That old chestnut (Chapter One)

Much examined, not yet solved is the puzzle of the placename ‘Traiectus’, referred to in the Antonine Itinerary of the 2-3rd century. In the section on Britannia, Itinerary XIV starts at Isca (Silurum), or Caerleon, and ends at Calleva (Atrebatum) – Silchester.

Most of the stations along the way have been identified, with more or less certainty; but very roughly fourteen miles on from Sea Mills (Abone) and six miles short of Bath (Aquis Solis) is the mysterious ‘Traiectus’. The figures xiiii and vi mean 14,000 passus and 6,000 passus. Given the modern computation of a passus, that would be roughly 13 miles from Sea Mills and 5 1/2 from Bath. The common view is that it coincides most closely with Bitton, on a stretch of the old Roman road between Bath and Hanham on the outskirts of Bristol. The distances match closely enough, but it remains the least certain of the identifications of this Iter.

The River Boyd, taken from the A361 as it passes through Bitton

So, why would it not be? Well, firstly, a traiectus is a crossing, so the argument is that this could be the River Boyd. If so, it must have been a bigger river than it is now – by some considerable margin.

At present it looks like the kind of small waterway which might or might not have needed a stone ford. Wheeled carts or wagons could splash in and out the other side, hardly noticing it. To designate the place ‘Traiectus’ would be to dignify it beyond its obvious desserts.

The River Frome at Frenchay

After leaving Sea Mills and before arriving at Bitton, the traveller would also have to cross the River Frome, not the widest river in all Britain, but this is still (at the present time, it must always be remembered) only the size of river that could be easily forded, without even the need of a bridge.

Traiecti must have been ten a penny if river crossings the size of that over the Boyd merited the name.

The other point is that Bitton has no very strong Roman connections. A nearby camp, once considered to have been Roman, seems more likely to have been medieval and there are no more than a few odds and ends in the way of Roman remains. So for the Romans, the most notable aspect of Bitton would have been – its river crossing …

On the other hand, more puzzling than that, the Itinerary as it survives makes no mention of the fact that to get from Caerwent to Sea Mills a rather wider stretch of water must be crossed than the River Boyd. An alternative suggestion for Traiectus is that it referred to the crossing of the Severn Estuary itself. Can that be supported?

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A brief recapitulation

I have been unable to find any primary reference to Iscalis other than in Ptolemy’s Geographia: all later references derive from Ptolemy. The original was in Greek and I don’t know how the name was spelled as I can’t find a Greek text (of which the earliest manuscript is 13th c.)

The (2nd c.) Antonine Itinerary didn’t cover this area. William Stukeley’s 18th c. ‘reconstruction’ marked the Fosseway, and Ilchester as ‘Ischalis’ – the common identification at the time; but there is no Iter along the Fosseway in the original, so this is Stukeley’s addition. The nearest Iter is XV which goes through Winchester, Salisbury and Dorchester to end up at Exeter.

The Stukeley reconstruction

The Stukeley reconstruction, in which Ischalis = Ilchester

The Ravenna Cosmography also does not mention it so Ptolemy, c. 150 AD, appears to be the only early source.

The only other point of information (or more probably misinformation) was that it was one of the πόλεις of the Belgae, along with Venta Belgarum and Aque Calide. And, according to Ptolemy’s method, it was situated west of Aque Calide (Bath). One difficulty is that the territory of the Belgae almost certainly didn’t extend even as far as Bath, still less further west to ‘Iscalis’. Another suggestion (Francis Haverfield in the Somerset Victoria County History, 1906) is that it was no more than a mistake, perhaps a confusion with Isca Silurum, modern-day Caerleon.

If we discount the supposition that the town may not have existed at all, and if it did it wasn’t in the territory of the Belgae, we can say that it was in Somerset, probably in the area where the territories of Dobunni, Dumnonii and Durotriges met – the No Man’s Land. It also seems an irresistible conclusion that the name is related to the British isca, meaning ‘water’? (rather than ‘a river’ – afon – Abona). So we have a Romanised/Latin name with an adjectival suffix that suggests ‘a watery place’.

So, what manner of place was No Man’s Land at the time of the Romans?

Phonologically yours (1b)

I’ve now discovered a very useful website: Nottingham University’s Key to English Place-names. This is much more cautious about the derivation of  Countisbury than AD Mills who simply quoted arx Cynuit c. 894 (that’s Asser).

The problem is that when the historians were looking for somewhere on the Devonshire coast that might have been the site of the ‘Battle of Cynuit’, they fixed on Countisbury as the possible place, due to its situation and the similarity of the name; the place-name specialists then took the modern name as deriving from Cynuit, because that was ‘where the battle took place’. That was the wrong way round: if the specialists had first derived Countisbury from Cynuit on existing documentary evidence, then the historians could have come along and said, ‘Well, that solves the mystery of where the battle took place, then.’

Anyway, the Nottingham site says of Countisbury’s derivation: “Uncertain. Perhaps, ‘fortification called/at *Cunet’, a Celtic place-name of unknown meaning. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the first element is a Celtic personal name, ‘Cynuit’.”

Notts UnivSo the elements are explained thus: a British placename cunẹ̄ti̥ū, meaning unknown;  a (Celtic) personal name (Cynuit?); and burh (Old English), fortified place.

But where did this ‘Celtic place name’ *Cunet’/cunẹ̄ti̥ū come from? It resembles the personal name Cunetus, found in the medieval document referring to Cuneti confessoris as the patron saint of Llangynwyd in Glamorgan, where the original form would appear to be the British/Welsh/Celtic Cynwyd or Cynuit; the later Cunetus is probably a late/neo-Latin back formation; but this is the personal name, not a place name.

It looks like the Roman place name Cunetio, which according the Antonine Itinerary (3rd c. AD) was some 35 Roman miles from Bath and has been uncovered by Mildenhall in Wiltshire. The origin was the British/Celtic name of the river on which the Romans built their town – now the River Kennet. This river name may well be represented as having been something like *Cunet’/cunẹ̄ti̥ū in Roman times. But Cunetio is nowhere near Countisbury.

William Stukeley's 18th-c. reconstruction of the Antonine Itinerary (Iter XIV); rectangles mark Cunetio and Countisbury

William Stukeley’s 18th-c. reconstruction of the Antonine Itinerary (Iter XIV); rectangles mark Cunetio and Countisbury

There are several river names with the Celtic element Kenn or Kennet, but they aren’t near Countisbury either. It does seem as if this *Cunet’/cunẹ̄ti̥ū would, phonologically, give Cynuit – but there is still nothing to link it to Countisbury.

As I see it, the Nottingham site is more circumspect regarding the derivation – which leaves us … where we were.