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23.11.07 Brady, The Origin Legends of Early Medieval Britain and Ireland

23.11.07 Brady, The Origin Legends of Early Medieval Britain and Ireland


Most of the way through this compact monograph, Lindy Brady writes of early medieval insular historians that, “authors drew on earlier works and were drawn on in turn by later writers (193).” Isn’t that exactly what modern scholars do? Those quaint medieval legends about the origins of the peoples of Britain and Ireland, she argues persuasively, were products of an inter-island scholarly exchange. The literati of both islands shared models and evidence and together built a history of the insular past consistent with Christian teleology.

As Brady points out, most modern students train in the history of just one among the peoples of Britain and Ireland, that is, Ireland, Scotland, England, or Wales. Few learn to read the medieval texts of more than one group. Experts in early medieval English history rarely learn Old Irish, experts in archaic and Middle Welsh seem uninterested in Scotland, Irish historians remain fairly isolated from other historiographies, and the study of Picts remains inscrutable to everyone but specialists. As a result, historians treat the history of the islands in modern nationalist terms, relying on boundaries set between countries and their universities to guide the parameters of their investigations. Yet the early medieval peoples of the islands cannot be so neatly divided or located.

Brady clearly frames her book as a study of basic historical sources shared by intellectuals of the seventh and later centuries who were curious about their own origins and that of their neighbors, and whose works were mutually influential. Early on, she describes connections among the learned men of Britain and Ireland, showing how the earliest historians understood there to be four gentes on the two islands: the British of southern Britain in the post-Roman period, who became the Welsh after the Normans arrived; the Irish, who were Gaelic speakers in Ireland, although “Gaelic” included the Scotti of the Irish colony of Dál Riata in eastern Scotland; Picts, the other residents of what became Scotland; and “Anglo-Saxons,” the speakers of Old English in southern Britain.

Brady is not interested in ethnogenesis. Instead, she focuses on the inter-related origin legends created and revised by intellectuals among the four gentes, beginning withGildas in the sixth century, who may have relied on Anglo-Saxon informants when describing their people’s arrival in Britannia. Bede (eighth century) drew on Gildas, but also used either Irish or Pictish informants for material about the arrival of the Picts in his history of England. The Historia Brittonum (ninth century) drew on Gildas, Bede, and Irish material that later surfaced in the Irish Lebor Bretnach (an eleventh-century revision and translation of the Historia Brittonum) and Lebor Gabála Érenn (History of the Invasions of Ireland, an eleventh-century compilation of Irish origins legends) among other sources. Authors borrowed from other insular historians and revised their own origins legends in light of evidence from other parts of the islands. They also shared the same biblical and classical models.

In subsequent chapters, Brady underlines three major themes shared by these always evolving, inter-related histories. Each of the thematic chapters begins with a review of biblical and classical models used by insular authors to make their points. Drawing on monastic annals and the laws, Brady then considers contemporary social and political conditions that likely influenced early medieval historians to emphasize these themes. First of the themes is exile. Brady argues that the basic narrative of all the origin stories began with a man of high birth in the ancient world who was forced into exile and sought refuge in new territory. While British writers looked back to Brutus, a refugee from Troy, as their founder, Irish historians discovered their origins in Scripture, either via Spain or among Scythians exiled from Egypt along with the Israelites. Picts too supposedly descended from Scythians. Early historians also transformed the Germanic Hengest and Horsa from mercenaries into exiles. Brady argues that historians of the time were influenced by contemporary ideas about exile as a legal punishment for high crimes, particularly kin-slaying, another important theme in origin legends.

Biblical tales (think Cain) and classical accounts (Romulus) provided models for exiles who escaped divine punishment because they went on to found new peoples and kingdoms. While killing kin was reviled as one of the worst crimes in insular territories, it also posed a legal paradox. In the kinship-based societies of the time, an individual gained identity, protection, and inheritance from family. In laws, the basic legal unit was the kin-group rather than the individual; when an individual committed a crime, the kin-group was ultimately responsible for paying a fine to the victims or their families. It was impossible, however, to collect a fine for kin-slaying from a kin-group that included both victim and perpetrator. Yet as Brady shows with data from monastic annals, elite men frequently killed their male relations--usually, but not always, in battle--in order to gain royal power, sometimes with no consequences and, at other times, with a sentence of exile from which they returned. Ambitious men often came home re-energized to seize kingship.

Discussing the third theme of early historians, Brady argues that they had to ask themselves: How did our kin-slaughtering progenitors complete the peopling of our lands? Whether legendary ancestors arrived alone or with family (Brutus), in groups (Partholon who came to Ireland with a thousand men and women), or in warbands (the Picts, or Hengest and Horsa), “there were really only two solutions to the problem: intermarriage or incest” (138). Both were morally or legally problematic. Despite a seemingly universal taboo against incest, Scriptures and classical narratives offered positive models, such as Lot and his daughters, which resulted in the repeopling of an empty land. By comparison, when male exiles arrived requiring mates, they had to resort to native women from a different people, which the Hebrew Bible warned against. Insular histories described how the ancient Irish sent the arriving Picts to Scotland and supplied them with Irish wives, on condition that Pictish kings be selected from matrilineages. Brady cites penitentials and laws to explain how early historians worked through the problems posed by incest, whose definition was more legally flexible than we suppose, and exogamy, which exposed a kin-group to claims by outsiders. She also suggests that “inter-marriage” among early medieval peoples or kin-groups was generally a successful political strategy, despite legal restrictions on the offspring of such unions.

Surprisingly, Brady’s evidence for marrying-out focuses on men. A reader might wonder whether gendered analysis of the evidence would complicate her depiction of exogamy. Although it was easier for a woman to marry out of the kin-group, since she was never a full member of the group anyway, wives never were completely integrated legally into their affinal group, although their children might be. Such alliances did not always prove strategic for the woman’s family, either, as the Finn episode in Beowulf famously shows. Irish stories, too, reveal anxiety about the dangers to both brides and their royal husbands when they married out, for example, in the courtship stories (tochmarca) and semi-historical tales of early kings. Did these tales influence origin legends, along with biblical models, and did historians share these sources, too? Brady does not attend to this issue. In fact, she does not much draw on the vast narrative literature as supporting evidence.

Brady has little interest in the later Middle Ages, which she argues were dominated by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fantastical history, with all that Arthur stuff. But near the end she offers a brief treatment of early modern historians from the two isles and the new nationalism that reshaped origin legends. Whereas early medieval scholars had built their peoples’ identities based partly on histories and other sources from other insular cultures, early modern historians disdained evidence from other traditions. Hence, Fordun criticized English historians, Camden and Stanihurst criticized sources from Wales and Ireland, and Céitinn (Keating) criticized everybody else. Céitinn, writing against charges that Britons had anciently subjugated the Irish, snapped back that, while foreign historians always appreciated the quality of Irish soil, “the race is dispraised by every new foreign historian who writes about it (216).” Céitinn had a thousand years’ worth of vernacular and Latin sources to hand, compared to much skimpier records of historians from other kingdoms before about 1000 or so, and he disdained non-native historians who could not read the plentiful Irish documents.

Does leapfrogging the 500 years after c. 1000 CE weaken Brady’s argument? Certainly the Arthurian material constitutes another origin legend. Still, who wants to wade through Geoffrey again? And as Brady points out, that is material for another book. Complications of this compact thesis she leaves to other historians who may draw on her models and sources for their own insular histories.