Introduction to Historical Period


Unit Organization

Units in this coursebook covering the historical era divides the years 410-1707 CE into chunks of 150-250 years and then covers three major aspects of those time periods in separate units:

1. Peoples

  • The evidence that is available for the history of the period: what are its limitations and insights?
  • Primary patterns/themes of the time period
  • Migrations, invasions, wars, battles
  • Major kingdoms, leaders, prominent social figures
  • Identity formation and ethnonyms
  • Climactic events, catastrophes
  • Linguistic change and borrowings

2. Power

  • The creation and influence of major institutions: Politics, Religion, Law
  • Social structures
  • Religious clerics, practices, rituals, artifacts, beliefs
  • Economic production
  • Gender
  • Fortified habitations

3. Cultural Expression

  • Literary developments and innovations
  • Social customs (rites of passage, calendar customs)
  • Music
  • Fine arts
  • Clothing
  • Food

Although this separation is not entirely satisfactory in that all of these aspects of society and history are inter-related and interconnected, this will allow us to identify and examine many different relevant kinds of evidence from the Celtic societies of the post-Roman era.

Language and Names

Language provides one of the most interesting challenges in learning about multi-cultural societies from diverse sources and perspectives. The same person can appear with different names depending on the language of the people who have written the text and how the text has been edited by modern scholars. For example, the Norse name Gothfrith can appear in English sources as Godfred and in Gaelic sources as Godfraidh or Goraidh, depending on the author and time period. Similarly, the Norse name Sumarliðr was adapted in Gaelic as Somhairle and appears in anglicized forms like Somerled and Sorley.

Even more interesting and fundamental to our research is the change in meaning and usage that happens to ethnonyms (the names of social groups). When a new ethnonym appears, or an old ethnonym disappears or changes meaning, some important shift in language, society, and politics has occurred.

Be careful not to impose the names and boundaries of modern nation-states, or modern ethnic identities, upon the people and places of the medieval period. As we will see, not only have people migrated and boundaries redrawn, but even the fundamental meaning of ethnic labels has changed. For example, at the beginning of our period “British” referred to Celtic peoples living in Britain, all of whom spoke forms of the Brythonic branch of Celtic. Today, to the contrary, “British” by default refers to the English, who were the enemies of the original British.

Places and Peoples

The basic geological, topological, climactic and economic realities of the landscape occupied by people has a strong impact on where they settle, how well they can feed themselves, what products they can produce for export, how well they can communicate across that landscape and impose political authority.


The regions in Britain which have remained Celtic to the modern period are, on the whole, mountainous and poorly suited to agriculture. The high plateaus of Wales and the rugged mountains in the interior of Scotland cannot have sustained a high population in ancient times; most people in Britain must have lived where there were better arable lands, along the shores and on the low-lying ground. Ireland’s geography is somewhat opposite: most of its mountains are along its coast, with the lower ground in its interior, much of it bog with limited agricultural potential. On the whole, Ireland’s best agricultural lands are the areas facing Britain, which facilitated settlement in the areas most suited for trade between these neighbours.

Given the high mountains ranges and bogs which could not be drained, navigation and communication through the landscape of the British Isles was inconvenient if not extremely difficult in many places, increasing the importance of sea travel. We need to see the ocean as an enabling medium rather than as a divider in this period. Many settlements were near the sea, lakes or rivers which were travelled with all many of sea vessels, and Ireland’s many waterways gave it navigational advantages in the ancient past.

Although the weather had been well suited to agricultural productivity in the Roman period, the weather became colder and wetter in the fifth and sixth centuries. The reasons for this have not been entirely agreed upon, with speculation about volcanic eruptions, comets, meteors, and the negative impact of over-exhaustion of natural resources during the Roman period. This meant that highland areas were even less productive that they had been previously. Archaeological evidence has confirmed that in some places crop fields were abandoned and reverted to scrub and woodland. This increased the importance of arable land and the pressure on it as the population coalesced around economically productive niches in the landscape.


Communities fed themselves in the medieval period with a “mixed farming economy” that combined the strengths of agriculture and pastoralism (the use of domesticated animals which graze on grass, especially cattle, sheep, and goats), with additional nutrients from hunting and gathering. The particular balance of these elements depended on the landscape in which the community was based and the time of year, but agriculture and pastoralism complemented each other advantageously: animals can graze on plants unsuited for human consumption, like hay and grass; animals can be used to provide the energy and labour for working the fields (i.e., pulling the plough); the waste products of the animals (“manure”) can be used to enrich the soil of the fields. In addition to the protein their meat yielded, domesticated animals also provided milk (further protein nutrients), leather, bones (used for domestic objects), hides, and wool.

Pastoralism dominated in the highland zones, with great labour expended on maximizing the potential of small patches of arable land. No single site could not support a large population, but clusters of settlements were scattered across such areas, largely reliant upon the dairy output of their cattle. As invaders tended to conquer and take over the lower lands better suited to agriculture, Celtic peoples retreated to (or survived in) the highland zone and grew increasingly reliant upon these environmental niches and pastoral economies.

On the whole, these communities were self-reliant, generating all that they needed to survive. Many did, however, produce goods that they traded for export, sometimes at very long distances. These tended to be luxury items enhancing the prestige of the élite. In fact, generating economic surpluses is necessary for maintaining the higher ranks of society so that they are not burdened with subsistence-level labour.

Communication networks and trade with the continent clearly continued in some communities  in Celtic Britain after the Roman withdrawal. An active barter trade existed with Gaul, Spain, and the Eastern Mediterranean for pottery, olive oil, wine, fine table wares, and glass vessels. Archaeological evidence attests to this in sites such as Tintagel, off the northern coast of Cornwall, apparently one of the most important power centres in southern Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries, probably the seat of the Dumnonian royalty who ruled Cornwall. Shards of glass and ceramic ware have been recovered from the site which were manufactured on the continent.

Class Discussion

What does Gerald de Barri, Description of Wales §1.1 suggest about the resilience of Celtic peoples, and how they used the landscape and pastoralism to survive?

What means of transport is referred to in these early sources? How mobile do people seem to have been?


Here is a summary of the major relevant Celtic territories in the early 5th century:

  • The Gaulish region of Armorica “Land facing the sea” was larger than just the peninsula now called “Brittany” (which may have attained this name as early as the late 6th century). The regional name “Armorican Peninsula” can be used of this land mass to be unambiguous.
  • The island of Britain (whose archaic name was Albiu, taking the form Alba in the medieval period)
  • The isle of Man
  • The island of Ireland, which was generally called Ériu but had several poetic names derived from territorial goddesses (such as Banba and Fódla). By the opening of the historic period, there was on the order of 100 kingdoms in Ireland, each operating independently. Conceptually, Ireland was divided into five provinces:
    • Connaught (Connacht)
    • Leinster (Laigin)
    • Meath (Míd, “the central province”)
    • Munster (Muman)
    • Ulster (Ulaid)

Ethnonyms and Linguistic Groups

Although (as explained in an earlier unit) ethnic identities are dynamic and groups (and their associated names) can form at any number of levels, there are several major “fault lines” visible in the immediate post-Roman era which were primarily oriented around language and territory. By the time that Celtic-speaking peoples were generating their own records, they no longer had any memory of common Celtic origins or any sense of sharing a unified Celtic identity with others. We must now refer to them with more specific ethnic names, even if we, as modern scholars, can detect and analyze certain cultural features which derive from the ancient past.

There are different naming traditions and ethnonyms for the peoples of the British Isles at the opening of our time period, but we will be primarily concerned with these categories:

  • British (aka Britons): These were the ancient Celtic peoples who called themselves Britanni, whose name was given to the island of Britain (although its older name, Albiu, was retained in Gaelic and perhaps also remembered in early Brythonic.) The ancient language common to the Britons will be referred to as Brythonic (some scholars prefer “Britonnic”).
  • Picts: No distinction between Britons and Picts was visible before the Roman conquest. Afterwards, however, it became necessary to distinguish between the semi-Romanized Britons and the peoples who remained north of the walls and beyond Roman civilization. Thus, the idea of the “Picts” as an ethnic group was a Roman invention of the 3rd century, even if these peoples began to internalize this concept and ethnic label by the 7th century.
  • Scot(t)i: This term appears in Latin sources (beginning with Roman writers based in Britain) to refer to Gaelic speakers, whether they were living in Ireland or northern Britain (a region which only much later came to be called “Scotland” after these Gaelic speakers). A Gaelic derivation for the term Scotti has been proposed, meaning “the choice ones; the élite.”
  • Gaels: This term also refers to Gaelic-speakers, regardless of the territory which they occupied. Ironically, the term was coined by Welsh-speakers meaning “Wild people” or “Forest people” and was borrowed by the Gaels to refer to themselves in the early medieval period. This textbook will often use the term Gaeldom to refer to Gaelic communities collectively, whether they be in Scotland or Ireland (or the Isle of Man from the high medieval period). This is roughly the equivalent of Scottish Gaelic Gàidhealtachd and Irish Gaeltacht.
  • Anglo-Saxons: A number of different ethnic groups from the Germanic kingdoms of the continent along the North Sea coast were coming into Britain by the fourth century, typically labelled together for convenience as “Anglo-Saxons.”

Class Discussion

Read Bede, The History of the English Church §1.1. How does Bede characterize the peoples of Britain? What are his criteria?

Interpretative Methods

You can continue to examine evidence through the themes of Celticity, Celticism, and “Civilization” as explained in the Introduction of the Iron Age section of this coursebook. What is exciting and new in the historic period, however, is the amount of information produced by Celtic-speaking peoples themselves, especially in textual form. Whereas last term the scarcity of information made it necessary for us to infer values, perceptions, and ideas from archaeological artifacts, names, and other such fragments, by the early medieval period the Celtic peoples were actively producing cultural expressions that allow us to gain much deeper insight into their lives and thoughts – even if we must still do much guesswork in some areas.

The medieval evidence provides important information about the power struggles between Celtic regions and rulers and the efforts to build and unify Celtic communities. We will take special interest in the efforts of English and Anglo-Norman rulers to conquer Celtic peoples and the ideology of conquest which emerged from these efforts: this is the origin of Celticism as we now know it. We will also read and analyze the reactions of Celtic peoples to these experiences.

There are several kinds of evidence which bear close scrutiny and which interact with our broad course themes: law, language, and literature, which we might call “the three Ls.” These elements relate closely to the expression of culture, the control of culture, and the means of social and cultural reproduction. Let’s explore this a little further.


We could consider law (broadly defined) as a means of prescribing ideals, distributing power and authority, and governing communities: it rationalizes moral and immoral behaviour, crime and punishment, status and prestige, wealth and privilege. Legal systems empower officers with the means of imposing control over communities to hold them to particular standards and practices. Thus, kings codified law systems as a means to unify peoples under their command or to harmonize the practices of communities that had previously followed different customs. Law has also been one of the tools of empires, where a king imposes his system of own governance on a foreign society after conquest to assimilate them into a new cultural system.

The connections between kingship and law systems have been explored since the beginnings of European scholarship, as we can see in the Scotichronicon written by Scottish churchman Walter Bower in the 1440s, which in turn looks back to the authority of Isidore of Seville (†636):

He could rightly be called a king on the merits of his integrity and his even-handed justice, because he ruled himself and his people rightly, granting each person his rights. So it is that according to Isidore ‘kings’ [reges] are so-called because they ‘act rightly’ [recte agendo]; thus the name of king is retained by doing right, and it is lost by sinning. Therefore those who know how to restrain both themselves and their subjects by ruling well are rightly called kings: “The king exists so that there may be law; where there is no law, there is no king either.”

As a general rule, as societies have become more complex (having larger numbers of people arranged in greater levels of hierarchy and specialized roles) and formalized (organized and supervised under the control of specific institutions), formal law has incorporated and taken over an increasing number of the principles which had governed society through communal custom and morality. The early medieval Celtic societies of Ireland and Wales are interesting in demonstrating that specialized lawyers and bodies of law can develop even in societies which are not urban, and do not even have a strong central government to impose authority and legislation on diverse communities. There was clearly some other set of factors which allowed such developments. As Robin Chapman Stacey has remarked:

The Irish lawbooks are one of the glories of the culture, as significant in their own way as the much admired illuminated Gospel books for which the Irish are so much better known. […] What is perhaps most remarkable about this material is its originality. Ireland was never occupied by Rome, and its law did not therefore derive from Roman tradition. Nor was it royal: lawbooks were written by and for a self-consciously professional class of jurists, a group of specialists whose origins seem to have lain in the distant Celtic past. In no other contemporary European culture did such specialists exist.

The Christian church involved itself in the framing, documentation, and practice of formal law in the secular world. Not only could it thereby ensure an ability to influence secular law and harmonize it with Christian values, it also ensured that the church held special rights and privileges under the law.


No complex society can function without being able to communicate. As we saw last term, however, a language is not just about communicating in simple functional terms, language carries along with it values, beliefs, and identity. There are few things are more central to the ability of a society to express itself and transmit its knowledge than language. This is one of the reasons that language is so important to a sense of identity and why language has often served as a badge of identity. Those who wish to exercise control in society often use language to influence people’s thoughts, values, and beliefs. It is thus no wonder that empires attempt to destroy native languages and replace them with their own.


Literature is the extended use of language to express more complex ideas, especially in narrative form. Literature serves many different purposes, often times simultaneously for multiple audiences. We will be particularly focused on the ways in which literature – especially written literature – enables a society to imagine its past, present and future and thus to participate in the ongoing articulation and negotiation of identity. As in other cultural forms, control is an important issue: he who controls the narratives of society wields considerable power. The old proverb says, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” It is little wonder, then, that artists and writers are seen as potentially subversive by those in power who frequently attempt to silence them because of the threat that their words and ideas pose.

There are many aspects of literature we could analyze: the descriptions of people’s material surroundings (e.g., clothing, architecture, transport, etc.) and social customs, for example, or the ways in which they imagine the past. Literature participates in the articulation and expression of identity, and can serve to embody, define, preserve, and stabilize aspects of cultural memory (the way in which a society represents its past). We should be particularly sensitive to how an author can use literature to advance a particular agenda that reflects his/her own personal interests and/or those of his nation, kin-group, or profession.

The strong preference of Celtic peoples for narrative forms is noteworthy. Whereas the dominant mode of the élite of Late Antiquity was to write expository prose to explain ideas explicitly, Celtic peoples even into the modern period had a very strong preference for expressing their ideas in narrative form. Although there are certainly many examples of expository prose in Celtic literature, we will also see that their ideals and values are often stated in terms of cautionary tales, allegories, analogies, myths, and so on.

Not all of the texts we will be reading would be considered literature in any formal way: we will also be examining letters, chronicles, and church documents, for example. Even in these cases, however, we need to be aware and skeptical of how text is controlled, manipulated, and reinterpreted to suit certain purposes, sometimes different from or even contrary to its original purposes.


Each of the three Ls is split across the units discussing each time period to allow us to separately consider how language, literature, and law act as forms of power and participate in the ongoing contests of control, meaning, and identity. As we will see, the exercise of power and privilege is never just about the application of brute force: it is always accompanied by ideas embodied in linguistic, literary, and legal expressions which attempt to legitimate its power and authority to exercise it. Therefore, in addition to the three critical questions introduced in the Iron Age section, you can also ask:

  1. What claims of power and/or authority were reflected in today’s materials? Whose claims are they? In what terms are they articulated? How are they justified?

Class Discussion

What recent examples can you give of how politics, identity, language, literature, and law are interconnected? How do you anticipate that these issues might be interconnected with last term’s themes of Celticity, Celticism and “Civilization”? Can you think of ways in which modern empires (British Empire, French Empire, etc) or nation-states (the United States, Canada, etc) legitimize their exercise of power? What artistic expressions, institutions and ideologies do they produce to do so?