Pic: ‘Pictish Woman’, one of the Pictish Nation
collection by F. Lennox Campello
There is a great blog written by an author of medieval biographies, Melisende, called Women of History. Here, I would like to point to a post that she made back in October 2008 in which she quotes from an article about the role of Pictish Women in Pictist Society. Melisende is probably better known for the superb Pages from History Wiki that she has set up and we’ll hopefully be highlighting in the future.
She quotes from an article found in "British Archaeology" (Issue 3, April 1995) written by Dr Ross Samson, Editor-in-Chief of Cruithne Press, in which he says:
The idea that women may have had unusually high status in medieval Pictish society has long been the subject of scholarly fascination – and dispute – even though there has never been much evidence on which to pin opposing views.
The idea started with the 8th century English historian, Bede, who wrote that, whenever the Pictish royal succession was in dispute, kings were chosen from the female royal line rather than the male. Although dismissed by some scholars as a myth, others have taken the absence of sons succeeding fathers in the Pictish king lists as supporting evidence for Bede’s words. Several scholars have gone further, arguing that if women had a decisive role in succession disputes, their power doubtless extended to other areas of society as well.
An entirely new line of evidence, however, may be provided by Pictish symbols. These are carved on rough boulders or cross stones, and about 400 examples survive. They have been taken, at different times, to represent inter-tribal marriage instructions, estate boundary markers, records of personal professions, Pictish `flags’, simple artistic expressions, even pagan altars–but never on the basis of much hard evidence. In my view, the symbol stones were memorial stones, and the symbols represent names – either the name of the dead person, or of the person who had the stone erected. Moreover, I believe that a fifth of the names belonged to women. Compared to other contemporary societies, this would represent a very high proportion– in Ireland, for instance, we know the names of about 10,000 men dating from before AD1000, but of only 200 or 300 women.
The symbols almost always appear as pairs, and in several contemporary societies names were produced from two themes. In Anglo-Saxon, for instance, we have Aethelgifu (`Noble-gift’), Aethelstan (`Noble-stone’), and Wulfstan (`Wolf-stone’).
I believe Pictish names may have worked in the same way, and that feminine endings on the Pictish carved stones were represented by the mirror and comb symbols that follow one in every five symbol pairs. A mirror and comb appear to the left of the only unmistakably Pictish woman represented on a cross stone – there are several biblical females – that from Hilton of Cadboll, dating from about AD800.
If this theory is correct, 20 per cent of Pictish stones were erected for or by women, which is between five and 20 times more often than in any other contemporary Celtic or Scandinavian society. One motive for commemorating the dead publicly is the statement it makes – I am inheriting this person’s wealth, power, authority and prestige. If women held 20 per cent of the power and wealth in Pictish society, it is no wonder Bede heard such stories about their dominant role in the royal succession.
To read the full argument, please let me refer you to the original post on Women in History.