With my Christmas money I added Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms to my bookshelves. It presents an alternative history of the last 1500 or so years, one not told by the victors or even the losers but rather the stories of the forgotten. In this case, the kingdoms and nations – some surprisingly large and long-lasting – that are now on the margins of memory or knowledge. The second history presented of about a dozen is “The Kingdom of the Rock”, the Brythonic kingdom centred on Dumbarton in Scotland that lasted into the twelfth century – a last bastion of ‘Welsh’ speaking hanging on as Scotland and England formed around it and then overwhelmed it.
Whilst reading the chapter on this I found myself recalling with a clarity I can’t normally manage my university degree. My university is half-forgotten and half-remembered, it now exists as University of Wales Trinity St David but when I was there it clung to a dual identity of St David’s University College and University of Wales Lampeter. My department and degree are even more forgotten which is a shame as the world needs more Welsh scholars so we can wear white robes in the Gorsedd. But I did study the Old North of which the Kingdom of the Rock was part and I did know pretty well all of the sources Davies used and also found myself questioning (without bothering to reference obviously) some of the gaps and some of the interpretations.
But the thing it brought to life most clearly was a memory of the sheer joy of reading for the first time The Gododdin. This particularly brutal ‘epic’ poem may (or may not) have the first reference to a King Arthur and it may (or may not, though Davies believes categorically it does) tell broadly the decisive and fatal act of one of the other kingdoms of the Old North whose soldier marched to their deaths at Cattraeth (presumed Catterick) in about 600AD and whose warrior memories are eulogised in pretty gruesome detail in the poem (which you can read here).
This is the Gododdin; Aneirin sang it it begins. In translation. Even Davies isn’t going to help me remember all the Old Welsh I once knew so I won’t embarrass myself by pretending I could read it off the page any more. Needless to say there’s plenty of theories out there about Aneirin too.
The men and even their real cause are long forgotten. Their codes of honour and their understanding of how a true warrior behaves on a battlefield are alien. The battle described is so forgotten nobody else bothered to write about it. But the poem is so direct in its praise of their barbarism, strength and determination that it demands attention and respect. I remember reading it all in a single sitting and then going back to the academic introdution to explain what the heck I’d just read.
I suggest you do the same.