Podium: John Gillingham: The barbarian at work, at war and in bed

From a lecture by the emeritus professor of history at the LSE, delivered at the Institute of Historical Research
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The Independent Culture
AS IS well-known, a large part of medieval and modern "British" history can be seen as a process of conquest and forcible anglicisation, extending of course to Ireland as well as to Wales and Scotland. For the English to construe the brutality of conquest and the rapacity of commerce as a "civilising mission" took a national culture of extraordinary self- confidence and moral rectitude. From what date can an English culture of this type be said to exist?

Consider the assumptions of an unknown author writing in the 1140s. England he describes as "the seat of justice, the abode of peace, the apex of piety, the mirror of religion". Wales, by contrast, he saw as "a country of woodland and pasture abounding in deer and fish, milk and herds, but breeding a bestial type of man". The north-countryman William of Newburgh refers to a Scottish army as "a horde of barbarians". "Everything was being consumed by the Scots, to whom no food is too filthy to be devoured, even that which is fit only for dogs. It is a delight to that inhuman nation, more savage than wild beasts, to cut the throats of old men, to slaughter little children, to rip open the bowels of women." Some years earlier William of Malmesbury had described King David I of Scotland as "made civilised by his upbringing amongst us. In consequence the rust of his native barbarism was polished away". Why did William's perception of Celtic peoples as barbarians become commonplace?

William drew a striking contrast between England (seen as belonging to an advanced European order) and Ireland: "Whereas the English and the French live in market-oriented towns enjoying a more cultivated style of life, the Irish live in rustic squalor, for owing to the ignorance of the farmers their land is inadequately cultivated."

For the barbarian at war, I turn to Richard of Hexham's description of a Scottish attack on Northumbria in 1138: "By the sword's edge or the spear's point they slaughtered the sick on their beds, women who were pregnant or in labour, babies in their cradles or at their mothers' breasts; and sometimes they killed the mothers too. Then they carried off their plunder and the women, both widows and maidens; stripped, bound and roped together they drove them off, goading them with spears on the way. Their fate was either to be kept as slaves or to be sold on to other barbarians for cattle."

The barbarian in bed: it was generally agreed that Celtic sexual and marital customs were animal-like. According to Richard of Hexham (1140), the Scots were "those bestial men who think nothing of committing incest, adultery and other abominations". To John of Salisbury, the Welsh "live like beasts; they keep concubines as well as wives; whenever it suits them they get rid of them - for a price - to other men. They do not blush to indulge in incest."

Such are the perceptions. Clearly these authors exaggerated. None the less there is plenty of evidence that there were highly significant differences between 12th-century England and contemporary Celtic realms.

Within the British Isles, fundamental differences between highlands and lowlands were sharply accentuated during the 10th and 11th centuries. By the end of that period many English no longer lived in isolated farmsteads or in hamlets, but in villages and market towns. Put very roughly, the Celtic regions in the 12th century looked rather like eighth-century England: a dispersed settlement pattern of farms and hamlets. Slavery, a significant feature of Anglo-Saxon society, was dead and gone by the early decades of the 12th century. But not from Ireland, Wales and Scotland. In order to capture potential slaves and drag them off into slavery it was in practice necessary to kill not only anyone who put up a fight, but also anyone who got in the way, elderly parents and small children, for example.

In 12th-century England, as in most of "civilised" Europe, men and women had come to accept that marriage was church law. Celtic societies continued to regulate these matters according to ancient laws. In Lanfranc's eyes, Irish traditional law, which made provision for divorce and remarriage - was not a law of marriage but a law of fornication.

A negative and condescending attitude to Celtic peoples was established, to endure over many centuries. In the course of British history this was to be the great divide, the creation of an imperialist culture.