Sometime around the middle of the sixth century, the scholar and bureaucrat Procopius of Caesarea was finishing the eighth and final book of his greatest work, The Histories, narrating the closing stages of the Gothic War in Italy. Around the middle of that book, however, in a somewhat unexpected detour, he decided to tell a story that he had heard about a war between the Varni (a people) and the soldiers who live on the island of Brittia. In this tale he locates the Varni beyond the Ister (the river Danube) with their territory reaching as far as the Ocean, along the other side of the Rhine from the Franks, the people who by this time ruled what had been Roman Gaul (and who obviously gave their name to modern France). Procopius says that peoples like the Franks, the Varni and others all had their own tribal names but really they were all Germanoi (‘Germans’). This is intriguing in its own right but when Procopius turns to the island of Brittia things get stranger. Brittia, he says, lies opposite the mouth of the Rhine. We could be forgiven for thinking, on those grounds, that Procopius means Britain but he confounds that expectation. Brittia, he tells us, lies between Britain (Brettania) and Thule, which in his geography appears to be Scandinavia. Procopius says that Brittia is inhabited by three peoples: the Angiloi, the Frissones, and the Brittones – the Angles (eventually the English), the Frisians and the Britons. Later, Procopius mentions a great wall built in ancient times, which divides this island into two. The replacement of the Saxons by the Frisians in the list of peoples we might expect to encounter in sixth-century Britain is interesting and the account of Hadrian’s wall is garbled but nonetheless Brittia seems, in spite of Procopius’ earlier comment, to be Britain after all. What is this Brittia that is not Britannia, this Britain that is not Britain?
There are plausible-looking elements of sixth-century history in Procopius’ story but they are embedded in what looks like a fairy tale. In his account, the Varni were ruled by a king called Hermegiscel who allied with Theudebert, king of the Austrasian Franks, and married his sister. Hermegiscel had a son called Radegis by a previous, deceased wife, whom he had betrothed to a princess, born in Brittia and sister of the king of the Angiloi. After allegedly predicting his own death from something he heard in the croak of a bird in a tree, Hermegiscel advised his son to discard his betrothed and instead marry his stepmother, on the grounds that the Franks were a more dangerous neighbour than the Angiloi. After his father died (as predicted), Radegis did as he had been advised and married his father’s widow. Although he compensated his fiancée, the latter was not satisfied and, when diplomacy failed to make a difference, she led an expedition of 100,000 men in 400 ships to the land of the Varni, alongside one of her other brothers. After describing the sail-less vessels of the Angiloi and how neither they nor the Varni have any mounted warriors (in the case of the Angiloi because no horse has, according to Procopius, ever been seen in Brittia) Procopius tells how the Angiloi defeated the Varni. Radegis, hiding in a wood, was captured but the spurned princess, far from killing or injuring him, berated him for his fickleness and compelled him to make good his promise of marriage. So Radegis returned his step-mother to the Franks and married the young woman from Brittia. This is one of those stories that present a puzzle to historians of Late Antiquity. Some of its elements admittedly look interesting and plausible but can we justifiably sift them from a context that is obviously mired in the mythic? A garbled – but genuine – historical event or an old folktale with modern names inserted to increase its plausibility? The remainder of the chapter does not reduce the problem, for Procopius goes on to tell us about the ancient wall that divides the island. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, this divides the island east from west. More than that, according to Procopius, whereas all the land east of the wall is fertile and prosperous, the land to the west is so fetid and toxic that no man can live once he has entered it. As if that is not strange enough, Procopius rounds off the chapter with a story that even he admits sounds like mythology. However, says he, since many other people have written about the story or claim to be first-hand witnesses of it, he will record it because, although he thinks people must just have dreamed it, it would look as though he was ignorant of the nature of this island if he left it out. On the coast of the kingdom of the Franks, says Procopius, live fishermen who pay no tribute to the Franks in return for performing the service of transporting the souls of the dead to the island of Brittia. At night they hear a mysterious voice summoning them to this task and are drawn to crew boats which appear on the shore. Although no one can be seen in them, they feel heavy and sink low in the water. The fishermen row these boats across to the island of Brittia where they hear a voice which calls out the names, careers and fathers’ names of the men or the names of the husbands of the women, feminism evidently not really being a thing on the Isle of the Dead. After this, the boats seem quite empty and skip lightly over the water back to the land of the Franks.
What is going on here? The wall is clearly a bizarre rendition of Hadrian’s Wall, and the story of Brittia as the Isle of the Dead is possibly a play on the similarity between Thanatos – death – and Thanet, the eastern tip of Kent, and an island in antiquity. That misunderstanding, or possibly pun, was known in late antiquity. In the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville repeated information from Julius Solinus’ third-century Wonders of the World, which said that the name of the island of Thanet came from the Greek word for death but (possibly confusing it with Ireland) that this was because snakes could not live there and that soil from the island would kill them. Something like this might lie behind Procopius’ story but two points should be made. One is that the text itself does not name the island as Tanatos (Thanet), rather than Brittia, or speak of death or the dead; it talks rather of souls (psyche). The other is that a Thanet/Thanatos wordplay could only have originated among native Greek-speakers in Procopius’ own world or the much reduced and rapidly declining number of educated westerners who, like Isidore, knew Greek. The fruitfulness of the east of the island possibly came from a source like Solinus, who says that Thanet is bounteous and fertile, but if so it had been badly mangled by the time it reached Procopius, for Solinus clearly gives the name of the island as Thanet; there is no Brittia in his account. In any case Procopius’ story of the isle of the dead contains not the faintest echo of anything in Solinus’ account, in which Thanet is simply the most prosperous of the many islands off Britain.
Wherever he obtained his information, the strange reports about Brittia seem to have been a problem to Procopius, who made clear his scepticism about at least some of them. The difference between the islands of Britannia and Brittia, which Procopius expressed as geographical, is probably historical. Until the end of the fourth century, Britain had been part of the Roman world, close to its administrative centre and frequently involved in high-level politics, as Procopius was aware. He knew from various written sources that early in the fifth century it had raised the usurper Constantine against Emperor Honorius and that, after Constantine’s suppression, it had not been recovered by the Empire but had been ruled by tyrants. In his own day, the stories that reached him from Britain were of a quite different order; Procopius himself thought they were only marginally credible. They were more akin to the tales told in classical ethnography about the isles of remote north-western Barbaricum, at the end of the world. How could a Roman province, even one now ruled by ‘tyrants’, be the source of such mad tales? Procopius appears to have refused to accept that it could be; the stories must have originated in Barbaricum and so he invented the additional North Sea island of Brittia. The opposition between civilised Bretannia and weird, barbarous Brittia illustrates how, between the beginning of the fifth and the middle of the sixth century, the former north-western provinces of the Roman Empire had, for educated inhabitants of the Mediterranean, simply dropped off the edge of the known world.
Procopius’ ignorance about Britain is nonetheless not surprising. When Procopius was finishing his Histories, Georgius Florentius was a young boy growing up in the Auvergne, the heart of the Massif Central in the centre of the southern Gaul. Thirty years later, as Bishop Gregory of Tours, he would be composing his own Histories, moved to write by the profound changes of the later sixth-century whose analysis lies at the heart of the present book. Gregory was fairly well-informed about the Mediterranean world and had a reasonable knowledge of political events in the Eastern Roman Empire. But of Britain, he knew, or at least said, next to nothing in spite of it lying considerably closer to his world than to that of Procopius; indeed, it was geographically much closer to his world than the Mediterranean regions he tells us so much more about. He twice mentions the marriage of a Frankish princess to a Kentish notable, variously described as a ‘man’ and as a ‘son of a king’, and that is it. His gaze, as is well-known, firmly faced the south and the east. When one remembers that, during this period, it produced no historians of its own to make up for mainland European writers’ lack of interest in its affairs, it is no surprise that Britain effectively falls out of recorded history between c.410 and c.597.
Procopius’ ignorance did not start at the Channel, though. His knowledge even of Gallic history and geography was tenuous and littered with strange stories and misunderstandings. Here, the contrast with his fourth-century precursor Ammianus Marcellinus, another Greek-speaker from the Levantine coast, is if anything even clearer. Ammianus finished his Res Gestae (loosely ‘Deeds Done’) a little over 150 years before Procopius completed the first seven books of his Histories but it is inconceivable that he could have been as confused about Gallic geography as Procopius was. It would be wrong to say that the western provinces had been central to fourth- and fifth-century works composed in the Eastern Empire but they had featured nevertheless. How could they not? An Emperor resided in northern Gaul for much of that period; Gallic bishops like Hilary of Poitiers had played important roles in imperial theological controversies. Within two or three generations of Procopius, however, Eastern Roman historians barely mentioned Gaul, let alone Britain. Italy mattered of course; some of it remained imperial territory and the home of the Pope. The Iberian peninsula, however, was drifting beyond their consciousness. By contrast, western writers, especially in Spain and Italy, continued to write about events in the East. The mid-seventh-century Burgundian chronicler known as Fredegar knew of some political and military happenings in the Eastern Empire and its neighbours, even if his accounts were sometimes confused. This interest was, however, barely reciprocated by writers in the eastern Mediterranean or beyond. East of the Adriatic, among even educated people, by the seventh century the western tip of the Eurasian land-mass had, for whatever reason, simply ceased to matter.
Nonetheless, as will be discussed in more detail later in this volume, maritime trade continued to connect the eastern and western Mediterranean until well into the last quarter of the sixth century and beyond. When Procopius was writing, such seaborne networks continued to reach around the Iberian Peninsula, up the west coast of Gaul and thence to the eastern shores, especially, of the Irish Sea. In fact, in the fifth and earlier sixth centuries the western regions of what had been Roman Britain had more extensive and important contacts with the Mediterranean world than they had during the four centuries of imperial rule. One reason for that was that the longer-distance seaborne routes between the formerly Roman parts of mainland Europe and lowland Britain – now becoming ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kingdoms – appear generally to have atrophied in the fifth century. Stories could have reached Procopius from the Romanised magnates of Western Britain suggesting that Britannia was still recognisably a former Roman province. Whatever stories arrived from the eastern side of the island came via another route and seemed to represent a very different world resembling the mythical islands described by classical authors. By the end of the period that concerns this book these commercial networks too had largely vanished, replaced by rather different webs of interaction.
This disjuncture between the trading links and the seeming disconnection of the written sources is important. Historians and archaeologists have become ever more interested in recreating past networks, an interest boosted by the development of statistical tools and ‘network theory’. Yet, although we can plot lines on maps that ultimately connect places like Tintagel in Cornwall with Carthage in North Africa or Phocaea in the Levant, what did that mean to the people who lived their lives at each end of such a connection? In the last third of the sixth century there were sailors who knew of certain products, such as tin, that could be obtained from formerly Roman Britain. They knew that there was a market there for Mediterranean wine, oil and high-quality table-ware. The people from whom they bought, or perhaps for whom they sold, their wares and to whom they brought back, and possibly sold, other goods and materials seem, however, to have had no more interest in these far western lands than they had had, in previous centuries, in the lands whence came the amber in their jewellery. Britain, it seems, even lost its rhetorical function as the northern limit of civilisation. Meanwhile, for those in the former western Roman provinces, the east was fast becoming a land of Christian legend and infrequent pilgrimage. Once, a network had radiated from the Mediterranean in all directions, joining up with similar webs spun from China and India; by c.600 the capes and archipelagos of far western Eurasia had largely fallen out of that network of connections.
What are the implications of this isolation? In traditional grand narratives, from Henri Pirenne through to Perry Anderson, these shifts forced western Europe to turn in on itself. For Pirenne the closure of the Mediterranean, which he ascribed to the Arab invasions of the later seventh century, compelled a shift of the western European centre of gravity from the Mediterranean northwards to the Rhineland, and an increased focus on North Sea commerce. Hence Pirenne’s famous dictum that ‘without Mohammed, Charlemagne is inconceivable’. Things did not end there, though. This was only the first chapter in a narrative of the rise of the great European trading cities which in time became the foundation for Western European capitalism and Empire. In Anderson’s Marxist vision, the ‘inward turn’ of Europe after Rome produced feudalism which, in turn, provided the dynamics for urban rebirth, technological advancement and, again, eventually capitalism and the domination of the West.
The isolation of the far western edges of Eurasia from the great cultural and economic networks of the Early Middle Ages has somehow become part of a triumphalist European grand narrative, explaining how those peripheral western peninsulas and the archipelago just off its shore became the centres of world-exploiting colonial empires. It is, however, worth shedding a different light on this period. It is perhaps helpful to remember that this was a period when what became western Europe (not a geographical term of the time) was peripheral in a global sense; when, as continued to be the case for a millennium afterwards, it had little to offer the great trading networks, when the Empires at the heart of the Eurasian landmass had little to no interest in it.