Friday, 24 March 2006

Early celebrities

As I expected, responses to my offer to answer questions about the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography have come flooding in by email. I shall answer one of them here and the other one in a later post.
Who were the first famous women connected with Britain (i.e. those who died before the end of the fifth century and whose biographies are included in the ODNB?).
Here they are:
Boudicca [Boadicea], queen of the Iceni
Brónach, an Ulster saint
Canir [Cannera], a Munster saint
Cartimandua [Claudia Cartimandua, Julia Cartimandua], queen of the Brigantes
Cranat ingen Buicín, Munster saint
Ercnat ingen Dáire, Ulster saint
Gobnait [Mo Gobnat], Munster saint
Helena [St Helena, Helen, Flavia Julia Helena], mother of the Roman emperor Constantine I
Lallóc, Connacht saint
Non [Nonnita, Non Fendigaid], patron saint of Wales
Ursula [St Ursula], martyr

A couple of queens, some Irish saints, a martyr and a mum: no-one of much interest there, except for Boudicca. Remember, though, that not a great deal was going on that early in these misty isles, and the ODNB doesn’t include the likes of your Cleopatra and your Queen of Sheba.
And their 172 male contemporaries didn't really amount to much either: assorted kings, Romans who visited or were stationed in the British Isles, more martyrs and lots of hairy great chieftains from the Celtic fringes. Very few of this bunch could be described as famous or even interesting.
In other parts of the world, of course, there were thousands of men in those times (and even a few women) whose names are known and who did tremendously important things—building pyramids, bearing the Son of God, inventing gunpowder, smiting the hosts of the Amalekites, raising the dead and all that—which would certainly have earned them a biography in the ODNB if only they hadn’t been foreign.

[The ODNB has no picture of the Queen of the Iceni but here's one of Alex Kingston having a go at the role for relaxation after her seven years as ER's Dr Elizabeth Corday.]

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