By Matt Schwoebel (an amateur historical Arthur scholar/enthusiast)

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Friday, July 16, 2004

8. Woads, Merlin, & Guinevere

In the movie, barbarians to the north of Roman Britannia are termed Woads.  They seem to be based on a historical northern British people called the Picts.  The Picts did paint themselves (tattoos) like the movie’s Woads.  They lived mainly north of the defunct Antonine Wall across the cockpit of modern Scotland.  Picts raided northern Britannia and were a constant source of consternation for the Romans and their Briton successors.  Picts were the Celts untamed by Rome.  Overall the depiction of the Woads was not too bad.  It was overly simplified, since most of the people between Hadrian’s and Antonine’s Walls were Britons, not Picts (Britons are the partially romanized Celts of Britannia mainly living south of Hadrian’s Wall). 

By the way, these uncivilized, non-technical Woads in the movie are actually capable of building and operating complicated Roman siege artillery such as catapults.  Guinevere has a nice line against technology, keeping in observance of Hollywood’s political agenda.  Then later on these same non-technical, at peace with nature Woads go and use Roman technology in their battle against the Saxons, ahem.  Rome itself in its early days borrowed technology from the not-so-primitive Celts including chainmail armor. 
Merlin is shown as the leader of the Woads.  He is portrayed more as a political chieftain than a druid (although he does marry Pagan Guinevere with Christian Arthur).  Merlin, or Myrddin in Welsh, was probably the chief druid or bard of the Islands about the time of Arthur’s reign (the medieval French troubadours changed Myrddin to Merlin, due to Myrddin sounding like the French word for crap).  There may have been several men named Myrddin.  Guinevere is Merlin’s daughter and is quite the fighter.  Other than the occasional bad line (see above), I thought the characterization of Guinevere and Merlin was reasonable.  Of course the real Gwenhyvar (Celtic spelling) was probably a Briton and not a Pict.  She may have been from the north of Britain, but in all likelihood she was not that barbaric in appearance.  FYI, one of the of the most common women’s names in the USA, Jennifer, is based on the Cornish spelling of Gwenhyvar or Guinevere.
As a side note, medieval Scotland was a conglomeration of the dominant Scotti (Irish in the west), Picts (archaic British in the east & highlands), Britons (Strathclyde British of the southwest), English (lowland Angles mainly in Lothian), and Norse (north, especially the islands).  

Go To 9. Pelagianism and Bishop Germanus


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Welsh pronounciation of "Myrddin" is much different than the French pronounication of "Merde."

January 12, 2007 at 2:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

True, but you're talking about modern French there. The etymology that I'm familiar with is that Myrddin would be naturally Romanized as "Merdinus," which *would* sound like a scatological reference to educated French people at the time. So it became "Merlinus" instead.

January 17, 2007 at 12:24 AM  
Blogger Graham Carruthers said...

Picts are Britons due to them being in Eastern and Nothern Scotland

December 27, 2013 at 4:04 AM  
Blogger Victoria McCall said...

Does anyone know what guineveres tattoo means?

September 22, 2015 at 11:17 PM  
Blogger SayWha said...

The Picts in the film were called 'Woads' because they used woad, a blue pigment derived from flowers, to decorate their skin. (It's the same stuff William Wallace had on his face in Braveheart.) The name 'Pict' also came from their use of woad; it meant 'painted', surviving in modern times in words like 'picture'.

History doesn't record whether they painted meaningful woad patterns on their skin, but the Picts did leave behind many standing stones with spirals and stylized plant and animal shapes carved into them. Guinevere's woad markings in the film were reminiscent of those Pictish carvings, likely serving three purposes: to be reminiscent of nature, to link the people with the land, and to scare the hell out of their enemies... most of what we know about the Picts comes from people who weren't sure whether they had fought humans or blue-faced demons.

August 29, 2017 at 12:33 AM  

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