Dunbar author Ross Laidlaw has written about several historical figures in the past, notably Aphra Behn and Attila the Hun (did you know, by the way, that Attila the Hun is said to have died from a nose-bleed?). Anyway, his latest book, Theoderic, published by Birlinn, describes the extraordinary life of Theoderic, King of the Ostrogoths, AKA Dietrich von Bern. I’ve been asked to run an ‘In Conversation’ with him on Thursday in Dunbar Library, and it’s been a real pleasure preparing for it.
The fifth century is a fascinating period in history. Attila and his peoples from Central Asia pushed westward, displacing the Slavic and Germanic peoples, who in turn moved west; the Vandals into North Africa via Spain, the Visigoths (remember Alaric?) into what’s now southern France and Spain, the Ostrogoths from the Balkans into Italy and central Europe. Some Huns stayed in what’s now Hungary, which is why that country’s language is so different from the Indo-European languages around it.
I’ve read (and recommend) Terry Jones’ book ‘Barbarians’, which gives the broad sweep of these huge events, but ‘Theoderic’ goes into considerable detail in describing the life and death of his Romanising hero. It was an extraordinary life, and I’m grateful to Ross for illuminating it. I don’t know who his next hero will be – Gaiseric?, Alaric? – but I will ask him. What I find really amazing is that we’ve got several good historical records of the period. It’s just that the eventual winners of these far distant conflicts – the Church, the large city states, the nascent nations – don’t draw attention to them. The whole ‘Barbarian’ period was never wholly barbaric, indeed in some respects it was highly civilised.
Where it gets more difficult is here in the British Isles. The historical record is poor and patchy, up until Bede in the 8th century. What happened after the last legion of the Roman province left in 410? Ross manages to bring in a ‘Merlin’ figure, and a warlord called Artorius (=Arthur, the Bear), and the Saxon take-over of eastern and southern England. (The Saxons were displaced by the same westward movements that affected every other people at this time, so that’s why they came to Britain in such large numbers). The truth is that we don’t know. I remember reading, many years ago, Henry Treece’s ‘The Green Man’, which sorted out the Arthurian legend, and the story of Hamlet, in one neat and racy package. But what about the Picts, my own ancestors? History says nothing, so speculation can range as wide as we like – no uncomfortable facts to get in the way of a good story. But here, with the Goths, we’re on more solid ground.
I’ve mentioned what’s on my poetry bookshelf in the Reviews page of the Poetry Scotland website. There’s a goodly crop of fine books there, and new reviews by Sally Evans.