Charles Isaac Elton.

Origins of English history online

. (page 15 of 38)
Online LibraryCharles Isaac EltonOrigins of English history → online text (page 15 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Tacitus, and his Germans "with their fierce blue eyes,
and huge bodies only fit for a sudden exertion." He may
have borrowed and- misapplied the words of the passage of
Vitruvius ; but, whether this be so or not, it is clear that
he was mistaken in attributing a German origin to the
people of the Grampian range, and it appears highly pro-
bable that thev were descended from one of the nameless
nations who had preceded the advance of the Celts.

They appear in Herodian's sketch as naked savages,
tattooed with the strange shapes of beasts and birds, of
which the remembrance is preserved in Claudian's fine
allusion to "the figures fading on the dying Pict." They
passed their days in the water, swimming in the northern
estuaries, or wading with the stream as high as the waist.^
Dion Cassius adds, with his characteristic vivacity, that
thev would hide in the mud for davs tog^ether, with nothing
but their heads out of the water. As late as the third
century after Christ they had hardly become familiar with
the use of iron ; for they wore it in collars and bands on
their necks and loins, and regarded it in the place of gold
as an ornament and a sign of wealth. In their wars they
used chariots drawn by mountain-ponies, which could

^ Compare Strabo, iv. 2785 Lucan's " Flavis mista Britannis," Pharsal.
iii. 78 ; and the well-known passage of Juvenal : —

" Caerula quis stupuit German! lumina, flavam
Caesariem, et madido torquentem cornua cirro ? " — Sat. xiii. 164.
^ Herodian, iii. 145 Dion Cassius (Xiphiline), Ixxvi. 12. Compare
Oppian's "Aypm (pi/Xa Bpi-dyvwi' ahXorwruji', Cyneget. i. 470 3 Claudian,
Eell. Getic. 417 ; Solinus, c. 24.

Origins of English History. 165

hardly excel the speed of the troops on foot. They seem
to have been scantily armed ; they had not even the
clumsy Celtic broad-sword, but fought with target and
dagger, and a short pike with a clattering ball of bronze
on the shaft to frighten the enemy with its noise.

Dion Cassius gave a pitiful account of their squalid and
barbarous ways. They have, he said, no towns, or fields,
or houses, but roam on the wild and w^aterless mountains,
or in deserts and marshy plains. Their scanty subsistence
was gained in hunting, though they got some small sup-
plies of food from their herds and flocks ; and they eked
it out w4th herbs, with fruit and nuts, and even with the
bark of the trees in the forest. They had discovered a
satisfying root, an earth-nut^ of a sweet cloying taste,
w^hich could be dried and made into a kind of bread ; and
of this (said Dion) if thev eat a piece as large as a bean,
they neither hunger nor thirst. With a superstition like that
of the Eskimo they refused to taste fish, though they had
an abundant supply wathin reach ; and it has been noticed,
that though the ancient Irish were fish- eaters, there were
certain parts of the country, as well as some Highland dis-
tricts, where " the Saxons" were despised and disliked for
the practice ; and it has been suggested that this absti-
nence was a religious observance, " derived from some
ancient colonists from Asia.""

They lived naked and barefooted, in a savage com-
munism, without any organisation of State or family ; and
even the wives and children were regarded as the property
of the horde. Their onlv merit, if we trust the Greek

^ This seems to be the Conopodium Deandatum, or ordinary "pig-nut ":
another "pig-nut," called Carum Bull-ocasta?iu)n, isiound chiefly on chalk soils.

^ Bonwick, Anc. Irish, 73. Compare Ware, Antiquit. Hibern. c. 22 ;
Campion, Tract on the Ancient Irish, 25, 113.

i66 Origins of English History.

description, was a neglect or an ignorance of the practice
of infanticide, which is treated by the classical historians
as an unexpected and startling instance of natural virtue.

We hear but little in later times of these strange and
wild communities. It seems to be clear, however, that
they became merged or included in the Pictish nation,
and it may be hoped that something more will be learned
about them when the Pictish sculptures are interpreted.
The materials for one part of the inquiry may be roughly
classified as follows.

In various parts of Sweden and Denmark there are
inscriptions and rock-carvings of the Bronze Age, cut out
on the faces of smooth cliffs, or on the pillars and cap-
stones of the megalithic tombs. In the case of the tiimidiis
at Tegneby, in Zealand, from which the earth has not
been long removed, there are pictures of war-canoes, and
crosses contained in circles which seem to be intended for

Some of these rocks (especially those at Tegneby,
Kivik, and Axevalla in Sweden) contain pictures of the
Bronze-Age men pursuing their labours by sea and land.
We can distinguish a sea-fight with long lines of war-
canoes, like those of the South^Sea Islanders, little boats
crossing a shallow reach, cattle and chariots driven
through still waters, bowmen and spearmen, and tall
naked men fighting with bronze axes fastened to long
handles.^ We have elsewhere the sketch of a man
driving a chariot through a pasture where sheep are feed-
ing, a swordsman leading a string of captives, and rows
of hooded figures draped in long black robes. These
pictures help us to realise the life of the tribes described

^ Montelius, Civilisation of Sweden (Woods), c. 2.

Origins of English History. 167

by Herodian ; but the more important point is, that some
of the same stones contain characters, as if from some
unknown alphabet, like those which have been found in
the British Isles, and in several of the tombs in Brittany.

After clearing away a large tumulus at Aspatria, near
St. Bees, a vault was found which contained a gigantic
skeleton. It is said that the man must have been some-
thing over 7 feet high. The comparatively late date
of the interment was shown by the finding of an iron
sword, with the hilt inlaid with silver flowers, a gold
buckle, a snaffle-bit, and a battle-axe. But the stones were
marked with the crossed and dotted circles,^ and other
figures which appear on the older monuments.

A comparison of the impressions collected from stones
in Scotland, from the tombs near the Boyne and on the
Witches' Hill at Lough Crew, and from Gavr Innis, and
other celebrated " dolmens " in Brittany, leads to the
conclusion that they were all due to one race of men who
used these signs as an alphabet. There are also cases in
England, such as the rock-carvings in Northumberland
and Cumberland, and in Wales, such as those at *' St.
Iltyd's House " in Brecknockshire, which belong to the
class in question. The most noticeable signs are the
"plumed hatchets," the stone-axe, hearts, shamrocks,
crosses, and circles with projecting spikes, and lines
crossing a central stem and enclosed in a cartouche?

^ These signs^ as well as one resembling a mirror or hand-glass, are
found among the land-marks used in the annual division of lot-meadows,
both in Ditmarsh and in some of the English counties. The country-
people called them " the hare's-tail, the duck's-nest, and the peel or
doter." Williams, Land of Ditmarsh, Archceologla, xxxvii.

^ See Fergusson's "Rude Stone Monuments," and Stuart's "Sculptured
Stones of Scotland."

1 68 Origins of English History.

The sculptured stones of Scotland are found on the
coasts and islands from Aberdeen to Shetland, and in
some of the caves in Fifeshire. Some of them appear to
be of mediaeval date. They are covered with the symbols
of some forgotten heraldry, such as eagles and dragons,
wormknots, conventional figures of the elephant, dogs or
sea-snakes fighting. Some of these have also been found
on the Scandinavian monuments. There may be some
connection between this symbolism and the tattoo-
marks of the ancient Picts, "the shapes of the heavenly
bodies, and of all kinds of beasts and birds," of which we
read in Herodian ; but the subject is too obscure for any
positive statement to be hazarded. The figures of the
comb, mirror, and brooch, can be explained as denoting
the objects buried with the dead, as seems to have been
first noticed in Wallace's Description of the Isles of
Orkney (1693). As the work is rare, it may be well to
extract the passage : — " At the west end of the mainland,
on the top of high rocks above a quarter of a mile in
length, there is something like a street, all set in red clay,
with a sort of reddish stones of several figures and magni-
tudes, having the images of several things, as it w^ere,
engraven upon them ; and, which is very strange, most of
these stones, when they are raised up, have that same
image under, which they had engraven above. Likewise,
in the Links of Tranabie in Westra have been found
graves in the sand, in one of which was seen a man lying
with his sword on the one hand and a Danish axe on the
other ; and others that have had dogs, and combs, and
knives buried with them."

Such is the principal evidence for the theory that the
Bronze-Age tribes, the " dolmen-builders," and construe-

Origins of English History. 169

tors of the great stone-circles, can be distinguished in
some parts of Britain down to a time which we may call
recent, having regard to the scope of our inquiry. On
this part of the subject we will only add a few details of
customs which have been observed in Scotland and
Ireland and which cannot easily be correlated with any-
thing that is known to be of Aryan origin.

The first example relates to the rule of succession to the
Pictish Crown, which was noticed by Bede in the opening
chapter of his history, and which has been elucidated by
Mr. Skene's investigation of the names occurring in the
several dynasties down to the time of the venerable histo-
rian. It was the custom in Pictland, as the saying went,
that the kingdom should come from women rather than
men. The dignity, it seems, never went from father to
son ; but when the king died, the crown went to his next
brother, or in default, to his sister's son, or in any event to
the nearest male relation claiming through a female, and
on the female side. The list contains no instance of a son
bearing his father's name, or of the same name belonging
to both father and mother ; and the only fathers of kings
of whom any account has survived are certainly known to
have been foreigners, the one a prince of Strathclyde and
the other a grandson of the English king of Northumbria.
We have instances here of the rules, that brothers shall
inherit in the place of sons, that blood-relationships shall
only be traced in the female line, and that it shall not be
lawful for a woman to marry within her domestic tribe,
which prevail among the savage peoples of Polynesia and
the rudest of the Asian aborigines. It is not sufficient to
suggest, with Mr. McLennan, that the Celts were lax in
their morals, and may have found it expedient that the

lyo Origins of English History.

children's claims should always be traced through the
mother.^ He has carried, as he has said, the line of
human progress far back towards brutishness. But there
is an abundance of positive evidence that the Aryan
nations had established the "agnatic system," by which
the family was confined to males and unmarried women
descended from a patriarchal ancestor, even before the
divisions began which brought the Celts into Europe.
The Picts in the North, and the Spartans in the South,
may have ignored the system of descent through males on
which civilised society was based ; but it is easier in each
case to believe in the persistence of customs belonging to
an older people, than to suppose that a section of the
civilised race had retained or revived the practices which
their ancestors had already forgotten when encamped on
the banks of the Oxus.

We rely for our next instance on a story from Giraldus
Cambrensis,^ which has been vehemently denied by writers
upon Celtic history, but is supported by independent testi-
mony from the chronicles of the Pictish kingdom. The
story is generally told as if it must necessarily relate to
the great family of the " Hy Nyall," whose kings were
crowned at Tara. But Giraldus only said that in one
part of their dominions was a nation that practised a
barbarous rite in their mode of electing a king. A white
mare, or a cow by another account, was sacrificed in the
midst of the people : the candidate was forced to crawl in
on all-fours, and to lap the broth and taste the flesh, with

^ M'Lennan, Studies in Ancient History, loi, 145 ; Skene, Celtic
Scotland, i, 233 5 Hearne, Aryan Household, 153.

^ Girald. Carabr. Topog. Hibern. iii. 25. See Campion's Tract on
Ancient Ireland, and Ware, Antiqu. Hibern. ii. 64.

Origins of English History. 171

several degrading ceremonies. That some similar practice
long remained among the Picts is known from the words
of a contemporary chronicler ; for David the First of Scot-
land, who led the Scottish and Pictish forces to the Battle
of the Standard (a.d. 1153), was said to have been so
disgusted at the customary rites of subservience that the
bishops could hardly persuade him to accept the kingly
office/ It is a common usage among savages to impose
an ordeal upon an elected chief, either to test his courage
and steadfastness, or to assert symbolically some claim of
original equality with the man to whom they are about to
submit. But no such humiliating observance could have
been claimed from the Celtic or the Teutonic princes, who
asserted a diviner right to represent the purest blood of the
race as the kindred of the elemental gods or the children
of Woden or Saxnoth, We know in fact how different
were the rites observed at the enthronement of the Celtic
and Scandinavian kings. Surrounded by his nobles the
elected prince was placed on a coronation-stone, as the
seat on the Rock of Doon, the " stone of destiny " at
Tara, the " Moor-stone" of Upsala, the stone-chair of the
Danish kings at Leire, and the seat of sandstone, called
^^ lapiere dc Escose^^ in the Abbey Church at Westminster.^

^ " Unde et obsequia ilia, quae a gente Scottorum in novella regum
promotione more patrio exhibentur, ita exhorruit ut ea vix ab episcopis
suscipere cogeretur." Ailred's Chronicles, Twysden, 348. See Robertson,
Scotland under her Early Kings, i. 2)^.

^ The value attached to the stone brought by Edward the First from
Scone was due in a great measure to the legend of " Scota the fairy-
princess." In the ' Process of Baldred Bisset against the figments of the
King of England,' compiled in i3oi,the maintainers of Scottish independence
argued, that Scota, ' the daughter of Pharaoh,' having gone first to Ireland,
sailed to Scotland, taking with her the royal seat, which (with other

172 Origins of English History.

The chiefs sat or stood on other stones, sometimes
arranged in a circle of twelve and surrounding the chair of
honour. The people applauded, as the kneeling bard or
"sennachie" recited the royal pedigree; and the ancient
ceremony was completed in Christian times by anointment
and consecration.

Many very strange customs existed in Spenser's day
among the Northern Irish and some of the Highland
tribes, " such wild uses," as he said, that he could only
compare such men to the " Tartarians " and people round
the Caspian Sea. For those Scythians, "when they would
binde any solemn vow or combination amongst them, used
to drink a bowle of blood together, vowing thereby to
spend their last blood in that quarrell, and even so do the
wild Scots and some of the Northern Irish. The Scythians
used to sw^eare by their king's hand ; and so do the Irish
use now to sweare by their lord's hand, and to forsw^eare
it they hold it more criminall than to sweare by God.
The Scythians also used to seethe the flesh in the hide,
and so do the Northern Irish. The Scythians used to
draw the blood of the beast living, and to make meat
thereof, and so do the Irish in the North still. "^

insignia of the Kingdom of Scotland) the King of England had carried away.
Skene, ' Coronation Stone.' Proc. Soc. Antiquaries, vii. 68. Chron.
Picts and Scots, 280. Skene, Celtic Scotland, i. 283. See also Keysler,
Antiqu. Sept. 25, 30 ; Bonwick, Anc. Irish, 50. For the Scandinavian
examples, see Olaus ISIagnus, Hist. Sept. viii. i, Keysler, Antiqu. Sept. 93,
and Scheffer, Upsalia, c. 17.

^ Spenser's " View," &c., 82, 99. Compare the customs mentioned in
Campion's Tract on Ancient Ireland, and in Ware's Antiquitates Hibernicae.
" As a ratification of a league they drink each other's blood, which is shed
for the purpose : this custom has been handed down to them from the rites
of the heathen." Girald. Cambr. Topogr. Hibern. iii. 22. For the
"Abyssinian " practice of using the living animal for food, see Logan, Scott.

Origins of English History. 173

We will take our next example from Giraldus/ The
adventure of a ship's crew, in what was called in the 12th
century the unexplored expanse of the Sea of Connaught,
is told in the very words of the men who saw the naked
yellow-haired savages. "Some sailors told me," said the
traveller, " that being driven by a storm into that sea
they lay for shelter off a small island, and when the storm
abated they saw at no great distance the outline of an
unknown coast." Soon afterwards they noticed a small
canoe approaching them, made of wattled sticks covered
over with hides of beasts. In it were two men without
any clothing, except broad belts of skin round their waists :
they had " long yellow hair, like the Irish, falling below
their shoulders and covering most of their bodies." Find-
ing that these men were from some part of Connaught,
and could speak the Irish language, the sailors took them
on board. The men were found to be pagans, who had
never even heard of Christianity : they had never before
seen a ship, and everything indeed that they saw appeared
to excite their surprise. " Bread and cheese being offered
to them, they refused to eat, not knowing what they were.
They said that they lived entirely off flesh, fish, and milk,
and never wore clothes, except sometimes the skins of
beasts in case of a great necessity. They knew nothing
of the measurement of the month or the vear, and the

Gael. ii. 112. Compare the classical description of the customs^ of j the
" Concani " in Spain : —

" Yisam Britannos hospitibus feros,
Et laetum equine sanguine Concanum."

Horat. Carm. iii. 4,33.
" Nee qui, Massageten monstrans feritate parentem,
Cornipedis fusa satiaris. Concane, vena."

Silius Ital, Funic, iii. 360.
^ Topogr. Hibern. iii. 26.

174 Origins of English History.

names of the days of the week were matters entirely
beyond their conception."

We may conclude this part of the subject with a few
instances of peculiar usages, long continuing in the districts
about the frontier of Wales, which can hardly be referred
to any other origin than the persistence of ancient habits
among the descendants of the Silurian tribes. We need
not dwell on such facts as that the country-people of
Anglesea or St. David's, or of the legend-haunted Vale of
Neath, were prone to believe in fearful goblins, in magical
wells, and rocks that spoke or flew by night, in half-human
snakes, and "stones of contention" at which the domestic
animals would dance and fight as if possessed by a demon.
The strangeness of the " lower mythology " prevailing in
Wales and Brittany might afford some evidence in favour
of its pre-Celtic origin. But no country in Europe is free
from those gross superstitions which seem to indicate an
underworld of barbarism and remnants of forgotten
nations not yet penetrated by the culture of the domi-
nant races. We find instances of a more special and
localised kind in the peculiarities noted by Giraldus
among the brown-skinned and black-haired people, whom
he called " Dardanians," thinking that their forefathers had
fled before the Greeks upon the plains of Troy, but in
whom more modern ethnologists have recognised the
remnants of the Neolithic tribes.

We may observe, for instance, his account of the Silurian
Soothsayers, who were found only in the districts that
were held by the dark-skinned race. " There are certain
people there," (he said,) " whom you will never find any-
where else : when consulted upon any doubtful event, they
roar out violently, and are beside themselves and as it were

Origins of English History. 175

possessed by a spirit." When roused from their ecstasy
they seemed to be waking from a deep sleep, and until
they were violently shaken they did not return to their
proper senses. One might compare with this account, and
with the similar suggestions of Solinus, the storv which
was told of the gathering at St. Almedha's Fair. A little
to the east of Brecknock is a hill where the people of the
country-side assembled at an annual feast. There, said
Giraldus, you might see them, in the dance which goes
round the churchyard, leaping about, or falling to the
ground in a trance, or mimicking the actions which they
had wrongfully committed upon holydays. " You mio-ht
see one man putting his hand to the plough, and another
goading on the oxen, and lightening their labour with his
rustic song : one would be working like a shoemaker, and
another as a tanner. You might see a girl with a distaff,
drawing out the thread and winding it round the spindle,
another walking and sorting the threads for the web, and
another in the act of throwing the shuttle and seeming to
weave the cloth ; but when they were brought into the
Church and led to the altar with their offerings, you would
be astonished to see them awake and suddenly come to

In the same connection we may mention the "Cursing-
wells," where the jealous and disappointed might imprecate
destruction, as at the Altar of the "Mount of Cursing," on
the basket and store of their neighbour, " the fruit of his
body and the fruit of his field." It was thought that by
performing the rites of an impious service, by casting in a
pin or a pebble inscribed with the enemy's name, the spirit

1 Girald. Cambr. Itin. Cambr. i. c. 2 ; Descr. Canibr. i. c. 16.

176 Origins of English History.

of the well would cause the victim to pine and die unless
the curse should be willingly removed.^

Our last example of these abnormal usages shall be
taken from the superstition of the Sin-eater, which
certainly prevailed in Herefordshire, though it may be
doubtful whether it extended to the neighbouring parts of
Wales. " In the County of Hereford," said Aubrey, " it
was an old custom at funerals to hire poor people who
were to take upon them the sins of the person deceased.
The manner was that, when the corpse was brought out
of the house and laid upon the bier, a loaf of bread was
brought out and delivered to the Sin-eater over the corpse,,
as also a Mazard-bowl of maple-wood full of beer which
he was to drink up, and sixpence in money, in considera-
tion whereof he took upon him ipso facto all the sins of
the defunct and freed him or her from walking after they
were dead."^ Mr. Wirt Sikes in his work upon Welsh

^ St. Elian's Well in Denbighshire is described as " the head of the
Cursing- wells." A full description of the ceremonies will be found in
Mr. Wirt Sikes' Collection, British Goblins, T,i^^. Among the authorities
cited are Cambrian Pop. Antiq. 247, and Archaeol. Cambr. ist Ser. i. 46.
Compare Souvestre's account of the Chapel of Notre Dame de la Haine at
Treguier in Brittany. " Une chapelle dediee a Notre-Dame de la Haine
existe toujours pres de Treguier, et le peuple na pas cesse de croire a la
puissance des prieres qui y sont faites. Parfois encore, vers le soir, on voit
des omlres honteuses se glisser furdvement vers ce triste edifice place au haut
d'un coteau sans verdure. Ce sont des jeunes pupilles lasses de la surveillance
de leurs tuteurs, des veillards jaloux de la prosperite d'un voisin, des Jemmes
trop rudement froissees par le despotisme d'un viari, qui viennent la prier pour
la mort de Voljet de leur haine. Trois 'Ave,' devotement repetes, amenent
irrevocablement cette mort dans Fannee." Derniers Bretons, i. 93. It is said
that "cursing-stones " were known in Devonshire and in parts of Ireland.

^ Aubrey, in the " Remains of Gentilisme," published by the Folk-lore
Society; Sikes, British Goblins, 325; Hone, Year-book, 858. "I remem-
ber," says Aubrey, " one of these Sin-eaters, he was a long, lean, ugly,

Origins of English History. 177

Folklore, cited an apposite passage from Schuyler's
Travels in Turkestan: "One poor old man seemed con-
stantly engaged in prayer. On calling attention to him,
I was told that he was an ' iskatchi^ a person who gets his

Online LibraryCharles Isaac EltonOrigins of English history → online text (page 15 of 38)