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  • Doublets in Ancient and Medieval History October 27, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

    Beach had an emotional day today rummaging through screeds of old crap in cardboard boxes. In one of these he found a strange rectangular object that our ancestors called a ‘floppy disc’. And, after much trial and error, he also found a computer that was primitive enough to read it, while, it is true, grumbling like a cat with hair balls. Within there was gold – well, fool’s gold – samples from Beach’s juvenilia and research projects from years back. Naturally, Beach being Beach, most of these projects never went anywhere. And in and among these aborted fetuses he found a file called ‘doublets’.

    Now is there anything as chilling as a forgotten obsession?

    Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!

    Doublets, for the unknowing, were misunderstandings typically restricted to periods when writing was not fully established. An event takes place. Two or more accounts are written of the said event. Then times passes and confusion kicks in and minds are boggled. A later reader is struck by the difference between the two accounts and assumes that they are actually about about two different events.

    If this is all a bit abstract imagine that Pearl Harbour had taken place in a world where writing was not very common or where it invariably did not survive: it could yet happen.

    By the twenty third century two accounts have been passed down concerning the day of infamy. One from an American serviceman who was there and who survived and one from a Japanese admiral who had helped plan the operation. The reports are undated and the twenty-third century historian is so struck by inconsistencies in the accounts that he or she assumes this is a description of two different attacks on Pearl Harbour. Before we know it there was an attack on Pearl Harbour in the winter of 1941 and another sometime in early 1942.

    This example is invented. But consider a genuine early medieval doublet – or possible doublet – from the Emperor of English history, Bede.

    The second chapter of book two of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History begins with a description of a conference held between Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, and some British-Celtic ‘bishops and teachers’. This meeting was organised on the borders of the English kingdom of Hwicce under the protection of the Kentish King Aethelberht and, with both sides having arrived, Augustine proceeded to demand that the British Celts made far-reaching changes in their ecclesiastical customs. The British felt under no compulsion to do this and so flatly refused. Augustine, needing to assert his authority, called for a blind man who the British Celts tried and failed to cure. After their failure Augustine demonstrated his great virtus by giving the man sight and the British Celts present were suitably impressed asking for a second meeting so a greater number of Britons might come.

    Before this second meeting, at which there were seven British bishops, the British party went to one of their hermits for advice. The hermit told them that if Augustine was meek and rose at their approach then he was a man of God and should be followed. If he did not rise he was proud and they could afford to ignore him. Augustine remained seated as the Britons approached and so doomed the meeting to failure. The British Celts contradicted him and eventually in anger he said that the English would bring down the judgement of God upon them.

    Many years ago Nora Chadwick – who also wrote about flying kites in the Pacific and deserves a certain muted respect – claimed, without going into detail, that this was a doublet. In other words there was one conference and both sides told it there own way. Afterwards, the two accounts, confused as two separate councils, were merged in Bede or perhaps in one of Bede’s Mercian predecessors.

    The argument is beyond proof but there are some clues. Not least the fact that the first council seems to be seen through English eyes and is hostile to the British Celts, whereas the second council is seen through British Celtic eyes and is hostile to the English. Nora may have been right.

    Any other examples of doubling from medieval or ancient history? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com