Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that


Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Brunanburh: The Colour of Fallen Leaves

 Well, my first books arrived. They came very quickly, the only slight shadow was that they had obviously been packed by someone at Amazon who was eating potato crisps - all 3 books had big greasy fingerprints on them. I am very pleased to report that a microfibre glasses-cleaning cloth removed the marks, so everything is cool.

I've only dipped into them, thus far - the two smaller books (not the Michael Livingston volume) contain a lot of very cryptic data concerning GPS readings for archeological finds, and a host of monochrome photos, some of which are too obscure to make out what they are - not to worry. All good, and this is all new to me.

Livingston's book looks excellent - he is a very enthusiastic writer. It's a while since I read a book describing archeological work (the previous one was an account of the digging up of St Baldred's religious settlement here in East Lothian, including the grave of Olaf Guthfrithson), and I had forgotten what this stuff is like. For a start, the evidence they describe is often disputed, and mostly too damaged to be sure of very much. That's all OK - it's the nature of the beast - the raw material sometimes seems, to a layman, too unconvincing (or even unlikely) to make much of a story.

I'm also reminded that this kind of work involves a surprising level of jousting between proponents of rival views - the put-downs of other people's efforts are sometimes verging on sarcasm. Maybe this is how scholars behave?

I shall rise above this. Yesterday I was reading about the arguments in favour of the Brunanburh battlefield being in the Wirral. One big positive is that the Wirral is an obvious landing point for the ships which brought the Viking force from Dublin. Mention is made, in the Brunanburh poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, of Dingesmere, which might be where the boats were, or might be somewhere on the route back to where the boats were, or it might even simply mean "the stormy sea" - there's a lot of disagreement about translations. Whether or not Dingesmere was an actual place, it is worthwhile trying to think through where the Vikings would have landed. A couple of points here:

* This was not a land of mystery to the Vikings - there were Viking communities in the Wirral, and it's a short crossing from Dublin, so they probably knew where they were going. 

* We don't even know whether they landed at the end of the Wirral peninsula (on the Irish Sea), at somewhere like Meols or Leasowe, or in the River Dee, or in the Mersey, or, as one of the theories has it, in the Pool of Wallasey, which is a branch of the Mersey.  

* Somewhere in the ancient writings, the water is described as yellow, which has been interpreted as meaning sandy or muddy. Debate about accuracy of translation has suggested that the original meaning is closer to "the colour of fallen leaves". Hmmm - how long after they've fallen? This could be yellow, or greenish-brown, or anything, really, but it is of interest since the Rivers Dee and Mersey are very different, as I shall now discuss briefly. All primary-school geographers please pay attention.


Here's an old map of the Wirral. A modern map would be rather different, since the River Dee has silted up. You will see that the profile of the Dee Estuary is triangular - the river which passes under a road bridge at Chester (which was a port in Roman times), gets wider and wider as it approaches the sea. This means that, when the tide goes out, the water runs slower and slower as the width increases - a constant volume of water moving through a widening channel - and the silt and mud falls to the bottom. In the 4th Century, there were already problems with silting near Chester, and it became necessary to find useable ports further downstream. This continues to this day - Neston and Parkgate were seaside villages at the start of the 19th Century, and Parkgate was a busy landing place, but now the old sea wall faces onto an area of overgrown saltmarsh which is over two miles in width. When the Spring tides bring the Dee into contact with the Parkgate sea wall, the event is rare enough for visitors to come to see it. Parkgate may well have been a viable landing place in Viking times - there are other possible berthings at Caldy and Heswall and Thurstaston (Thor's Stone). The main point here is that the Dee is, and always has been, muddy.

 
Parkgate, circa 1900, when they still had a beach and fishing "nobbies". When I was a kid, you could still get a little bag of boiled local shrimps in the village

 
This was before the tide went out, permanently, about 2 miles. Don't try to land your army there now.

As you can see from the map, the Mersey has the reverse profile - this river is also muddy, but opposite the Port of Liverpool it is about a mile wide, while a few miles upstream, opposite Speke and Oglet, it is nearly three miles wide. When the tide goes out, that great pool of water rushes out through the narrow mouth, and it keeps itself clear. This is why the Port of Liverpool is more important commercially than Parkgate, but it also explains why the Mersey is a different colour from the Dee.

But is it the colour of fallen leaves? Who knows? I shall read on, with interest.

It seems that the likely battlefield site (if it was, in fact, in the Wirral) is around the village of Brimstage, which is right in the centre of the peninsula. If Miss Bentham's class were to cut out a cardboard Wirral, a pin through Brimstage would be close to the centre of mass. They could colour it in with crayons. Yellow water - all that.



22 comments:

  1. Hmm, well it does make sense as a landing place for the Dublin vikings, but it seems a bit of an awkward place for others to get to to fight a battle, Constantine's Scots for example, who presumably walked, not to mention Athelstan's lot. What do they say about that?

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    1. I guess that Constantine's boys and Athelstan's would have had to walk about the same distance to Yorkshire. One thing I have read thus far is that it is unlikely the Vikings would have sailed 1000 miles round Cape Wrath to the Humber - more likely to have beached at the Wirral and walked across, which is long stagger back if they lost.

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    2. Wherever it was, someone had a long walk home. I was wondering about another contender for the battle site, round Birrenswark up in Dumfries area. It doesn't sound like any of the candidates fit the story perfectly and I'm not sure we'll ever know for sure where it was. I suppose there's even a possibility that the saga writers conflated more than one battle.
      Being a bit thick myself, I never went to university, but I 'eavesdropped' on my wife's papers when she did her history degree as a mature student. I realised then what a menace an academic trying to prove a pet theory can be. As you suggest, that is how scholars behave.

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    3. Dumfries sounds as if it might be handier for the Vikings than some of the other possibilities, but I'd be nervous for my back if I were Athelstan. There are problems with all the sites, as you say. I'm learning a lot as I get into this - hadn't realised that Anlaf was Constantine's son-in-law, for example, and I still need to understand more about who was in Northumberland (Bamburgh?) and who got chucked out, and when. Hoping to gain some more insight as I go along.

      Scholars? - terrifying. This seems to have reached some kind of frenzied peak in Victorian times - retired church ministers fighting duels etc. Complete digression, but I recently read about AE Housman, of whom I knew very little (still do...), but it occurred to me that in a less enlightened age I might have considered him a nut case. His insults of his contemporaries are fantastic - and always the basis of his scorn is not necessarily to do with what they wrote or said, but with the "depth" of their scholarship, which is something too intangible to me, like measuring someone's faith or determining whether he is a gentleman. There are some astounding tales of Housman; I enjoyed a description of him by a colleague at Cambridge, who said he appeared to be descended from a long line of maiden aunts.

      This level of hostility also reminds me of WF Napier's letters to the Times after 1815, and of traditional political debate. In British politics, it seems to me, the opposing party (whoever they might be) has never got things mostly right, but should have done a bit more about such and such; nay - invariably, they are fools, are trying to destroy the nation, talk funny and probably smell. Evil.

      I've always found it hard to believe that being as wrong as that can be anything but vanishingly rare. Only Daily Mail readers could believe in such terrifying clarity.

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    4. Lot of political marriages about at the time, I believe. I wonder about the command and control of an allied army with Scots, Gaels, Vikings, Danes, dissident Saxons and all sorts of odds and sods. Herding cats springs to mind.

      That Houseman sounds like a charmer. I suspect his spirit may live on in universities, if not his command of the language.

      Politics - quite. The party of government, on the other hand, is never wrong, just misquoted.

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  2. Fascinating stuff, I shall follow this with great interest. The battle is one of my favourites ( I remember joining in a refight many, many moons ago at a show somewhere! Using 15mm)

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    1. Hi Graham - I have a tendency to doze off when reading the angle at which a strap buckle was found in the field behind the "Pig and Whistle" at Brimstage, and there are a lot of red herrings along the way. There is a tale of a Viking ship having been unearthed at Meols by a crew working on the Mersey Railway (Liverpool to West Kirby in those days), who were instructed to bury it again and crack on with the railway. Meols also features in the discovery of a Viking ship more recently - this time incomplete, and under the car park at the Railway Hotel, which might be the same boat. Much excitement about this stuff, but not really very useful for providing clues about the Brunanburh business - this was a Viking area for a good while, and it is likely that any boats dug up are likely to be Viking designs - common as muck? It does seem that the Wirral Archeology group have some more inspiring evidence now - we'll see!

      There is a lot of enthusiasm directed at this, and there seems to be an odd collection of amateur helpers, re-enactors and heavy academics - maybe that gives some kind of balance? Nottingham University has published some interesting stuff.

      Oh yes - your show re-enactment game - where was it supposed to be set? Or maybe it didn't matter, which I'm beginning to think might be no bad answer!

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    2. Now you’re asking and in all honesty I don’t think it said!

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  3. Fascinating subject. It’s led me off looking up the history of Lindsey.

    Thanks for the exposition on why Liverpool prospered as a port and Chester didn’t.

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    1. Yeah, what nundanket said. Never knew any of that. Very interesting!

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    2. Good morning gentlemen. I was prompted to have a (trivial, Wiki-based) look at the history of Lindsey myself. Interesting, but (without wishing to be at all difficult), I see academics at work again...

      Interesting that there is a theory that Brythonic was still in use in parts Lindsey up to the 8th C, I'm sure that's true, but I was surprised that part of the logic behind the assumption that there were Celtic people still living in the area after the Anglo-Saxons moved in is because the modern names Lincoln and Lindsey have a Brythonic root. Something not quite right there? I'm sure the pre-Roman, Brythonic name for the place (Lindon?) was well established, which is why the fortress town was called Lindum Colonia. After the Romans had gone and the Angles and all that lot arrived, I don't think they would have changed the names of the settlements very much, so the fact that Lincoln is called Lincoln goes right back, through the Romans, to the Celts who lived there before them. That was its name. It may have become Anglicised later, but the Lin bit had been around for centuries, and probably proves very little about whether there were still Brits around. Not an issue, and Wiki almost certainly relates the story in a simplified form, but I sometimes wonder if academics are constrained by mostly talking to (and arguing with, of course) other academics? Maybe they would benefit from getting out more!

      Good stuff anyway - I thought there would be more Viking presence, on that part of the coast, or was that too far south for the Vikings?

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    3. Also think the academic community have a need to discover something significant, perhaps to justify their funding. Read recently that the discovery of the remains of a shackled Roman-age body in a ditch was proof that the Romans practised slavery in Britain. Eh?
      1) There was never any doubt that the Romans practised slavery. (Everyone did at the time.)
      2) Surely it proves this man was a captive, but whether he was a slave, criminal, political prisoner or just into weird stuff is guesswork.

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    4. Danes mainly Tony. Lots of places ending ‘by’, like Grimsby which had its own creation myth.

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    5. I really must read more about this whole subject - I know a bit about Roman Britain, then it's mostly a mystery until Tudor times (if you're lucky). The Dark Ages are absolutely Dark as far as I'm concerned, and it's a disgrace, really. I just need a friendly overview of the comings and goings of the different peoples (and their languages - I'm very interested in that too).

      My recollection of primary school history is of Britain being invaded by German tribes, and then "we" fought off the Danes and Vikings and all that. Who the blazes "we" were is a bit of a sleight-of-hand thing. The Britons, then, obviously got kicked out by the Germans (the last known Briton is named Dai, and he has red hair growing out of his cheekbones, and he is a plasterer in Aberystwyth - you probably didn't know that), so that "we" may have become German one dark night. Then the Germans were definitely the good guys when the Normans came, so I had little chance of understanding much of that. I did know about Alfred and his cakes, though. These things are important.

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    6. I never understood how Alfred defending Wessex against an army of burnt cakes affected anywhere outside.. well... Wessex, but I was taught at that school too.
      Place names are fascinating though. I was born in a place called Kimberworth. Worth is Saxon for fields, but Kimber? Saxon Cyneburgh or Celtic Cimber - folk?

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    7. Fascinating stuff - Cyneburga was a person - it couldn't be somebody's field? I note that in Domesday the top man in those parts was Roger de Bully in 1086 - he sounds a bad lot. Wasn't he in Viz?

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    8. Without wishing to turn this into an archaeo-linguistics forum, there is at least one reason for believing that Brythonic speakers survived in Lindsey/Lincolnshire well into the Anglo era.
      The survival of the Celtic sheep counting method into the 20th century. Yan tan tethera etc. There’s some memories of it here from this 1966 edition of Lincolnshire Life (if you can be bothered to wade through the poor formatting - the internet wasn’t as good 55 years ago).

      https://www.lincstothepast.com/Records/RecordDisplayTranscript.aspx?oid=945419&iid=21513

      There’s good logical reasons why this would be the case throughout the land, the incoming Germans of the time not being possessed of weapons of mass extermination.

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    9. I am sure that there was some Brythonic around long after the Anglo-Saxon era - I think that things hang around because that's what we've always called the place, or that's what we've always done when counting sheep, or whatever. Only thing I was dubious about was the contention in Wiki that the modern name for Lincoln proved anything very much - as you say, that name has been there, almost in folk lore, since before Roman times, and no incomers are necessarily going to change stuff just for the sake of it - confusing, for one thing!

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  4. I just finished (today) reading Livingston's book. I thought it was very well done, so I'm convinced. Not that I'm an expert or anything! I found the book to be fascinating and gripping to read.

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    1. Hi Brent - it is good - I'm getting into it nicely. I'm interested in just why there were so many Vikings in the Wirral area, and I think there was some kind of deal offered to the Irish Vikings. No doubt this will become clearer as I get further into the subject!

      I spent my childhood in a district of Liverpool called Aigburth, which is derived from the Norse eik-berg, which means a hill with oak trees. Vikings all over that area!

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  5. Interesting stuff Tony. All that from dipping into them. I look forward to more once you have read and considered them further!
    Poor design of that Dee estuary. I trust that the engineers have been sacked?
    Regards, James
    (On 'eccerdemics', I was relating to a friend (history prof.) that I recalled a quote from Oscar Wilde that the greatest contests were over the smallest prizes (or spoils) and either he (Oz) or another wit had said this related well to universities. Makes for a great story, but blowed if I can find the quote. Quite likely a mis-remembrance on my part, mistake attribution by someone else, or both.)

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    1. That river estuary design is so glaringly flawed that you might think it was a fake case study created specially for Miss Bentham's class. The modern River Dee (if you can be bothered having a look at a modern map) now has quite a few miles of being a miserable little channel winding through sandbanks and marshland, before it opens out nearer the sea.

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