case doesn't conceal anything particularly sinister. This is not a story of slavery and repression to replace one of genocide. It's just a matter of rewriting the histories of the Scottish bishops to exclude inconvenient connections with the Northumbrian Church. We do find in the process a certain amount of aid and comfort given to the myth of the Vikings, but I am not inclined to blame Willian the Lion's lawyers, here. They had a job to do: Erase "Alba" and erect "Scotland" in its place. 

Where we do have a problem is with the Pictish ghost, unmoored from history and ready to travel across the Atlantic, arriving in America as the subhuman, savage enemy of the equally-transposed "Scotch-Irish borderer." As such, they become a tool of American collective amnesia, which forgets something very, very different. 

1 comment:

  1. Curiously apropos, if not terribly scholarly: