1 SEPTEMBER 1984, Page 26

Holiday history

Eric Christiansen

Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80-1000 Alfred P. Smyth (Arnold £6.95) St James's Catapult R. A. Fletcher (Clarendon Press £28) Prussian Society and the German Order Michael Burleigh (Cambridge University Press £22.50)

Pwho take books on holidays 1 sometimes take history books. It is recommended not only that they read The History of Brighton Beach by J. H. Plumb, but that they sit on Brighton Beach while doing so. The book expands the place, the place expands the book, the book and the place expand the holidaymaker. Everyone benefits, as long as the deck-chair holds up.

It may be so. It is not necessarily so. This year, I tried the experiment once more by carrying a new history of Dark Age Scot- land into Argyllshire. That is where the Irish, called Scotti, lived, when the rest of Scotland was full of Picts, Britons and Angles. It is still scattered with low heaps of stone that were once Irish monasteries, forts and dwellings. At sunset, among the islands, you can hear the faint whirring sound made by the monks of Iona turning in their graves at the sensation of Presbyte- rian piety overhead.

Most histories of Scotland are full of lies, put there to justify the Kirk, or the Labour Party, or the Nats. In the case of the Dark Ages there is an additional reason why it is almost impossible to discover the truth, viz, the paucity of the written evidence. To put it graphically: if the entire corpus of contemporary sources for the period 80 to 1000 were chopped up, soaked in water, salted, peppered and annotated with oat- meal, the mixture would suffice to stuff one moderately large haggis.

Apart from that, there is archaeology, and speculation; and now there is my old friend Alfred Smyth's paperback, volume one of The New History of Scotland. Alas, it is not exactly holiday reading. Few questions that might occur to the Highland or Island tourist are answered therein. I mean such posers as: why did the Irish occupy Argyll, and what did they eat, wear, ride and sail when they lived there? What did their monasteries look like? What tools did they use? What was the Scottish landscape, before it was doomed to wool and forestry? How did any ruler

succeed in dominating more than one large glen? What do Pictish carvings actually mean? What sort of life did the Britons lead on top of Dunbarton Rock and Edinburgh Mound? Why were they unable to dominate all Scotland?

For the period down to St Columba, when there is almost no written evidence but much archaeology, Mr Smyth is re- warding. He gives geography its due. He explains the Roman walls clearly and concisely, and the non-Roman life round them. When he comes to the written stuff, he settles down to the haggis and won't stop munching. That is, he constructs a political and religious narrative that is verY theoretical and too often unrelated to the landscape and physical remains of the period. It is a collection of notes and suggestions on the texts, some excellent, some not. He hammers boldly at the myths of Pictish matriarchy, pre-Celtic surviva,l, and Viking civilisation, pushing granny ell the bus whenever he can, but he never really investigates the credibility of the texts he uses beyond asserting that vve ought to believe them here and there and not everywhere. So, whatever the merits of Warlords and Holy Men, it is more Smyth than Scotland. He is good on the Irish, I admit; but calling them 'Scots' is an anachronism quite unjus- tified by the brilliant career of their kings in Pictland. I enjoyed his Hibernian pre- judices, but it was the wrong book to take

out on the loch; the library is the place to read it.

Some prefer Spain for holidays, and take various illuminating works with them. None sheds much light on the history of the arid coasts which the Ingleses frequent; the Spaniards were great sea-farers, but coas- tal sand was simply one of many minus Signs in their economy until this century. Adventurers to the far north-west corner will do better because they will at least have the chance of taking Fletcher along with them to answer questions.

This province of Galicia was once a great draw, resorted to by all Europe for 500 Years because the apostle James was sup- Posed to rest at Compostella. Why should anyone have believed this? And why, believing it, should anyone have gone so far, to a virtual dead-end, where the food Was bad, trade was precarious, and the ?illy industry was the manufacture of pious Junk and ecclesiastical tradition? Who was doing well out of so much self-inflicted discomfort? So might the modern tourist Ponder, painfully discovering amid the damp Galician valleys that he might as well have gone to Wales. He might be surprised to find answers to his questions in the detailed study of one 12th-century bishop's life. But Diego Gel- rnirez was a turbulent cleric who put C.°mpostella on the map of Europe, and himself on the map of Spain, with the unlikely title of metropolitan — which was rather like having an archbishop in Corn- wall. The book is densely written, and Makes no concessions to those who have a temperamental aversion to reading about 12th-century prelates. But the ruthless and profitable career of Diego gives as good an insight into mediaeval Galicia as any. He was the astute provincial who used °Inside forces and inside connections. to Make himself cock of the walk. He harnessed international ideals — papal authority, church reform, pilgrimage — to ,fhe service of his uncles and his cousins and IS aunts, and above all to his own stand- '0g. It is a beautifully drawn example of clerical ambition, and it connects the dim World of highland lairds from which Diego _Came with the restless desires of cosmopo- litan kings, queens, popes and guilt-ridden sinners. To know about this one bishop is 10 travel in Galicia with rather more turPose and understanding than before. you must be rich. The Clarendon Press "asn't the guts to print the price on the dust-cover. I don't blame it. , Englishmen like out-of-the-way places, `,',11t I imagine that few will be going to East rrussia for their holidays this year. It was 1,3os5ible to do so, in the Polish sector, until the recent troubles. It is odd country, dry and dusty in August, with a landscape iresembling both Lincolnshire and Scot- and. It has castles, dreadful beer and rkather good ice-cream. The Russian sector "as been cut off from the world since the vitLar and they are said to be doing terrible ,.,"lngs there. It w-as all German once, in the ueePest and most heartfelt sense, and that defunct civilisation can be traced in the epigraphy of lavatories, man-hole covers, cast-iron street lamps and gravestones. Our bombs and the Red Army have accounted for the rest. Alles ist weg.

Should it be possible to go there again, one book to take would be Michael Bur- leigh's study of the Teutonic Knights in decline. Those were the warrior-monks who created German Prussia and ruled it as an independent state for 300 years. After the battle of Tannenberg in 1410 they were losing their grip — not so much to the Poles, who only got control of their Vistula commanderies in 1466, but to their own German burghers and junkers.

The process is well documented in the large archive now in Berlin of which Mr Burleigh is the first English scholar to make full use. He gives a classic account of how power corrupts — not absolutely, since like other mediaeval rulers the brothers of the Order were limited despots — but by a continuous dull abrasion of sympathy between governors and gov- erned; in this case between celibate emig- rants with a tradition of service and blood- shed, and entrenched colonials addicted to property, profit and privilege. The voices from both parties that we hear in this book are generally bad- tempered, provocative reckless, and some- times murderous. 'Whoever is dead does his enemies no harm: that is a proverb in these parts,' wrote one Brother to the Grand Master while planning the death of an unfriendly bishop. Men who fell into the hands of the Brothers were indeed stab- bed, drowned and made to vanish; one who was released because the prison was too full was left to his accusers, a group of peasants, for further investigation. He was racked, scalded and roasted, without con- fessing. Then comes the immortal line from a rustic who can do worse things with candles: `Ich weis noch eyne pine.' I know another torture.'

Only to be expected, with clergymen in charge, you will say. But the clergymen were really not much different from their lay subjects: much given to drink, brawl- ing, womanising and money-making. There was nothing sanctimonious about them. They took the question 'Why should the laity have all the gaiety?' rather more seriously than Father O'Flynn. They spoke a different sort of German to that of their underlings, but that was normal in mediaeval states.

What made them unendurable? They attacked the rich — an idiotic mistake, often made by those who believe in 'admi- nistration for administration's sake', as well as by lovers of social justice. The rich hit back, and the Brothers found them- selves strangers in the land they owned.

and mistrust fouled up their elabo- rate government like sand in a clock. It is a dismal story, with morals for everyone, and even if it happened 500 years ago it is a good one to read while waiting for trains in the sad de-Germanised landscape of Ger- many's Ulster.