Saturday, October 18, 2008

Pictish Women

I came across an old article from "British Archaeology" (Issue 3, April 1995) written by Dr Ross Samson, Editor-in-Chief of Cruithne Press. I would like to share it with you.

Power to the Pictish Ladies
"The idea that women may have had unusually high status in medieval Pictish society has long been the subject of scholarly fascination - and dispute - even though there has never been much evidence on which to pin opposing views.

The idea started with the 8th century English historian, Bede, who wrote that, whenever the Pictish royal succession was in dispute, kings were chosen from the female royal line rather than the male. Although dismissed by some scholars as a myth, others have taken the absence of sons succeeding fathers in the Pictish king lists as supporting evidence for Bede's words. Several scholars have gone further, arguing that if women had a decisive role in succession disputes, their power doubtless extended to other areas of society as well.

An entirely new line of evidence, however, may be provided by Pictish symbols. These are carved on rough boulders or cross stones, and about 400 examples survive. They have been taken, at different times, to represent inter-tribal marriage instructions, estate boundary markers, records of personal professions, Pictish `flags', simple artistic expressions, even pagan altars--but never on the basis of much hard evidence. In my view, the symbol stones were memorial stones, and the symbols represent names - either the name of the dead person, or of the person who had the stone erected. Moreover, I believe that a fifth of the names belonged to women. Compared to other contemporary societies, this would represent a very high proportion-- in Ireland, for instance, we know the names of about 10,000 men dating from before AD1000, but of only 200 or 300 women.

The symbols almost always appear as pairs, and in several contemporary societies names were produced from two themes. In Anglo-Saxon, for instance, we have Aethelgifu (`Noble-gift'), Aethelstan (`Noble-stone'), and Wulfstan (`Wolf-stone'). On Welsh stones we find Vindobarus, a Latinised version of Finnbar (`Fair-head'). The few Pictish names we do know, such as Bridei, pose difficulties because they do not look dithematic, but the reason may be that the names have collapsed - as happened to names in Ireland. By the 8th and 9th centuries, many Irish names could no longer be recognised for the two themes they once contained.

Knowledge of the Pictish language is miserably poor, and many of the symbols are too abstract for us to guess what they meant. But even without knowing the names, I believe we can distinguish those of men from those of women. The gender of themes used for Anglo-Saxon names could not be confused - gifu or `gift' was feminine and Aethelgifu had to be a woman's name. But in several languages the gender of a name depends solely on its ending - for instance, in Latin, Aeternus and Aeterna (`Mr and Ms Everlasting', which appear on an early medieval Welsh stone), or in Irish, Aadan and Aednat (`Mr and Ms Fire').

I believe Pictish names may have worked in the same way, and that feminine endings on the Pictish carved stones were represented by the mirror and comb symbols that follow one in every five symbol pairs. A mirror and comb appear to the left of the only unmistakably Pictish woman represented on a cross stone - there are several biblical females - that from Hilton of Cadboll, dating from about AD800.

If this theory is correct, 20 per cent of Pictish stones were erected for or by women, which is between five and 20 times more often than in any other contemporary Celtic or Scandinavian society. One motive for commemorating the dead publicly is the statement it makes - I am inheriting this person's wealth, power, authority and prestige. If women held 20 per cent of the power and wealth in Pictish society, it is no wonder Bede heard such stories about their dominant role in the royal succession."


1 comment:

Don't Cry For Me said...

Very interesting, came across this by chance when doing research and I must say this it really interesting.