How Early is ‘Early’?

They say there are two things you should never ask a PhD student: 1) What’s it about? 2) When do you finish?


Image: Wigwam Jones (Flickr Commons)
Used under a CC Licence

On the rare occasions where I venture forth into civilian society (i.e. places with real people), I tend to try to avoid talking shop. Not because I don’t want to; but because, mostly, it’s just easier that way. For everybody.

As a result, I’ve developed a highly complex answering system for Question 1. On initial enquiries, I smile and say ‘old things’. This is usually enough for the casual conversationalist.

Sometimes there’s a follow-up, along the lines of something to do with ancient Greece or Rome and I then have to resort to ‘medieval stuff’. This can actually be dangerous territory, as one is immediately at risk of inadvertently arousing their interest:

Oh, I love Castles/Swords/Merlin/King Arthur! Want to join my Dungeons & Dragons troop? (Rare)

You must be a big Game of Thrones fan! So am I! (Unfortunately common)

I have my own Aragon Costume! Where’s your Elf ears? (You’d be surprised)

Och, I do a GREAT Braveheart impression… FREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE……DOOOOMMMMMMM! (Drink had been taken)

These expressions of interest are usually met with certain disappointment when I am forced to clarify ‘old medieval churches’. This in turn can open up a whole other can of worms, as nearby listeners, previously uninterested, can suddenly spark up an enthusiasm concerning the time they visited this or that medieval cathedral.

Which then brings about a further clarification that, actually, the church sites I’m interested in generally don’t exist any more and are nothing more than lumps and bumps in a field; with a holy well/mound/Ogam stone lying around if you’re lucky. That’s what Early Irish Christianity (on the ground) mostly looks like to the casual observer.

‘What kind of medieval stuff is that?’ they might then ask in confusion. To which I am finally forced to admit ‘Early Medieval’. Usually, that’s the end of it; and we move on to other things. Except for one occasion, where I was asked one final brilliant question:

How early is ‘early’?

To which I replied: ‘Four O’Clock in the morning early’.

+ + +

I’m presuming I don’t need to point out the obvious ‘all historical chronology is a modern conceptual framework’ thing. I’ll just say that, depending on where you live; one can have a vastly different cultural understanding of ‘early medieval’. In this part of the world, it’s generally taken to mean the period after which documents become available; and so traditionally, that’s the year 431/432 AD. Even that is problematic, because it’s based on a later medieval retro-fitting of dates for the historical Patrick (sometime in the fifth century) and a fleeting reference to a certain bishop named Palladius, by Prosper in 429/431 AD.

In practice, we tend to draw an imaginary line and say 400 AD, which suits us fine.

Patrick’s writings are the only  documents that can be dated to the fifth century. We have nothing for certain dated to the sixth. In fact, the next time we have anything at all is the seventh century. This is when Irish history really takes off; with literature, poetry, hagiography, annals, laws, ecclesiastical letters and exegesis. Even when it does, it’s not the product of a fledgling effort at literacy. It’s a fully formed and idiosyncratic literary culture and style; already a couple of centuries in the making. Which is very frustrating, as we have absolutely nothing surviving from its earliest period. Ironically, we know more about the contemporary activities of early Irish figures on the continent and in Scotland than any in the country during this time.

So even though we draw the line at 400AD, it’s really only 600AD+ onwards (6 AM!) that we actually start to see anything identifiably contemporary. That’s a pretty big gap.

Of course the Vikings  enter the equation at around 793/795 AD, or as I like to think, about 7 :55 AM) which is another internal division you could draw a line across. The end of that initial adventure is generally drawn at around 900 AD (9 AM) and we have another few centuries of Hiberno-Norse/Irish/European  shenanigans before the coming of the Normans in 1169/1170 AD, (or, about 11:45 a.m.) just in times for elevenses.

 Some people see the early medieval at 900 AD; others go all the way to 1200 AD (midday!) to include the above. We have a few more centuries of mayhem and mischief before c.1500 AD or (Three O’Clock in the afternoon!) and another conceptual cutoff based around either the Renaissance, the Reformation or the start of the European ‘Discovery Age’.  Take your pick.

As you can see, most medievalists tend to go for a more respectable hour that affords them both sleep and material. Me? I’m one of the stupid ones that gets up at 4AM and then shuffles around, making noise and spilling coffee until everyone else gets up.

Of course, that’s where archaeology comes in. But that’s another post, entirely.


3 thoughts on “How Early is ‘Early’?

  1. Hullo, and thankyou for linking A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. I do recognise this dilemma (“where’s Catalonia? Er, right… where’s Barcelona?”) but after years of facing it down I decided it was not only mentally self-destructive to act as if my subject was of no interest to people but also a disservice to academia, which can use these people’s enthusiasm to ensure support for our fields. In any case, in years to come you will repeatedly need to convince people that what you do is exciting and laden with potential! One may as well get into the habit and work out your pitch with the hapless public… Good luck with it all, and I look forward to reading more.


    • Many thanks JJ, good advice from the medieval blogging caesar! (Love your blog. Needs more Picts!)

      TBH, tongue was in cheek, just a little. One needs to maintain a healthy dose of self satire. Start as one means to go on etc.

      Thanks for taking the time. Much appreciated.



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