In 1912, Hector Chadwick dubbed the period between Alaric’s sack of Rome and the Cadwallon’s campaign of 632 the “British Heroic Age”.[i] He then compared it and the Anglo-Saxon Heroic Age to the Greek Heroic Age. When a scholar studies the literature of both insular cultures of the time it is hard to deny that many of their values and attitudes are identical to those found in the Iliad and other Greek literature from the same era.
However, an heroic age is more than simply a consistent philosophy about life and death, it is a complete political and economic system. At the center of the heroic age is the king. It is his personality and personal charisma that bonds the warriors together in the first place. His reputation and the confidence inspires villages to pay tribute. His successes in battle and the loot he acquires raids are what attract new warriors to him and allow for his fame and his band of warriors to grow from a handful of warriors to dozens.
The cult of a specific individual is what allows for kingship to develop initially, but a king who rules solely by the force of his personality can only survive for so long. In the modern world many leaders have had personal charisma, but many have not. Leaders are able to lead because of two key elements – tradition and the moral authority to rule.
The British chieftains that emerged after Roman rule had neither a tradition nor a moral authority over the people. They had authority over villages only because they had an army and the villages needed protection. They controlled their army because they had the money pay them and the warriors’ respect. When any element in that chain faltered, their ability to rule disintegrated.
Which is why bards among the Britons, Irish, and Picts and skops among the Germanic tribes were an invaluable element of society for kingship – they gave the illusion of moral authority and tradition to the early kingships.
We have no direct knowledge of what both groups were taught as part of their educations but they were probably similar. They were probably taught all of the essential myths and legends of their people as well as hundreds of lesser stories. They probably also picked up as many current events as they could – battles, raids, generous and stingy kings, silver-tongued and ugly warriors, anything that might prove useful in the king’s hall. We can be confident that both groups were also taught how to create extemporaneous poetry quickly using hundreds of motifs and pneumonic devices. They were shown techniques that helped them adjust to different audiences, time limits, and even values.
Any person who completed their formal education would have had all the tools to become an excellent entertainer. He, or she, could tell myths and legends in many different ways, keeping the old stories fresh by stressing different themes and perspectives. They could create new stories and poems to praise their patrons as events occurred.[ii]
We have to keep in mind, though, that the bard and the skop were much more than just entertainers. Their ability to innovate gave them an almost mystical reputation among their people – what they said was the truth and the power of their words made what they predicted inevitable.[iii] The education also made them natural historians; ancient peoples who kept no written records made little or no distinction between mythology, legend, and history.
In the late fifth century among the Britons and the mid-sixth century among the Germanic peoples, their significance was magnified. Both culture groups had not needed kings for at least three generations and were only just beginning to reintroduce them. In that context, the historians infuse the new group of chieftains with a respectable lineage several generations deep. This was possible because of the relatively short life-span of the average person at the time,[iv] and the fact that any history beyond the lifetime of the oldest member of society was extremely flexible.[v]
Asked to construct a lineage for his king, a bard would begin with the information that was widely known – probably all of the current king’s accomplishments and his father’s name. Beyond that, a bard was free to insert famous local kings into his king’s geneology. This gave the king’s warriors and the villages under his protection a sense of consistency by reinforcing the belief that their leader was not only an excellent war-leader but that he came from a long and rich tradition of legendary ancestors.
Bards and skops were also responsible for creating the illusion of a kingship’s sanctity. Family history was part of that role because it demonstrated a king’s right to rule. However, the office of king itself was sacred. The two cultures did this in different ways, but the common denominators were that the clan from which kings were chosen had divine favor and the man chosen as king was believed to be the most favored.[vi] Secondly, part of the inauguration ritual included marriage to the land. Among the British the land was symbolized by an old hag who transformed into a beautiful young woman when married to the right king.[vii] For the English the king married a deity, Freyja, and so there was no transformation.[viii]
Among the Celts legend had it that the wife, and the land she symbolized, would remain youthful and beautiful for as long as the king ruled well. Knowing that, a peasant only needed to look at his own fields to be reassured his king had divine grace.
Marriage to the land made for an effective image. However, daily reminders like praise poems were also useful because they could approach the same subjects from different angles and served many different purposes: To reinforce the king’s stature as a generous and successful leader, to point out the unique talents of his men, to support the bond between a king and his warriors.
Warriors were an essential part of the equation. While a king’s personality might attract warriors and win tribute it was the warriors’ willingness to stand beside their leader and often die in battle that made kingship successful. Achilles was once offered the choice of living a long life and being forgotten when his children died or dying young but enjoying eternal fame; he made the same choice as every other heroic age warrior. Their numbers made it possible for the king to defend villages from raiders and eventually to make their own raids. The warriors’ presence helped to enforce the agreement between king and villages for food and supplies. Without them, the king had nothing.
These villages, and the villagers who populated them, were the foundation of every kingdom. Each year they produced the grains, honey, bragawt, livestock, labor, and smiths that kept the king, his warriors, and his servants fed, sheltered, and armed. Without their support British kingship could not exist. The mutual need of all four groups – king, bards, warriors, and villages – is what made the system work.
One other element was absolutely necessary for British kingship to survive – an enemy. The original reason for kingships was the raiding and settling of the Germanic tribes and Irish princes. Both groups were real threats in the middle and late fifth century. But, as has been seen, the Irish had lost interest in Britain by 500 and evidence will be produced that Germanic tribes had stopped migrating into Britain by then. Both groups probably still conducted raids into the sixth century, but by then they had likely settled into a pattern of stealing livestock and defending their own cattle from other villages.
As has been seen, the British chieftains also took part in raiding British as well as Irish, Germanic, and probably Pictish targets. Raiding helped a king develop a reputation as a battle leader and a man who was able to take booty. What is normally overlooked is that the act of raiding also served the raided kingdom. If foreign kings could be beaten off it would enhance the defender’s reputation, but whether he was successful or not, raiding parties could be portrayed as the new enemy; without the king to defend the peasants those raiding parties would have attacked the villages themselves.
Every element in the heroic age system was a necessary one. The king’s charisma and leadership ability bonded the warriors to him and made the villages believe he could protect them. Bards lived on kings’ largesse but provided them with a geneology of famous local kings and tapped the divine nature of their position while using their skills to entertain. The warriors were attracted to kings because of their abilities and their wealth. In return they went into battle with them, putting their lords’ lives before their own.
All three groups were fed, clothed, and paid by the villages. In return for a small portion of their annual crops as well as some livestock and labor they had a king who was sworn to protect them. That protection might not have been as secure as it had been under the Romans but it gave them more safety than they had enjoyed since the Romans while demanding fewer resources than raiders took.
Despite the interdependence of the different groups the system was still fragile. It might have been based on ancient traditions, but it was new. Bards were invaluable in making the political shifts an accepted part of British culture. But changing attitudes took time.
That may have been one of the reasons for the witch hunts of around 500.[ix] We know that they existed because we know that “witches” existed. Samson killed one in the Vita Samsoni.[x] Arthur killed a great one in Culhwch ac Olwen,[xi] and he and his men attack nine in “Preiddeu Annwn”.[xii] St. Martin initiated the movement in the old empire during the fourth century with attacks on pagan temples and groups of non-Christians.[xiii] Later on bishops, priests, and occasionally secular rulers led campaigns against them for their own reasons.
[i] Chadwick, The Heroic Age, (Cambridge, 1912), 105-9.
[ii] West, Indo-European poetry and myth, (Oxford, 2007), 30.
[iii] The bard’s power was considered so potent they could predict the manner and time of death. This made a displeased bard one of the most fearsome things in the Celtic world; Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, (Dublin, 1988), 49-51.
[iv] Wells, Bones, Bodies and Disease, (London, 1964), 179.
[v] Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, (Madison, 1985).
[vi] Binchy, “Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Kingship”, (Oxford, 1970); Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity, (Manchester, 1970), 174-220.
[vii] Bugge, “Fertility myth and female sovereignty in the weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell”, CR 39.2 (University Park, 2004), 198-218.
[viii] Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity, (Manchester, 1970), 27; Chadwick, Origins of the English Nation, (Cambridge, 1907), 237-8.
[ix] Johnson, Origins of Arthurian Romances, (Madison, 2012), 100-36.
[x] The Life of St. Samson of Dol, trans. Thomas Taylor, (Llanerch, rep. 1991), books 26 and 27.
[xi] Culhwch ac Olwen: An edition and study of the oldest Arthurian tale, ed. Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, (Cardiff, 1992), 1206-1227.
[xii] “ ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ and the figure of Taliesin”, ed. and trans. Marged Haycock, SC 14/15 (Cardiff, 1984), ln. 14.
[xiii] Stancliffe, Clare, St. Martin and his Hagiographer: History and Miracle in Sulpicius Severus, (Oxford, 1983); Vitae Martini, 13.9, 14.1, 14.3-7, 15.1, and 15.4.