Matrilineal, Patriarchal, Matrilocal, and Messy

So, how does succession, inheritance, and other stuff work out in a society? There are almost as many answers as there are societies, and some people like to imagine a time, way back when, that society was matrilineal, matriarchal, and so on. Anthropologists are still looking for that one. However, the British Isles had groups that were matrilineal and matrilocal, but patriarchal. Or at least, their leadership was.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Picts, the Celtic* people of the eastern half of what is now Scotland, north of roughly the Edinburgh-Glasgow line. Roughly. Borders were fluid, especially after Rome abandoned Hadrian’s wall. The Picts had no writing (or so people thought), and until the creation of the Pictish King List in around AD 724 CE or so, we don’t have any records that are not written by outsiders. According to Bede of Jarrow, writing in the early 700s, and Gildas (mid 500s), the Picts and the Gaels of Dal Riata swept down across Hadrian’s Wall as soon as the Roman Army departed, looting, burning, and generally terrorizing the other Britons**. Gildas says that this was because the Britons had gotten immoral and a few had backslid into paganism. Bede says that missionaries, notably St. Ninian, had been at work up in the area in the 200s, but obviously “their dippin’ didn’t take” as my maternal grandmother would have said. The Irish annals talk about the Picts when they discuss Dal Riata and the other Hiberno-Scottish groups.

One of the questions that came up about the Picts was their system of government. There are few contrarians who argue that the Picts had a diffuse, family-based, semi-egalitarian matrilineal government that worked very well until the Christians, especially the Roman Christians after 640, introduced a much more centralized and unequal political system. Most historians that I’ve read argue for a series of lords, low kings, and a high king who was chosen for partly competence rather than strictly by inheritance. However, the king had to come from a certain family line, or from one of a small group of families—again, the sources are unclear. The system was matrilineal and matrilocal.

The Pictish king lists don’t show a son consistently succeeding his father until the later 800s. Before that, it was the son of the previous high king’s sister. And she might marry a Saxon, or Briton, or Gael. The outsider lived with his wife, and his sons and daughters were raised as Picts. This also led a few people to argue that the Picts had been matriarchal at some point in the distant past, until [Indo-Europeans/Christianity] ruined everything. Actually, that system was common in the British Isles, and you find it in the Welsh Mabinogi, the Irish Annals, and other places. The Picts emphasized the female line of descent because it made sense. In times of trouble, the odds of knowing who the mother was were very high. Knowing the father might be a bit more difficult. And women pass culture and religion to their children from a very young age.

However, the Picts, like the Britons and Gaels of the west, were patriarchal. At least by the time of the Roman observers and later, males governed. Only a very few women are named in the king lists, and those are women who are married to a king.

*The Gaels of Dal Riata spoke a dialect related to Irish. The Picts spoke a dialect related to Brythonic (original “English Celtic” so to speak), Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. All are Celtic, but the two are not really mutually intelligible.

**Whether the people of Dal Riata were 100% Irish, or were Irish nobles with a larger Briton or Pictish subservient population, or if they happened to have come over from Ireland at some point in the distant past and kept their dialect of Celtic, seems to be a topic of endless debate among historians and archaeologists.


13 thoughts on “Matrilineal, Patriarchal, Matrilocal, and Messy

  1. That’s a lot better than what I found when I tried to look into the Picts during the early ‘90s.
    Few things say “this is serious scholarship” quite like the invocation of Atlantis. (Or the lost tribe of Dan.)

    • Oh, I’ve read one of those. Started with it by accident, in fact. The Picts came from up around what is now the Lunaberg Heath (Lower Saxony, south of Hamburg) and their language was lost to the ages after they (perhaps) adopted Celtic. They were originally matriarchal, goddess-worshiping, and egalitarian until the Celtic Christian Church appeared [boo]. Then the Catholic church’s arrival [boo! Hiss! Down with kings!] triggered the creation of an unfair, quasi-feudal society of haves and have-nots, and imposed a monarchy, and . . . YAWN.

  2. That’s why history of the tribes in Britain is so difficult. If one tries to “depict” it, one’s never certain whether that means “de-Pict” in the martial sense, which was often necessary!

  3. It’s sad that people want to believe those mythical matriarchal societies

    • Hit Send Too Soon.

      I meant to include “were perfect”.

      Guess they never met the Bad Guys. 😡

  4. Yep, confusion abounds, especially with no ‘written’ history. Remembering that the ‘winners’ write the history, usually from a distant remove and making sure ‘they’ look good.

    • Or in the case of Gildas, the losers. “The horrible, terrible mean barbarian tribes looted and pillaged us because someone sinned! Rome abandoned us! Doooooooooommmmm.” He was partly right.

  5. Is your de-Piction of the Picts fair? Surely, even without writing they could use Pict-ures. (Runs)

  6. Didn’t Pictland meet its end when the Scots came across the Irish Sea and carried out a de-Pict-ion programme?

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