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The Emergence of the English – a new interpretation and an old conundrum

By Gareth Griffith

In the past decade or so a number of works have taken a fresh look at post-Roman Britain, in particular at the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in what is now England. The common theme in this literature is the need to reconsider the premises upon which the older interpretations of Anglo-Saxon migration and conquest were based.

The latest contribution to this literature is The Emergence of the English by Susan Oosthuizen. Brief in length but packed with ideas, the central thesis of the book is that neither the few documentary sources nor yet the study of the material culture present us with any evidence of either invasion or what is called elite-replacement by north-west European immigrants; there is no evidence, Oosthuizen argues, to establish the role of such immigrants in the subsequent demise of Romano-British culture. The premises upon which the traditional interpretation is based has resulted, in Oosthuizen’s view, in a flawed “explanatory model of early medieval from late antique Britain that takes the special characteristics of Germanic ethnicity as its starting point.

Against the ethnicity thesis, Oosthuizen posits an evolutionary or assimilationist model based on continuity, innovation and adaptability. She maintains that the departure of the Roman army and civilian administrators in around 410 did not result in economic collapse and political instability; nor did Romano-British institutions, culture or language suddenly vanish. On the contrary, according to Oosthuizen the existing population remained largely in place, as did the administrative structures, institutions, social relationships, language, economy and material culture, including the agricultural landscape and the rights of property it entailed. Far from being undermined, the agricultural livelihoods may have been “stimulated rather than depressed” by the removal of Roman taxation.

Oosthuizen does not dispute that there was “substantial change” in the character of material culture in fifth and sixth century England. She does not argue that the political transition of the fifth century was “without turmoil, that there was no change,” or even that ethnicity “was or was not an influence.” Rather, her argument is that continuity – not displacement or conquest of one population by another – should be assumed unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. In this case, such evidence is lacking. That is the nub of Oosthuizen’s argument.

There are several aspects to this thesis, among them a reconsideration of the archaeological evidence and of contemporary genetic research. A distinctive feature relates to Oosthuizen’s analysis of common property rights – that is, agricultural land exploited under shared rights of property. These rights, she maintains, were universal across the British Isles and remained undisturbed across the period. For Oosthuizen, common property rights are an institution across what she calls the longue durée. Following the French historian, Fernand Braudel, the argument is that, in order to understand historical change, it is necessary to take a long chronological range – “history whose passage is almost imperceptible, that of man in relationship to his environment, a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetition, ever recurring cycles.” Similar explanatory models of change in social institutions are drawn from sociology (Bourdieu), economics (Ȭstrom) and environmental science (Holling).

More could be said, but in summary Oozthuizen argues:

for holistic, multi-stranded interpretations of how Romano-British evolved into the English, adapting in the short-, medium-, and the long-term to sudden events and longer lasting processes – each varying by scale, by region, and by degree of momentum – and all underpinned by underlying continuities whose evolution was almost imperceptibly slow.

Which brings us to an old conundrum – the question of language. There are two key issues. What language or languages were spoken in lowland Britain in the post-Roman era – in late antique Britain, to adopt Oosthuizen’s terminology? And how and why, based on the assimilationist model, did Old English emerge by around 600 as the standard language of the Angli?

I have written elsewhere at some length on the first question (“Latin in Post-Roman Britain – an old debate revisited”). Some of this ground is worth traversing again. The current orthodoxy among historians of post-Roman Britain would seem to be that Latin was spoken and written widely in the century or so after the departure of the legions in around 410. This applies with particular force in what is called the Lowland Zone, the region in the south of the country where villa civilization proliferated.

The issue is significant, not least because former assertions of the widespread displacement and even genocide of the native British population were sometimes based in part on the lack of Brittonic loan-words in Anglo-Saxon (for example, Ronald Hutton). But if Latin was the most common language encountered by the incoming Germanic people, at least in lowland Britain, then such assertions must look to new and different evidence.

An Anglo-Saxon Bird-Shaped Brooch, dating to the years 500–550 – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

An example of the contemporary approach is found in Guy Halsall’s 2013 book, Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages. As in Oosthuizen, in Halsall’s work language is only one part of a larger and novel re-interpretation of the period. Halsall challenges the assumption, “still more or less universal,” he claims, that the people the Anglo-Saxons encountered in the Lowland Zone spoke Brittonic or Brythonic. He argues that: “This is very rarely questioned but it is more than a little problematic, being based upon absolutely no evidence.” Halsall’s view is that, while Brittonic was indeed the main language of the highland regions, the same cannot be said of what he calls “the lowland villa-zone.” By analogy with northern Gaul, he maintains that, after 400 years of Roman rule, in this zone “the local Celtic language was replaced by low Latin.” If that was so, then the “Anglo-Saxons’ lack of contact with British speakers would be entirely unsurprising.”

A similar, if less categorical version of this argument is found in Nicholas J Higham’s most recent book, King Arthur: The Making of the Legend. His conclusion is that, “Latin was widespread in late Roman Britain, particularly in the Lowland Zone, and literacy along with it, but Celtic was still heard everywhere and was for many their first language – particularly in the north and west.”

In Wales and the Britons 350-1064 TM Charles Edwards wrote that in 400:

…many Britons then spoke Latin, though many of them would also have been able to speak British…In the sixth century, Gildas referred to Latin as ‘our language’, contrasting it with the Germanic of the Anglo-Saxon settlers.

Taking a step back a few generations, the issue of the use of Latin in post-Roman Britain, from around 410 to 600, can be viewed through the linguistic prism of Kenneth Jackson’s seminal 1953 book, Language and History in Early Britain. In Chapter 3, Jackson presented a nine-point summary of the “probable situation” of the Latin and British languages in Roman Britain, as follows:

Latin was the language of the governing classes, of civil administration and of the army, of trade, of the Christian religion, and very largely (but perhaps not entirely) of the people of the towns. The rural upper classes were bilingual; the peasantry of the Lowland Zone, who constituted the great bulk of the population, spoke British and probably spoke little Latin; and the language of the Highland Zone (apart from the army and its native camp followers) was to all intents and purposes exclusively British.

On this account, the speaking of Latin “coincided roughly with the ability to read and write,” making it largely “a polite tongue of the upper classes,” although Jackson would add the townsfolk of Roman Britain to that calculation. He estimated that Latin remained the “official” language up until around 450, after which it found refuge for a time in the Highland Zone; in the same period, the “British language came into its own among the upper classes in the Lowland Zone, as it had always been among the lower.” The discussion is highly technical but the conclusion arrived at by Jackson was that: “although it does not prove anything for certain, the heavy accumulation of negative evidence does seem to suggest strongly that the English met very few people who talked any sort of Latin at all during the course of the occupation of Britain.”

From Kenneth Jackson to the contemporary historians cited, there would seem to be broad agreement that Latin was the language spoken by the reading and writing classes of the Lowland Zone; that is, the administrators, traders, the army and the like. The difficult question is how far down the social scale did Latin reach? Was Latin the more or less universal language of the Lowland Zone in Roman and, for a time, in post-Roman Britain? Is there a case to be made, as Jackson thought, for bilingualism, at least outside the cities of Southern England? If bilingualism did endure in the country areas, did it conform to the model of social hierarchy suggested by Jackson? Was it the case that Brittonic displaced Latin in the 5th century as the spoken language of all classes of the native population in the former Lowland Zone? Alternatively, was Latin still the dominant language, to be replaced ultimately by Anglo-Saxon?

What does Oozthuizen’s assimilationist model have to say on the subject of language? The word assimilation is usually taken to mean “incorporated or absorbed into,” whereas the evidence of the dominance of Old English would seem to imply the opposite. The evidence would appear to contradict the premises upon which the assimilationist models rests. Under that model, the language of a more or less randomly dispersed minority of incomers came to replace the dominant language of the native population, be this Brittonic or Latin. Oozthuizen writes, “How did that happen. The process is opaque.” Indeed it is.

Oosthuizen clearly gravitates towards a view of post-Roman communities in Britain as either bilingual or even multilingual. The early eighth century evidence of Bede (book 1, chapter 1) is brought into play, with Oosthuizen writing that Bede listed:

five languages across England – English, Latin (both the classical of the church and learning, and a vernacular form called Late Spoken Latin), British Celtic, Irish, and Pictish; he also assumed some level of bi-/multi-lingualism, and noted that most people could speak vernacular Latin.

But is this right? I must rely on the Penguin Classics translation where Bede’s reference is not to England but to Britain, of which it is said that the four nations of the island, “are united in their study of God’s truth by the fifth [language] – Latin – which has become a common medium through the study of the scriptures.” Is this not a reference to church Latin? Surely, Bede is not claiming here that the population at large was engaged in Biblical studies, any more than they would have been at any other period in the Middle Ages. Have I missed something?

Bede depicted in a medieval manuscript – British Library MS Yates Thompson 26

At any rate, with some evidence of the continuing use of Latin place-names alongside their Old English names under her belt, Oosthuizen concludes:

There must be a possibility that the principal language of late antique England was not Brittonic but Late Spoken Latin and, in that case, that the emergence of Old English may not necessarily reflect the oppression of Brittonic speakers.

However, if the population was largely Latin speaking, the dominance of Old English may yet reflect the oppression of the native Romano-British. Whether they spoke Latin or Brittonic may be a red herring as far that goes. Oosthuizen would appear to be in danger of falling into the trap she sets for others, that is, of conflating language with ethnicity. For all that, it is the multi-lingual perspective that prevails in Oosthuizen’s work, where a picture is drawn of the native population speaking English as a second (or third) language and finding “no conflict in continuing also to speak Brittonic and Late Spoken Latin.”

Curiously, while Oosthuizen is fond of using analogies (IKEA stores and others), she does not employ the same method in respect to language. The obvious strategy would be to look, as Halsall does, at what happened on the continent in the same period, in Gaul for example. Why such evidence, along with a comparative perspective generally, is ignored by Oosthuizen is not explained.

Writing in 1953, Kenneth Jackson’s view was that the evidence did not “prove anything for certain;” the evidence was still largely a priori. While some advances have been made during the intervening 66 years, notably in those fields that lend themselves to archaeological research, the language question remains stubbornly opaque and therefore resistant to certainty. Oosthuizen’s treatment of that question is perhaps the least convincing aspect of her work which, in this respect, as in others, gives rise to as many questions as answers. Nonetheless, The Emergence of the English is a fascinating contribution to an ongoing conversation among historians. Particularly interesting is the innovative use made of explanatory models drawn from sociology and other disciplines, which invite study of social institutions that embody Braudel’s vision of the longue durée, Bourdieu’s habitus, Ȭstrom’s structures for minimizing institutional risk, and Holling’s conception of the “larger slower cycle”. Of these explanatory models we are sure to hear more.

Dr Gareth Griffith is a writer, researcher and formerly  the manager of research for the Parliament of New South Wales. Please visit his website or check out his latest book Glass Island.

Further Readings

Susan Oosthuizen, The Emergence of the English, ARC Humanities Press 2019

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Penguin Books 1990

Ronald Hutton, Pagan Britain, Yale University Press 2014

Guy Halsall, Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages, Oxford University Press 2013

Nicholas J Higham, King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Yale University Press 2018

TM Charles Edwards, Wales and the Britons 350-1064, Oxford University Press 2013

Kenneth Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain, Edinburgh University Press 1953

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