The Medieval Review 16.02.28

Grigg, Julianna. The Philosopher King and the Pictish Nation. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2015. pp. 227. €55.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-84682-563-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Nick Higham
University of Manchester

The Philosopher King offers a well-researched and stimulating introduction to the problems of writing a history of the Picts in the sixth, seventh and early eighth centuries. Although the book eventually focuses on the reign of Necthon (otherwise Nechtán), son of Derelei (otherwise Derile), who reigned c. 706-724, it only reaches this subject some two-thirds of the way through, following a several chapters which seek to bring the Pictish nation and kingship into focus.

Chapter 1 provides a lengthy discussion of the economic landscape which underlay the emergence of a unified Pictish kingship at the close of the seventh century. Here Grigg demonstrates extensive reading and draws intelligently on a wide range of high-quality recent research, seeking to synthesise a large body of recent archaeological and geographical work. Her conclusion is that by the seventh century conditions were conducive to state-formation, driven in large part by a sustained period of climatic amelioration from the fifth century onwards. Alongside she perceives growing signs of a society that was forming into local, regional and supra-regional agglomerations that were capable of bearing the weight of a unitary political framework. The approach is inclusive, taking account of evidence for agriculture, settlements, enclosures, local and regional hierarchies and burials.

In the second chapter the focus is increasingly on this emerging polity, exploring the societal frameworks which underpinned it, and examining such themes as clientage, religious systems, regional assemblies and the ways in which different provinces were brought together in the process of state-formation. In chapter 3 the means by which a king might gain and then exercise power then draws our attention, looking at the thorny issue of the Pictish royal succession, the developing framework of Christian kingship, new attempts to construct nationhood and the mechanisms available to a king in exercising his rule.

In the last third of the book we shift to Necthon himself, exploring his reign and those of his immediate predecessors more thematically. First, in chapter 4, comes Necthon as a Christian king, and the interwoven themes of Christian orthodoxy and royal governance. Then, in chapter 5, we switch to Necthon's shift of religious affiliation, from northern insular practices to Roman, and the implications that this had both for the Pictish Church and the monks of Iona, who were going through a parallel process of ‘reformation' which likewise led them to Rome. Alongside, we are taken through the literary and chronicle evidence, such as it is, for the contested politics of the reign and, particularly, the manner of its ending.

The major problem with which Grigg has to grapple throughout the work is the lack of a Pictish voice within the limited written sources available, and the terrible poverty of those sources overall. While her aim is "to reintegrate the Picts into the historical narrative of the early medieval west" (197), she is dependent throughout on a very thin gruel of written material drawn from Anglo-Saxon writers to the south (primarily Bede, of course), and various Irish and/or Ionan texts--most obviously the chronicles but she very properly introduces several others besides. Most insular writings of the period make little or no mention of the Picts, leaving them very much on the edge of history; when they do appear they are always viewed through external eyes.

The lack of written material results in a heavy dependence on archaeological evidence. That is evidence of a very different kind, though, which is not always capable of bearing the weight placed on it by Grigg's desire to generate an historical narrative. We have, for example, the "introduction of oats...expediting a shift from subsistence to surplus production" (60), but oats are the lowest yielding medieval crop, generally providing the farmer with only twice what was sown, so making it a poor driver of agricultural surplus, better suited to subsistence. Is it, therefore, fair to argue that a contraction in the average size of settlements and elite dwellings necessarily equate with a cultural shift to an organized, dispersed agrarian economy that used this new technology to increase yields and extend cultivation to marginal areas? Perhaps, but perhaps not; here and in very many places the reader might have benefited from a more open approach to the often complex evidence available, and greater recognition of the problems involved in reaching even the most tentative conclusions.

There are difficulties also on occasion with the historical detail. There is a useful discussion of the connectedness of particularly the southern Picts with British Strathclyde, but then we are offered the assertion that geo-political connections...were riven in the early seventh century both by Northumbrian dominance of the region under King Oswiu and by Dál Riatan expansion (54). But Dál Riatan expansion pretty much ground to a halt after their defeat by the Northumbrians c. 603, and Oswiu did not attain the throne until 642. It would be fair to argue that Oswiu's father, Æthelfrith, dominated the region from 603 until his death c. 616, but why invoke his son in this context, who was only born c. 611/12? Nor is it at all clear what impact Aldhelm's death in 709 can have had on northern politics (140), given that his old friend Aldfrith, king of the Northumbrians, had himself died four years earlier, and he is not known to have even been in contact with the Northumbrian court in the later years of Aldfrith's reign; Aldhelm's long-time deacon, Pehthelm, would not become bishop of Whithorn until shortly before 731, long after his patron's death in western Wessex. What Grigg intended here is unclear.

By far the most serious issue, though, arises in chapter 4. In her discussion of Necthon's repositioning of Pictish Christianity, Grigg necessarily relies very heavily on Abbot Ceolfrid's letter to Necthon, as quoted by Bede (HE, V, 21). This is by far the longest passage in any work which is remotely contemporary, which has a direct relevance to Necthon's reign. It is in a sense the existence of this text which makes the book possible. But it has long been recognised that Bede does not provide us with Ceolfrid's letter as such, but his own version of it in hunc modum. We can be confident that Ceolfrid did write to Necthon in response to his request for information, and the general gist of his response is very likely to mirror what Bede offers us. However, we do not know precisely what his letter contained and it was probably far shorter than the version that we now have. The surviving text is an "improved" one, almost certainly written some two decades later for the express purpose of inclusion in Bede's Ecclesiastical History. Whether or not a copy of the original even survived in the Wearmouth/Jarrow archives by 731 is unknown: perhaps, perhaps not. But even if it did, Bede made the decision to rewrite it rather than just quote the original. We can safely surmise, therefore, that it did not serve his purpose as well as he thought it might. For a parallel, it is worth comparing Bede's description of the synod of Whitby (HE, III, 25) with Stephen's much shorter offering in his Life of Wilfrid, 10. Bede's was based on Stephen's but is far longer and is packed with detail which is almost certainly apocryphal.

The subjects of the Synod of Whitby and Ceolfrid's letter are similar. Bede considered himself to be an expert, so he gave his audience in each case the benefit of his superior knowledge of the subject, but there is more to the differences than that. We need to take account of Bede's purposes in including Ceolfrid's letter and describing its context. Neither was of central interest to a Northumbrian readership in 731. What Bede was doing was constructing an exemplary king in the recent past, who was eager to follow the excellent advice that was coming from his own abbot, and committed to advancing the Roman cause in a northern Britain which had hitherto lain in ignorance and error. Bede did this not so as to educate his contemporaries in northern England regarding their Pictish neighbours but in order to grasp yet one more stick with which to beat the Northumbrian king in the present, to encourage him to adopt a particular set of reformed behaviours and follow the right sort of scholarly advice.

This is not, therefore, an accurate account of the correspondence of Ceolfrid, albeit it is unlikely to have differed that much in sentiment. More to the point, it does not allow us a clear view of Necthon. Beyond the very general point that he was seeking advice regarding shifting the allegiance of the Picts to Rome, it tells us nothing more about him. In particular, we cannot rely on Bede's assumption that he was a man of deep religious knowledge and intellectual acuity; such was at least as likely to have been a rhetorical construct of Bede's for his own contemporary purposes. The whole notion of a "philosopher king" is in question, therefore. Could Necthon read? And could he engage in complex arguments regarding paschal dating? Had he, in fact, been raised for the Church? The whole matter relies entirely on a letter originally written by Ceolfrid but now only surviving in a version written significantly later and for very different purposes. This is not a valid foundation on which to form a view of Necthon without at least flagging up the risks in any such interpretation. Nor does it provide us with a safe platform for more detailed discussion of Necthon's reform of the Pictish Church.

These are serious weaknesses, particularly given just how central Bede's testimony is to this source-starved reign, and they have major implications for much of the discussion in chapter 4. The fact is that while we know that Bede's contextualisation of the letter belongs two decades later, we simply cannot tell how much of the letter reflects what was written by Ceolfrid, as opposed to rewritten by Bede.

As a study of Necthon's kingship, therefore, this book has both strengths and weaknesses. Its great achievement is to bring together all the disciplinary approaches which have anything to contribute, pulling in work on the Pictish stones, for example, alongside settlement archaeology, changing patterns of disposal of the dead and the chronological framework provided by the Irish chronicles. Its main weakness is the other side of the same coin, for there is insufficient attention paid to the problems posed by these very different streams of evidence, and a somewhat unquestioning acceptance at times of what is written, by hands ancient as well as modern. Greater critical attention paid to the evidence would have made for a less straight-forward narrative, but it would have been richer and more rewarding. Even so, this is a useful effort to write a period of the Pictish past which verges on the prehistoric into the early medieval histories of the British Isles.

Copyright (c) 2016 Nick Higham

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