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April 25, 20193539Views

The Emergence of the English by Susan Oosthuizen

Nigel Hillpaul reviews Professor Susan Oosthuizen's critical analysis of the origin of the English ethnicity and the extent of its Anglo-Saxon underpinnings

I tend to approach books like this with either a degree of trepidation or resignation. As a Welshman, I have had a lifetime of smiling politely at stories of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism or nodding fixedly at the idea of Dark Age Manifest Destiny, where the Anglo-Saxons brought civilisation and Christianity to a barbarous people, pointing out that both existed before attracting either derision or denial. The main argument of how post-Roman Britain became Anglo-Saxon England – Abandonment, Assimilation or Annihilation – gets ignored in favour of Attribute; natural superiority carries all before it, history after all is written by the victors. The one thing the Welsh are never forgiven for is being here first; even their name (‘the strangers‘) is an attempt to marginalise them.

So, what did I make of Professor Oosthuizen’s book? The initial shock is its size; at less than 150pp I was expecting a brief polemic, and read on with an increasing degree of astonishment at the breadth of knowledge and the depth of research it contained, marshalling arguments for and against the traditional views of a radically changed social, political and economic post-Roman landscape.

As with so much else it starts with the naming of things. The Dark Ages has been a troubling term for so long, as archaeology has started to fill in the absence of documentary evidence (thanks to motorways and the invaluable work of the detectorists amongst others), and the closing of some huge gaps and has left it as something of a misnomer. She briskly recategorises the period (400-600 is late antique, 600-850 becomes early medieval and 850-1066 as pre-Conquest), a logical dovetailing that fits in with broader European history before jumping straight into primary source material.

I never liked Gildas and Nennius, those proto-nonconformist Methodist preachers, fulminating against local rulers while smugly refusing to sanction practical alternatives. Bede I dislike as he fits into Lenin’s definition of a useful idiot, providing a Year Zero view of Anglo-Saxon history that has enabled generations of schoolchildren to ignore what happened between 475 and 730, desperately trying to airbrush over events like the Council of Whitby. They are quickly dealt with as guides rather than accurate sources.

Genetic research has replaced the troubling concept of race with its highly charged overtones. Advances in genomic research have shown problems in the data modelling used, specifically the re-evaluation of whether ancient population history can be identified from modern genomes. For example, despite the perception of Iceland as a homogenous society, less than 50% of the DNA in ninth-century Viking burials is represented in the modern population. That means if you were to reconstruct the Viking population from modern DNA, half of them would be missing from the result, so trying to track back into Celtic or Germanic population clusters can be difficult and working forward from graveyards of the period doesn’t provide as wide a pool of material as is required to be definitive.

Ethnicity, the collective social identities characterised by specific cultural traits, is explored and it's shown to be difficult to prove how Germanic culture swamped the Romano-British population by the witty example of Ikea (it’s worth buying the book for that illustration alone). The gens, nations and populi of late antiquity would be better characterised as communities of one sort or another rather than the people of a nation. Look at modern society with our variety of allegiances – professional, personal, religious, social, regional, sporting, Brexit, etc – but what language did they speak? A degree of multi-lingualism was present in the Romano-British population: variations of Brittonic, Latin, etc, so why did spoken Old English become so prevalent when Brittonic place names remain so common (the location of the Battle of Badon is known to anyone with a little Welsh after all) and personal names like Cerdic and Cynric, the founders of Wessex, and Aedelwealh of Sussex have Brittonic names? Colonial transmission, elite replacement or the deliberate construction of a hybrid political identity where new dynasties encouraged foundation myths in a ‘consciously structured narrative sufficient to bind entire communities together’? I personally think that with the replacement of Mediterranean goods by those of northern Europe, the innate tendencies of my people to fit in, get on and find someone to look down on came to the fore as they adopted wholesale the new culture and goods they were exposed to.

Most of the island’s population – those dependent on agriculture and descended from its earlier inhabitants – continued to exploit the same landscapes in much the same ways as their ancestors had done (Wharram Percy being the prime example I can think of). Professor Oosthuizen has laid out a land whose history is one of continual occupation except in areas of radical short-term change. She uses a change model to show small, intermediate or large-scale changes over what Braudel defined as the longue durée, one I don’t want to go into as it would give too much away and I intend on using it myself before everyone else. In her own words though, the history of this period showed peoples who ‘expressed collective identities drawn from the landscapes they occupied, and among whom continuity may have been as commonplace as transformation’.

While there may have been some Abandonment (political and economic collapse, the Justinianic Plague), there is no evidence for Annihilation (a population conservatively estimated at 3 million did not disappear into mass graves). That leaves Assimilation, which confirms what every Welshman suspects deep down: that the English are just Celts pretending to be Germans in the world’s earliest example of Stockholm Syndrome.

So if you’re reading this, greetings Boyo, you’re probably a long-lost cousin of mine.

The only troubling thing that skirts around my head now is: who are the Welsh?


 
THE EMERGENCE OF THE ENGLISH – SUSAN OOSTHUIZEN
 

Nigel Hillpaul

Byzantinist, varangian and rural antiquarian

 

Twitter: @TheHillpaul

 

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    Eee, Nigel, "Welsh" doesn't mean "strangers". It's so tiresome to hear and read this repeated again and again. It just meant "citizens of the Roman Empire". There's nothing dismissive or derogatory about it. The Germanics never used it for their Slavonic, Finnic or Baltic neighbours. No, it was only for those in the old Imperium. They never used it for the Picts or Irish, either.

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    Yes, the victimhood is strong with this one.

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    "I have had a lifetime of smiling politely at stories of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism or nodding fixedly at the idea of Dark Age Manifest Destiny, where the Anglo-Saxons brought civilisation and Christianity to a barbarous people, pointing out that both existed before attracting either derision or denial" Oh please, nobody thinks this. You have a romantic, noble Celtic victim identity while the English working class are erased and lumped in with the ruling class so spare me.

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    >"For example, despite the perception of Iceland as a homogenous society, less than 50% of the DNA in ninth-century Viking burials is represented in the modern population."

    This sentence is basically wrong. You're implying that the change in the genetic pool is a result of admixture with migrants. The unrepresentativeness of the modern population of Iceland compared to the source populations of its settlers is in part precisely because of its homogeneity.

    The conclusion made in population genetics + ancient DNA papers on the topic (and I am an author on one) goes like this. Icelanders started from a small founding population, remained basically isolated, and suffered periodic population crashes. These founder effects + bottlenecks caused strong genetic drift, meaning that the genetic diversity of Icelanders reduced over time + also became less representative of the source populations.

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    "I have had a lifetime of smiling politely at stories of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism or nodding fixedly at the idea of Dark Age Manifest Destiny, where the Anglo-Saxons brought civilisation and Christianity to a barbarous people, pointing out that both existed before attracting either derision or denial" Where have you heard that? The popular conception of the Anglo Saxons is as barbarous pagan invaders brutally shoving aside the Christian Romanised Welsh. Perhaps tone down the victim hood next time to write a review.

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    Thank you very much for this review. I now feel a bit reassured with my scepticism towards Mrs. Oosthuizens valiant claims.
    Yes, the evidence is scarce, and yes, the sources are biased and fragmentary and possibly exaggerating, and yes, having an IKEA-shelf doesn't make you a Swede and archeology might be misleading.

    But on the other hand I really cannot imagine the idea of germanic tribes migrating to post-roman Britain had been invented totally without substance. Especially comparing the well documented migration habits of germanic tribes in other parts of post-roman Britain.
    And I really cannot buy the idea post-roman Britons suddenly got the idea to switch to the language of people living on the other side of the sea just because it sounds more funny.
    And by the way, Mrs. Oosthuizen: While modern English is somewhat easy to learn (in the beginning ...), Old English was definitely not. It was more complicated than modern German or Swedish.

    And yes, there certainly was continuity with settlements and land usage. But that does not proof the same people continued to live there.
    If a migrating tribe conquers to settle - then using houses and economic infrastructure (and place names) of the former inhabitants is the main point. Most farms and settlements stood where they stood for a reason and it would have been folly to randomly move them.

    Just one more point:
    "a population conservatively estimated at 3 million did not disappear into mass graves"
    Mass graves would not be the typical destiny of the old population in a conquered region. Some are killed of course, especially if they resist. Many flee. Many are sold into slavery - a booming trade during these times, and those such removed from the region's population are those most needed for demography. The remaining inhabitants will be reduced to an inferior social status, economically deprived - which means bad nutrition, vulnerability to disease resulting in dwindeling numbers over the next some generations.

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    "That leaves Assimilation, which confirms what every Welshman suspects deep down: that the English are just Celts pretending to be Germans in the world’s earliest example of Stockholm Syndrome."

    Oh, how we wish that was true. Welsh and Scottish identity is all about telling the English that they are evil oppressors don't belong in their own country and people aren't going to give that up easily. The English working class, in the regions outside of the South East, have been sidelined and exploited every bit as much as the "Celtic" people over the years, but we don't have a positive identity available to us. Even to call yourself English instead of British is a bit suspect. We're even considered fascists for flying our own flag during the world cup. We're collectively blamed for our ruling class always. Responsibility for the crimes of the British empire is dumped solely on our doorstep despite the fact that it was a collective effort, with Scots in particular being heavily over-represented. The Troubles in NI have their roots in SCOTTISH settlement, for that matter. It's us who are exclusively blamed for brexit despite Wales voting leave and Scotland's 40% leave vote.

    Even without this DNA evidence that proves we DO have British ancestry and did all along, people from Ireland, Scotland and Wales have moved into England in huge numbers for work from the industrial revolution onwards, but STILL we're supposed to see ourselves as evil Saxon invaders. We're told we're racist and hate immigrants compared to the saintly, tolerant Celts, despite actual poll evidence not backing this up at all (and the fact that England is the only part of the UK that's seen significant immigration). And all the romantic Celtic identity business has legions of white American supporters who see it as an escape from their own racial politics, who use it as a way to claim ethnic victimhood, who show up and think it's perfectly acceptable to hurl abuse at the English collectively, despite the fact your average English person probably has more recent Welsh/Scottish/Irish ancestry than they do.

    If we get angry about ANY of this, well, it's just further proof that we're a bunch of thugs. We are tired. We are so f***ing tired of it. So no, I'm not convinced that you're going to let us in on your Celtic identity politics business, because then you won't have any big bad "other" to define yourselves in opposition to, will you? Something's going to give. The English working class are tired of being the whipping boy for every single thing that's wrong with this country that we suffer JUST AS BADLY FROM. Deindustrialisation hit our north and midlands JUST as hard, we've had JUST as much crap from the ruling class in the SE as you have, but we're always, always, ALWAYS just lumped in with them and collectively blamed and called bigots if we try to forge ANY kind of other identity for ourselves.

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