The joys and pitfalls of studying Wall history

SacoHarry
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Joined: August 22nd, 2006, 9:29 pm

April 7th, 2010, 12:06 am #1

Digging deeper into Wall history and eyewitness stories is fun. Maddening, but fun.

The fun comes from little gems like the following:

"...A Wall thare-efftyr ordanyt thai
For to be made betwene Scotland
And thame, swa that it mycht wythstand
Thare fays, that thame swa skayth[it] hade;
And it off comon cost thai maid;
And yhit men callys it Thryl Wal..."


That's possibly the earliest known mention of the Wall in English (medieval Scots-English, but still...). It comes from an epic poem on Scotland, "The Orygynale Cronykil," from one Andrew Wyntoun, c. 1400. Doesn't actually shed any light on the Wall -- it just takes Bede's story and rhymes it. But it's fascinating to see people studying & thinking about history far earlier than we tend to give them credit for.

There are earlier accounts too, from the 12th Century in the "Black Book of Hexham," in which charters mention the "Murus Romanorum" as parts of property boundaries. Again, fun -- to me!

But the names... that's the maddening bit. To truly study how long people have been talking about the Wall, you have to know what terms to look for. And it's not easy. In addition to "Murus Romanorum" and "Thrylwal" (meaning "Pierced Wall" -- maybe referring to the old milecastle gates which "pierced" the Wall every mile), I've uncovered:

The Wall of Severus, The Roman Wall,
Thirlwall, Thwertoner Dyke,
Pierced Wall, Picts Wall,
Pictes Wall, Pightes Wall,
Kepe Wall, Mursever,
Mur-sever, Gaul-sever,
Gal-sever, Bal,
Val, Murus Perforatus,
Vallum Aelium (Staffordshire Pan), Vallum Severi,
Hadrian's Vallum, and of course, Hadrian's Wall

At one point I was following leads for "Graham's Wall or "Grhames Wall" -- only to discover that these invariably refer to the Antonine Wall in Scotland. And then there's the fake De Situ Britanniae, which added the equally fake "Vallum Barbaricum," "Pretentatura," and "Claustra," among probably others, to the mix.

As an amateur who just likes learning this stuff, it's a great detective story. To the professionals who earn their living delving into ancient records to reveal to us something of our shared history, I tip my hat.
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HelenG
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HelenG
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Joined: June 27th, 2007, 12:53 pm

April 7th, 2010, 8:04 am #2

Wonderful stuff. Thirlwall Castle must derive its name from "Thrylwal" I suppose.

For anyone who hasn't come across it yet and is interested in the observations of our predecessors, may I recommend an excellent little book by William D Shannon called "Murus ille famosus (that famous wall)"?

It is subtitled "Depictions and Descriptions of Hadrian's Wall before Camden" and I found it very interesting indeed. Lots of lovely old maps and quotations. ISBN 9781873124451.

Helen
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SacoHarry
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Joined: August 22nd, 2006, 9:29 pm

April 7th, 2010, 11:52 am #3

That's brilliant! Just ordered a copy, can't wait to see what tidbits are in there.

I think that's right about Thirlwall Castle. Looks like a local family took the local name of the Wall, then eventually knocked a mile of it down to build their own manor!
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SacoHarry
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Joined: August 22nd, 2006, 9:29 pm

May 1st, 2010, 12:14 pm #4

Book came in the mail yesterday, I love it! The collection of maps is top-notch. And there's at least a half-dozen new names for the Wall that I hadn't stumbled on before. The author also makes a great point -- rediscovering the Classics in the 1400s changed the way folks thought about who built the Wall and when. Until then, nobody remembered that Hadrian was involved at all; it was in the 1400s that the first debate over "who built it?" began. Great stuff.

What gets me is, it looks like the author missed the refs in the 1300s to "Thyrlwall" -- both by Wyntoun and an earlier Scot, John of Fordun. Kind of surprising. The author's so interested in pinning down early writers who had seen or gotten new info firsthand, yet missed these local references. So I'm a bit chuffed at finding them on my own!

Thanks again for the lead.
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