Dismissing the Venerable Bede!

 

A linguistic theory that Finno-Ugrian languages and people were formerly more widespread in the west of Europe has been promoted by Andres Pääbo, a Canadian of Estonian descent. [1] He would suggest that the various Vene-names found in western Europe were Finnic-speaking (Estonian) maritime traders originating from the Baltic coast. This group would include the Baltic Venedi, the Veneti of Brittany, the Adriatic Veneti (where modern Venice lies) and also the Picts of Scotland, where he includes Ptolemy’s tribal names: Venicon(t)es and Irish Vennicni in the same group; the name Venedi, he suggests, would mean something like ‘of the boats’. More details of his theories later. A Baltic point of origin for the Picts is certainly not a new suggestion – it goes back to our oldest historical sources, the most respected among these being the Venerable Bede.

 

The Northumbrian monk Bede, who lived and worked at the monastery at Jarrow, is widely recognised as the father of English history. Without his book: ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English people’, written in 731, we would know far less about early Anglo-Saxon history. However, historians and archaeologists have always liked to pick and choose which parts of his history they rely on. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the treatment of his passing references to the Picts. Bede repeats the Pictish origin story, saying in his introduction, that ‘Picts from Scythia’ had arrived in ships and settled in the north; and also that their language was distinct from those of the Scots and Britons. We are not told precisely when this colonisation occurred and we should not lose sight here that there must have been native tribes already present when the Picts arrived.

 

Bede was contemporary with the Pictish king Nechtan, writing his history some 46 years after the Battle of Nectansmere (near modern Forfar) in 685 when the southern Picts recovered their independence after an interlude of Northumbrian rule. During this period the Northumbrian Bishop of the Picts occupied the monastery at Abercorn on the River Forth until he was forced to take flight.  Bede also wrote a biography of Saint Cuthbert, and describes Cuthbert’s visit to the Picts during this period of Northumbrian hegemony. Therefore we may be certain that the monks of Northumbria knew much more about the Picts than we are told in our surviving sources.

For Bede to suggest that the Picts were colonists from ‘Scythia’, does not tell us to which ethnic or linguistic group they may have belonged. The name was used loosely by Greek and Roman writers to denote the entire region that we might today refer-to as Russia, or the former Soviet-Union. [2] Over this vast area, from the Baltic to the Caspian Sea the various tribes were tributary to the nomadic Scythian (Iranian) horseman who ranged freely across the Steppes. We do know however, that tattooing of the body was a characteristic of many tribes in the ‘Scythian’ region. The fact that sea voyages may have commenced from the Baltic coast therefore would not rule-out an origin from further inland [See Note 2].

 

For my 1998 book Picts and Ancient Britons I therefore attempted to collect all the sources in translation that might inform us about the pre-historical Pictish period up to 565 AD and which might tell us more about the origins of the proto-Pictish tribes. [3] This cut-off date was chosen to exclude later influences from Gaelic and Brittonic that specialists think they see in the Pictish ogham inscriptions, particularly following Christian conversion. The later sources, such as the symbol stones and oghams, tend to crowd-out the meagre evidence about earlier periods. The later language would certainly have been pervaded by Celtic loan words and culture during the historical period; however this can prove nothing about their origins hundreds of years before.

 

You might expect all the relevant literary sources to be easily available in a Scottish library, but no (at least not back in pre-internet 1990s). Indeed some books were so rare, or in such poor condition that the various libraries would not inter-lend. I had to visit libraries from Wales to Paris; and often make hand-written notes because I was not allowed to photocopy the fragile book. In tracing back various research papers, it became apparent that the writer of a particular research paper might know the primary reference that they were discussing, yet would rely on a modern citation for others; following that one back still might not lead to an original source text! A lawyer might call this kind of evidence hear-say.

 

Historical references to the early Picts are few and no ancient writer leaves us a true history. Typically the sources are Roman, Irish or Welsh, non-contemporary with the events, or mere context to the main topic – as with Bede, who is writing about the English church. Only about thirty possible Pictish words are known, most of these being names on Ptolemy’s second-century map of Britain.

 

It was this very scarcity of evidence that led to the 1955 symposium and subsequent report known as: The Problem of the Picts, which offered a series of papers by the various specialists. [4] Among these were Kenneth Jackson, a specialist Celtic linguist; and the archaeologist and editor Frederick Wainwright. Jackson subsequently published translations of Gaelic and Pictish texts and was undoubtedly the foremost authority of his day, being widely cited. His opinion, having reviewed the earlier studies such as Skene, MacBain, Watson and others, was that many of the Pictish words could not be recognized as ‘clearly or probably Celtic’. Despite this, the editor concluded overall that the Picts were Celts, probably speaking a p-Celtic language, but distinct from Welsh. In the closing summary he acknowledged Bede’s legend that the Picts originated from Scythia to be a tradition current among the Picts and Irish, but lacking supporting evidence, concluding:

 

 ‘…the story must be dismissed as legend or literary invention’.

 

I found this statement quite astonishing; for any modern scholar to assert that they might know more about an ancient people than they knew about their own history seemed to me the height of arrogance.

 

This influential symposium set the pattern for the next half-century. Others would press forward by citing Jackson as their authority that Picts were Celts, particularly the linguists. They would take the meagre Pictish vocabulary as a list of Celtic-Pictish words, which they would then use in comparative studies, to establish Pictish as a branch of Continental Celtic, terming it Prittenic. [5] However, in his later work, Jackson seems to have had enough of all this and in 1977 declared, based on an ogham inscription, that he no longer believed the Pictish language to be Celtic.[6] Too late; it had already entered the textbooks as a proven fact.

 

Therefore it seemed to me as an outsider coming to the problem from a wider focus, that the various specialists were finding Celtic-Picts simply because they wanted to; and because it was the right thing to say. For modern Scots, Celtic identity is tied up with anti-English sentiment and nationalism; they simply wanted the Picts to be Celts.

 

The Celticists therefore had to remove the obstacle that the Picts’ ancestors supposedly came from ‘Scythia’. We first see this in nineteenth century investigators such as Skene and MacBain. William Skene was convinced that Pictish was a form of Gaelic and simply brushed aside the Irish additions to Nennius and Solinus, which suggested various ‘Scythian’ origins for the Pictish colonists; this despite the assertion that the stories came from the Picts own books. Unfortunately, we do not have these first-hand sources. Skene’s research of the Irish and Welsh texts was so extensive that subsequent scholars used his books as a source of translations, even though his Gaelic hypothesis was not favoured. In dismissing Skene’s Gaelic conclusions, later specialists also threw-out any serious consideration of what the Picts lost books might have said.

 

Those Irish monks have a lot to answer-for! How dare they attempt to preserve lost history for us by writing in the margins of historical texts?  As an (amateur) historian I can assert that no historian who takes the trouble to study such sources would ever deliberately introduce false history. We should respect these ancient scholars and listen to what they tried to tell us. As I have said in other contexts: if ever there be a clash between an ancient source and a modern academic then we should always prefer the source closest to the events.

 

The logic is clear. Celtic languages were not spoken in the Scythian region. Therefore if Picts came from there they could not be ‘Celts’. Rather than pursuing which languages were actually spoken in Baltic Scythia, the specialists preferred to ignore the aberrant historical sources. Celtic scholars and linguists were taught for over a century that Picts were Celts and that some earlier expert had proved it. As long as they cited the chain of references then their work would be accepted; to suggest otherwise became heresy. Bede was indeed ‘dismissed’. Instead of going back to source, the various modern academics cited each-other.

 

Linguistics is not a science; perhaps more than any other discipline it sits on a base of eminent opinion citing earlier opinion. It may work fine for languages where a large vocabulary is available, but less so when you have only some thirty disputed words and no idea of the grammar.  New archaeology can always challenge older finds, but you can’t put a linguistic theory in a test-tube and watch it change colour! Since 1950, when The Problem of the Picts symposium was published, the archaeology surrounding Celts and Picts has been forcibly revised by the advent of radiocarbon dating; then again by tree-ring calibration. Yet through all this the linguistic theories about Celts and Celtic languages sailed-on, little affected. It is only since the new science of DNA ancestry that the linguists have been forced to go back to the sources and think again.

 

In 2015 the first complete DNA study of Britain was published followed by a more comprehensive study for Britain and Ireland in 2017. [See note 1] and it would overturn everything that archaeologists thought they knew about the origins of the British population. Studies as early as 2003 had shown the persistence of ‘Celtic’ populations within England; however, the correspondence of the DNA to the known tribal areas, as shown in the full study, seems to have come as a complete surprise to scholars. However it was no surprise to those of us who had taken the trouble to go back to the historical sources. The DNA study showed that there was no single ‘Celtic’ genetic group; indeed differences between the so-called Celtic populations were greater than those with groups in England. The DNA evidence has prompted a complete revision of thinking about the origin of languages and the old notion of a Celtic ‘invasion’ of Britain has been shown to be quite simply – wrong.

 

Following the revised understanding of origins, historians and archaeologists have become more guarded in their usage of these terms. By way of illustration, I quote here from an archived (2018) internet blog ‘Ask Historians’ [7] in case it should be subsequently taken down, as is common with such ephemeral sources. The historian replies:

 

To expand a bit on what has been said, the ancient people of Britain and Ireland were never really called 'Celts' by an ancient source. That association only came about at the turn of the 18th century after it has been established that the Pre-Germanic languages spoken in the islands like Irish and Welsh were related to that of the ancient Gauls, who the Romans also termed 'Celts'. There is a growing consensus, especially amongst archaeologists of Britain and Ireland that the word 'Celtic' is problematic because it subscribes to and perpetuates erroneous ideas which equate language and art style as markers of ethnicity or 'nationhood'. In the past two decades, you'll see the word 'Celtic' being increasingly avoided or in inverted commas when used at all.

The classification most people are familiar with, which divided the Celtic branch into a 'Q-Celtic' and a 'P-Celtic' family is now obsolete and most scholars talk about 'Insular' and 'Continental Celtic' instead.

While it has fallen out of favour amongst archaeologists, it still remains a linguistic term, that is, Celtic, nowadays refers to a language family rather than an ethnic group or culture…

 

This all corresponds quite closely with my own published views back in the 1990s which attracted venomous comment at the time, while the old Celtic dogma still held sway. For example, in a 1999 review by a Pictish specialist of the time:

 

[The author]…is no professional academic, but this book resembles books by scholars. Half of it contains translated extracts of ancient sources…

 

And concludes:

Dr … is a specialist in the Picts, and is based in Glasgow [8]

You may assume that everything between these two statements is equally pompous. Is he reviewing here the content or its author? We see a typical example of a single-subject specialist trapped in his box, unable to challenge his own thinking despite all the root historical sources being provided for him on a plate. It would surely be unacceptable prejudice today to imply: its very good but you can’t take it seriously because the author is black, or a Jew, or homosexual or, its written by a woman, etc; however it would seem that academic snobbery remains acceptable for publication in a refereed journal. As for any specialist being an expert, there is no such thing. Anyone who holds themselves up as an expert immediately shows a lack of competence to be one. Someone else may declare you to be an expert but they would still be wrong! We all remain mere students until we die.

 

The subject of the Pictish language is an old minefield! It is complicated by the fact that we have the later Pictish inscriptions using the Irish ogham script. Various specialists have claimed to find recognisable Celtic words embedded in these otherwise indecipherable inscriptions. A Polish linguist in her 2012 review of theories about the Pictish language (just a few years preceding the DNA revolution) would be another example of an academic, confidently citing modern opinion, just as I was finding back in the 1990s. [9] Everything in her content as regards a Finnic-Pictish can be found in the one-page review by the self-appointed expert; with no indication that she has traced back the cited sources, let alone to a translation or original text. This is even more important today, because modern papers published on academic platforms can rank higher in internet search-engines than the older sources that they cite.

 

The suggestion of a root similar to Finnish ‘venekunta’ for Ptolemy’s tribal name venicon(t)es is rubbished as ‘not the way we do linguistics today’. Yet this is a dictionary word meaning ‘a boats crew’, consisting of two acknowledged ancient roots; and no-one can say how old its usage is.  To suggest that the place name peanfahel might share some affinity with the Finnish word for a ‘pilgrimage’ is similarly trashed; this was the Picts’ own name for the monastery at Abercorn, where Pictish Christian converts would have converged during the period when the southern Picts were tributary to the Northumbrian Angles. Bede would have known all about this mission and probably knew priests who had worked with Pictish Christians. Can we doubt therefore that the monks of Jarrow knew more about the Pictish language than anyone alive today? The Celtic explanation for the name peanfahel is that it consists of a continental-Celtic root ‘penn-‘, joined with an insular-Celtic root ‘fáil’. I don’t hear the linguists saying that this unlikely juxtaposition from two different languages is not how they do linguistics today. Yet if you trace back the various papers through the chain of citations then this old-thinking lies at the base of the assertions about ‘Celtic’ Picts.

 

The same linguist again dismisses Bede, saying:

 

If a monk comments on a language spoken by certain people, his account deserves at least a thought.

 

Bede was much more than a monk – he was a historian – who actually drafted letters to a living Pictish king while Pictish was still a spoken language. Perhaps then, he might have known more about them than a modern linguist with a social-media profile?

 

The arguments in favour of a Baltic ‘Scythian’ origin for the Picts are primarily historical rather than linguistic – one may find other non-linguistic coincidences in the sources. These historical references have to be massaged-away before the linguists can bring-in their Celtic assertions. The above-mentioned linguist, for example would say, again citing earlier academics, ‘There is no evidence for the Pictish or Celtic tribes using body painting or tattooing between the 5th and 9th century…’ This is immaterial as the custom died-out upon Christian conversion along with other pagan traditions, whereas in fact the use of tattooing during the Roman period is recorded in various sources, such as: Dio Cassius, Herodian, Solinus, Claudian, Isidore and the Pictish Chronicle.

 

Bede is not the only basis for the tradition that Picts (or at least their dominant tribe) originated from ‘Scythia’. We also find it in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history; whatever you may think of that, its inspiration came from a Welsh source not a Scottish one. It is also found in additions to Irish versions of Nennius made by the monk Gilcaemhin and states that it came from the Picts own books. [10] This version says that the Irish Picts (Cruthneach) were Agathyrsi, who migrated west via Gaul. He also tells us that they tattooed their skins. We find these Agathyrsi among the tribes listed by Herodotus some five hundred years earlier and who had resisted the Scythian invasion (see note 2); they occupied the region of western Ukraine around the Transylvanian mountains. Therefore, as with recent European colonisation of America, there was probably more than one expedition and more than one migration route from the east; with only the first voyage being remembered. The constant pressure from the Scythians would give ample reason why these subject peoples might wish to flee their homeland.

 

Perhaps the most frustrating of the passing historical references to Picts are those by Tacitus. [11] Not only does he leave us a frustratingly vague account of the northern tribes that faced Agricola in 80-84 AD, but also in his Germania, he describes tribes in the east whom he does not know how to classify, whether as Germans or as Scythians. Among these are Venedi and Aestii on the Baltic coast. He describes the Aestii language as being: ‘more like that of the Britons’. [12]

 

Here again, the Caledonian tribes are not the primary subject for Tacitus. He clearly knows that the northern tribes spoke a different language to the Britons of the Roman province, but he does not bother to tell us whether he compares the Aestii language to the northern or the southern Britons; he was writing about Germans not the Britons or the Scythians! It would be wonderful if Tacitus had told us all that he knew about the Caledonians – but he doesn’t; it would be wonderful if the Venerable Bede had told us all that he knew about the Picts – but he doesn’t. We are left to argue about the meaning of these fragments of knowledge.

 

It is important to note that not-one of the stories of Pictish origin would bring them as continental ‘Celts’ from Gaul. Yes, we do find migrations to Ireland and southern Britain suggested in the sources, but where these refer to the Picts then they are merely passing-through from further east onward to Britain and Ireland. There is nothing that would make them continental ‘Celts’ in the long-traditional sense. So why for so long did the concept of Celtic-Picts prevail over the historical accounts that they came from ‘Scythia’? It all goes back to the entrenched nineteenth-century dogma about an Iron Age invasion of Britain by Celts from Gaul. Now that we have clear DNA evidence that this invasion never happened, we may see more clearly that the history and the linguistics do not meet in the middle.

 

It is interesting to follow how much the debate has moved on since the 1990s. In 1999 another Canadian author, Farley Mowat, introduced the concept of a maritime race that he called:  Albans, whom he suggested were the Gaulish Veneti and Pictones. [13] These seafarers, he argued, were ‘Celts’ fleeing the Roman occupation; and who had invaded Ireland and Scotland before continuing their voyaging across the Atlantic to Canada to join the native American tribes. Now, a professional author may recognise here a ‘mid-Atlantic’ book; a marketing concept pitched to a publisher to sell both in Europe and the lucrative American market. The ‘Albans’ are a fictionalisation on a base of miscellaneous facts. Here again we find Bede’s references to Picts from Scythia incorporated within the Alban concept; ‘Scythia’ is rationalised as a reference to ‘Scilly’ and the Albans therefore must have migrated from Brittany, via the Isles of Scilly – well it does start with the same two letters! None of this would convince a critical historian but it certainly sold books; the author has to be admired for his craft. A very similar theory was (I think first) suggested in 1954 by Lethbridge in The Painted Men following the Irish sources [14]

 

This brings us back again to the theories of Andres Pääbo. These are more soundly based than Mowat’s farfarers and cite a trail of plausible linguistic evidence. In his analysis, the influence comes from Estonian rather than Finnish or other Finno-Ugrian languages. Indeed, he would abandon the accepted evolutionary tree for the Finno-Ugrian languages, preferring a continuous evolution among the Baltic amber traders as they voyaged between their coastal colonies. He would see Estonian roots among the language of the Veneti (Venetic) including inscriptions from northern Italy. He would also see an evolution of Estonian roots among Ptolemy’s tribes and place names. As a native Finnic-speaker who is prepared to go against the prevailing wind he should receive a proper hearing. He points out that the name Picti is rendered in Estonian as püükide meaning ‘of the [fish] catches’; so perhaps this was the ancient root of that name rather than the accepted Latin derivation? However, historical sources say that the Pictish tribes did not eat fish, treating them as somehow, sacred. [15] Read Pääbo’s theories yourself and form your own opinion rather than reading dismissive reviews by ‘experts’. Another interesting modern internet discussion about the Venedi and the Baltic Wends is available here. [16]

 

Rather like Mowat before him, Pääbo would see the ancient Venetic-Estonians as an arctic maritime culture that roamed the northern seas in their skin-boats, from the Baltic to the Atlantic coasts, as far back as the Ice Age. He too would suggest that they crossed the Atlantic on the edge of the retreating ice, mingling with the tribes of the Canadian arctic. This is by no means implausible, as we do have respected sources such as Plutarch, who tell us about ancient voyages into the Atlantic made by seafarers from the Scottish islands during the first-century AD. [17]

 

However, Pääbo too, sometimes selectively employs the historical sources, incorporating Bede and Tacitus but excluding Irish sources that might not quite fit. Yet, if he is even half-right, then it is a challenge to those linguists who think they can see a Celtic language from Belgic Gaul in northern Britain. They may simply be comparing a few words of a Finnic-Pictish with a Gaulish language that was replete with Finnic loan words from the maritime Veneti who had lived there since the Neolithic.

 

Ultimately, it is the DNA evidence, not linguistics, which will determine where the northern British tribes originated and whether any of these boat-people crossed the Atlantic in ancient times. The linguistics will then have to follow and the historical fragments will then fall into their proper place as supporting evidence. Researchers can now find the latest DNA research much more easily via internet searches – a luxury that was not available to earlier generations! Research is so easy now that it can leave no excuses for those specialists who continue to dismiss the Venerable Bede.

 

Note 1 - DNA

Anyone who wishes to research the chain of DNA references for Britain, Ireland and France may find the following introduction useful and save time in tracing the sources.

 

On the rethink of language origins

https://www.nature.com/news/polopoly_fs/1.16935!/menu/main/topColumns/topLeftColumn/pdf/518284a.pdf

 

On ‘Celtic’ DNA in England

https://www.nature.com/articles/news030616-15

 

The first fine-scale genetic map of the British Isles

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2015/mar/first-fine-scale-genetic-map-british-isles

 

The fine-scale genetic structure of the British population

https://www.nature.com/articles/nature14230

Leslie, S. et al. The fine-scale population structure of the British population. Nature 519, 309–14 (2015).

 

DNA map for UK

https://www.nature.com/news/uk-mapped-out-by-genetic-ancestry-1.17136

doi:10.1038/nature.2015.17136

 

DNA map for Ireland

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-17124-4

 

DNA map for Western France

Karakachoff, M. et al. Fine-scale human genetic structure in Western France. Eur J Hum Genet 23(6), 831–6 (2015). https://www.nature.com/articles/ejhg2014175

 

Eurasian DNA in Native Americans

https://www.nature.com/news/americas-natives-have-european-roots-1.14213

 

 

Note 2 - Tattooing

A discussion of tattooing on the preserved body of a Scythian princess from the Altai Mountains is available to follow here:

 

https://siberiantimes.com/culture/others/features/siberian-princess-reveals-her-2500-year-old-tattoos/

 

We may compare the styles of Scythian animal figures to the symbols found on the Pictish symbol stones, although we cannot be sure precisely what the Picts tattooed on their own bodies. Tattooing must be seen as a much older custom of many tribes in the east, not just of the Scythians themselves. As a non-linguistic clue to origins this custom has long been overlooked. [18] Another correspondence comes with the Pictish inheritance via the female line and the free social customs as found in Dio Cassius and Solinus; these may be compared to similar descriptions of various ‘Scythian’ tribes ‘sharing their women in common’ (or suchlike wording) in the ancient sources. These were not customs of the continental ‘Celts’. Another coincidence comes in the practice of the Agathyrsi, to paint their hair and bodies blue and the similar practice among the Britons who painted their bodies in blue woad. I recall in the 1990s finding one older academic paper that did manage to smuggle this idea past an academic referee, by referring to body-art as a custom that Celts must have learned by contact with the Scythians in the East. Such has been the dominance of Celtic dogma over the years that these non-linguistic clues were never given weight compared to the linguistic arguments.

 

References

1) Pääbo, Andres, The expansion of northwest Eurasian boat peoples at the end of the ice age. (2002-2018) http://www.paabo.ca/uirala/contents.html;

 

2) Herodotus, Book IV, 100-120

 

3) Dunbavin, Paul (1998) Picts and Ancient Britons, an Exploration of Pictish Origins, Third Millennium Publishing, Nottingham; ISBN: 0952502917.

 

4) Wainwright, F.T. (ed) (1955) The Problem of the Picts, Nelson Press, Edinburgh

 

5) Koch, J.T. (1983) “The Loss of Final Syllables and Loss of Declension in Brittonic” in Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 30, 201-33

 

6) Jackson, Kenneth. (1977) “The ogham inscription on the spindle whorl from Buckquoy, Orkney”, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland 108. Edinburgh: National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. 221–222.

 

7) Ask Historians; Thread posted Jan 11 2018 (archived)

https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/7pkof3/did_the_celtic_peoples_arrive_in_britain_or_did/

 

8) Samson, Ross. (1999) Claiming Finnish origins for Picts, S. Denison (ed.) British Archaeology, 43 York: Council for British Archaeology.

 

9) Zajączkowska, Agnieszka (2012) A study of chosen theories about the genetic classification of the Pictish language, Poznan.https://www.academia.edu/4263016/A_study_of_chosen_theories_about_the_genetic_classification_of_the_Pictish_language

 

10) Gilla Cómáin mac Gilla Samthainde; the reader is referred to William Skene (1867) for translations of these Irish additions to Nennius, for which there are abridged extracts in my Picts and Ancient Britons.

 

11) Tacitus, Agricola, 10-38

 

12) Tacitus, Germania, 38-46

 

13) Mowat Farley (1999) The Alban Quest, The Search for a Lost Tribe, Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, London.

 

14) Lethbridge T. C. (1954) The Painted Men, Andrew Melrose, London.

 

15) Dio Cassius, Roman History, LXXVII, 12, 1-4.

 

16) https://www.historyfiles.co.uk/KingListsEurope/BarbarianVeneti.htm

 

17) Plutarch, Moralia; The Face on the Moon, 941.

 

18) Mayor, Adrienne (2016) The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, Princeton Univ. Press.

 

A pdf version of this article is available here.

 

Copyright: Paul Dunbavin and Third Millennium Publishing, March 2020, V1.2