Gender and Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales c. 400-1150 CE

Figure 1. Eliseg’s Pillar near Llangollen, Denbighshire, Wales. Photograph © 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas (http://www.castlewales.com/eliseg.html).

The Pillar of Eliseg is an exceptional stone monument in Wales which was erected by Concenn ruler of Powys (c. 854 CE), to honor his great-grandfather Eliseg, who had expelled the Anglo-Saxons from that part of Powys.

The pillar is a round-shafted cross that stands on a barrow near the Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis. The lengthy inscription carved into the monument is now illegible, but two copies of the transcription in 1696 by Edward Lhuyd have survived, enabling a study of the inscription and its significance.                                                                                                

The archaeological context of this pillar has recently been reconsidered, illuminating how its form and function emphasized the link of the rulers of Powys with the Roman usurper Magnus Maximus and the sub-Roman ruler Guarthigirn. The inscription was intended to be read out loud and that the monument was as an important piece of public propaganda erected at a time when the kingdom of Powys was severely under threat (Edwards, 2009).

Studies of such exceptional monuments can add to the historical narrative and fit into the objectives set by archaeologists of early medieval Wales to better understand the relationship and interaction between different political and cultural groups in the early medieval period. However, important questions about the social structure of Wales—in particular—the function of gender evidenced through the stone monuments has yet to be explored.                                                                                                           

A total of 565 monuments for Wales c. 400-1150 CE. The volumes cover into three geographical regions: the South-East Wales and the English Border (Redknap and Lewis, 2007), South-West Wales (Edwards, 2009) and North Wales (Edwards, 2013). The three regions have 191, 216, and 158 number of monuments respectively. Most of the stones with inscriptions include a name in the nominative or genitive case, which implies that the stone is the ‘monument of X’ and also includes the filiation, frequently by the use of filius or fili, followed by the name of the father in the genitive ‘X son of Y’.

These types of monuments may have also functioned as grave-markers, but do not include the phrase hic iacit. There are 20 stone monuments with inscriptions that include the formulae with filius or fili or the equivalent. Many of the stones contain the formulaic Latin ‘hic iacit’ ‘here lies’and ‘pro anima’ ‘for the soul[s] of’, commemorating the dead and their souls in Christian fashion.

The imagery on the stone monuments include human figures, most of which are arguably Christian and depict familiar Biblical scenes or ecclesiastical figures. This study is a focus on gender representation, display, and power during this religious transformation.

What can these functions and formulae say about gender in early Wales? Firstly, that the stone monuments had commemorative and religious functions. The surviving stone monuments present an overwhelming majority of mens’ names and filiation. It can be argued that the stone monuments were for men to display their genealogy and kinship as well as their religious status. From the formulae and filiation on the inscribed stones, it is clear that Christianity was an important part of the display of identity in early Welsh society. However, the patterns reveal that this was an act done by and for male kin.

Figure 2. Vaynor (Abercar) B47

An exception is one of the stones that is included under fili, which can be transcribed as filia, considering that the name that comes before it is in the feminine form, transcribed as the name Cupeta.

The only possible stone monument in this dataset that mentions a woman is Vaynor (Abercar) B47, which is lost. A photo and a drawing of the stone survive, so the inscription is still clear (see Figure 2). T. H. Thomas recorded it as follows:

Fragmentary Latin inscription, reading vertically:

[-]PETAFILI[-]

[-]peta fili[a-]

=(Cu)peta, daughter [of…]

Cupitus/Cupita was a particular popular cognomen in Celtic areas, including Roman Britain, the most likely reading is [CV]PETA, with Vulgar Latin E for I. There are less likely possibilities, such as Hospita, Popita, but these are not attested in Roman Britain. (Redknap and Lewis, 247)                  

Even in this particular example where a woman’s name is mentioned, she is the daughter of someone else to whom the stone monument claimed ownership of. Her relationship to her father was important enough to be included, and it is even possible that Cupeta had the stone monument erected for her father. This is also potential significance in terms of agency and the potential significance that her father’s status was being used to bolster hers.

By carving one’s name into permanence, along with one’s kin, men used the stones to harness a self-image and their continued remembrance after their death, as well as for their kin. The evidence of the kingroup of early medieval Wales gives insights into their worldview of association, property-holding, inheritance, legal rights, and aspects of the soul, which allow us to recognize the persistence of ancient social forms into the society of the early middle ages.

Masculine power is directed into the production and maintenance of political and social formations (the stones) to consolidate political, economic, and legal powers for men. The stones were placed in public, visible spaces (such as the Pillar of Eliseg) in an attempt to define mens’ powers in these spaces, while womens’ overwhelming absence from the stones reflected the cultural belief in womens’ incapacity to carry out public professional responsibilities.                              

Overall, the stones marked the preponderance of masculinity and in the few cases where women do appear on the inscriptions or imagery, they are marked by their relationships and elite or religious statuses.      

Arica Roberts is a doctoral student in the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology. Her thesis is a study of gender during the Christianisation of early medieval Wales c. 400-1200 CE. 

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