What happens instantaneously on a pinhead that exists nowhere and everywhere? Most economic activity according to the dominant strain of economics. The absence of space and time is just one reason why such economics is so unhelpful in addressing questions of justice, equality and the environment.

Cities grow in particular places and over certain periods in history, forests grow somewhere and when they are cut down this happens one day at a time and, even in the age of the internet and global trading, most markets still have locations and goods take time to be delivered – from China or elsewhere. Like the movement of the planets, the changing weather, animals hunting and plants growing, economic activity happens in space and time – it can’t do otherwise.

Space and Time play little role in Economics – though they are crucial in all economic activities

Given the absolute centrality of space and time for all things economic you might be forgiven for thinking that they would be important components in modern economic ‘science’. They are not. In neoclassical economics, which retains a vise-like grip on both academia and policy making and provides the intellectual support for the ideology of neoliberalism, space and time are almost totally absent. Why is this? Why does it matter for people and the planet? And are there more useful alternatives?

In the 18th and 19th centuries all economists were political economists – Adam Smith, David Ricardo, J S Mill, David Hume and Karl Marx. Even while they were constructing simplified models of the ‘invisible hand’ and international trade, they were profoundly aware of the negative consequences an unfettered capitalist system can and does have for great swathes of humanity and for the environment.

But economics wanted to be more scientific and ultimately that means more mathematical. Casting around to find a suitable mathematics in the physical sciences, the first neoclassical economists (Leon Walras and W S Jevons for example) adopted the best they could find: Newtonian classical mechanics. Though perhaps natural, this choice has been of crucial importance to how economics has developed since. Even as most other sciences have moved beyond a narrow mechanical view of the world, economics has stuck with it.

Many things in the physical world can be explained and predicted using classical mechanics: how far a bullet will travel or how planets move around the sun in an elliptical orbit. It still lies at the heart of much useful technology.

Billiard balls remain still, in “equilibrium”, until the player uses his cue and applies a force to a ball. The ball moves, bumps into other balls (and indeed into the edge of the table) before eventually everything settles down again in a new equilibrium. If you can specify exactly the starting positions, the masses of the balls, the forces applied and the properties of the materials then you can predict not only where everything will end up but also the routes the balls will take and how long it will all take – so space and time are not only explicitly included but also absolutely fundamental.

What neoclassical economics did was take this model and replace mass and distance with price and quantity.

Neoclassical economics adopted a stripped down version of classical mechanics it still uses to this day

A market is in equilibrium if it “clears”, this means that the quantity people want to buy at a given price equals how much people want to sell. This applies whether the market is for labour, for goods or anything else. Everything is stable until there is an impulse or shock. This is the equivalent to the cue hitting a billiard ball. These impulses might be changes in consumer tastes and preferences, suppliers using a new technology or a change in the price of labour or raw materials. Suddenly it looks as though the market might not clear and unemployment or stock shortages might appear. Of course in mechanical physics such “out-of-equilibria” are normal, the billiard balls are all moving through space and time till they settle down again in new positions.

But to make their models tractable the early neoclassical economists had to completely strip down classical mechanics and drop any concept of space and time. Where exactly is the market operating? Implicitly the answer is that it takes place at a point, but not a real geographic point, rather an abstract point. In this sense economic transactions happen on a pinhead that is both everywhere and nowhere.

It’s the same with time. In neoclassical economics if it takes time to move from one equilibrium to another, this would mean that markets may not clear, trading could take place at “false prices” and they might never settle down again. Initially this problem was overcome by the introduction of what later became known as a Walrasian auctioneer. This purely fictive being, analogous to Maxwell’s Demon in physics, “groped” his way to a solution by repeatedly calling out prices, checking the resultant demands and supplies until prices that will clear the market are found – only then can trading take place. Coupled with the later introduction of “rational expectations” – in which actors have perfect foresight and complete information – this enabled economics to ignore space and time. In a Pollyannaish way, following any disturbance or shock, the economy jumps instantly from one equilibrium to another – going through nowhere on the way – in a type of economic Quantum Leap.

Now in real markets there is no auctioneer; buying and selling is continuous, prices actually emerge from the dynamic interaction of different agents who don’t have perfect knowledge and often use rules of thumb or customs to guide their decisions.

Harold Hotelling looked at how ice cream sellers would space themselves on a beach

Even within the neoclassical tradition there have been many economists who have introduced space and time into their work. Starting with Harold Hotelling’s analysis of where how ice-cream sellers would “space” themselves along a beach, there have developed whole sub-branches of economics: spatial economics, economic geography and regional economics. Similarly with time; economists knew economic processes took time so they introduced various types of “lags” into their models – although these did tend to disappear once “rational expectations” were introduced and things happened instantaneously. Yet unfortunately it is true to say that such approaches have remained peripheral to the big issues of macroeconomics; being confined on the whole to micro, though important, issues like transport and schooling.

The absence of space and time is not the only unrealistic feature of neoclassical economics. It also tend to ignore most important aspects of scale, energy use, resource limits, how aggregate markets are not scaled up individual demand and supply curves, and how economic actors actually interact, adapt, behave and choose. There is also no concept of time’s arrow, i.e. the irreversibility of processes and how such “path dependence” is crucial for economic development. The point is that even though all these factors have been studied by some excellent economists (usually of the non neoclassical variety), they are still marginalised within academia, business and government policy making.  Stripped down classical mechanics still rules the roost.

In 1954 Milton Friedman argued that it doesn’t matter if the assumptions made by economics are unrealistic as long as the models make accurate predictions. The sad fact is, however, that these models have not only proved spectacularly unable to make predictions, and not just of periodic financial and banking crises, but much more importantly they haven’t even been able to explain such events after the fact. When something happens that shouldn’t have been able to occur according to their models, neoclassical economists rush around trying to retrofit their theories – mostly without success.

All complex adaptive systems create inequality as seen in Zipf’s Law

As economies and other social systems evolve through time and space major inequalities emerge, in income, wealth, population densities and so on – all manifestations of Zipf’s Law. Approaches to economics that start with people, firms and institutions interacting with and adapting to each other in space and time can generally “explain” this phenomenon; inequality is endogenous or, better said, an emergent property of all complex adaptive systems.

On the other hand, neoclassical economics struggles with inequalities – they are rather mysterious. Free trade, arbitrage, the invisible hand of the price system plus economic growth “trickling down” to the poor should tend to eliminate them. Obviously they never have, so the answer must lie in making the world better fit the stylised economic models rather than changing the models to better explain the world; a completely unscientific approach that has appalled natural scientists. So, for instance, the IMF and the International Trade Organisation impose “structural adjustment” and free trade with never ending alacrity. The contention is that they will bring about economic growth and ultimately lead to a reduction in poverty and inequality. Of course it never happens and millions suffer the miserable consequences.

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen an economist who took entropy seriously

Turning to the environment, in scientific terms neoclassical economics is a “closed system”, consumers consume, firms produce and money circulates to oil the wheels. It’s a circular flow. Implicitly a boundary circle has been drawn around the system. Things outside this circle, such as finite energy or resources, the environment or even other species, either don’t exist or are treated as “externalities” and very often not even “priced”. Energy and resources can be had in limitless quantities forever, though the input price may vary. This completely misunderstands the two laws of thermodynamics – the conservation of energy and the entropy law – both of which operate in space and time. All economic wealth is created by energy and resources. These often take eons to accumulate in specific locations and are not limitless, yet they can be used up very quickly indeed in a mass entropic civilisation such as ours. The consequences are there for all but the blinkered to see.

It’s very unlikely that neoclassical economics will ever be able to make a real contribution to alleviating poverty, tackling ecological despoliation and moving us towards a more just and sustainable world. But there are many other sorts of economics in which human and planetary justice matter. It is to these that we must look.

One summer day in 1076 in present-day Ukraine a young English Princess called Gytha was giving birth to her first child. It was a boy. His Russian name was Mstislav, but he was also given two baptismal names as well, Harold and Theodore. Gytha’s husband was a prince of the Kiev Rus’, and prince of Smolensk, called Vladimir Monomakh (or Monomachus in Greek). He would later become the ruler and Grand Prince of a united Kievan Rus’, a huge area that stretched all the way from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south.

The death of King Harold

The death of King Harold

Although the ‘Russians’ referred to Gytha’s son as Mstislav, the Scandinavian and Germanic world used his baptismal name of Harold. This was in deference to, and recognition of, the boy’s maternal grandfather (and Gytha’s father) Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, who had been slain and mutilated by William the Conqueror’s Normans at Hastings in 1066.

As I told recently (see here), it was in 1068, or possibly 1069, that many of Harold’s family had fled the tightening Norman yoke. They first went to the court of their kinsman Count Baldwin in Flanders, from where two of Harold’s sons, Edmund and Godwine, accompanied by their sister Gytha, moved on to find refuge with, and perhaps help from, their relative Swein Estrithson, the king of Denmark. Swein was King Harold’s cousin. Gytha, who was born around 1053, was named after her grandmother, who was Swein’s aunt

In The House of Godwine – the History of a Dynasty, historian Emma Mason writes:

Godwine and Edmund probably asked Sweyn for help in reinstating then in England. As an inducement they perhaps offered Sweyn their sister Gytha to use as a bargaining counter when he was negotiating some diplomatic alliance. Following the events of 1066-69, Gytha needed the help of an influential male kinsman to ensure that she made a marriage befitting a king’s daughter. Of her remaining kinsman, only Sweyn was in a position to assist.

The king was not prepared to offer his young cousins any military support. He had expended enough resources on his failed expedition of 1069 and had no wish to lose more in helping his kinsmen…. What actually became of these sons of King Harold is unknown.

Although there is no proof, Mason’s suggestion that, as well as seeking safety, the royal siblings were probably also hoping for Swein’s support in ridding England of the hated Normans, seems a reasonable one. If in fact the siblings had already arrived in Denmark by 1069, it could have been that their pleas helped prompt Swein to lead a large Danish army to England, which he did in the summer of that year. Swein certainly saw this as a chance for him to claim the crown of the Anglo-Scandinavian realm of England before William the Bastard and his Normans had too tight a grip.

A Danish Viking Ship

A Danish Viking Ship

A huge Danish fleet, numbering between 240 and 300 ships, arrived in the Humber estuary where they joined forces with their English allies led by Maerleswein, Gospatric and Edgar the aetheling (the English claimant to the throne). The writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at the time was ecstatic. The leaders set out, he wrote, ‘with all the Northumbrians and all the people, riding and marching with an immense host, rejoicing exceedingly’. Historian Marc Morris writes in his excellent The Norman Conquest: ‘The days of Norman rule in England appeared to be numbered.’ Unfortunately it was not to be. The Norman yoke was to be around English necks for centuries to come.

Cutting a rather long story short, William came back with an army to confront the Anglo-Danish force, but had then to retreat south to deal once again, as Orderic Vitalis tells us, with the resistance of ‘Eadric the Wild and other untameable Englishmen’. On returning to the North the only way William could find to defeat the Anglo-Danish army was to buy off the Danish. The Danish war leader Earl Asbjorn was offered a large sum of money to stop fighting, which, ‘much to the chroniclers’ disgust’, he accepted. After the Danish army had spent a desperate winter in England awaiting the return of King Swein, they returned to Denmark in 1070.

After 1070 Swein certainly wasn’t prepared to try his luck in England again, even though over the next few years several mores embassies arrived from England to plead for his help (for example see here). It seems that William continued to pay the Danes off. All hope for the young Anglo-Saxon princes, Edmund and Godwine, had passed. But, as Emma Mason suggests:

Gytha on the other hand was a useful asset to King Sweyn. Probably around 1074 or 1075 he arranged her marriage with Vladimir Monomakh, the prince of Smolensk in western Russia. From the prince’s point of view that was an advantageous match, giving him a wife who was a king’s daughter, and an alliance with King Sweyn against the Poles. From Gytha’s perspective, too, it was a good match. Prince Vladimir was young, rich and handsome.

Saxo Grammaticus

Saxo Grammaticus

Whatever the precise circumstances and details, before his death in about 1075, King Swein did arrange for his young charge Gytha to be betrothed to the Kievan Rus’ prince of Smolensk, Vladimir. The early Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus wrote in Book 11 of his Historia Danica:

After the death of Harold, his two sons immediately fled with their sister to Denmark, Sweyn, forgetting the deserts of their father, as a relative received them under the custom of piety and gave the daughter in marriage to the king of the Ruthenians (Rutenorum) Waldemarus (who was also called Jarizlauus by his own people). He (Harold) obtained from the daughter a grandson who after the manner of our time became his successor both by lineage and by name. Thus the British and the Eastern blood being united in our prince caused the common offspring to be an adornment to both peoples.

Early Norwegian sources don’t mention the three siblings seeking refuge with Swein, but the Fagrkinna and Morgkinskinna both mention Gytha’s marriage to Vladimir. After telling the story of the death of King Harold Godwinson and his brothers, the Fagrskinna, which is a catalogue of the kings of Norway, goes on:

After these five chieftains there were no more of Jarl Gothini’s (Earl Godwin’s) family left alive, as far as we can tell, apart from King Haraldr’s daughter Gytha…. Gytha , King Haraldr’s daughter, was married to King Valdamarr (Vladimir), son of King Jarizleifr (Jaroslav) and of Ingigerthr, daughter of King Olafr soenski.

It then goes on to tell more of what became of Gytha and Vladimir’s children. The Morkinskinna tells much the same story.

Actually Saxo Grammaticus and the two Norwegian sources are somewhat confused here. Vladimir was the son of Vsevolod and not Jaroslav (who was his grandfather, and who died in 1052).

Under the year 1076, the Russian Primary Chronicle says, ‘in this year, a son was born to Vladimir, he was Mstislav, and was a grandson of Vsevolod.’

The extent of Kievan Rus' in 1054

The extent of Kievan Rus’ in 1054

The world that Gytha had married into, that of the Kiev Rus’, was positively Byzantine in its complexity. The original Rus’ were Scandinavian Vikings, the Varangians, including a certain Rurik, who had been ‘invited’ to take control in the ninth century. Over the next two centuries the Rus’ extended their reach and control, but they were constantly fighting each other as well as their external enemies, usually the Poles. Kievan Rus’ became a series of fragmented princely territories. The continual feuding, intrigues and battles made pre-Conquest England seem somewhat stable by comparison.

Most likely Gytha and her young husband Vladimir were able to communicate in Danish. Vladimir, like his father Prince Vsevolod, is known to have spoken several languages, and Gytha, being a member of an Anglo-Danish family, the Godwins, likely spoke Danish as well as English. Emma Mason writes:

There were no problems of communication, since her husband was an accomplished linguist. His dynasty had Scandinavian origins and his grandmother was Swedish. Probably he could converse with Gytha in the Norse tongue.

While Vladimir and his father continued fighting, he and Gytha had several more children. Many of his children were later to be married into other princely families, as was the way throughout Europe. Mstislav/Harold followed his father in becoming Grand Prince of the Kiev Rus’ when Vladimir died in 1125. As both Norse and Russian sources tell us, Prince Harold married Princess Christina Ingesdottir of Sweden in 1095. Christina was the daughter of King Inge I of Sweden. Through his daughter Euphrosyne, Mstislav/Harold is an ancestor of King Edward III of England and hence of all subsequent English and British Monarchs.

But I’m concerned here neither with royal genealogy, nor with the history of Kiev and Russia, fascinating though both are. Rather this is the story of the Anglo-Saxon princess Gytha. What became of her?

Prince Vladimir Monomakh

Prince Vladimir Monomakh

Conventionally it is said that Vladimir had three wives. But did he? As mentioned, the Primary Russian Chronicle mentions the death of two of his wives, under the years 1107 and 1126. We know that Gytha was Vladimir’s first wife, but who were the others? No names are found, just two dates of death. We know that Vladimir had several more children after the birth of Vyacheslav in about 1083. These children are usually assigned to an unknown putative second wife, who Vladimir is purported to have married after the death of Gytha. But there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of this second, of three, wives: no name, no record of a marriage and no death. So it might very well be that these later children were Gytha’s as well?

That Vladimir did take another wife after Gytha seems reasonably clear, because, as mentioned, there are two entries for the death of a wife of Vladimir, in both 1107 and 1126. The name of this later wife who died in 1126 is often said to have been Anna, a daughter of Aepa Ocenevich, Khan of the Cumans, but there seems no evidence for this. It has been suggested that this attribution for the second/third wife most likely results from a misreading of the 1107 entry in the Primary Russian Chronicle, which states, “and Volodimer (Vladimir) took the daughter of Aepa for Jurij [his son]”. It clearly says that it was Jurij (who died in 1157) who married Aepa’s daughter, and not Vladimir. It’s unlikely that father and son married two sisters.

Returning to Gytha; what became of her and where and when might she have died?

In the German Rhine city of Cologne there was, and still is, a church and monastery dedicated to the late third century Greek Christian martyr St. Pantaleon, who was revered for his healing powers.

A man sick with the palsy was brought, who could neither walk nor stand without help. The heathen priests prayed for him, but in vain. Then Pantaleon prayed, took the sick man by the hand, and said: “In the name of Jesus, the Son of God, I command thee to rise and be well.” And the palsied man rose, restored to perfect health.

The monastic church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne

The monastic church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne

The monastic church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne was founded in the tenth century.

The impressive church, in the south west of the inner city, still has extensive parts of the original building. It is one of the oldest sacral buildings in Cologne. The monumental church of St. Pantaleon originated at the middle of the 10th century with the founding of a Benedictine abbey by the Archbishop Bruno. His niece by marriage, the Byzantine Theophanu, continued building after Bruno’s death in 965. Her interest in the church most certainly had family reasons, but especially the Patrocinium of the Holy Pantaleon played a decisive role, because this saint came from Theophanu’s homeland. Following her death she was buried in St. Pantaleon. Her mortal remains rest there today in a modern marble sarcophagus.

By the eleventh and early twelfth century it had acquired a certain international renown. It had strong links with England and also lay astride the usual route from Flanders to Denmark. Given later events, this latter fact has led some to conjecture that Gytha might have visited St. Pantaleon in Cologne with her brothers on her way to Denmark.

It is here we come to an interesting story. It’s contained in a Latin sermon given by Rupert, the abbot of the nearby monastery of Deutz, to the monks of St. Pantaleon’s in Cologne in the 1120s. Given the date of the sermon, the events it describes were certainly within the living memory of both Rupert and his audience, the St. Pantaleon monks. Most of the sermon was a hagiography detailing St. Pantaleon’s various miracles, but towards the end Rupert tells a little ‘miraculous’ story concerning Gytha and her son Harold. It’s a sort of prologue to two more miracles.

I have used the French summary of this Latin story given by the Belgian church historian Maurice Coens in 1937 in his Un sermon inconnue de Rupert, Abbe de Deutz sur St. Pantaleon. Coens’ summary unfortunately misses out some interesting details contained in the original sermon, and possibly misconstrues one or two things too, but for the time being it will have to suffice. The brackets are my own:

Harald, who reigns at present over the Russians (‘rex gentis Russorum’), had been attacked by a bear. He had been separated from his companions and, unarmed, couldn’t defend himself against the beast, which gored him cruelly. When he had been extricated, he was hardly breathing. His mother (‘Gida nomine’) wanted to care for him herself. But St. Pantaleon appeared (in a vision) to the wounded man, and declared that he had come to heal him. After she had heard of the vision, the prince’s mother was reassured regarding the health of her son. She had been a great benefactor of the monastery of St. Pantaleon in Cologne and knew the power of the thaumaturge (miracle worker). Following her son’s recovery, the Queen realised her desire to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Places.

In addition, there is also a mention of Queen Gytha (‘Gida Regina’ preceded by a cross) in St. Pantaleon’s Necrolog, under the date March 7th. This is usually taken to imply Gytha’s date of death, but this is by no means sure. No year is given because a Necrolog wasn’t only a list of those Saints and benefactors who had recently died; it was also a list of days on which the monks in the monastery were to say prayers for the eternal souls of particular saints and holy benefactors. As we know, Saints’ days aren’t necessarily death dates. Rupert’s sermon clearly tells us that ‘Queen’ Gytha was a ‘liberal benefactor’ of St. Pantaleon’s in Cologne. It was on March the 7th that the monks prayed for her, which could as well have been the date they heard of her death as her death date itself.

Vladamir's Monomakh's Instructions to his Children

Vladamir’s Monomakh’s Instructions to his Children

The sermon tells us that Russian Prince (Rex) Harold had been badly gored by a bear while out hunting. We don’t know when this may have happened, such meetings with potentially dangerous wild animals were pretty common at this time when ‘nobles’ were out hunting, a time before Europe’s forests were completely hunted out. Harold’s father Vladimir was also a big hunter. He wrote some long ‘Instructions for my children’ (“Pouchenniya Dityam”) a few years before his death in 1125, in which he related his own experiences:

I devoted much energy to hunting as long as I reigned in Chernigov and made excursions from that city. Until the present year, in fact, I without difficulty used all my strength in hunting, not to mention other hunting expeditions around Turov, since I had been accustomed to chase every sort of game while in my father’s company.

At Chernigov, I even bound wild horses with my bare hands or captured ten or twenty live horses with the lasso, and besides that, while riding along the Ros, I caught these same wild horses barehanded. Two bisons tossed me and my horse on their horns, a stag once gored me, one elk stamped upon me, while another gored me, a boar once tore my sword from my thigh, a bear on one occasion bit my kneecap, and another wild beast jumped on my flank and threw my horse with me. But God preserved me unharmed.

Godfrey de Bouillon Captures Jerusalem

Godfrey de Bouillon Captures Jerusalem

It has been suggested that Harold’s near death and vision happened in 1097, when he would have been about twenty-one, and, to make good on her promise to make a pilgrimage, his mother Gytha had then joined the First Crusade to the Holy Land, where she died in 1098. That Gytha went on the First Crusade seems highly dubious. It is pure speculation based only on the assumption that Gytha died before Vladimir’s later children were born – by a ‘second’ wife. To this is sometimes added the thought that Gytha had connections with Flanders, because of her stay there when she fled England, and that Flemish nobles, led by Godfrey of Bouillon, made up a large contingent of this crusade.

If we take Rupert of Deutz’s story at face value, as fact except for the ‘miraculous’ healing, then even if the incident took place in 1097 (for which there is no evidence), I find it unlikely in the extreme that Gytha would then have instantly rushed to Flanders to join some Flemish nobles on their crusade to a Holy Land still in the possession of the Saracens.

If Gytha did go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as Rupert of Deutz says she did, I think it much more likely that she went later, after Jerusalem had fallen into Christian hands, by when it was safer to make such a hazardous journey. And if she wanted to get to Jerusalem she would likely have taken the well trodden route from the land of the Kiev Rus’ to Constantinople and from there taken ship around the coast of Anatolia (Turkey), perhaps via Cyprus, to the Holy Land.

Danylo's Book

Danylo’s Book

This was the route taken in the early 1100s by the earliest known pilgrim from Kievan Rus’, Danylo, abbot of the Rus’ monastery of Chernigov. Danylo has left us a fascinating memoir of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

It is not known when Danylo set out on his journey to the Holy Land. Historians are of the opinion that he could have begun his journey in the early 1100s and could have reached Constantinople at about 1104–1106 whence he proceeded to Palestine via Greece and the Greek Islands. It is not known by which route he got to Constantinople, but it is likely he took the ancient route “from the Varengians (Vikings) to the Greeks” — down the Dnipro River and then across the Black Sea.

He tells of the places he visited, the people he met (including King Baldwin of Jerusalem), and the hazards he encountered. He even mentions on more than one occasion that he was travelling with Kievan Rus’ compatriots:

In his book, Danylo mentions about 60 places, monasteries included, that he visited during his stay in Palestine. In his travels he must have always had some company in addition to guides and interpreters because he always says “we” and never “I”, and writes about “druzhyna” (a group, team, troop, or brotherhood who are united by the same purpose or sharing the same ideas and ideals) who were with him on many occasions. Describing “the descent of the blessed fire upon the Lord’s Sepulchre” he says that among the witnesses of this miracle were “all of my druzhyna, sons of Rus who were together with me on that day, good men from Novgorod and Kyiv — Izdeslav Ivankovych, Horodyslav Mykhaylovych, Kashkychi and many others…” It is quite reasonable to suppose that the people mentioned by name were Danylo’s close companions who were with him on many other occasions, or maybe accompanied him on his pilgrimage from the outset…

Danylo seems to be patriotically minded and it is particularly evident when he reiterates his being a representative of Rus rather than of a particular monastery or province. At the end of narrative, he says, “May God be a witness of … me never forgetting to mention the names of the Rus princes, and of their children, of the Rus bishops, and of the hegumens, and of the boyars (members of the aristocratic orders.), and of my spiritual children, and of all the good Christians [during the liturgy services] I recited at the holy places.” In the Holy Land he celebrated 90 liturgies — 50 for the living and 40 for the dead — of his compatriots.

There is, to be sure, no mention of Gytha here, but, for me at least, it would have made more sense had Gytha gone on her pilgrimage in the company of some of her compatriots, using the most convenient route, and when Jerusalem was already in Christian hands, than that she had rushed off to Flanders in 1097 to join the First Crusade.

It is also interesting to note that many Russian historians say that upon his return Danylo was promoted to bishop of Yuryev by ‘Grand Duke Vladimir Monomakh’, i.e. promoted by Gytha’s husband!

My contention that Gytha didn’t go on the First Crusade, and didn’t die in the Holy Land in 1098, is, I think, also supported by the thought that had she done so she would probably have had to drop in at St. Pantaleon’s monastery in Cologne on her way to Flanders, and there make a large enough, and one-off, benefaction to the monastery to ensure the reverence in which she was subsequently held by the monks there for her piety and largesse.

In addition, if Vladimir’s son Jurij was married to a daughter of Aepa Ocenevich, Khan of the Cumans, in 1107, as the Primary Russian Chronicle says, then Jurij was probably in his twenties at the time, and therefore born in the 1080s, well before Gytha’s supposed death in the Holy Land in 1098.

All the evidence seems to support the view that Gytha died in 1107.

St. Pantaleon/Panteleimon Church in Shevchenkove, Ukraine

St. Pantaleon/Panteleimon Church in Shevchenkove, Ukraine

The intercession of St. Pantaleon (St. Panteleimon) which had saved Prince Harold’s life was not forgotten by the Rus’. Churches named after the Saint began to appear all over the Ukraine. One such was built in the town of Shevchenkove in 1194 by Prince Roman Mstyslavovych in honour of his grandfather — the Kiev Prince Izyaslav (a son of English Princess Gytha born circ 1078,  whose baptismal name was Panteleimon). There are several more.

Paulinus of Pella was a fifth-century Gallo-Roman aristocrat. He is known to us purely because in his old age, having suffered much and living in penury, he wrote a long verse story of his life. It is usually called Eucharisticos (‘Thanksgiving’). Here I’d like to tell something of Paulinus’s life and times.

‘I know that among famous men there have been some who, in right of their brilliant qualities and to immortalise the eminence of their renown, have handed down to posterity a memoir of their doing compiled in their own words. Since I am of course as far removed from these in their outstanding worth as in point of time, it is certainly no similar reason and design which has induced me to put together a little work almost identical in subject…’ (Paulinus of Pella)

Early life

The ruins of Pella

The ruins of Pella

Paulinus was born in the year 377 in Pella in Macedonia, the town which was, as he says, ‘the nursery of King Alexander, near Salonika’s Wall’. His father was the deputy to the provincial Roman prefect. When Paulinus was just nine months old his father took the family with him to Carthage in North Africa, where he was to take up a new appointment as proconsul. They travelled ‘across snowy ridges and torrent-riven ranges, across the main and the waves of the Tyrrhenian flood.’ Eighteen months later the family was on the move again, this time ‘to behold the famed bulwarks of all-glorious Rome on the world’s heights’.

All this Paulinus was later told, as he had been too young to remember anything of it. Another move followed, this time to his grandfather’s house in Bordeaux in Aquitaine, in south-western Gaul. Bordeaux was, he says, ‘the land of my forefathers’. Paulinus’s grandfather was the rich poet Ausonius who had been made a consul in Bordeaux in the same year his son’s family arrived back home.

A Roman mosiac from Bordeaux

A Roman mosiac from Bordeaux

We can already see that Paulinus was the scion of a rich, powerful and educated provincial Gallo-Roman family. His was a privileged childhood. His parents were keen to educate their son. They mingled learning with enticements, and tried to instill in him ‘the means of good living’, and alongside learning to read and write to ‘shun the ten special marks of ignorance and equally to avoid vices’.

At first Latin was an ‘unknown tongue’ to Paulinus because he had grown up talking with his ‘Greek servants’. So in addition to reading Socrates and Homer he mastered the Latin works of Maro as well.

The years passed under ‘the constant care of Greek and Latin tutors’, but then fate took a hand. Young Paulinus became very ill with a fever, possibly because of his unhealthy studious life. His parents realized, he says, that his recovery was more urgent than ‘the training of my tongue in eloquence’. The doctors advised a regime of gaiety and amusement. In earlier days his father had enjoyed hunting but had recently stopped, so in order to help his son get better he started to hunt again and took Paulinus with him.

These pursuits, long continued during the slow period of my sickness, caused in me a distaste for study, thenceforward chronic, which persisting afterwards in time of health, harmed me when love of the false world made way and the too pliant fondness of my parents gave way, charmed with delight at my recovery.

Hunting and whoring

As he started to grow Paulinus ‘waywardness increased’ and he started to pursue his ‘youthful desires’:

Wherefore, as my growth, so my waywardness increased, readily settling down to the pursuit of youthful desires — as to have a fine horse bedecked with special trappings, a tall groom, a swift hound, a shapely hawk, a tinselled ball, fresh brought from Rome, to serve me in my games of pitching, to wear the height of fashion, and to have each latest novelty perfumed with sweet-smelling myrrh of Araby. Likewise when I recall how, grown robust, I ever loved to gallop riding a racing steed, and how many a headlong fall I escaped, ’tis right I should believe I was preserved by Christ’s mercy; and pity ’tis that then I knew it not by reason of the world’s thronging enticements.

A Gallo-Roman Villa in Bordeaux

A Gallo-Roman Villa in Bordeaux

Of course during all these years of study and hunting, Paulinus, living with his rich parents and grandparents, would have been surrounded by countless servants and slaves, including his ‘tall groom’ to keep his ‘fine horse bedecked with special trappings’.

His parents were mostly concerned, Paulinus says, with the ‘renewal of their line through me’. But as he reached adolescence Paulinus felt ‘new fires and… broke out into the pleasures of harmful wantonness’. In other words he discovered women and sexual desire. To try to check his wilful wantonness he made a rule for himself:

That I should never seek an unwilling victim, nor transgress another’s rights, and, heedful to keep unstained my cherished reputation, should beware of yielding to free-born loves though voluntarily offered, but be satisfied with servile amours in my own home; for I preferred to be guilty of a fault rather than of an offence, fearing to suffer loss of my good name.

If I may be permitted to put this in modern parlance, this means that Paulinus swore that he wouldn’t rape women against their will, nor have sex with other men’s wives. Not only that but he would not have sex with ‘free-born’ women even if it were ‘voluntarily offered’. Rather, he would limit himself to having sex with women slaves in his ‘own house’. Whether they had much say in the matter can be doubted.

Despite all these good intentions however Paulinus had, he admits, ‘one son I know (who) was born to me at that time’. He never saw this son, who soon died, and, he says,  he never met ‘any bastards of mine afterwards’. How many did he have with the household slaves?

Marriage, leisure and luxury

Paulinus's grandfather Decimus Magnus Ausonius

Paulinus’s grandfather Decimus Magnus Ausonius

And so this was how the privileged Paulinus’s life went on from his eighteenth year until he was thirty; hunting and whoring we might call it. But much against his will his parents pushed him to ‘mate with a wife’, which he did. It seems his wife came from a prestigious Gallo-Roman family but that much of the family’s land had been neglected and gone to seed due to the ‘lethargy’ of her grandfather. Reluctantly Paulinus and his ‘thralls’, his slaves, went to work to improve his wife’s estate; ‘inciting such as I could by the example of my own labour, he said, ‘but compelling some against their will with a master’s sternness’.  He and his slaves brought land back under tillage and renewed the vines; he even paid his taxes, a thing he was quite proud of as an old man. But the good intentions and work didn’t last too long. Paulinus was too much an aristocrat and too intent on leisure and luxury, things that were ‘much prized by me’, he says. He became:

Only concerned that my house should be equipped with spacious apartments and at all times suited to meet the varying seasons of the year, my table lavish and attractive, my servants many and those young, the furniture abundant and agreeable for various purposes, plate more preeminent in price than poundage, workmen of divers crafts trained promptly to fulfil my behests, my stables filled with well-conditioned beasts and, withal, stately carriages to convey me safe abroad. And yet I was not so much bent on increasing these same things as zealous in preserving them, neither too eager to increase my wealth nor a seeker for distinctions, but rather — I admit — a follower of luxury, though only when it could be attained at trifling cost and outlay and without loss of fair repute that the brand of prodigality should not disgrace a blameless pursuit.

Crossing the Rhine, 31st December 405

Crossing the Rhine, 31st December 405

This is how Paulinus’s life would most likely have gone on, living from the work of the slaves on his wife’s estate in Bordeaux and later inheriting the large properties of his parents and grandfather, not only around Bordeaux but also elsewhere in Aquitaine, in Provence and even back in Greece, his place of birth. More lands, more slaves, more hunting, more feasts with guests and no doubt children to carry on the family line. It was a life that countless members of the provincial Roman elite enjoyed in their villas throughout Gaul, in Spain, in Britain and right across the Roman world. A good life to be sure, but one based entirely on the work of slaves.

Yet this was not to be because Paulinus had the misfortune to be born around 377 and while he was still enjoying his hunting and whoring in 406, the year before his marriage, tens of thousands of Vandals, Sueves and Alans had crossed the Rhine, brushed aside the Empire’s Frankish allies, and started blazing a trail of destruction through Gaul. This famous crossing of the Rhine took place near Mainz on the 31st December 405 (not 406 as used to be commonly believed) has been seen by many of Europe’s greatest historians as a pivotal date in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Yet the Vandals and Sueves, as well as many of the Alans, soon moved on, crossing into Spain in 409, from where the Vandals went on to north Africa, capturing and devastating the Roman province of Carthage, part of Rome’s ‘bread basket’. Although Paulinus would soon have some dealings with the Alans, what was more decisive for him and for Aquitaine was the arrival of another Germanic tribe, the Goths, who first arrived at the walls of Bordeaux in 414 when Paulinus was about thirty-seven.

Roman slaves

Roman slaves

Before I tell of this I’d like to say a few words about slavery in Roman Gaul at this time. That the Roman Empire had been supported by slave labour is well known and documented. Some historians have suggested that in the late Roman period in which Paulinus lived it was much less prevalent. All the evidence suggests that this was not so. Not only did the Gallo-Roman villa owners in the early fifth century have domestic or household slaves, but as historian R. Samson has shown convincingly the terms, ancillae, servi and mancipia that are used constantly in the sources (and indeed by Paulinus), referring to those who ‘performed every imaginable task, as bakers, millers, physicians, cooks, spinners, swineherds, or porters…. and above all…. agricultural workers’, were indeed slaves. When you read Paulinus’s own story this is, I suggest, blindly clear, as we have already seen and will see again.

Here is how Paulinus tells of how his life changed:

Of this life would that the enjoyment granted by Christ’s rich bounty had continued longer for us, the former times of peace enduring likewise! In many ways could my youth have profited by frequent application of my father’s spoken counsel and by the growth in my training won from his good example! But after the third decade of my life was passed, there followed hopeless sorrow caused by a double burden — a general grief at public calamity, when foes burst into the vitals of the Roman realm, together with personal misfortune in the end and death of my father; for the last days which closed his life were almost continuous with the days when peace was broken.

Paulinus tells us that on his father’s death his ‘wilful’ brother tried to annul his father’s legal will regarding certain ‘benefits’ granted to their mother, but he doesn’t tell us of the arrival of the Goths in Bordeaux.

The Battle of Adrianople

The Battle of Adrianople

The Goths had first entered the Roman Empire in 378 after they had defeated the Roman emperor Valens at the battle of Adrianople, in present-day Bulgaria. The subsequent years saw them loyally serving the Empire in the Balkans before in 410, under their king, Alaric, they sacked Rome for reasons I will not go into here. Eventually in 412 the Emperor Honorius induced the Goths, under Alaric’s successor, his brother-in-law Athaulf, to leave Rome by granting them Roman federate status in Aquitaine in southwest Gaul. Part of the deal was that they were also expected to fight the short-lived imperial pretender Jovinus and his brother Sebastian, which they soon did and sent their heads to Honorius’ court in Ravenna. The heads were forwarded for display among other usurpers on the walls of Carthage. Partly because of this service Honorius allowed Athaulf to marry his sister Galla Placidia in Narbonne in Gaul with much pomp and ceremony on the first day of 414.

It was Narbonne from which Athaulf’s Goths then progressed along the River Garonne from Toulouse to Bordeaux. Toulouse would later become the capital of the Goths’ Gaulish kingdom, before early the next century they moved to Spain and became the ‘Visigoths’ of history.

Athaulf marries Galla Placidia

Athaulf marries Galla Placidia

At this time there were few if any effective Roman legionary forces left in Aquitaine, this was precisely the reason why the Emperor had had to have recourse to the Goths to rid him of his rivals in Gaul. And so as the Goths marched up the Garonne there was no resistance from the Gallo-Roman civil authorities who were still in place. When they got to Bordeaux the city opened its gates to them without a fight.

The Romans had started to adopt of policy of so-called hospitalitas to accommodate the various Germanic and other tribes who had come to Gaul. This involved the Gallo-Roman owners of large estates and villas were told that they must give part of their land and property to the ‘barbarians’. Usually this meant two thirds of their land and one half of their other property, but sometimes they might agree to pay the invaders the equivalent proportion of their income. This is what happened in Paulinus’s Bordeaux region.

The Goths arrive in Bordeaux

King Athaulf arrives at Bordeaux

King Athaulf arrives at Bordeaux

When the Goths came to Bordeaux or possibly before they arrived Paulinus had considered leaving and going, he says, to ‘a second country in the East — where indeed I was born and was also held to be an owner of great consequence’. No doubt somewhere in Macedonia or Greece. But he didn’t leave, firstly because, he tells us, of ‘the mere sluggish effort of my train’. But also, and this would become a recurring issue, because of ‘the conflicting wishes of my dear ones’:

Too often by the struggle of their resolves with my own wishes whenever their returning dread of an uncertain issue delayed by some perverse chance preparations already begun.

But he also admitted that he hadn’t fled because his nature ‘was enticed by my habits of ease, my wonted repose, the many special comforts of my home’. He liked his life of ease.

But for some unknown reason Paulinus avoided having a Gothic ‘guest’ imposed on him. That is he avoided having to give up two-thirds of his land to the Goths. He wrote that despite having ‘all great and pleasant luxuries and every blessing in those rough days’, he alone ‘lacked a Gothic guest’.

There was a downside to this. He wrote:

This circumstance was followed not long afterwards by a disastrous result, namely that, since no particular authority protected it, my house was given up to be pillaged by the retiring horde; for I know that certain of the Goths most generously strove to serve their hosts by protecting them.

Probably to try to legitimise the Gothic occupation of Narbonne, in the spring of 414 Athaulf had proclaimed Priscus Attalus, a Greek-born former Roman Senator ‘Emperor’. A sort of puppet imperial court was formed in Bordeaux.

But on me, besides my lot in the condition just described, a fresh cause of greater trouble was also imposed; namely that in his general groping after empty consolations, the tyrant Attalus burdened me in my absence with an empty title of distinction, making me Count of Private Largesses (procurator), although he knew that this office was sustained by no revenue, and even himself had now ceased to believe in his own royalty, dependent as he was upon the Goths alone of whom already he had had bitter experience, finding with them protection at the moment of his life but not of his authority, while of himself he was supported neither by resources of his own nor by any soldiery.

Gothic King of Toulouse

Gothic king of Toulouse

Of course Attalus didn’t last long and we’ll leave him here. Paulinus tells us that not in any way because of Attalus, ‘that tottering tyrant’, he tried to make peace with the Goths. He was trying to save his property and the lifestyle he and his family, particularly his wife, loved. It was a peace, he says, that was ‘desired by the general consent of the Goths themselves’. What Paulinus had probably done was offer the Goths hospitalitas, i.e. maybe two-thirds of his land and property. He tells us that this had been ‘granted to others’, and ‘though purchased at a price, remains unregretted, since already in our state we see full many prospering through Gothic favour, though many first endured the full range of suffering’, including, he says, ‘not least of whom was I, seeing that I was stripped of all my goods and outlived my fatherland’.

Paulinus’s entreaties to the Goths obviously didn’t have the desired result because, he says, when they were ‘about to depart from our city at the command of their king Athaulf, the Goths, though they had been received peaceably, imposed the harshest treatment on us, as though subdued by right of war, by burning the whole city’.

There finding me — then a Count of that Prince (i.e. Attalus), whose allies they did not recognise as their own — they stripped me of all my goods, and next my mother also, both of us overtaken by the same lot, for this one grace considering that they were showing us, their prisoners, mercy — that they suffered us to depart without injury; howbeit, of all the companions and handmaidens who had followed our fortunes none suffered any wrong at all done to her honour, nor was any assault offered, yet I was spared more serious anxiety by the divine goodness, to whom I owe constant thanks, because my daughter, previously wedded by me to a husband, was spared the general calamity by her absence for our country.

If we read this passage closely we can see that Paulinus saying that although he had lost all his property in and around Bordeaux, mercifully none of his kinswomen, and particularly his daughter, had been raped. But also implied is the fact that many other women had been.

Flight from Bordeaux

Now even Paulinus’s wife probably had to agree that they leave Bordeaux. Paulinus himself says that his family had been, ‘driven from our ancestral and our house burned’. They fled to the neighbouring Aquitaine city of Bazas, his forefathers’ native place.



In Bazas Paulinus discovered something he called ‘far more dangerous than the beleaguering foe’. It was a ‘conspiracy of slaves supported by the senseless frenzy of some few youths, abandoned though of free estate, and armed specially for the slaughter of the gentry.’ The withdrawal of the Roman legions and the ‘barbarian’ invasions had certainly given the countless Gallic Roman slaves an opportunity to try to throw of the Roman yoke, sometimes led, as Paulinus says, by free-born Gallo-Romans. At this time, and for some time to come, the majority of the people of Gaul still spoke a Celtic Gallic language, even members of the elite provincial aristocracy, as Sidonius Apollinaris tells us. It’s instructive that Paulinus regarded this threat of the slaves as ‘far more dangerous’ than the ‘barbarian’ Goths. The Gallo-Roman elite might have to make an accommodation with the new Germanic rulers but any threat to their privileges from below, from the bulk of the native population, freemen or slaves, was so much more worrying. Paulinus writes with feeling:

From this danger thou, O righteous God, didst shield the innocent blood, quelling it forthwith by the death of some few guilty ones, and didst ordain that the special assassin threatening me should without my knowledge perish by another’s avenging hand, even as thou hast been wont to bind me to thee with fresh gifts for which I might feel I owed thee endless thanks.

How God put down this local revolt is not known.

Besieged at Bazas

Like Paulinus, the Goths too soon arrived at Bazas.

When Rome had heard that Athaulf had proclaimed Attalus as emperor, Constantius, the consul for the year, set off with a fleet for Narbonne. When the Goths in Bordeaux heard of this they had set fire to Bordeaux and retreated to Narbonne. But Constantius blockaded Narbonne with his fleet, trying to stop supplies arriving to sustain the Goths, and because of hunger they had to abandon the city and had proceeded to Bazas which they started to besiege.

Athaulf and Gallo Placidia

Athaulf and Gallo Placidia

It is here that we can pick up Paulinus’s story once again, because it was at Bazas that Paulinus made his ‘new error of judgement’. When the Goths arrived at the walls of Bazas, Paulinus was alarmed by ‘so sudden a danger’ and thought that he might be ‘stricken down’. But his error was that he hoped that he might be able to secure the protection of the king of the ‘people who were afflicting us with the long siege’ and ‘escape from the besieged city together with the large train of my dear ones’.

Paulinus tells us that this king had been ‘long since my friend’. Trying to secure the escape of himself and his ‘dear ones’, Paulinus went to the ‘king’, who he knew was only reluctantly oppressing them because he was being forced to do so by the ‘Gothic host’. No one stopped him and with hope in his heart he addressed his first words to the ‘friend’ who he thought would help him and his family. But Paulinus was to be disappointed. The king declared, says Paulinus, that ‘he could not offer me protection if dwelling outside the city, avowing that it was no longer safe for him, having once seen me, to suffer me to return to the city on other terms than that he himself should presently be admitted with me into the city – for he knew that the Goths again meant me mischief, and he himself desired to break free of their influence’.

I was dumbfounded, I admit, with alarm at the terms proposed and with exceeding fear at the danger threatened, but by the mercy of God who always and everywhere is with them who beseech his aid, I presently regained my faculties and, albeit quaking, boldly set myself to foster in my interest the design of my still wavering friend, discouraging difficult conditions which I knew must be utterly rejected, but strongly pressing for instant attempt to secure the attainable. These the far-sighted man speedily approved and adopted. Straightway, when he had for himself conferred with the leaders of the city, he so hastened on the business in hand as to complete it in a single night through the help of God, whose bounty he now enjoyed, thereby to help us and his own people

The travels of the Alans

The travels of the Alans

Historians have spilt a lot of ink debating who this ‘king’ was; the king who was Paulinus’s friend. It might seem obvious that he was talking about King Athaulf, but given what was to happen next many tend to believe it was actually a king of the Alan forces that were with the Goths at Bazas, perhaps even, some have guessed, the well-known Alan king Goar.

The whole throng of Alan women flocks together from all their abodes in company with their warrior lords. First the king’s wife is delivered to the Romans as a hostage, the king’s favourite son also accompanying her, while I myself am restored to my friends by one of the articles of peace, as though I had been rescued from our common enemy the Goths: the city’s boundaries are fenced round with a bulwark of Alan soldiery prepared for pledges given and received to fight for us whom they, lately our enemies, had besieged. Strange was the aspect of the city, whose unmanned walls were compassed on every side with a great throng of men and women mixed who lay without; while, clinging to our walls, barbarian hosts were fenced in with wagons and armed men. But when they saw themselves thus shorn of no slight portion of their host, the encircling hordes of ravaging Goths, straightway feeling they could not safely tarry now that their bosom friends were turned to mortal enemies, ventured no further effort, but chose of their own accord to retire hurriedly.

Bazas today

Bazas today

As you can see the evidence contained in Paulinus’s story can be used to support both views on the identity of his friend the ‘king’. For what it is worth I tend to the view that Paulinus’s royal friend was the chief of the Alan army which had for long been allied to these Goths. Perhaps Paulinus and he had become friends in Bordeaux when Paulinus was acting as a ‘procurator’ for the puppet Attalus? We don’t know. Paulinus had gone to the ‘king’ to try to secure the safe escape of him and his family, but the king told him that he was being constrained by the Gothic host and  now that he had been seen talking with Paulinus he would no longer be safe if he remained outside the city walls. The king told him that the Goths meant him (Paulinus and the Gall-Romains of Bazas) mischief and that he too ‘desired to break free of their influence’. But after negotiations on terms, Paulinus and the king had agreed, and it was all to happen in a ‘single night’. It was then, perhaps during the night, that ‘the whole throng of Alan women flocks together from all their abodes in company with their warrior lords’ and enters the city. The Alans moved to defend the city, and when the besieging Goths saw that they had been ‘shorn of no slight portion of their host’, who had been their ‘bosom friends’ but who had turned to ‘mortal enemies’, they left.

Paulinus, his family and the Gallic residents of Bazas had been saved by the Alans.

Thus did a great business, rashly commenced by me, result in a happy issue through the Lord’s kindly aid, and God turned my misjudgement into fresh joys in the deliverance of many from the siege along with me..

The Alans too soon departed, ‘though prepared to maintain loyally the peace made with the Romans wherever the chance which befell might have carried them’.

Frustrated by his wife again

Paulinus was still only thirty-seven, but having been, he says, exposed to barbarous peoples for a long time, he was convinced that he should ‘linger’ in Gaul no longer, but rather should take his wife and children out of the country ‘with all possible speed’ and ‘make my way directly to that land where a large part of my mother’s property still remained intact, scattered among full many states of Greece and Epirus the Old and New’:

For there the extensive farms, well-manned by numerous serfs, though scattered, were not widely separated and even for a prodigal or careless lord might have furnished means abundant.

But rather than leave immediately, for some reason Paulinus took himself off for a few months to live alone as a hermit, but he returned to his family the following Easter. ‘Then also still unbroken were the ranks of my own family which I now found I could not leave and yet could not continually maintain, now that my foreign income was curtailed.’

Once again it was Paulinus’s wife who prevented the family’s escape:

But from seeking out my own property — whose value and position, I recall, was set forth by me in a previous passage — I was hindered by my wife who stubbornly refused to yield for our general good, refusing from undue fear to make the voyage; and I held it right for me not to tear her away anywhere against her will, and no less wrong to leave her, tearing her children from her.

Having been disappointed in his hopes of ‘enjoying repose’ on his own property, the next few years were spent still in Aquitaine ‘in perpetual exile with varying fortunes’.  His wife’s mother died, then his mother, then his wife, who’ when she lived, thwarted my natural hopes through the hindrance of her fears’. But then as his sons reached manhood they left too. They went to Bordeaux, where they thought they could find ‘freedom’, ‘albeit in company with Gothic settlers’. They had gone back to the family estates in Bordeaux which they would have to share with the Goths who had occupied them.

Although he hadn’t wanted his sons to go he hoped that while in Bordeaux they would ‘advance the interests of their absent father’ and share some of the income ‘such as it might be’ from the family estates. But in this too Paulinus was to be disappointed. One son, still a youth but already a priest was soon to meet a sudden and untimely death.  It’s possible that he had been killed because Paulinus tells us that with his son’s death ‘all such of my possessions as he held were wholly torn from me by the single act of many robbers’. His other son was also ‘ill-starred’; he ‘experienced both the king’s friendship and his enmity, and after losing all my goods came to a like end’.

A lonely life in Marseilles

Roman Marseilles

Roman Marseilles

Paulinus was left alone, his wife dead, his two sons killed, all his property in Bordeaux lost. He chose then finally to leave Aquitaine and go to Marseilles, where he had a small property, ‘part of my family estate’.

Here no fresh revenues were like to give rise to great hopes — no tilth tended by appointed labourers, no vineyards (on which alone that city relies to procure from elsewhere every necessary of life), but, as a refuge for my loneliness, only a house in the city with a garden near, and a small plot, not destitute of vines, indeed, and fruit-trees, but without land without tillage. Yet the outlay of a little toil induced me to lavish pains in tilling the vacant part — scarce four full acres — of my exhausted land, and to build a house upon the crest of the rock, lest I should seem to have reduced the extent of soil available. Further, for the outlay which the needs of life demand, I made it my hope to earn them by renting land, so long as my house remained well stocked with slaves, and while my more active years furnished me with undiminished strength. But afterwards, when my fortunes in a world ever variable changed for the worse in both these respects, by degrees, I admit, I was broken down by troubles and by age: so as a wanderer, poor, bereaved of my loved ones, I readily inclined to new designs, and, greatly wavering betwixt various purposes, thought it profitable to return to Bordeaux.

Even though Paulinus’s house in Marseilles was ‘well stocked with slaves’, he still couldn’t make this small property support him in any way near the level he expected for himself. How long he stayed in Marseilles before returning to Bordeaux in unknown but it was no doubt many years because he had been ‘broken down by troubles and by age’. It’s likely that Paulinus was in his fifties or, more likely, sixties when he decided to return to his family home in Bordeaux.

Old age in Bordeaux

Arriving back in Bordeaux, Paulinus would have found the Goths still very much in control. Having left Bazas in 414, they had briefly gone to Spain but had returned and established a Gothic kingdom in Aquitaine which they ruled from their capital of Toulouse. Bordeaux was one of their principle cities.

Paulinus returned to his grandfather’s estate where he found and occupied a house ‘in semblance still my own’, but he had to live at the ‘charge of others’. As an old man he had finally run out of any means to support himself. He had even mortgaged his property in Marseilles and then under the terms of the mortgage lost it; he was saved by one amazing incident. In his hour of desperation, he says:

Thou (God) didst raise up for me a purchaser among the Goths who desired to acquire the small farm, once wholly mine, and of his own accord sent me a sum, not indeed equitable, yet nevertheless a godsend, I admit, for me to receive, since thereby I could at once support the tottering remnants of my shattered fortune and escape fresh hurt to my cherished self-respect.

Roman Amphitheatre ruins in Bordeaux

Roman Amphitheatre ruins in Bordeaux

This unexpected payment from a Goth who now lived on one of his family farms was, as Paulinus says, a ‘godsend’. He adds: ‘Rejoicing in my enrichment with this exceeding gift, to thee, Almighty God, I owe fresh thanks, such as may almost overwhelm and bury all those preceding, whereof each page of mine holds record.’

And in his ‘decrepit age’ in Bordeaux, living on just the money received from the kind Goth, Paulinus wrote about his life, the story I have been telling. He died in his eighties around the year 460.

Whatever lot awaits me at my end let hope of beholding thee, O Christ, assuage it, and let all fearful doubts be dispelled by the sure confidence that alike while I am in this mortal body I am thine, since all is thine, and that when released from it I shall be in some part of thy body.

Sources and references:

bbWalter Goffart, Barbarians and Roman, The techniques of accommodation, 1980; John Drinkwater and Hugh Elton(eds0, Fifth-Century Gaul: A Crisis of  Identity?, ed., 1992; R. Samson, Slavery, the Roman Legacy, in Drinkwater and Elton; Herwig Wolfram, The Goths, 1979; Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, Trans. Lewis Thorpe, 1974;  Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Georges Labouysse, Les Wisigoths, 2005; Bernhard Bachrach, A History of the Alans in Gaul, 1973; Raymund van Dam, Leadership and Community in late Antique Gaul, 1985, Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman World, 376-568, 2007; Joan Hussey (ed), The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol.3.


Modern population genetics suggests that the ancestors of the majority of English people were not fifth-century Anglo-Saxon invaders but actually came from the ‘Basque’ region of southwest France and northern Spain. What is perhaps even more surprising is that they arrived on these shores thousands of years ago. This turns one prevailing view of English national identity on its head, argues Stephen Lewis.

If you ask a person in the United States what is means to be American, their first response is often couched in terms of values, perhaps freedom, human rights and democracy. The more historically aware might even make mention of the War of Independence or the articles and meaning of the American Constitution. The English language might just get a look in; but as America becomes more multilingual this seems less and less critical.

There is no doubt that numerous Americans seek their roots throughout the world, and can find a secondary identity in their national or racial origins: Italian American, Irish American, Japanese American, Native American, African American and so on. But individual, as opposed to national, identity has always been acknowledged to be a very complicated thing.

Deep down Americans know that they are all immigrants and celebrate the fact that their country is a melting pot. For sure the country has suffered more than its fair share of racism, but this doesn’t negate the fact that today its citizens don’t primarily view their American identity in racial terms.

The situation in Britain is somewhat different. While the Scots and the Welsh tend to have a clearer understanding of what it means to them to be Scottish or Welsh – quite often defined by their opposition to the English oppressor – it is sometimes said that the English are suffering a ‘crisis of identity.’

Partially true though this might be, the heart of English identity isn’t nearly so fragile. It runs deeper and goes farther back than taking pride in the fact that a small people managed to rule a quarter of the world. Now here we get into a terribly British confusion of terms. The ‘Empire’ is usually described as the ‘British Empire’, yet most English people see it as theirs. After all didn’t the English conquer the Scots, Welsh and Irish first, before venturing into the rest of the world!

The legendary King Arthur

Now national identity, like that of individuals, is also a very varied construct. It has historical, linguistic, political, cultural and racial threads. These threads, mythic and strange though many of them are, remain very real today. They were until recently taught to generations of English school children. Two very strange examples can be used as illustrations: those of King Arthur and Richard the Lion Heart. Both are often cited as having been important people for England and for what it means to be English. But Arthur was probably a British warlord who fought against the English invaders; while King Richard was just another in a long line 0f thuggish French-speaking rulers who couldn’t have cared less about the English people – except as a source of fighting men and money.

But even if all the myths and falsifications that often pass as English history are stripped away, there still remains a core of “Englishness”. One widespread view is that this core is to be found in the language and racial origins of the English. Put as succinctly as possible, the English are the descendents of Dark Age Anglo-Saxon invaders who slaughtered and replaced the indigenous British population, and brought with them their Germanic language, a language that would eventually become the English we speak today.

Vortigern meets Hengist and Horsa

Once the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain in the early fifth century, the British population and the small remaining Romano-British elite were faced by incursions and attacks from many sides – not least from the Picts and Irish (“Scots”). In response Gildas, the sixth century British monk, tells us “they convened a council to decide the best and soundest way to counter the brutal and repeated invasions and plunderings…” They choose to invite the Saxons in as mercenaries. Gildas continues:

Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people whom they feared worse than death …

A pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness, coming in three keels, as they call warships in their language.

Later the Saxons complained that they hadn’t been paid and “swore that they would break their agreement and plunder the whole island …. they put their threats into immediate effect.” Gildas continues:

This is the ethnic ‘wipeout’ theory of English history. Although it is acknowledged that it took the Anglo-Saxons another three centuries to gain full control of most of what is now England, for many the facts seem plain.  The native Britons were either massacred and replaced or pushed back to more remote, and less fertile, mountainous areas, such as Wales, Cornwall or Cumbria. The hardy and adventurous English people settled ‘England’ – and we all speak English today as a result.

This is the English national origin story. Bloody and brutal though it is, it is what distinguishes the English from their ‘Celtic’ neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

While once common such a telling of history has not gone unopposed. Some have argued that the extent Anglo-Saxon settlement was very modest and even (though not very convincingly) that there was no ‘invasion’ at all. These counter-arguments are generally based on different interpretations of the archaeological record. It is argued that the shifts in material culture that we can see in no way indicate that they were ‘caused’ by the arrival of a new and ethnically distinct population – whether invaders or otherwise. Cambridge archaeologist Catherine Hills points out that “people can change their names, language, currency and political allegiances without the majority of the population being replaced”.

Archaeologist Francis Pryor puts his case as follows:

If Anglo-Saxon people and culture displaced ‘native’ practices, one would expect the latter to have vanished. They did not.

The problem in holding this view is twofold: 1) Although there is a paucity of historical documents, the ones we have, whether Anglo-Saxon or British, clearly state that the Anglo-Saxons did come, did rebel and fought many battles to secure their dominance and establish their kingdoms, and 2) If there were no “wipe-out” and, even more so, if there were no invasion at all, then how did English become the language of England while, tellingly, containing almost no vestige of the native British/Celtic languages?

How we are to interpret the historical chroniclers, and to which of them we should give the most credence, will likely remain a troublesome issue for historians of England, as for all historians, for years to come.

The question of how English came to be the only language in England seems even more intractable. Why this is a difficult issue can be illustrated by two other, rather different, invasions. Invasions where the invaders’ language did not replace the native language.

The Franks were a Germanic speaking people who entered what is now France at much the same time as the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Yet even four hundred years later, around the year 800, when the Frankish king, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, he still spoke ‘German’, and had little grasp either of Latin or its offshoot, an early form of French. Despite the dominance of the Frankish invaders there is almost no German influence in modern French – just a few, mostly military, words and quite a number of Germanic place names. This may be due to the fact that Roman Gaul retained a functioning Roman (and Latin speaking) administrative system even after the Western Empire had started to collapse. Whatever the reason, the French don’t speak German today!

Closer to home, and possibly more instructive, is the case of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Although descended from Germanic speaking Vikings, William the Conqueror and his henchmen spoke Norman French. Over subsequent decades and centuries, as the Normans dispossessed and suppressed the English, their numbers were never very large. During all this time they never failed to show disdain for the conquered English and their language. French remained the language of the kings, the lords and of much of the governance of the country. English, which in Anglo-Saxon times had been a great language of literature, religion and administration, was reduced to written silence. Yet despite all this English survived. It assimilated a huge swathe of French which changed the language from the ‘Old English’ of King Alfred to the ‘Middle English’ of Chaucer, but it was still a predominantly Germanic language, as it remains to this day. Yet again a powerful and far-reaching invasion failed to lead to the wholesale adoption of the language of the victors by the indigenous population.

Let’s return to the ‘Saxon Advent’.  If, as Francis Pryor and others contend, there wasn’t really any Anglo-Saxon invasion and takeover, then how did English become so sweepingly and exclusively adopted? More traditional historians will concede that the number of Anglo-Saxons who came to Britain in the fifth century, and subsequently, was never very high in comparison to the existing native British population. Perhaps at most a few hundred thousand ‘English’ compared to a couple of million Celts. Unless the wipeout or pushback theory is in large measure correct, then how is it that the Germanic language of the invaders wasn’t eventually lost, as happened in Frankish Gaul? Or combined in some way with the  native language or languages, as happened in post-Conquest England?

And here we might be stuck if it weren’t for the population genetics.

Genetics has changed historical research!

Early attempts to use science to explore the origins of peoples and their historical movements had to rely on the analysis of blood groups. This approach was pioneered by the Italian population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. He and others used it to examine, among other things, how early neolithic farmers spread from the fertile crescent into Europe. But blood group analysis has severe limitations and looking more rigorously at human origins, and the origins of specific peoples, had to wait till the science of genetics was refined enough to make a contribution. This it has certainly done. In terms of the origins of the British, or in our case the English, dozens of studies have now been conducted. These have been synthesised (and extended by his own research) by the Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. He presented the rather startling results in his book The Origins of the British. Oppenheimer writes:

To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question. First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons). Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic. And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea.

Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.  That means that about 19 out of 20 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present-day Basque Country.

Europe during the last Ice age

How did this come about? The answer is to be found in the climate history of Europe. Modern humans first arrived in Britain at least 25,000 years ago. But then, not much later, the Ice Age came back with a vengeance. During the so-called Last Glacial Maximum, between about 22,000 and 17,000 years ago, large tracts of northern Europe and Britain became covered with an ice sheet, while more southerly climes became freezing wind-swept polar desert or arctic tundra. In these conditions human life became impossible and we are pretty sure that Britain became depopulated. Humans retreated south and found sanctuary in a number of so-called ice age refuges. Two of the main refuges were located in the Balkans/Ukraine region and in South West France and northern Spain – today the region occupied by the Basques. Today visitors to the latter region can still marvel at the wonderful cave paintings of this population; dating from periods known to archaeologists as Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian.

Around 16,000 years ago, as the climate began again to warm, and the ice and snow began to recede, groups of settlers started to move north. Predominantly sticking to the coastal route of western France, and finding the ‘English channel’ was still dry, they simply walked into Britain. With so much water still stored in the ice it wasn’t just the ‘Channel’ that was dry, the same even applied to the North and Irish Seas. Britain was not yet an island, but rather a peninsular of the European continent.

At different times over the course of millennia, various ‘founder’ settler groups arrived in Britain. According to Oppenheimer these early settlers came from a number of locations in Europe, at different times and via different routes. But the single largest ‘genetic origin’ of the English was the ‘Basque’ refuge’. As we have seen these ‘Basque’ migrations account for two-thirds of the gene lines of the present-day English population.

The Basque Flag was based on the Union Flag

Now Oppenheimer’s conclusions are certainly not uncontested, although the evidence in their support is strong and compelling. But if true his analysis and results have profound implications for at least one view of English national identity – that of our Anglo-Saxon origins. It seems the vast majority of English people can trace their distant ancestry not to a group of Dark Age Germanic invaders, the Anglo-Saxons, but rather to truly prehistoric settlers who came to Britain in the millennia following the last age. In this sense the English truly are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon!

This might be disappointing news for those who think that English and Anglo-Saxon are synonymous. But for others it is surely wonderful to know that our British or English ancestors have lived on this small island for millennia.

It needs to be acknowledged that many people, while perhaps accepting that speaking English is important for a sense of Englishness, would vociferously object to the contention that being English has anything to do with ethnic or racial origins. The English people are not all immigrants, unlike the Americans, yet many feel absolutely no connection with the Anglo-Saxon or any other racial version of English identity.  They might be recent immigrants themselves, or their ancestors could have arrived as French Huguenots, Flemish merchants, Jewish refugees or, more recently, as immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, Africa or Eastern Europe. What does ‘being English’ mean to them? That is another question.

Perhaps if we want to value a sense of Englishness at all, we might find it in the supposed sense of decency and fairness of the English people, in their long struggle for social and political liberty and in their genius for invention and industry. Peoples throughout the world could, and indeed do, claim to share these qualities: the Americans, the French, the Dutch and many, many others. We need, however, to distinguish very clearly between some genuinely noble qualities of peoples and the actions of their rulers. The British or American governments, for example, have not always been a force for liberty, democracy and freedom in the world, nor have they even been so at home. Yet their peoples are predominantly decent and fair. As Francis Pryor nicely puts it:

If we are looking for English origins, we should forget the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and turn instead to the resident population, who had been there in their millions and in their various cultures and communities, all the time. I refer of course, to the real heroes….: that diverse group of people – the British.

Watt tyler leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

All peoples should know their real history; the history of vast majority rather than the myths of the powerful that have been propagated so effectively. Knowing that most of us are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon shouldn’t be a cause for regret – it just goes to show that we have a long and intimate relationship with the land we inhabit. Is it not better to have a national identity built around a feeling of empathy and respect for those of our ancestors, of whatever race, who have struggled in the face of enormous opposition to obtain some of the rights and privileges we enjoy today? This, in my view, certainly applies to England.

One final remark might be in order. Although genetic studies seem to have ‘proved’ that the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory is wrong, genetics can tell us nothing about language. If only 5.5% of English people have Anglo-Saxon roots then why do we all speak English? This question has yet to be satisfactorily answered.


Stephen Oppenheimer. The Origins of the British.  London: Constable & Robinson, 2006; Francis Pryor. Britain AD. London: Harper Perennial, 2005; Gildas. The Ruin of Britain. (Ed. John Morris).  London:Phillimore, 1978.

As long as civilization has existed the majority has always been deprived of its liberty and its voice. It has been literally and figuratively muzzled. You can look anywhere in the world and to any period in history and you will find that this is so. I recently discovered a very strange link between two such barbarities – between press-ganged English sailors and the ‘dirt-eating masks’ many African slaves were made to wear in America.  Both sets of people had their voice removed, and although the reasons seem quite distinct they are really just separate manifestations of a more central truth.

Whitby, Yorkshire – The setting for Gaskell’s Novel and a town much plagued by press-gangs

In 1863, the English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell published Sylvia’s Lovers, set in a fictional Whitby, Yorkshire (‘Monkshaven’), at the start of the Napoleonic Wars. The novel is both a typical nineteenth century tragic love story and a strident denunciation of the evils of British naval impressment. I explained in a recent short article that by 1793 seventy-five percent of the crews of British naval vessels consisted of prisoners of war, convicts and those forced into service. Sailors, their families, their friends and whole communities tried to evade the rapacious press-gangs whenever and wherever they could. When they couldn’t, they fought back. Sometimes hundreds of people would turn out, armed as they best could, to prevent their men being hauled away ‘like slaves or criminals’, first to rot in offshore ‘tenders’ lined with metal to stop them hacking away the wood to escape, and then to serve at His Majesty’s pleasure in ships of the Royal Navy – often never to return. Throughout the eighteenth century people also tried to escape the gangs by recourse to the law and the courts. Although they occasionally had some success, the law, the judges and the politicians, the ruling elite, were usually against them. The government wanted to fight its wars on distant fields and seas and if the common people didn’t show enough alacrity by volunteering in sufficient numbers to man the growing Royal Navy, then they would have to simply be ripped from their homes, from their taverns and from merchant vessels and forced to serve.

In Sylvia’s Lovers, the eponymous heroine’s father, Daniel, who had  been impressed some years previously during the ‘American War’ (or Revolution if you like), decided to resist the press-gangs when they returned again to the town to collect fodder for the war with France. There was a major riot and the people of the town chased the gangs away. But retribution soon followed and Daniel was hanged as an example. The story was based on true events in Whitby of 1793 and Daniel’s fate was based on the hanging of a certain William Atkinson:

William Atkinson, Hannah Hobson, John Harrison late of the parish of Whitby in the North Riding committed Feb. 26th, 1793, charged on subpoena of a Felony in having with divers other persons then unknown, on Sat. 23d of the same month about nine o’clock at night riotously assembled themselves together against the peace of our Lord the King, and with force and arms, unlawfully begun to pull down and demolish the dwelling House of John Cooper of Whitby aforesaid Shoe Maker… William Atkinson, hanged 13th April, 1793.             Calendar of Felons and Malefactors tried at the Assizes at York on the 18th day of March, 1793.

William Wilberforce – The anti-slavery campaigner

Only with Napoleon’s defeat did the movement for the abolition of impressment start to gain strength. Although by the time Gaskell wrote her book she could write in it, ‘Now all this tyranny (for I can use no other word) is marvellous to us; we cannot imagine how it is that a nation submitted to it for so long, even under any warlike enthusiasm, any panic of invasion, any amount of loyal subservience to the governing powers’, impressment was never actually legally abolished and came back in different guises throughout the, misnamed, nineteenth century ‘Pax Britannica’, finally to be replaced by explicit conscription during the First World War. One of the most vociferous advocates of impressment abolition was Thomas Urquhart. Released, he tells us, from any feeling of patriotic duty once the war against the French had been won, he started a long campaign of writing to the Admiralty, to politicians and to the’ great and the good’ to try to persuade them that impressment was a crime against every Englishman’s birth right of liberty and was comparable to slavery.

In 1816, in a public letter to William Wilberforce, the leading anti-slavery campaigner, Urquhart wrote:

I have been anxiously waiting for the present period, when the foes of our country are subdued, to address you on the subject of Slavery. The great and unwearied efforts you have made to suppress the traffic of human flesh will transmit your name with honor, as a man and Christian, to the most remote posterity. You have at last received the noblest reward in the success which has crowned your labours; and the treaty just concluded with France, consecrates your exertions, whilst it shews what a single individual, impelled by an honest zeal, is capable of performing. This perseverance and this success in behalf of the negro, encourages me to claim your powerful aid, in order to redress another grievance equally glaring and where the sufferers have a much stronger title than the African, to your sympathy. The sufferers are Britons; and what is more, to their courage and intrepidity the country is principally indebted for the prosperity and security she now enjoys.

I belong myself to this class of men, whose hardships have been so long and so unaccountably neglected ; and whilst you, Sir, and other philanthropists ranged the earth, in order to break the fetters of the slave, you disregarded with singular inconsistency, the ill treatment which the British seaman, the guardian of your independence, has been obliged to endure. In his cause no bolts of eloquence were shot, no commiseration was excited ; and whilst he encountered death in every form, and raised the fame of Britain to the highest elevation that can be reached, his ill treatment, though more galling than that of the negro, because he was born and bred up with the rights and feelings of a free man, remain unnoticed and unredressed.

Despite his rather objectionable comparison of the relative ‘title’ of the slaves and the seamen, Urquhart wasn’t against the abolition of slavery:

It is not my intention to defend the principle or the practice of slavery; I am only anxious that the persons who have displayed so much fervour, zeal, and perseverance in attacking both, would look at home, and try to correct the evils to which I have called your attention in the course of this letter. To the condition of the lower classes in this and every other country, hardships are attached, which demand as much sympathy as the case of the African.

Yet he does suggest that escaped slaves were happy to return to their owners, while impressed seamen never returned to the Royal Navy willingly:

I have known a concern in one of those islands (the West Indies)  which had from twenty to thirty negroes, most of whom were sailors, and who during the late war, were captured, some once, twice, and even thrice, and were conveyed to that land of liberty and equality, Guadeloupe, all of whom voluntarily returned to their owners as soon as they could get away, except one who could not be accounted for; but this you will perhaps say was a rare instance. Sir, I could produce various of the same kind, as well attested as any other fact, and which would shew that no small share of exaggeration has prevailed on the subject ; however, it substantiates the truth of my comparison, and I might go farther, and ask, if there be one instance on record, of mercantile seamen who had been impressed into the naval service, with the same opportunity to evade it, ever voluntarily returning to it again?

He then makes this (for us) perhaps rather strange observation:

In the print-shops in London, a negro is represented with an iron mouth-piece, and this exhibition has been made with a view to make the public suppose, that this mouth-piece is put on to prevent the slave from eating sugar or cane; yet the whole of the inference intended to be drawn from this subject is false.

(When I say this, I mean as to the cause ascribed for the use of it. That it may have been put upon a negro for a criminal act, as punishment, I can believe, although I never saw it done, or heard of its being done. In this country for the game act, you perhaps would have put a rope round his neck)

There is a distemper to which negroes are subject and at which time they are in the habit, unless forcibly prevented, of eating earth; at this time their mouth is covered until a cure can be effected. This is the secret of the terrific mouth-piece, which has been the topic of so much invective against West Indians.

Slave wearing a dirt-eater mask

He was referring to what are now called ‘Dirt-Eater Masks’. These were just one of numerous barbaric punishments and humiliations inflicted on African slaves in North America, in the West Indies and in South America.

But were these masks really ‘designed’ to prevent the slaves eating dirt? The answer seems to be ‘Yes… but’. I’ll first try to explain the ‘yes’ and later the more tricky question of ‘but’.

Dirt-eating’s Latin medical name is Geophagia: ’The deliberate consumption of earth, soil or clay.’ Surprising as it may seem, this practice goes back millennia in Europe and Africa. It still exists today. In fact it is a sub-category of Pica, ‘a term that comes from the Latin for magpie, a bird with indiscriminate eating habits’. The American Psychiatric Association defines Pica as, ‘persistent eating of non-nutritional substances that is inappropriate to developmental level (sic), occurs outside culturally sanctioned practice and, if observed during the course of another mental disorder, is sufficiently severe to warrant independent attention.’ Well that seems debatable, but I’ll leave it to one side.

In the fifth century BC in Greece, the ‘founder’ of medicine, Hippocrates of Kos, wrote:

If a pregnant woman feels the desire to eat earth or charcoal and then eats them, the child will show signs of these things.

A Roman medical textbook tells us that ‘people whose colour is bad when they are not jaundiced are either sufferers from pains in the head or earth eaters’. The Roman Pliny writes that ‘Alica’, made of red clay, ‘used as a drug has a smoothing effect… as a remedy for ulcers in the humid part of body such as the mouth or anus. Used in an enema it arrests diarrhoea, and taken though the mount… it checks menstruation’. Actually the use of clay for such purposes is still prevalent today; you can buy it in any pharmacy!

Throughout the Classical period and into the Middle Ages and early modern period there are numerous references to earth or dirt eating and its various beneficial effects. Some of the references given at the end provide more detail as well as the examples I have quoted. One such, entitled Geophagia: the history of earth-eating, by two South African doctors, concludes as follows:

All the concepts of geophagia—as psychiatric disorder, culturally sanctioned practice or sequel to famine—fall short of a satisfying explanation. The causation is certainly multifactorial; and clearly the practice of earth-eating has existed since the first medical texts were written. The descriptions do not allow simple categorization as a psychiatric disease. Finally, geophagia is not confined to a particular cultural environment and is observed in the absence of hunger. Might it be an atavistic mode of behaviour, formerly invaluable when minerals and trace elements were scarce? Its re-emergence might then be triggered by events such as famine, cultural change or psychiatric disease.

In his survey of Holmes County in the 1970s, Dr. Dennis Frate of the University of Mississippi wrote:

Dirt-eating can be traced to ancient Greece, to Africa. It was a part of European culture and was observed in the American Indians. Practically every culture has had a dirt-eating phase,’ Frate said. ‘But very little is known about why people do it.

So there is ample evidence that African slaves brought the practice of earth eating with them to the colonies. In the United States there have been quite a few newspaper articles describing how the practice still persists, predominantly (though not exclusively) amongst Afro-Americans and in the southern states. Here’s just one from the New York Times in 1984, it quotes Dr. Frate again:

According to his research, Dr. Frate said it was not uncommon for slave owners to put masks over the mouths of slaves to keep them from eating dirt. The owners thought the practice was a cause of death and illness among slaves, when they were more likely dying from malnutrition.

It is difficult to say how prevalent dirt-eating is today. But in 1975, among 56 black women questioned by Dr. Frate as part of a larger study on nutrition in rural Holmes County, 32 of them said they ate dirt. The survey also showed that the ingestion of dirt tended to be more common in pregnancy.

There have been other explanations. Some have suggested that the masks were used by slave owners to prevent slaves eating earth to excess, trying to commit suicide, and although there isn’t much evidence for this it may well have happened. In Brazil, where the slaves were used to mine gold, it has also been suggested that the masks were to prevent them from eating earth containing nuggets of gold and later, no doubt, recovering the nuggets from their faeces.

Another mask

Whatever the reasons for the slaves eating ‘dirt’ – be they cultural, nutritional, medicinal, suicidal or financial – and scholarly opinion has yet to reach a consensus – the fact is that the slave owners wouldn’t allow it. Perhaps they were just trying to protect their ‘investment’ in their slaves, to stop them harming themselves, even killing themselves or (and only in Brazil) stealing gold? I don’t really know and the whole subject needs more attention. But here is the ‘but’. Slaves had already been deprived of their liberty, and often their lives, but they must also be deprived of their customs, their voice. Eating the earth, eating dirt, was just one of these.

Thus while there is still some mystery about the ‘role’ of dirt eating and the reasons for the masks, there can, perhaps, be no better graphic and literal illustration of the loss of slaves’ voices than the horrific pictures of them wearing these ‘dirt eating masks’.

English sailors didn’t go quietly, and neither did the Africans. They went kicking and screaming. But the sailors, once on board His Majesty’s Royal Navy ships, had lost their voice as well as their liberty. If they tried to escape (which they repeatedly did) they could be flogged, incarcerated or hanged, as could the African slaves.

These two examples of ‘historic’ barbarities might seem very different – and they are – but one truth connects them. Britain’s rulers – the rich and powerful – wanted to extend their wealth and were willing to fight in distant lands and on distant seas to do so. Of course, most of them didn’t want to fight themselves; they needed a constant and growing stream of common cannon-fodder to man the Royal Navy’s ships and to fight for them. When ordinary English people didn’t flock to the mast in sufficient numbers to crew the growing navy, the rulers did what they always have done, they forced them to.

Exactly the same happened with slavery in the colonies. Initially, European indentured bondsmen were used on the plantations. But more and more servile and cheap labour was needed if the planters were to enrich themselves further. So what was done? With the active encouragement and support of the British government/rulers, private entrepreneurial slave traders from Bristol and Liverpool (and from elsewhere in Europe) forcibly yanked Africans from their homes and transported them to America.

Both of these things were about power and money. The voices of the less powerful were repressed and their liberties stolen. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. Marie Antoinette may have suggested that the unwashed masses eat cake, but more often than not they had to eat dirt.

Some references:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia’s Lovers, 1863; Nicholas Rogers, The Press Gang, Continuum UK, 2007; Thomas Urquhart, A letter to William Wilberforce on the Subject of Impressment, 1816; Donald E. Vermeer and Dennis A. Frate,  Geophagia in rural Mississippi: environmental and cultural contexts and nutritional implications, 2001. http://www.ajcn.org/content/32/10/2129.full.pdf , William Schmidt, Southern Practice of Eating Earth shows signs of Waning, New York Times, 1984; Alan Huffman, It’s hard to quite the habit, Mississippi dirt-eaters say, Clarion-Ledger, 1983; Alexander Woywodt and Akos Kiss, Geophagia: the history of earth-eating, 2002;  Geophagy,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geophagy.

Even in our scientific age we humans still tell stories, indeed it seems we need to tell stories. Stories to try to make sense of our lives and stories to try to understand our world. Rational, scientific stories will quite often suffice. Many of these are illuminating and beautiful, numinous even. We have the wonderful story of human evolution, the story of relativity and quantum physics, the stories of the diversity of life and the unfolding story of the origins of the universe. Yet sometimes we try to grasp other insights, truths even, which are not yet illuminated by science. We tell stories to ourselves and to others, in literature, in music, in art and even using legends and myths.

La Barbe Bleue – Charles Perrault

One type of story is the fairy tale. Some of these find their origin in the mists of time and some may even have been based on real events, though these are well-nye impossible to recover. At first largely orally transmitted, only later were these tales written down. In the English-speaking world we tend to think that our most famous fairy tales come from the Germanic world, from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. But many of our favourite tales were first written down by a Frenchman in the seventeenth century. His name was Charles Perrault. You might be surprised to know that it was Perrault who first brought us Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots. Another tale that Perrault first wrote down was Bluebeard. It’s a story that I have returned to on and off over the last twenty years; first in the Brothers Grimm version, later in Béla Bartók’s 1911 opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and more recently yet again in Perrault’s original. What does it mean? Of course there can never be an answer to this question; so what does it mean for me? But first Perrault’s Bluebeard itself:


 There was once a man who had fine houses, both in town and country, a deal of silver and gold plate, embroidered furniture, and coaches gilded all over with gold. But this man was so unlucky as to have a blue beard, which made him so frightfully ugly that all the women and girls ran away from him.

One of his neighbors, a lady of quality, had two daughters who were perfect beauties. He desired of her one of them in marriage, leaving to her choice which of the two she would bestow on him. Neither of them would have him, and they sent him backwards and forwards from one to the other, not being able to bear the thoughts of marrying a man who had a blue beard. Adding to their disgust and aversion was the fact that he already had been married to several wives, and nobody knew what had become of them.

Bluebeard, to engage their affection, took them, with their mother and three or four ladies of their acquaintance, with other young people of the neighborhood, to one of his country houses, where they stayed a whole week.

The time was filled with parties, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth, and feasting. Nobody went to bed, but all passed the night in rallying and joking with each other. In short, everything succeeded so well that the youngest daughter began to think that the man’s beard was not so very blue after all, and that he was a mighty civil gentleman.

As soon as they returned home, the marriage was concluded. About a month afterwards, Bluebeard told his wife that he was obliged to take a country journey for six weeks at least, about affairs of very great consequence. He desired her to divert herself in his absence, to send for her friends and acquaintances, to take them into the country, if she pleased, and to make good cheer wherever she was.

“Here,” said he,” are the keys to the two great wardrobes, wherein I have my best furniture. These are to my silver and gold plate, which is not everyday in use. These open my strongboxes, which hold my money, both gold and silver; these my caskets of jewels. And this is the master key to all my apartments. But as for this little one here, it is the key to the closet at the end of the great hall on the ground floor. Open them all; go into each and every one of them, except that little closet, which I forbid you, and forbid it in such a manner that, if you happen to open it, you may expect my just anger and resentment.”

She promised to observe, very exactly, whatever he had ordered. Then he, after having embraced her, got into his coach and proceeded on his journey.

Her neighbors and good friends did not wait to be sent for by the newly married lady. They were impatient to see all the rich furniture of her house, and had not dared to come while her husband was there, because of his blue beard, which frightened them. They ran through all the rooms, closets, and wardrobes, which were all so fine and rich that they seemed to surpass one another.

After that, they went up into the two great rooms, which contained the best and richest furniture. They could not sufficiently admire the number and beauty of the tapestry, beds, couches, cabinets, stands, tables, and looking glasses, in which you might see yourself from head to foot; some of them were framed with glass, others with silver, plain and gilded, the finest and most magnificent that they had ever seen.

They ceased not to extol and envy the happiness of their friend, who in the meantime in no way diverted herself in looking upon all these rich things, because of the impatience she had to go and open the closet on the ground floor. She was so much pressed by her curiosity that, without considering that it was very uncivil for her to leave her company, she went down a little back staircase, and with such excessive haste that she nearly fell and broke her neck.

Having come to the closet door, she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling. At first she could not see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Bluebeard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she, pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.

After having somewhat recovered her surprise, she picked up the key, locked the door, and went upstairs into her chamber to recover; but she could not, so much was she frightened. Having observed that the key to the closet was stained with blood, she tried two or three times to wipe it off; but the blood would not come out; in vain did she wash it, and even rub it with soap and sand. The blood still remained, for the key was magical and she could never make it quite clean; when the blood was gone off from one side, it came again on the other.

Bluebeard returned from his journey the same evening, saying that he had received letters upon the road, informing him that the affair he went about had concluded to his advantage. His wife did all she could to convince him that she was extremely happy about his speedy return.

The next morning he asked her for the keys, which she gave him, but with such a trembling hand that he easily guessed what had happened.

“What!” said he, “is not the key of my closet among the rest?”

“I must,” said she, “have left it upstairs upon the table.”

“Fail not,” said Bluebeard, “to bring it to me at once.”

After several goings backwards and forwards, she was forced to bring him the key. Bluebeard, having very attentively considered it, said to his wife, “Why is there blood on the key?”

“I do not know,” cried the poor woman, paler than death.

“You do not know!” replied Bluebeard. “I very well know. You went into the closet, did you not? Very well, madam; you shall go back, and take your place among the ladies you saw there.”

Upon this she threw herself at her husband’s feet, and begged his pardon with all the signs of a true repentance, vowing that she would never more be disobedient. She would have melted a rock, so beautiful and sorrowful was she; but Bluebeard had a heart harder than any rock!

“You must die, madam,” said he, “at once.”

“Since I must die,” answered she (looking upon him with her eyes all bathed in tears), “give me some little time to say my prayers.”

“I give you,” replied Bluebeard, “half a quarter of an hour, but not one moment more.”

When she was alone she called out to her sister, and said to her, “Sister Anne” (for that was her name), “go up, I beg you, to the top of the tower, and look if my brothers are not coming. They promised me that they would come today, and if you see them, give them a sign to make haste.”

Her sister Anne went up to the top of the tower, and the poor afflicted wife cried out from time to time, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?”

And sister Anne said, “I see nothing but a cloud of dust in the sun, and the green grass.”

In the meanwhile Bluebeard, holding a great saber in his hand, cried out as loud as he could bawl to his wife, “Come down instantly, or I shall come up to you.”

“One moment longer, if you please,” said his wife; and then she cried out very softly, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see anybody coming?”

And sister Anne answered, “I see nothing but a cloud of dust in the sun, and the green grass.”

“Come down quickly,” cried Bluebeard, “or I will come up to you.”

“I am coming,” answered his wife; and then she cried, “Anne, sister Anne, do you not see anyone coming?”

“I see,” replied sister Anne, “a great cloud of dust approaching us.”

“Are they my brothers?”

“Alas, no my dear sister, I see a flock of sheep.”

“Will you not come down?” cried Bluebeard.

“One moment longer,” said his wife, and then she cried out, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see nobody coming?”

“I see,” said she, “two horsemen, but they are still a great way off.”

“God be praised,” replied the poor wife joyfully. “They are my brothers. I will make them a sign, as well as I can for them to make haste.”

Then Bluebeard bawled out so loud that he made the whole house tremble. The distressed wife came down, and threw herself at his feet, all in tears, with her hair about her shoulders.

“This means nothing,” said Bluebeard. “You must die!” Then, taking hold of her hair with one hand, and lifting up the sword with the other, he prepared to strike off her head. The poor lady, turning about to him, and looking at him with dying eyes, desired him to afford her one little moment to recollect herself.

“No, no,” said he, “commend yourself to God,” and was just ready to strike.

At this very instant there was such a loud knocking at the gate that Bluebeard made a sudden stop. The gate was opened, and two horsemen entered. Drawing their swords, they ran directly to Bluebeard. He knew them to be his wife’s brothers, one a dragoon, the other a musketeer; so that he ran away immediately to save himself; but the two brothers pursued and overtook him before he could get to the steps of the porch. Then they ran their swords through his body and left him dead. The poor wife was almost as dead as her husband, and had not strength enough to rise and welcome her brothers.

Bluebeard had no heirs, and so his wife became mistress of all his estate. She made use of one part of it to marry her sister Anne to a young gentleman who had loved her a long while; another part to buy captains’ commissions for her brothers, and the rest to marry herself to a very worthy gentleman, who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard.

There are myriad later versions of Bluebeard, many with a darker ending as we shall see. Interpretations abound. Perrault himself liked to add little moral tags to his tales. At the end of Bluebeard he wrote two:


Ladies, you should never pry,—
You’ll repent it by and by!
‘Tis the silliest of sins;
Trouble in a trice begins.
There are, surely—more’s the woe
Lots of things you need not know.
Come, forswear it now and here—
Joy so brief that costs so dear!

                  Another Moral

You can tell this tale is old
By the very way it’s told.
Those were days of derring-do;
Man was lord, and master too.
Then the husband ruled as king.
Now it’s quite a different thing;
Be his beard what hue it may—
Madam has a word to say!

Later Freudian and Jungian psycho-analysts couldn’t resist the tale. As you might imagine their interpretations all centred around keys and locks (read penises and vaginas) and around the blood on the closet key that couldn’t be wiped off (read defloration). But let’s not bother ourselves further with such bunkum.

In more recent times, Bluebeard has become a favourite story for feminists. Dozens of retellings have appeared – from Angela Carter and Margaret Attwood for example – and hundreds of interpretations offered. I wouldn’t dream of stepping on their turf.

Such stories can be interpreted in many ways and no one is right. In fact the word interpretation is probably not very helpful. I prefer to see them as parables or allegories which for us somehow mirror or illuminate a perhaps obscure, but nonetheless real, facet of our own life and our own world. It is in this way that I offer this short muse on Bluebeard.

Bluebeard’s new wife is not named by Perrault, so I will use the name given to her by Bartók in his opera – Judith.

Judith said to them, “Listen to me. I am about to do a thing which will go down through all generations of our descendants”. Book of Judith 8.32

What had become of Bluebeard’s wives?

Judith and her sister were at first repulsed by Bluebeard’s ugliness. ‘Adding to their disgust and aversion was the fact that he already had been married to several wives, and nobody knew what had become of them.’ They felt that something was wrong, what had become of his wives? But Bluebeard was, after all, rich and he entertained Judith, her relatives and many young people in the neighbourhood for a week in just ‘one of his country houses’. ‘The time was filled with parties, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth, and feasting. Nobody went to bed, but all passed the night in rallying and joking with each other.’Judith was seduced by all this splendor and fun. His beard became less blue and even though she had sensed an evil she persuaded herself that ‘he was a mighty civil gentleman’.

When we are children we have an innate sense of right and wrong, it is biological. For sure our parents, our schools and our communities will ‘socialize’ us with more morality – sometimes for the good, often not. Just like Judith we can sense evil and we shy away. But then we are shown all the things we might have if we can just overcome our repulsion. All the cars, the houses, the clothes, the food and the holidays we can have. Judith must agree to marry Bluebeard, which she does despite her misgivings. We agree to join the great capitalist, consumerist frenzy despite an inkling that there’s something darker hidden just out of view. For both Judith and us, if we comply and obey then we are promised we will receive the precious keys to the cupboards in the castle, and all they contain. We can have it all so long as we submit and obey.

When Bluebeard goes away on a trip he ‘desires her to divert herself and make good cheer’. He gives her all the keys, keys to wardrobes, strongboxes and rooms where all his fortune and luxuries can be found. There is only one small catch, he forbids her to enter ‘the little closet’. If she does, he says, ‘you may expect my just anger and resentment’. Judith promises to obey. We know, of course, that hidden behind the closet door a horror lurks. Judith doesn’t know this yet.

Once Bluebeard is gone all her friends arrive to enjoy the castle. ‘They had not dared to come while her husband was there.’ They marveled at all the luxury and ‘they ceased not to extol and envy the happiness of their friend’. She really did seem to have been given the keys to happiness and everything one could desire in the world. But Judith had made a Faustian pact with Bluebeard, even if she was only dimly aware that she had. The price of the keys was to obey and not to question what lay hidden below the glittering surface.

Many of us do this in our own lives. We obey and we don’t question, and in return we (or some of us) can luxuriate in the good things of life. Yet we still feel something is not quite right, we know there is some type of knowledge, some type of insight that is being kept from us. Who really is Bluebeard? What really is the nature of the society we live in?

Judith is ‘curious’ and ‘impatient’. Although she knows she will be punished, she just must use the key to the little closet to see what’s inside. What is Bluebeard’s secret? We too are curious to find out what is hidden from our view. What are the hidden secrets of our society?

Having come to the closet door, she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling. At first she could not see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Bluebeard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she, pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.

Bluebeard’s wife opens the little closet

This was the secret. Bluebeard’s Heart of Darkness. His life, her life and the castle were all built on the blood of others. As Mr. Kurtz said while dying: ‘The Horror! The Horror!’

In our own lives too we might one day find that the life we lead, the jobs we do, and the luxuries we enjoy are all based on violence and death. Violence towards other humans, violence to other living beings and violence towards the earth. Once we are aware, once we are conscious of the horror, we want to put the genie back. Yet, no matter how frightened we are, we can’t

Judith was scared. What would happen to her if Bluebeard found out she had been disobedient? She notices that the closet key she had dropped was ‘stained with blood’. Desperately she tries to put the genie back in the bottle. ‘She tried two or three times to wipe it off; but the blood would not come off.’

Out, damned spot! out, I say!…. Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.   Lady Macbeth in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

The brothers kill Bluebeard

At first we want to deny what we have seen. When Bluebeard comes back Judith returns all the keys except the one for the little closet, which she tells him she’s left upstairs. Bluebeard is not deceived, he knows she has discovered his secret and disobeyed his orders – his orders to refrain from looking into the heart of darkness. When he sees the blood on the key Judith says she doesn’t know how it got there, but Bluebeard replies: ‘I very well know. You went into the closet, did you not? Very well, madam; you shall go back, and take your place among the ladies you saw there.’ Judith knows she must pay the price for her Faustian pact with the devil. She too must join his other victims. When her pleading and her feminine wiles have no effect on Bluebeard’s determination that she ‘must die’, she begs for a little time because she knows her brothers should be arriving and may save her. They come just in the nick of time and run Bluebeard through with their swords. Perrault ends his tale:

Bluebeard had no heirs, and so his wife became mistress of all his estate. She made use of one part of it to marry her sister Anne to a young gentleman who had loved her a long while; another part to buy captains’ commissions for her brothers, and the rest to marry herself to a very worthy gentleman, who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard.

Or in the usual phrase: they all lived happily ever after.

Judith dies in Bartok’s Duke Bluebeards Castle

Béla Bartók’s rather misogynist opera ends more darkly. Rescue doesn’t come and despite Judith’s pleas for mercy Bluebeard kills her. Bluebeard: ‘Thou art lovely, passing lovely. Thou art the queen of all my women. My best and fairest. (‘Judith goes the way of the other women’) Henceforth all shall be darkness, darkness.’

So what are we to do once we have seen into the heart of darkness? Whether this is our own personal darkness or that of the society in which we live. In Joseph Conrad’s novel, Mr. Kurtz’s dying cry of ‘The Horror!’ was both a cry for what he had become and for the society that had made him so. Is there no hope of rescue because we have sinned, as in Bartok, or if we use all our wit and guiles can we delay the end until help arrives? Or should we like an existential philosopher despair and withdraw? The answers must be personal.

Perhaps for each of us the most important question is: ‘Who is Bluebeard?’, or even, ‘What is Bluebeard’. If we don’t see the enemy as the evil it is our fate will probably be sealed… unless we have some brothers to rescue us.

The history of the British colonization of ‘Brittany’ is not well known either in Britain or in France. It is a fascinating story, although the early years of the settlement in the fifth century remain obscure. Yet not long after the British Celts had fled the invading English (Saxons) in the 450s a large British army under a king called Riothamus was defeated by the Visigoths in Gaul – what is now France. This is the story I wish to tell.

Attila in Gaul, 451

Attila in Gaul, 451

I previously told the story of a Gallo-Roman aristocrat called Paulinus of Pella (see here), about his troubles caused by the arrival of the Germanic Goths in Bordeaux and his ultimately unsuccessful attempts to maintain at least a semblance of the pampered and privileged life he had been born into. At the time of his death around 460 the Western Roman Empire was in the finals stages of disintegration. Germanic tribes were busily entrenching themselves all over Roman Gaul and extending the territories they controlled: the Goths spreading out from their kingdom of Toulouse, the Franks in the North East, the Burgundians in the East with their new capital in Lyon, and even the Alans.  The non-Germanic Huns under their leader Attila had also threatened, but they withdrew after having been defeated by the Roman general Aëtius and his Gothic allies at the famous Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Châlons, in 451. They never returned to Gaul.

By the time of Paulinus’s death the Romans and Gallo-Romans had already had to make uncomfortable accommodations with the new Germanic masters, yet the Empire was still capable of striking back, though by now more weakly and less frequently.

Into this caustic mix of rivalries and fights for land a new ethic group arrived in the 450s: the British. They and their descendants would settle the north-west corner of Gaul called Armorica and would ultimately give their ethnic name to this land: Brittany, or Bretagne in French.

The Britons who arrived in Gaul in the 450s are often said to have been a ‘second wave’ of refugee immigrants.[1] An earlier group of British fighters had accompanied the British imperial usurper Marcus Maximus to Gaul in 383, never to return. The eventual fate of this first wave remains unknown and is a matter of some scholarly debate. But the British of the second wave were without any doubt those who went on to ‘create’ Brittany.

Background to the emigration

The background to this emigration was the ‘Saxon Advent’, that is the arrival of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in Britain. This advent is conventionally dated to the year 441, but this dating is controversial.[2] The leaders of the first Saxon party were said to have been called Hengest and Horsa. Under the year 449 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports:

This year Marcian and Valentinian assumed the empire, and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Wurtgern (Vortigern), king of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them.[3]

gildasThe British monk Gildas wrote of the subsequent sufferings of the British:

Some, therefore, of the miserable remnant (of the British), being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain, which truly was the greatest favour that could be offered them: some others passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations instead of the voice of exhortation. “Thou hast given us as sheep to be slaughtered, and among the Gentiles hast thou dispersed us.” Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas (albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their country. But in the meanwhile, an opportunity happening, when these most cruel robbers were returned home, the poor remnants of our nation (to whom flocked from divers places round about our miserable countrymen as fast as bees to their hives, for fear of an ensuing storm), being strengthened by God, calling upon him with all their hearts, as the poet says, “With their unnumbered vows they burden heaven,” that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory.[4]

British Brittany

British Brittany

The others who ‘passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations’ went to Armorica in Gaul, which would later be called Brittany after them.

There is much to tell about the circumstances, timing and composition of this British emigration to Armorica, particularly whether it was a coordinated mass emigration under powerful Romano-British leaders or whether it was a more piecemeal process involving many smaller, disparate groups of frightened refugees. Whatever the case, by 461, only twenty years after the conventional date of the Saxon Advent, there were already enough Britons in Armorica to justify them sending their own bishop to the Council of Tours. T. M. Charles Edwards writes:

The first strong evidence for the emergence of a distinct British settlement in the north-west of Armorica does not come until 461, when subscriptions to the council of Tours (AD 461) included ‘Mansuetus, bishop of the Britons’.[5]

Most of what we know about these and subsequent early British refugees in Gaul comes from the many ‘lives’ of Celtic saints and is best left to the specialists in such matters. Yet in just a few generally reliable sources we soon find mention of a British king called Riothamus whose 12,000 strong army was defeated by the Visigoths of King Euric around 469/70. Before considering, but not answering, the question of who Riothamus was, I will try to explain what happened and perhaps why and where.

Bourges and Déols

Before we hear anything of Riothamus, we find a brief mention in Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks of an event which probably took place sometime between 463 and 468. It says:

The Britanni were driven from Bourges by the Goths, and many were slain at the village of Déols.[6]

Brittani de Bitoricas a Gothis expulsi sunt, multis apud Dolensem vicum peremptis.

Deols in Berry

Deols in Berry

Following the mention of a British bishop at the Council of Tours in 461, this is the next time where explicit reference is made to any British (‘Britanni’) in Gaul. Conventionally these events at Bourges and Déols (in the county of Berry about 20 miles southwest of Bourges) where ‘many (British) were slain’ by the Goths, is dated to about 469 and equated with the defeat of  Riothamus’s British army by Euric’s Visigoths. I will discuss this battle later, but here I would just like to suggest that the conflation of events at Bourges/Déols and the battle which certainly took place in 469/70 is probably mistaken.

Ralph Mathisen expresses the conventional view:

In Gaul, Anthemius was faced by the able and ambitious Visigothic king, Euric (466-484). In 469 or shortly afterward, the Armorican Bretons commanded by Riothamus… were engaged by Anthemius to oppose the Visigoths. But when, after having occupied Bourges, the Bretons attacked the Goths on their own territory at Déols, they suffered a signal defeat.[7]

How Mathisen draws the precise implication from Gregory of Tours’ words that ‘after having occupied Bourges, the Bretons attacked the Goths on their own territory at Déols’ is beyond me. Rather the text says simply but explicitly that the British ‘were driven from Bourges by the Goths, and many were slain at the village of Déols’.

The paragraph in Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks where we find mention of Britons being killed by Goths at Déols was in all likelihood taken from a ‘year chronicle’ and is thus probably roughly in chronological order.[8] If this is so then a close examination of the paragraph reveals that it covers events in the period between 463 and 467/8, with the events at Déols most likely taking place around 465/6. Here is the full paragraph:

Now Childeric fought at Orleans and Adovacrius came with the Saxons to Angers. At that time a great plague destroyed the people. Egidius died and left a son, Syagrius by name. On his death Adovacrius received hostages from Angers and other places. The Britanni were driven from Bourges by the Goths, and many were slain at the village of Déols. Count Paul with the Romans and Franks made war on the Goths and took booty. When Adovacrius came to Angers, king Childeric came on the following day, and slew count Paul, and took the city. In a great fire on that day the house of the bishop was burned. After this war was waged between the Saxons and the Romans; but the Saxons fled and left many of their people to be slain, the Romans pursuing. Their islands were captured and ravaged by the Franks, and many were slain. In the ninth month of that year, there was an earthquake.

GregMost of these events mentioned by Gregory can be confirmed and cross-checked from other sources. Importantly they seem to have taken place in the order mentioned by Gregory. The earliest events, such as Childeric at Orleans and a plague, can be dated to 463/4. In the middle we read that ‘Euric, the king of the Visigoths, observing the frequent changes of the Roman princes, attempted to seize the Gauls for his own’. Euric became king in 466. The last sentence concerning an earthquake can be dated to 467/8. Hydatius  wrote that ‘in the second year of the emperor Anthemius blood burst forth from the ground in the middle of Toulouse and continued to flow for an entire day’, and  Anthemius became Emperor in 467. As historian Penny MacGeorge comments about the period:

Marcellinus comes noted an earthquake in the Ravenna region and an eruption of Vesuvius; and the Fasti Vindobonenses an outbreak of cattle disease in AD 467. There was pestilence in Italy, particularly in Campania. In both East and West this was a time of disasters and unusual events including: the fire in Constantinople in AD 465; earthquakes and floods in the eastern Mediterranean; celestial phenomena in AD 467; and famines. All this may have contributed to a general feeling of insecurity, even of doom.[9]

On the basis of all this chronology it is likely that the killing of the British at Déols took place around 465/6, and was separate from the battle lost by Riothamus’s British army, which can be dated with some certainty to 469/70.

If this is correct, then the events at Déols probably had nothing to do with Riothamus or, even if he had been a British leader at Bourges and Déols, it wasn’t the great battle where he and his British army were defeated by Euric. The scanty available evidence regarding the early settlement of ‘Brittany’ suggests that it was heaviest in the north-west of Armorica peninsula but that some groups of Britons had ventured further south along the coast to the vicinity of Vannes and Nantes. Bourges is situated far inland and what the British were doing there is a bit of a mystery. It might well have been that some British refugees had established themselves in the former Roman town of Bourges and, having been driven out by the Goths, were then killed (or at least some of them) at Déols as they fled back towards the coast.

Whatever the case, we can now turn to the defeat of Riothamus and his substantial British army by Euric’s Goths in about 469/70.

The British defeat

Our information comes from Jordanes’ The Origins and Deeds of the Goths. Jordanes was a Gothic Roman bureaucrat in the mid sixth century. Writing about the years 466 – 476 he says:

Euric, the king of the Visigoths, observing the frequent changes of the Roman princes, attempted to seize the Gauls for his own. Anthemius, the Emperor, receiving intelligence of this, immediately invited the aid of the Britons, whose King Riothimus, coming with twelve thousand by way of Ocean, and disembarking from his ships, was received into the city/state of the Bituriges. Euric, king of the Visigoths, came against them leading an innumerable army, and fighting for a long time, overcame Riothimus, the king of the Britons, before the Romans had joined company with him. Having lost a great part of his army, he fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans. But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized Auvergne, a city of Gaul…. When Euric, as we have already said, beheld these great and various changes, he seized the city of Arverna, where the Roman general Ecdicius was at that time in command. He was a senator of most renowned family and the son of Avitus, a recent emperor who had usurped the reign for a few days–for Avitus held the rule for a few days before Olybrius, and then withdrew of his own accord to Placentia, where he was ordained bishop. His son Ecdicius strove for a long time with the Visigoths, but had not the power to prevail. So he left the country and (what was more important) the city of Arverna to the enemy and betook himself to safer regions.[10]

Emperor Anthemius

Emperor Anthemius

The context of this battle between Britons and Visigoths was that in early 467 a ‘Greek’ called Anthemius had been elevated to be Roman Emperor. He wasn’t very popular among the Gallo-Ronan aristocracy but he did try to protect Gaul. Anthemius had sought the help of the British, as Jordanes tells us. Most likely he offered them ‘federate’ status and the prospect of land, as the Romans of the late empire often did when dealing with ‘barbarian’ tribes. At this date the main concern of the Romans and Gallo-Romans was King Euric’s Goths. Initially these Visigoths (i.e. western Goths) had been granted their territory in 418 centred on Toulouse. For many years they acted as unruly and not always obedient allies of the Romans. But in 466 Euric had succeeded to the Gothic throne by murdering his brother Theoderic and broke with Rome. The Goths already controlled much of south-west Gaul and had started to push northwards. One of their key objectives was the region of Auvergne with its principal city of Arverna (now Clermont-Ferrand). It was to stem this Gothic advance that Anthemius had requested the assistance of the British, who, as Jordanes says, came ‘with twelve thousand by way of Ocean’ and disembarked from their ships.

Where the British ships actually arrived, as well as from where they came, is not known.  ‘Ocean’ then and now is the Atlantic seaboard of western France. It is because Jordanes says that the British were received into the city/state of ‘the Bituriges’ that conventionally Riothamus’s battle is placed at Bourges because ‘Bituriges’ is usually translated as Bourges. But this identification while possible is by no means certain. The Gallic Bituriges people were settled all over Aquitaine, although according to the Roman Strabo their territory was surrounded by that of a distinct Aquitanian people, and the Bituriges  ‘were not themselves Aquitanian and took no part in their political affairs’. The Bituriges Vivisci were settled around Bordeaux and the Bituriges Cubi around Bourges. So the British landing could well have been as far south as Bordeaux, which unlike Bourges is actually on the Ocean, Bourges itself is a very long way inland. I will leave such conjectures for now; we simply don’t know here the British disembarked.

Riothamus fights the Visigoths

Riothamus fights the Visigoths

The link up with the Romans that didn’t happen

Jordanes says the Riothamus’s British were expecting to join forces with the Romans but that ‘before the Romans had linked up with him’ he was met and defeated by the Goths. Emperor Anthemius’s promised forces can hardly have been based in Gaul because these forces didn’t amount to much by this time. It is more likely that it was a Roman army under the command of Anthemius’s son Anthemiolus who the British were hoping to meet. The Gallic Chronicle of 511 says:

Anthemiolus was sent to Arles by his father the emperor Anthemius along with Thorisarius, Everdingus, and Hermianus the Count of the Stables. King Euric encountered them on the other side of the Rhone and, after killing the generals, devastated everything.

Antimolus a patre Anthemio imperatore cum Thorisario, Everdingo et Hermiano com. stabuli Arelate directus est, quibus rex Euricus trans Rhodanum occurrit occisisque ducibus omnia vastavit.



This event falls between the succession of Euric in 466 and the war between Anthemius and Ricimer (471–472). ‘It can probably be further narrowed to the period when Anthemius is known to have been organising a concerted effort to remove the Visigoths from Gaul between 468 and 471.’[11]

So it is quite possible that ‘Anthemiolus’ army was sent to reinforce Riothamus and that Euric defeated both forces in turn, probably in either 470 or 471’.[12]. In what order it is difficult to know, although I think that most of the chronological evidence suggests that the defeat of the British came first and shortly thereafter that the Goths defeated the Romans near Arles before returning north to besiege Clermont-Ferrand.

Where did the British come from?

map (1)Before turning to the possible location of King Riothamus’s defeat, if it wasn’t at Déols, we might ask where this British army had come from. There are only two possible answers. Either they came by sea from the more northerly British/Breton settlement in Armorica (i.e. present-day Brittany) or they came direct from the island of Britain. An insular British origin was argued for by the great Breton/French historian Léon Fleuriot.[13] Not only did Fleuriot argue that Riothamus’s British had came from the island of Britain to support the Emperor Anthemius in Gaul, but he also argued that Riothamus was the  Romano-British leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. This rather astonishing claim has since been supported in more modern times by several serious historians.[14] Others have even claimed that Riothamus was King Arthur; most popularly Geoffrey Ashe.[15] The arguments put forward for these claims are long, complex and obscure but, for me at least, they ultimately fail to convince.

But even if we put King Arthur to one side, as I do, the origin of the large and coordinated British force, ten thousand strong, which arrived in Gaul under the leadership of a British king called Riothamus, could well have been Britain itself. On the other hand Riothamus’s force might have consisted of  the British/Bretons of the diaspora – as we will see the emperor Anthemius asked the British ‘north of the Loire’ for help

It is with this mention of ‘north of the Loire’ that we can now turn to the only other two mentions of Riothamus’s Britons in the sources we have.

Treason and exile

In the second half of the 460s, the post of Roman Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, the official governor, was held on two occasions by a Gallo-Roman aristocrat called Arvandus. During his second term in office (467 – 468) Arvandus committed an act of treachery against the emperor Anthemius. Probably in 468, or the year before, Arvandus dictated a letter to his secretary addressed to the Gothic king Euric in which he tried to dissuade Euric ‘from concluding peace with ‘the Greek Emperor’ (i.e. Anthemius), urging that instead he should attack the Brittones north of the Loire, and asserting that the law of nations called for a division of Gaul between Visigoth and Burgundian’.

We don’t know if Euric ever got this letter or if he did whether he took any notice of Anthemius’s urgings. We don’t even know if Arvandus’s mention of Brittones was referring to ‘Bretons’ already settled north of the Loire or to an insular British force recently arrived there. But what we do know is that not long afterwards Euric did indeed lead his Goths to fight the British.

Arvandus’s letter must be dated prior to 468, or early in that year, because in 468 he was dismissed from his prefectship of Gaul for a second time and ‘invested with guards’ he was taken as ‘a prisoner bound for Rome’.[16] The Roman Senator Cassiodorus says that Arvandus had wanted to seize the throne; he had ‘wanted to become emperor’.[17]

Roman Senate

Roman Senate

In Rome Arvandus was put on trial for treason before the Roman senate and the ‘intercepted letter’ he had written to Gothic king Euric was produced in evidence against him. He twice acknowledged that the letter was indeed his and was condemned to death for treachery. The later intervention of his friend, the influential Gallo-Roman Sidonius Appolinaris, saved his life and the sentence was commuted to exile on an island.

We know these details of Arvandus’s acts and subsequent fate from a letter Sidonius wrote to his friend Vincentius, probably in about 469/70 after he had returned from Rome where, as the letter makes clear, he had personally witnessed the start of Arvandus’s trial. I have reproduced Sidonius’s letter in full at the end of this essay as it is compelling reading.

Sidonius writes to Riothamus

Next we have a letter Sidonius wrote to the British king Riothamus himself. Sidonius was asking for Riothamus’s intervention and help for a Gallo-Roman landowner, probably living in the Auvergne, whose slaves were being enticed away by the Britannis (Britons or Bretons).

I will write once more in my usual strain, mingling compliment with grievance. Not that I at all desire to follow up the first words of greeting with disagreeable subjects, but things seem to be always happening which a man of my order and in my position can neither mention without unpleasantness, nor pass over without neglect of duty. Yet I do my best to remember the burdensome and delicate sense of honour which makes you so ready to blush for others’ faults. The bearer of this is an obscure and humble person, so harmless, insignificant, and helpless that he seems to invite his own discomfiture; his grievance is that the Brittones are secretly enticing his slaves away. Whether his indictment is a true one, I cannot say; but, if you can only confront the parties and decide the matter on its merits, I think the unfortunate man may be able to make good his charge, if indeed a stranger from the country unarmed, abject and impecunious to boot, has ever a chance of a fair or kindly hearing against adversaries with all the advantages he lacks, arms, astuteness, turbulences, and the aggressive spirit of men backed by numerous friends. Farewell.[18]

Sidonius Apollinaris

Sidonius Apollinaris

It can be implied from the letter that Riothamus must have had influence, or even a leadership position acknowledged by the Romans, over the Britons in future Brittany. Whether he was their king or not is not said. It’s also clear that Sidonius had written to Riothamus on previous occasions; he says: ‘I will write once more in my usual strain.’ Also from his mention of a ‘man of my order’ it is pretty certain that he was already Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand at the time, a position he was elevated to in either in 470 (or maybe late 469) by the emperor Anthemius after his return from Rome.

It is to this rough time i.e. around 469/470 that I would date Sidonius’s letter to Riothamus. A later dating is possible and has been argued for, but seems unlikely to me. From 471 to 474 Clermont-Ferrand (Sidonius’s Episcopal seat) was besieged by the Visigoths (certainly after their defeat of the British) and Sidonius was much concerned with its defence. In 474, when Clermont-Ferrand finally fell, Euric sent Sidonius into exile for two years to Capendu and Bordeaux, before allowing him to return again to Clermont in 476 as bishop. The implication of the letter is that it was written from Clermont-Ferrand to Riothamus who might have been situated somewhere ‘north of the Loire’, and most likely before his defeat by the Goths. As we will see, following Riothamus’s defeat by the Goths the survivors fled to Burgundy and we never hear of them again. Any late, post-battle, dating of this letter to Riothamus must rely on a completely unsubstantiated conjecture concerning a return of the British king to Brittany after he and his fighters had fled to Burgundy.

Chronological résumé

To sum up some of the dating evidence: soon after his elevation to the imperial purple in 467, the Emperor Anthemius had requested the help of the Britons against Euric’s Visigoths who had just renounced their fealty to Rome. Whether these Britons were the British of the settlement of Armorica (the ‘Bretons’) or were Britons of the island of Britain, or both, is not known. Then slightly later, in about 467/8,  Arvandus, the Roman Prefect of Gaul, wrote to the Goths treacherously suggesting they attack the British ‘north of the Loire’ rather than make common cause with the Empire. A large British army led by King Riothamus subsequently arrived in a fleet of ships somewhere along the Atlantic coast and, while seeking to join up with Roman forces, which never came, they were defeated by the Gothic army.

Most historians agree that this battle was fought in 469 or possibly 470. The evidence suggests this is right, although its equation with Déols is doubtful.

What became of the British?

Jordanes tells us that after the battle the British retreated to Burgundy:

Having lost a great part of his army, he fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans…


Burgundian and Gallo-Roman

The Burgundians had crossed the Rhine into Roman Gaul along with various other Germanic tribes in 406. They settled on the Roman left bank of the Rhine, between the river Lauter and the Nahe. They seized Worms, Speyer, and Strasbourg. The Roman emperor Honorius later legitimized their land grab and made them official allies or mercenaries, called foederati. Despite this official Roman status, the Burgundians continued to make raids into the Roman province of Gallia Belgica. Exasperated, the Roman general Aëtius called upon his Hunnish mercenaries for help. Although much is still obscure, probably in two engagements in 436/7 Aëtius and the Huns nearly exterminated the Burgundians under their king Gundahar (Gunther).

The contemporary Iberian chronicler Hydatius wrote: “The Burgundians, who had rebelled, were defeated by the Romans under the general Aëtius.” Prosper of Aquitaine, another contemporary, and closer to the events, wrote: “Aëtius crushed [Gundahar], who was king of the Burgundians living in Gaul. In response to his entreaty, Aëtius gave him peace, which the king did not enjoy for long. For the Huns destroyed him and his people root and branch.”

Wagner's Ring Cycle

Wagner’s Ring Cycle

It is alleged that King Gundahar/Gunther and 20,000 Burgundians were slaughtered by the Huns. Gundahar was succeeded as king by his son Gunderic.  These events became the kernel of the great German Nibelungenlied epic which so inspired Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas.

Following their defeat Aëtius allowed the surviving Burgundians to settle in Savoy, with a capital in Geneva. In 451 the Burgundians helped Aëtius and his primarily Gothic army defeat Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Châlons, a decisive event in European history. Following the defeat Attila withdrew and never threatened Gaul again.

In 455 the Burgundians, under Gunderic and his brother Chilperic, accompanied Theodoric’s Visigoths to Spain to fight the Sueves on behalf of the Romans. After their return Lyon became the Burgundian capital in 461.

So by 469 the Germanic Burgundians, with their capital now in Lyon, were still Roman allies. The Visigoths however had by this time repudiated any nominal allegiance to the Roman Empire and were trying to extend their hegemony further north from their kingdom of Toulouse.

As this report makes clear, Riothamus and the British survivors of the defeat at the hands of the Goths retreated to Burgundy because it was ‘confederate with the Romans’:

Ambrosius Aurelianus

Ambrosius Aurelianus

What became of these British is not known. Some suggest they returned to Britain (if Riothamus was either King Arthur or another Romano-British chieftain such as Ambrosius Aurelianus). Others think they might have returned to Brittany. To be honest we don’t know. Maybe they were even granted lands in Burgundy and blended into the local mix of Gallo-Romans and Germanic Burgundians?

The question remains: why had the defeated British fled to Burgundy? Of course Burgundy offered a safe haven because the Burgundians like the British were Roman allies opposing the threatening Goths. But geographically Burgundy only makes sense if the British defeat at the hands of the Goths took place at a place from where it made more sense to retreat to Burgundy (possibly to Lyon) than it did to flee northwest to the comparatively safe British settlements in Armorica. Where might the battle have been if it wasn’t Déols?

The location of the battle

As well as the fact that it seems that we can date the clash between the Goths and the Britons at Bourges and Déols some years before 469, there are three additional  reasons why I think that the battle is unlikely to have taken place at Déolsand and might well have happened somewhere in the Auvergne.

469First, all historians agree that the main objective of the Goths in these years was to secure an occupation of the Auvergne, and particularly the city of Clermont-Ferrand (Arverna). This the Romans wanted to prevent. It is instructive to note that immediately after mentioning the British defeat Jordanes says: ‘But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized Auvergne, a city of Gaul…..When Euric, as we have already said, beheld these great and various changes, he seized the city of Arverna, where the Roman general Ecdicius was at that time in command.’

From 471 the Goths besieged Clermont-Ferrand, which resisted valiantly under General Ecdicius and Sidonius himself. But the city was finally captured in 474. When the British were defeated just before this siege began, they had been waiting to join up with a Roman force which never came. In fact by this time the ‘forces’ available to the Gallo-Romans were pretty insignificant and what forces there were could likely have been holed up in cities such as Clermont in fear of a coming Gothic attack. As already suggested, it seems likely that the British were expecting to meet the army from Rome led by Emperor Anthemius’s son Anthemiolus, which never arrived and was defeated itself by the Goths near Arles.

In this context a site for the battle somewhere in the Auvergne, possibly somewhere near Clermont, seems possible.

The Auvergne neighbouring Burgundy

The Auvergne neighbouring Burgundy

The second reason for my suggestion of the Auvergne as a likely place for the battle has to do with geography. As mentioned, the Burgundian capital had been established in Lyon in 462. We can couple this fact with Jordanes’ explicit statement that Riothamus ‘having lost a great part of his army… fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans’. Now Burgundy and Lyon are certainly immediate neighbours of the Auvergne and Clermont, whereas under no circumstances could Bourges/Déols be described as neighbourly. Lyon and Bourges are in fact a long way away from each other. In addition, as I have suggested already, if the battle took place at Déols why would the defeated British have marched an enormous distance from there to Burgundy, across dangerous Gothic-invested land, rather than simply return quickly northwest to the safe British settlements ‘north of the Loire’, whether by land or sea?

Finally, as also mentioned already, perhaps the major supporting evidence for the equation of the events at Bourges/Déols with Riothamus’s battle is Jordanes’ mention of the fact that: ‘King Riothimus, coming with twelve thousand by way of Ocean, and disembarking from his ships, was received into the city/state of the Bituriges.’ Conventionally this city/state of the Bituriges is identified with Bourges, which lies a long way inland in the very north of Aquitaine. But as I have shown this identification is by no means secure. Bituriges could just as well have been further south along the Aquitaine coast, even as far south as Bordeaux, as it might have been somewhere on the more northerly coast from where the British would have had to march a long way to reach Bourges. The evidence is too scanty for us to be certain where this disembarkation took place, but if the city of Clermont-Ferrand was so critical (which it was) then if you want to get there you’d be much better advised, then as now, to land somewhere in Aquitaine, and from there take the direct route to the Auvergne, than you would to land much farther north and face a very long trip indeed via Bourges to get anywhere near Clermont. All this is of course conjecture.


The British defeat at the hands of the Visigoths was not the only time that British (or Bretons as they became) were involved in the centuries-long struggle for the destiny of post-Roman Gaul, but as far as we know it was the first. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter if the battle took place at Déols or elsewhere as I am suggesting, but it’s interesting to draw a parallel between the fate of some Celtic British refugees fleeing the ‘English’ and fighting with one Roman emperor and the fate of some English fleeing the Norman conquerors six hundred years later to fight for an eastern Roman emperor (see here).


visi funny

Appendix: Sidonius’s letter to Vincentius c. 469/70

THE case of Arvandus distresses me, nor do I conceal my distress, for it is our emperor’s crowning praise that a condemned prisoner may have friends who need not hide their friendship. I was more intimate with this man than it was safe to be with one so light and so unstable, witness the odium lately kindled against me on his account, the flame of which has scorched me for this lapse from prudence. But since I had given my friendship, honour bound me fast, though he on his side has no steadfastness at all; I say this because it is the truth and not to strike him when he is down. For he despised friendly advice and made himself throughout the sport of fortune; the marvel to me is, not that he fell at last, but that he ever stood so long. How often he would boast of weathering adversity, when we, with a less superficial sense of things, deplored the sure disaster of his rashness, unable to call happy any man who only sometimes and  not always deserves the name.

But now for your question as to his government; I will tell you in few words, and with all the loyalty due to a friend however far brought low. During his first term as prefect his rule was very popular; the second was disastrous. Crushed by debt, and living in dread of creditors, he was jealous of the nobles from among whom his successor must needs be chosen. He would make fun of all his visitors, profess astonishment at advice, and spurn good offices; if people called on him too rarely, he showed suspicion; if too regularly, contempt. At last the general hate encompassed him like a rampart; before he was well divested of his authority, he was invested with guards, and a prisoner bound for Rome. Hardly had he set foot in the city when he was all exultation over his fair passage along the stormy Tuscan coast, as if convinced that the very elements were somehow at his bidding.

At the Capitol, the Count of the Imperial Largess, his friend Flavius Asellus, acted as his host and jailer, showing him deference for his prefectship, which seemed, as it were, yet warm, so newly was it stripped from him. Meanwhile, the three envoys from Gaul arrived upon his heels with the provincial decrees2 empowering them to impeach in the public name. They were Tonantius Ferreolus, the ex-prefect, and grandson, on the mother’s side, of the Consul Afranius Syagrius, Thaumastus, and Petronius, all men practised in affairs and eloquent, all conspicuous ornaments of our country. They brought, with other matters entrusted to them by the province, an intercepted letter, which Arvandus’ secretary, now also under arrest, declared to have been  dictated by his master. It was evidently addressed to the King of the Goths, whom it dissuaded from concluding peace with ‘the Greek Emperor’, urging that instead he should attack the Bretons north of the Loire, and asserting that the law of nations called for a division of Gaul between Visigoth and Burgundian.

There was more in the same mad vein, calculated to inflame a choleric king, or shame a quiet one into action. Of course the lawyers found here a flagrant case of treason. These tactics did not escape the excellent Auxanius and myself; in whatever way we might have incurred the impeached man’s friendship, we both felt that to evade the consequences at this crisis of his fate would be to brand us as traitors, barbarians, and poltroons. We at once exposed to the unsuspecting victim the whole scheme which a prosecution, no less astute than alert and ardent, intended to keep dark until the trial; their scheme was to noose in some unguarded reply an adversary rash enough to repudiate the advice of all his friends and rely wholly on his own unaided wits. We told him what to us and to more secret friends seemed the one safe course; we begged him not to give the slightest point away which they might try to extract from him on pretence of its insignificance; their dissimulation would be ruinous to him if it drew incautious admissions in answer to their questions.  When he grasped our point, he was beside himself; he suddenly broke out into abuse, and cried: ‘Begone, you and your nonsensical fears, degenerate sons of prefectorian fathers; leave this part of the affair to  me; it is beyond an intelligence like yours. Arvandus trusts in a clear conscience; the employment of advocates to defend him on the charge of bribery shall be his one concession.’

We came away in low spirits, disturbed less by the insult to ourselves than by a real concern; what right has the doctor to take offence when a man past cure gives way to passion?  Meanwhile, our defendant goes off to parade the Capitol square, and in white raiment too; he finds sustenance in the sly greetings which he receives; he listens with a gratified air as the bubbles of flattery burst about him. He casts curious eyes on the gems and silks and precious fabrics of the dealers, inspects, picks up, unrolls, beats down the prices as if he were a likely purchaser, moaning and groaning the whole time over the laws, the age, the senate, the emperor, and all because they would not right him then and there without investigation.

A few days passed, and, as I learned afterwards (I had left Rome in the interim), there was a full house in the senate-hall. Arvandus proceeded thither freshly groomed and barbered, while the accusers waited the decemvirs’1 summons unkempt and in half-mourning, snatching from him thus the defendant’s usual right, and securing the advantage of suggestion which the suppliant garb confers. The parties were admitted and, as the custom is, took up positions opposite each other. Before the proceedings began, all of prefectorian rank were allowed to sit; instantly Arvandus, with that unhappy impudence of his, rushed forward and forced himself almost into the very bosoms of the judges, while the ex-prefect* gained subsequent credit  and respect by placing himself quietly and modestly amidst his colleagues at the lowest end of the benches, to show that his quality of envoy was his first thought, and not his rank as senator.

While this was going on, absent members of the house came in; the parties stood up and the envoys set forth their charge. They first produced their mandate from the province, then the already-mentioned letter; this was being read sentence by sentence, when Arvandus admitted the authorship without even waiting to be asked. The envoys rejoined, rather cruelly, that the fact of his dictation was obvious. And when the madman, blind to the depth of his fall, dealt himself a deadly blow by repeating the avowal not once, but twice, the accusers raised a shout, and the judges cried as one man that he stood convicted of treason out of his own mouth. Scores of legal precedents were on record to achieve his ruin.

Only at this point, and then not at once, is the wretched man said to have turned white in tardy repentance of his loquacity, recognizing all too late that it is possible to be convicted of high treason for other offences than aspiring to the purple. He was stripped on the spot of all the privileges pertaining to his prefecture, an office which by re-election he had held five years, and consigned to the common jail as one not now first degraded to plebeian rank, but restored to it as his own.

Eye-witnesses report, as the most pathetic feature of all, that as a result of his intrusion upon his judges in all that bravery and smartness while his accusers dressed in black, his pitiable plight won him no pity when he was led off to prison a little later. How, indeed, could anyone be much moved at his fate, seeing him haled to the quarries or hard labour still all trimmed and pomaded like a fop?  Judgement was deferred a bare fortnight. He was then condemned to death, and flung into the island of the Serpent of Epidaurus. There, an object of compassion even to his enemies, his elegance gone, spewed, as it were, by Fortune out of the land of the living, he now drags out by benefit of Tiberius’ law his respite of thirty days after sentence, shuddering through the long hours at the thought of hook and Gemonian stairs, and the noose of the brutal executioner.

We, of course, whether in Rome or out of it, are doing all we can; we make daily vows, we redouble prayers and supplications that the imperial clemency may suspend the stroke of the drawn sword, and rather visit a man already half dead with confiscation of property, and exile. But whether Arvandus has only to expect the worst, or must actually undergo it, he is surely the most miserable soul alive if, branded with such marks of shame; he has any other desire than to die.

Notes and references:

[1] Léon Fleuriot,  Les origines de la Bretagne: l’émigration. Paris 1980.

[2] For the date 441 see: R. Burgess, The Gallic Chronicle of 511: A New Critical Edition with a Brief Introduction, in Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources. ed. R. W. Mathisen and D. Shantzer. Aldershot  2001.

[3] James Ingram, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London 1823 and 1912: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/ang05.asp

[4] M. Winterbottom, Gildas, De Excidio britanniae, Chichester 1978.

[5] T. M. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons 300-1064, Oxford 2014, p. 58.

[6] Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, ed. and trans. Lewis Thorpe, 1974.

[7] R. Mathisen,  Anthemius (12 April 467 – 11 July 472 A.D.), De Imperatoribus Romanis.

[8] Penny MacGeorge, Late Roman Warlords, Oxford  2002, pp.102-103.

[9] MacGeorge, Warlords.

[10] Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, ed. and trans. Charles Christopher Mierow, The Gothic History of Jordanes, 1915.

[11] The Gallic Chronicle of 511: A New Critical Edition with a Brief Introduction, in Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources. ed. R. W. Mathisen and D. Shantzer. Aldershot  2001.

[12] Idem

[13] Léon Fleuriot,  Les origines de la Bretagne: l’émigration. Paris 1980.

[14]For example: John Morris, The Age of Arthur, a History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, London 1973.

[15]Geoffrey  Ashe,  The Discovery of King Arthur. New York 1985.

[16]  O. M. Dalton, ed. and trans., The Letters of Sidonius, Oxford 1915..

[17] James J. O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, Berkeley 1979.

[18] Dalton, The Letters of Sidonius