William Morris Archive

Peter Wright


Whereas in the Roots of the Mountains Morris described in detail the layout and surroundings of Burgdale before beginning his narrative, in The House of the Wolfings he started his story simply with a general presentation of his people living in clearings beside a substantial northward-flowing river amidst great forests. Although he had decided to describe a conflict between Germans and Romans, he may not initially have determined the exact period of those battles, or the geographical position of his Mark. It is not until Ch. VIII that we learn that the invading Romans have crossed a range of mountains and a Great River running from them, and, having overrun the land south of that river, are attacking the tribes living across it in the hilly heath country south of the Markmen's forest, and building forts there. Since the Romans, after having been checked in fighting in the woodland, and then on rising ground south of the forest, make a flank attack from the south-east and so briefly occupy the Wolfings' House, it seems more likely that the mountains and river in question are meant to be the Alps and the Danube, rather than the Rhine and the Vosges behind it, from which an attack would come eastward rather than northward.


A. The Past

Morris's narrative of the ancient migrations and battles of the Markmen in Chs. IV and VII derives from Morris's imagination, unless the Aliens who attacked the Upper Mark in Ch. VII are intended to be some of the Celtic peoples whose lands once stretched across the South of Central Europe from Gaul to the Middle Danube. When, however, a man speaks in Ch. VI of the South-Welsh Lay with its tale of earlier conflicts between ancestors of one clan of Morris's 'Goths', in alliance with 'a folk of the Cymry', and the Romans, winning and losing, and finally suffering a great defeat, with blood rising over the wain wheels, Morris may well be thinking of the attacks on southern lands, c.120--100 B.C., by the allied tribes of Teutones and Cimbri (actually a Germanic people), who after defeating several Roman armies, were defeated with great slaughter by Marius in 102--1 B.C. (Plutarch's Life of Marius mentions the waggons, from which their women hanged themselves to escape enslavement, though not the flood of blood.).

Also his following story of the man of the Gael, captured in battle against the Romans and harshly enslaved in one of their cities before escaping, may be inspired by the fate of many of the Gallic warriors who were defeated and enslaved by Julius Caesar during his conquest of Gaul. (From the 1st century A.D. the Gauls were more or less obedient subjects of the Roman empire.).

Morris may have drawn his idea of the 'wainburg' used by the Markmen from the accounts in Caesar's Gallic wars of the lines of carts used in defensive formations by the German king Ariovistus and by the partly Germanised Belgic tribes who fought Caesar in 58-57. (The description of the special 'banner-wains' drawn by suitable beasts, that bear the banners of the different houses of the Mark was, however, probably based on the 'caroccio' that bore the flags of the Italian city-states in battle in the 13th century, of which he already knew in the 1860s: cf. 'The Ring given to Venus', lines 29-30.

B. The Present

As an educated man Morris was probably aware of the basic development of the attempted conquest of Western Germany up to the Elbe, which was undertaken by the Emperor Augustus over some twenty years, but was abandoned after 9 A.D. when, in an uprising led by the famous German chieftain Arminius, three Roman legions were annihilated in the 'Teutoburg' forest. Although Augustus's grandnephew Germanicus led three years of campaigning, 14-16 A.D., into Germany, the project of conquering it was then abandoned by his uncle, Tiberius, and was never resumed, as Morris will have known from his reading of Gibbon. So the attack on the Markmen should probably be placed within those twenty years, all the more as they are not encouraged in their resistance by any tidings of Arminius's victory.

Perhaps Morris intended Thiodolf to achieve in his part of the Geman lands what Arminius effected elsewhere. (The Roman invasions of that period were mostly directed into the northern part of Germany, where they could bring up supplies by water along its rivers, and the lands to the south between the Main and the Danube were apparently little affected: perhaps, if we are looking for a home for the Markmen, we should look there, in the great 'Hercynian forest' that stretched east from the Rhine to Bohemia and beyond, the predecessor of the Black Forest.)

The composition and tactics of the Roman army as presented in Morris's tale resemble most those of the forces of the early empire. He notes particularly the relative weakness of the Roman cavalry, and the use as skirmishers of the Balearic slingers, such as had once fought for Hannibal. Morris has also refrained from indicating that the Romans are ruled by a single monarch in the shape of a hereditary emperor, describing their government as a collective 'oligarchic' one.

C. The Future

Morris ends his tale by stating that after this defeat 'the Romans began to stay the spreading of their dominion'. He will have learnt from Gibbon [Ch. I], (who is copying Tacitus) that in 14 A.D. Augustus had advised his successors to keep the empire within its natural boundaries, on the main continent of Europe the Rhine and the Danube. Indeed, except for Trajan's annexation of Dacia in 105, the boundary remained substantially along the line Augustus had set for almost four centuries. The Romans, rather than invading German lands, handled their peoples, as Morris might have noticed in Gibbon's ninth chapter [sec. II] by a mixture of divisive diplomacy backed by gifts, and occasional retaliatory raids. From the late 2nd century it was the Romans who were on the defensive against successive German attacks, and no longer in a position to try to assail the Markmen or their likes: the watchword of 'No Limit' to their conquests that Morris ascribes to them was no longer applicable.


Although the situation shown in Morris's story fits best the time of Augustus, he uses for the German peoples whom he mentions names from much later epochs, mentioning Burgundians [e.g. Ch. VIII] and Franks, and makes Thiodolf fight kings of the Huns (Ch. III). He will have known from Gibbon [Ch. XXVI] that the historic Huns did not approach even the easternmost Germanic peoples until the 370s, long after the Romans had ceased to expand their empire, while the Franks do not appear in history, on the Lower Rhine, until the 3rd century, [Gibbon Ch. X] and the Burgundians were probably then still somewhere in Poland. He may have introduced those names as likely to be more familiar to his readers than those of German tribes actually recorded in the 1st century , such as the Chatti, Chauc and Cherusci. As for the designation of 'Goths', which Morris regularly applies to the Markmen and their fellow-countrymen, he can hardly have intended to identify them with the historic Goths who were generally supposed to have migrated between 100 and 250, when they began to attack the eastern Roman provinces, from the coastlands south of the Baltic to the northern shores of the Black Sea, [see Gibbon, Ch. X] far from any possible Roman move across the mountains of Western Europe. Probably he is using 'Goth' simply as a general term for peoples of Germanic speech and culture.