The Dark Ages

The term ‘Dark Ages’ refers to the time also known as the Early Medieval (or ‘Early Historic’) period between the 5th and 11th centuries AD, and this is because we know little about events from the historical record in Western Europe compared to the Roman and Late Medieval periods. This can be contrasted with the Renaissance and the resurgence of paganism and occultism in this part of the world following the Middle Ages around the 16th Century. After the fall of Rome, the Continent was divided between pre-feudal, Teutonic kingships, while the British Isles descended into tribalism; where there was competition for land and resources between the native, Brittonic folk and Anglo-Saxon settlers.

However, despite the suggestion of genocide that has been proposed by some Modern archaeologists, there is no reason to believe that the Anglo-Saxons had some sort of ‘apartheid’ regime (something which can only be implemented through the state, which was not present in Britain following the Roman departure). Exterminating the Britons would have made little sense if much of the land was depopulated, a process which began in Late Antiquity and continued into the Dark Ages. It is certain that there were folk that came from what is now mainland Denmark and Northern Germany, though they arrived in Britain over a continuous time, as they were hired as mercenaries by the Romans and later the British petty kings to help fight the marauding Picts and Gaels. Thus, the Anglo-Saxons became more populous on the Eastern and Southern coasts of England, and eventually took control of the areas in which they formed the majority.

They could only have achieved this with the help of British pagans who felt alienated by their Christian rulers. There is reason to believe that the Anglo-Saxon warlords married into local noble families and gained power this way. The founder of Wessex, Kerdic, has a Celtic name, and so it is likely that he had an Anglo-Saxon father and British mother. Also, the Northumbrian king, Oswy, gained the territory of Rheged (Lancashire) through marrying a princess of that kingdom. It is for this reason that many Britons became absorbed into Anglo-Saxon culture through intermarriage and because of shared religious beliefs.

This is presumably what is meant in the Welsh Triads by the description of the Lloegrians (Britons of the South and East) coming into confederation with the Angles and Saxons. Though the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (who settled in Kent and also in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight) were three different tribes, they all spoke the same language and worshipped the same pantheon, which is why they are known culturally as Anglo-Saxons. Christianity subsequently fell out of favour among many of the Britons, but was reintroduced from Ireland by missionaries. These ‘Celtic Christians’ were more successful in converting the Britons than the earlier, state-imposed Roman Church, as they preached a doctrine that was more suited to Celtic culture and spirituality.

The first among the Teutonic tribes of England to be Christianized were the Jutes, whose close contact and trade with the Franks over in France, Belgium and the Netherlands exposed them to the later ‘Catholic Church’ that was more friendly to pagan customs. The Dark Age Roman missionaries were advised not to destroy pagan shrines, but to simply consecrate them in the name of Christ and convince the local people that they were Christians. In Late Antiquity, their methods included desecrating pagan shrines and attacking pagans, acts which did not win the hearts of the common folk. While the Jutes, Saxons and Mercians were converted to Roman Catholicism, the Northumbrians initially responded to the Church established by Saint Columba.

Edwin, was the first Northumbrian king to convert, though Oswy (a rival to Edwin and future King of Northumbria) converted to Christianity while he lived in exile in Iona. However, Oswy would eventually be responsible for turning his back on the Columban Church and agreed to revise the date of Easter to conform with mainstream Catholic custom at the Synod of Whitby; a move which would be followed by the Picts (in whose lands lived many Culdees, ‘hermit monks’ who preserved the Celtic tradition) and later at Iona itself. And so, the Catholic Church had succeeded in drawing the folk of the British Isles closer to its dogma, and went on to firmly establish Judeo-Christianity among the peoples of our land.

A similar process that occurred with the Britons and Anglo-Saxons may have also have happened among the inhabitants of the Northern Isles (and some of the Western Isles), and the Norsemen who settled there. These islands were some of the last places to be Christianized, and though they were attractive to the Culdees due to their isolation, they presumably did not bother the local pagans. The folk of the Northern Isles, especially in Shetland, have inherited much of their genetic lineage from the Norse. However, this does not mean that the natives were massacred by the Vikings. Rather, it suggests that they were more open to interaction with the Norsemen than with the mainland Picts and Gaels.

This may have been because the high kings of these peoples were known to raid the Northern Isles and the Hebrides, of which the goals were usually to capture booty and some slaves. It is important to note that chattel slavery was not widely practised in Britain before the introduction of Christianity, aside from kingdoms in the South-East who were in close contact with the Romans. Though there were many in European tribal society who were not free due to debt (and so were more like serfs), the market for this practice was only opened up through trade with the Mediterranean. Mercantile slavery was also not initially a feature of Scandinavian society, though they engaged in the practice once they began raiding other parts of Europe (especially in Ireland).

The place-names of the Isles show no trace of a Brittonic language such as Pictish, though we know that their culture was present in this part of the country at least so some degree because of the survival of some scattered Pictish symbol stones. However, the lack of Pictish material culture may also suggest that many of those living on the Isles before the Viking Age (between the 9th and 11th Centuries) were not Picts, and that this process may also have occurred over a longer period of time through cultural contact.The folk of the Northern Isles were converted to Christianity by the sword at the behest of the Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvasson, who was one of the most bloodthirsty and fanatical Christian kings in history.

The Western Isles were presumably converted more gradually as they merged with the Isle of Man to form their own kingdom, independent from Norway. Gradually, the process of Norse domination reversed, as the folk of the Western Isles adopted the Gaelic tongue and were eventually incorporated into the Kingdom of Scotland in the 13th Century. This later period produced more literature than the previous Dark Ages, as the Catholic Church had secured a monopoly on the production of books among most of the European kingdoms (Eastern Europe underwent a similar process with the Orthodox Church, though pagan customs were still more prevalent there than in Western Europe).

However, despite the fact that the Dark Ages heralded the introduction of Christianity to Northern Europe and the Middles Ages were characterized by the domination of the Church, it was still a time of dual faith; meaning that while society maintained the veneer of Christianity, most of the folk traditions and customs of the Europeans at the time remained rooted in paganism. This was also reflected in the monastic literature, as myths from Ireland and Iceland were preserved by the dedication of some monks to maintaining the ancient tales, though they probably omitted details if they offended Christian sensitivities.

Even in France and Germany where the pagan myths had not been written down during the Dark Ages, the rise of Romance literature continued the common themes of Celtic literature, such as the legends of King Arthur and his knights. While Welsh monks managed to preserve earlier versions of these stories, the French and German versions were more heavily adapted to feudal society (with Arthur and his knights acting more according to contemporary ideas of chivalry rather than his status as a warlord in Welsh stories). However, they still contained the pagan and Celtic elements at their core, and had many parallels in Welsh mythology.

While the Church continued to control the narrative of the written word, most folk of the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages engaged in oral tradition, and they preserved their people’s history through storytelling rather than writing. Though some of these stories were written down at some point during the Middle Ages, it is certain that many more have been lost over the centuries. There have been many attempts to record the ancient legends about Finn MacCool and other Gaelic heroes in Scotland and Ireland throughout the Modern era, either as a transcript or as audio recordings. These recent retellings in many cases match the ‘Classical Gaelic’ versions written down in the Middle Ages.

This is a testament to how strong the continuity of oral tradition can be, which is vital to maintaining the survival of a people through reminding them of the deeds of their ancestors and providing guidance for future challenges. Texts (and for that matter, computer data) are liable to be destroyed easily, and as their content resides in something external to ourselves, thy are forgotten if committed to writing and then lost or destroyed. This is why so many powerful institutions seek to control the narrative through media, and it is more effective to do so through the means of text and pictures. One of the reasons why folk customs were demonized in the Burning Times was that they posed a threat to the established order by diverging from the mainstream narrative and surviving thanks to the folk that remembered them. These ‘cunning folk’ were most likely to be engaged in what was deemed ‘witchcraft’, such as fortune-telling and herbal medicine.

I am unfortunately pessimistic in regards to our own time, as I do believe that we are on the verge of another Dark Age, as events that mirror the situation during Late Antiquity that preceded the fall of the Western Roman Empire signal that the collapse of our civilization has already begun. Our society is constantly over-stretching its limits and we are likely to see such events as mass starvation and outbreak of disease, as environmental disasters such as soil erosion and floods will lead to these conditions in a way similar to the Late Roman period. As the Roman elites became so corrupt that they practically enslaved their own populations (as they were no longer receiving slaves from imperial expansion) and introduced foreign populations against the wishes of the people for the sake of their own political interests (the Roman military needed soldiers, the central banks need debt-slaves).

Now that the European empires have expanded and subsequently fought each other in two devastating Brother Wars, only the shells of these empires remain and are being filled with more and more people to prop up consumer culture. Ethnic and religious tensions tear apart empires, and I can easily see Britain descending into tribalism once more if the central authority breaks down and people are left to fend for themselves, just as Emperor Honorius told the British nobles that they would no longer be receiving soldiers from the empire, as Britain had become such a vulnerable province.

In such events, the Celtic peoples survived because they managed to maintain their oral culture and were not devastated by the coming of Christianity. However, the Britons of the South-East became absorbed into Anglo-Saxon culture because they no longer shared the beliefs of their countrymen, and because they became surrounded by foreigners with whom they had more in common spiritually. I do wonder if the vacuum that has been left by the widespread abandonment of Christianity in the West is now being filled by Islam, as it is also an organized religion that insists on spreading its message to all corners of the globe through persuasion or by the sword.

In this way, historical patterns repeat themselves and we can tell what may happen by paying attention to the past. With the loss of spirituality in the West, it must quickly be replaced by our native belief systems, otherwise we may see another wave of violence similar to that during the Dark Ages. Whereas the people under the Roman Empire were protected by the imperial army, the petty kingdoms of the Dark Ages relied on local militias and mercenaries, a situation which is also mirrored today in the Middle East. This is a result of the breakdown of societies, which happens as they become less homogeneous and different cultures compete to control the narrative. Many indigenous cultures around the world have now become endangered, including our own.

However, it is still possible that we could have another Renaissance, as we Europeans rediscover what we have lost and realize who we truly are. This may be possible after a population collapse in the wake of catastrophic events (as with the Black Death that signalled the end of the Middle Ages), and less people would mean that more resources would be available. However, it is only possible to achieve this with dedication in recovering our heritage and history, and by thinking of ourselves also as worthy of being remembered in legends.We are not, as Modern nihilistic thinking suggests, individuals that only exist for one lifetime, but are part of a chain that connects us to both our ancestors and our descendants.

This link may only persist by thinking less about ourselves and more about our families and our folk. One of the reasons that the Dark Ages were known for the prevalence of warfare was that scarcity of resources once the Anglo-Saxon population expanded led them to push further and further West. Many of the inhabitants of cities such as York were still living within the Roman walls, and so urban life continued in some parts of Britain after the Roman left. However, these areas were more susceptible to cultural assimilation, as they were cosmopolitan and did not have a sense of national identity in the same way that the Britons of the countryside did. In the same way, it is in the rural parts of our country where our culture will have a chance of survival.

Wulf Willelmson

An ethnographic history of Scotland, Part I: The Celtic tribes

To have an understanding of one’s heritage, you must recognise the struggles of the tribes and nations that came before you so that you can appreciate the cultures that your ancestors fought to preserve and how you can hopefully avoid being wiped off the map as a distinct group of people. That said, the folk that make up ethnic groups tend not to truly disappear (except in the case of deliberate genocide by a hostile invader), but rather live on in in the blood of people who may have adopted the culture of their ancestors’ enemies. Such is the course of history, and being able to recognise who is truly your racial enemy and who is simply another ethnic group living in the vicinity is essential to the survival of a folk. Some ethnic groups live side-by-side in a country, others come to dominate the whole country, while the unfortunate or weak-willed are trampled underfoot and forgotten. We must have an understanding of where we have come from if we want to know where to go as a folk.

Our country has a long history of human occupation stretching back at least 10,000 years to the Mesolithic, though earlier settlement will have become obscured by the devastating force of the glaciers during each Ice Age. Though the ways of these early prehistoric folk have long since faded, our Aryan heritage stretches at least back to the Bronze Age (around 4,000 years ago) with the introduction of metallurgy and pastoralism (although whether the Aryans were also responsible for the introduction of agriculture around 5,000 years ago is not entirely clear). Nevertheless, despite the many interesting things that could be said about our prehistory, for the sake of conciseness I am going to focus specifically on the history of the last 2,000 years, since our ancestral memory of earlier times has been clouded and also because it is in this period that the various peoples who form the basis of the European nations today emerge. Maybe another time we can focus on the truly ancient past.

For now we must do with what, unfortunately, other civilisations have had to say about our ancestors. The Classical Greeks knew of Britain and Ireland and even sailed there a few times. The name they gave for Britain was ‘Albion’, an ancient term possibly meaning ‘white’ and related to the name of the Alps. However, it is the Romans who give us the first true glimpses of our country’s ethnography, specifically because they were attempting to conquer it. The impression that they give us is that our ancestors were naked savages that knew nothing of civilisation and lived like animals, and that the only reason that the Romans couldn’t conquer their land was because it was so dreary and the climate so awful that no sane person would ever want to live there. Archaeology has shown this blatant propaganda to be false, as of course, our ancestors were engaged in agriculture for thousands of years and in fact, the area of Strathmore on the east coast has long been acknowledged as highly productive for growing grain. Therefore, the Romans have contributed nothing to our heritage aside form their ‘historical’ records and archaeological remains. Yet their accounts are still valuable, as they provide us with the earliest tribal and ethnic names that our ancestors may have used to refer to themselves.

The Roman historian Tacitus gives us some interesting details about the natives of this land in the eulogy to his father-in-law, British governor and general, Agricola, and his attempt to conquer Scotland. He refers to her inhabitans as ‘Britons’ and more specifically to the tribes north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus as ‘Caledonians’ (from whom our kindred takes it’s name). While it is tempting to presume that the folk of Northern Scotland were ethnically identical to those in the rest of Britain on this basis, there is evidence that this was not necessarily the case. In the Welsh Triads, Britain (known as ‘Prydein’) is split into three parts: Lloegyr (what is now Southern and Eastern England), Cymru (pronounced ‘cum-ree’ and consisted of Wales, Northern and Western England and Southern Scotland) and the area in question as Alban or Prydyn. While the Welsh refer to themselves as ‘Cymraeg’, they referred to the inhabitants of Prydyn as ‘Brithwyr’, which is very confusing considering that later on the Romans referred to the former as ‘Britons’ and the latter as ‘Picts’. Nevertheless, it has been proven through the analysis of place-names and Pictish personal names that the Picts spoke a Brittonic language in the same family as Modern Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

Another group that appear to have been present in Scotland at this time are the Gaels. Though they have come to be seen by some as synonymous with Scottish identity, originally they seem to have had a fairly minor presence in Scotland, inhabiting what is now Argyll (which means ‘coast of the Gael’). It has been generally assumed that the Scottish Gaels originally came from Ireland, although the lack of Brittonic place-names in Argyll that would suggest the presence of an earlier Pictish population makes this unlikely. Thus, by the time the Romans arrive (and for that matter, by the time they leave) Scotland consisted of three distinct ethnic groups: Britons in the South, Gaels in the West and Picts in the rest (the Northern and Western Isles were probably Pictish too but it’s harder to be sure). They all spoke Celtic languages and had similar Iron Age cultures, but each group consisted of different tribes with their own traditions and ties to the land.

Their way of life most likely depended on what sort of land they lived on. Tribes that inhabited the low-lying plains (yes, they do exist in Scotland) would have focused more on agriculture and may have had more settled lives, growing grains like barley, oats and spelt wheat as well as vegetables such as leeks, kale and turnips. Those tribes that lived on the hills would have practised pastoralism and moved up or down from the hills depending on the season. Though they would have herded sheep, goats and pigs (chickens being relatively rare in this period), their main focus was on cattle, who were considered so valuable that cattle-raiding has been a long-standing tradition in Celtic culture. This usually took place during Autumn and was a chance for young warriors to prove their worth among their tribe through acts of bravery. As you would expect, these folk survived on a diet mainly consisting of meat and dairy, although they would also have grown crops, the emphasis here being that these differences in lifestyle between tribes were not necessarily exclusive, more the predominance of agriculture or pastoralism in a particular area. The tribes that lived on the coast or on islands would have relied more on wild sources of food, such as fishing and whaling as well as hunting for seabirds and their eggs. They were the ones who best preserved the ancient ways of the hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic (as reflected by the lack of archaeological finds from Scottish islands in this period), although they also practised what agriculture and animal husbandry they could.

The style of warfare among Iron Age tribes in Scotland was fairly primitive, there is little evidence for armour and what armour there was (chainmail and possibly bronze helmets) would have only been worn by the chieftains or champions who were given lavish weapons and armour as gifts. Spears, javelins or darts (which may have been tipped with iron or bone) and small shields would have been the mainstay of warriors at this time, with a focus on light, mobile warfare consisting of hit-and-run tactics and ambushing. Though they seem to have reserved this style of warfare for the Romans, who could not be defeated in a pitched battle (as evidenced by their defeat at the hands of Agricola at the Battle of Mons Graupius according to Tacitus) and had to be dealt with through guerilla warfare; attacking and then retreating into the mountains and forests to wear them down through attrition (which seemed to do the trick given that the Romans basically gave up on conquering Scotland, if not for want of trying). They used light cavalry but they also had chariots, which were more suited to the smaller ponies native to Britain and had gone out of fashion in the rest of Eurasia. It is unclear what their swords were like, Tacitus says that the Caledonians used ‘huge swords’, but all of the archaeological evidence from Northern Britain (albeit, none has been found in the region of Alban) suggests that swords weren’t much longer than the average gladius, which is more likely considering that iron isn’t particularly abundant in Scotland, and the style of warfare in Northern Britain and Ireland suggests the use of short swords.

Amongst themselves battles were probably more ritualized, with an emphasis on display through both ostentatious torques and tattoos as well as taunts, songs and chants as a prelude to combat. The battle may have begun with an exchange of javelins from skirmishers and charioteers (as suggested from Tacitus account of Mons Graupius) before the more experienced warriors would charge at each other. Battles in this era were probably rather short, and would have depended on the performance of the most skilled warriors, with the lighter armed and less experienced warriors providing support through missile-fire and shouting. Given what Tacitus says about the amount of warriors that fled Mons Graupius (most of them) we can assume that these warriors were used to breaking once the better warriors began to rout and so while the losing army returned to their wives and mothers in shame, they at least lived to fight and maybe win again another day. The winners celebrated their victories in the mead hall (probably the house of their chieftain) and feasted, drank and sung of great deeds on the battlefield and heroes of the past. Battles would have usually taken place in the Summer (it was a separate sort of engagement from the cattle-raiding), and could have occurred for all manner of reasons, vendettas and slanders by a member of one tribe against another were likely reasons. Single-combat between champions was also aspect of Iron Age warfare, since this emphasizes the conflict between individuals rather than whole tribes and could have been used to resolve disputes without a battle taking place.

To be continued…

Wulf Willelmson