The Emperor’s Babe, by Bernardine Evaristo, is a tale of Londinium, 211 A.D. In this novel the main character, Zuleika, is married to a rich Roman man, Felix. To show his affection towards Zuleika, Felix buys two young women slaves for her. These two women are from a Druid tribe north of Londinium. During their time with Zuleika, they tell her about their lives and their culture. I decided to explore the Druid culture that, through these two women, is presented in the novel.
The first description we get of the difference between the Londinium, Roman-influenced people and the Druids is in physical description. “Two ginger girls arrived, captured / up north, the freckled sort (typical / of Caledonians)” (Caledonia is a Latin name the Romans gave to the lands north of Hadrian’s wall). Zuleika finds the girls “fascinating” yet “vile”. The verses continue on to describe these women in barbaric ways. Zuleika finally forces them to be bathed, so she could bare to be around them with being “nauseous”. Very little is known about the day to day life of Druids but one can assume, based on similar cultures we know more about, that there was little to no sense of cleanliness and certainly no sense of sanitation. What we would understand as being barbaric also extends to the girls’ behavior. They “escaped / out the window and climbed / on to the roof, howling.” These stark cultural differences are too difficult for Zuleika to handle so she begins a process of forced assimilation. She even tries to make them look less alien by covering their freckles with white lead.
Aemilia and Valeria, as Zuleika has named them, soon fall into step with their new roles in a Roman household but they like to tell Zuleika stories of their lives before being captured. Valeria says that their “Mammy and Faither were chieftens, ye ken.(‘ye ken’ means ‘you know’)” and their “granfaither / was chief Druid”. From my research of Druid culture I have learned that Druids were priests and that it could take up to twenty years of study and learning to become one. Once they had achieved this status, they had quite a bit of power among the tribes. They were pinnacles of wisdom and often acted as teachers and judges.
A particularly interesting aspect of Druid culture was the prominence of women in all the roles of the tribe. At one point in the novel Valeria says “Mammy would leid de sodgers into battle, / hir lang heir flying behind like fire, / standing on hir chariot she was so ferox, / all in de scud, face pentit blue wi an owl / tattooed on it”. This is significantly different from the roles that women played in Londinium culture, this role is illustrated by Zuleika’s situation, in which she is so insignificant to her husband that he simply, and rather nonchalantly, disposes of her after she has an affair.Here is a link to an interesting website that goes into the specifics of women in Druid culture.
In the previous quote, Valeria mentioned that her mother wore blue paint on her face. This is an ancient tradition in Celtic/Druid culture and is primarily worn as war paint for an upcoming battle. Most of us have probably seen this portrayed in television or movies but here’s an example anyway courtesy of the movie ‘Braveheart’.
In my research into the relationship between the Druids and the Romans during the time The Emperor’s Babe is set, I discovered that the native non-Druid Britons were quite afraid of the Druids because they believed that Druids had physic and possibly other mystical powers. One article I read (linked below) stated that the Romans “were happy to make a peaceful settlement with most tribes/groups in England, they had no intention of doing the same with the Druids”. Apparently, the Romans were horrified by the sacrificial rituals that Druids performed for their religion and simply massacred them. They then began a forced Christianization, or forced total assimilation of the land and what people were left just like Zuleika forced Aemilia and Valeria to assimilate.
Link to short article about Roman-Druid relationship:
How does this novel help me understand Englishness? Well, it’s been discussed in class that to determine Englishness, one must consider history. I think it is extremely important to know that London was created by the Romans, something I was not aware of until this book. We know that London’s influence on the rest of England is tremendous so the Roman influence on Englishness must be astounding.