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An unrecoverable reality? Recent interpretations of post-Roman Britain

By Dr Gareth Griffith

2021 has seen a flurry of books published about early medieval Britain – The First Kingdom by Max Adams; Early Medieval Britain, c 500-1000 by Rory Naismith; and The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England by Marc Morris. While Adams focuses on the immediate post-Roman period from the fifth to the early seventh centuries, Naismith and Morris take the history of Britain from the departure of the legions to the threshold of the Norman conquest. 

Several common threads run through all these books. More to do with style than substance, all three are accessible works of history. This is especially true of Adams and Morris who write for a general readership; but it also applies to Naismith who, as part of the Cambridge History of Britain series, defines his core purpose as providing “students with an introduction to early medieval Britain.” What is undeniable is that all three books are likely to be influential, among general readers in relation to Adams and Morris and the medievalists of the future in Naismith’s case.

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A second, more substantive thread relates to the development of the political landscape, where we find the common theme of the making of larger and more stable kingdoms, Christian in religion, out of the plethora of petty lordships, pagan and otherwise, that emerged to fill the power vacuum left by the Romans after 410. Of the fifth century, Naismith writes of “the mosaic of small worlds” and Morris of a “gaggle of small kingdoms;” likewise Adams envisages “incipient lordships” arising by different routes in defined geographical locations and subject to regional variations. For all three, the story is one of consolidation of power and administrative structures, secular and religious, nascent in Adams and more fully realised in the more extended treatments found in Morris and Naismith. For Morris, the spotlight is on England, whereas Naismith extends the argument to encompass the Pictish kingdom’s rise to hegemonic status in the north.

A third common thread is that each of these texts grapples with the period of the two centuries immediately following the ending of Roman Britain – variously described as the “Dark Ages” or “Late Antiquity” – and the problems of evidence that arise in that context. This is the period about which we know the least and over which there is most controversy and debate: as Morris writes, “The less evidence the more contention.” Basically, the question is to what extent, if any, are we to follow the accounts found in Gildas and Bede of the invasion of Britain by Germanic tribes that displaced the indigenous population of Britons by conquest. In this traditional version the portrait of post-Roman Britain is one of deserted towns and declining population, a land of dereliction and decay, in which the Brythonic and Latin languages of the natives were swept away by tides of immigration. A whole series of questions arise, for example about mass migration, the relationship between ethnicity and material culture, along with issues of identity and language.

Such questions are central to The First Kingdom by Max Adams. This is an impressive piece of historical analysis, beautifully written, comprehensive in its treatment of the available sources. As in his previous books, Adams brings an intimate and imaginative understanding to bear on the relationship between the political and geographical landscapes of the many and diverse regions of Britain. Working within the possibilities of the material and written sources, he challenges the traditional picture of complete social breakdown in the fifth century. The broad shape of his thesis is that the obscure fifth century was a time of relative continuity and social equality, with petty lordships developing in abandoned Roman forts, hill forts and other locations. He envisages an evolutionary process of political change that gathered pace over the next hundred years, as these lordships grew in power, initially subordinating if not actually conquering their neighbours – from little things big things grow.

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In terms of the material culture of the period and the controversies concerning migration, Adams looks to the growing body of archaeological evidence for guidance. He accepts that the archaeological record may not be sufficient to reassemble the original storyline, while insisting that it is enough, “to furnish the set on which that lost drama was performed.” He arrives by this route at the paradox which lies at the core of this historical period. On one side, he finds mainly in the written sources, accounts of desertion, abandonment and discontinuity, as evidenced for example in the end of imperial coinage and villa life; while on the archaeological side, in the environment and landscape, Adams reports “increasingly visible, if subtle, signs of continuity.”

Admittedly, the evidence for continuity, such as it is, is heavily weighted towards southern and eastern England (Lowland Britain) where, according to Adams, the dramatic social changes in burial and settlement sites began before the dates for migration associated with Gildas and other traditional sources: “Archaeology has thrown a spanner in the works,” he writes. Towns were not abandoned in a hurry. True, profound changes did take place in Romano-British towns in the late 4th century and beyond; however, it is Adams’s contention that “Violence…will not do as the primary explanation” of those changes.

Four models of change are presented by Adams to account for the “adoption by parts of Britain’s population” of novel grubenhäuser buildings (erected over a pit in the ground) and other practices: (a) a political and social coup enacted by a Germanic warrior elite; (b) a broader model of a folk movement based on mass migration, possibly taking the form of chain migration over successive generations; (c) a radical model where the innovations of the 5th century were driven by internal forces, with no or very little immigration; and (d) a fourth model where a substantial number of warriors and their dependents arrived making an impact on cultural life, only to depart again. As Adams acknowledges, all these models may be right just as they may all be wrong: “No single model or combination of scenarios seems to accommodate all the evidence.” Qualifying his reliance on the archaeological evidence, he asserts: “What characterizes much of the debate within the archaeological community is a strong tendency to argue from the particular to the general: to offer one model exclusively at the expense of others.”

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So where does Adams land on these big questions? In terms of the broader political picture, he is definite in his rejection of a one size fits all approach, advocating instead a nuanced version of political and social change based on diverging trajectories across the different regions of Britain. For example, he is at one with Morris and Naismith in envisaging the role played in the north especially by allied Germanic foederati or auxiliary troops stationed in the forts along Hadrian’s Wall. Adams also dismisses the tendency of historians in the 19th century and beyond to obsess about ethnicity and to portray the conflicts of the period in binary terms, Celts versus Anglo-Saxons.

On the trickier question of continuity, Adams advances cautiously. Of the traditional narrative of Anglo-Saxon invasion or mass migration, he concludes that these have now been “shown to rely heavily both on assumptions about identity, race and material culture” and on the partisan narrative sources associated with Gildas and Bede. On the other hand, based on the archaeological record in East Anglia, the East Midlands, Lincolnshire and Essex, the most Adams is prepared to assert is that “some permanent settlements of migrants from across the North Sea were established over the century from 400 onwards.” He concludes: “It is not much; but to say more is, perhaps, to stretch current evidence beyond breaking point.”

For Adams, that is as far as the migration argument can be taken. In search of an alternative explanation for the adoption by the native population of Germanic language and material practices, he speculates on the rejection of all things Roman in the east:

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The absolute decisive shift in the history of eastern Britain in the fifth century may not be so much the willing or unwilling embrace of Scandinavian or Germanic cultures, but the rejection of much that was Roman: town life, villas, privatized wealth and display, conspicuous consumption, crushing centralized taxation, martial rule, corruption and absentee landlords.

A later chapter concludes in respect to trading and other relations across the North Sea:

If one is to argue that large-scale immigration is unnecessary to explain the rapid adoption of Continental building and burial styles, material culture and language, one must at least allow for a continuous and fluid commerce in ideas, trade items and people in both directions.

In The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England Marc Morris has a different take on the evidence, one that leans at least as much towards The Ruin of Britain version of post-Roman Britain found in Gildas as in the directions suggested by contemporary archaeology. Not unlike Adams who framed his book as a work of “contemplative history, the starting point for Morris is that a “definitive history” of this early period is impossible: “What follows is a reading of the evidence that seems most plausible to me, and the arguments I have found most persuasive.”

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One example of this approach from a later chapter is where Morris steps away from the many academic theories as to why the Vikings chose the late eighth century to start raiding in the south; in their place he suggests the common-sense explanation that so much undefended wealth was “there for the taking.” In a work that seeks to entertain as much as inform, each chapter deals with a major theme which is tied to a particular historical character – for example, the story of Christianity and its relationship to the shifting politics of the day is told through the colourful life story of St Wilfred, as canny as he was ruthless.

Writing of the post-Roman period, Morris proceeds to make a case for a Briton in ruins, the collapse of civic life with the towns and cities deserted and the most basic commodities unavailable, “leaving people to scratch and scavenge for a living, or to prey on the more vulnerable.” Into this chaos, from around the year 430, came the Germanic tribes, not in the form of the elite transfer model, but in substantial numbers, at least in south-east Britain. Morris claims that “the scale of migration is now once again generally reckoned to have been very sizeable.” For this to have occurred, Morris also makes the case that, “Historians have also refuted the idea that a mass migration was technically possible.”

All the same, the direction of his argument is not all one-way. For instance, Morris does not claim that the migrants outnumbered the hapless Britons; or that the conflicts reported by Gildas were necessarily fought on ethnically binary terms; or indeed that the same processes were at work across Britain, with Morris envisaging more of an elite warrior model in the north of the country. Nonetheless, Morris does maintain that the population transformations of the fifth century were enough to effect a radical alteration of the cultural and political landscape. According to Morris, a few elements of the existing social organisation were adopted by the Saxons, such as “the boundaries of existing fields,” which would have been “too laborious to alter.” Generally speaking, however, the transformation was more or less complete. For the Anglo-Saxons, there was little, if anything, in British culture “they wished to emulate.”

As it relates to mass migration, the central plank of Morris’s argument is founded on language:

It is inherently unlikely that the majority of people in Britain would have ended up speaking English – a Germanic language – had there not been a great many immigrants from Germania.

Morris records the “remarkable fact” that only around thirty words in Old English are reckoned to have been borrowed from Brythonic (Adams records just ten Brythonic words surviving in modern English). But how could this be when, according to Morris, the Britons still outnumbered the migrants by a factor of four to one? The solution Morris offers has two aspects. One refers to the migration of “whole communities of men, women and children,” an argument founded largely on the work of the historian Peter Heather (Empires and Barbarians) who pointed out that “a substantial female presence is required to explain the degree of language change that followed in southern Britain.” From there Morris takes an added step to argue that these Germanic migrants “did not mix and intermarry with the locals,” in support for which he references an article by Bryan Ward-Perkins from 2000. For Morris, this is the most “plausible” reading of the evidence.

This line of argument is hotly contested among historians, with recent books seeking to debunk the catastrophic version of fifth-century Britain (eg, The Emergence of the English by Susan Oosthuizen and Worlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall). For his part, Adams turns the language argument on its head, using it to make a claim for an evolutionary process of change in which the native population remained largely in place. “Simplistic ideas of cultural domination…” are set aside. The account we find in Adams follows the work of the linguist Peter Schijver – Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages (2014). Given the central part played by language in the broader debate, it is worth spending some time trying to unpack Schijver’s complex thesis which, in essence, states that while the Highland Brythonic of the west and north, had no influence on Old English, the same cannot be said of Lowland Celtic, a lost language, traces of which can only be found in Old Irish. Key features of Schijver’s argument are as follows:

  • Old Irish and Old English appear to share a common phonetic basis;
  • The Old Irish sound system offers access to the sound system of Lowland British Celtic;
  • This is because the Irish language is a recent offshoot of British Celtic, probably as recent as the first century AD and possibly identifiable with the language of immigrants from the Brigantes area in northern England;
  • Lowland British Celtic was the language of pre-Roman Britain and the language encountered by the Germanic colonists of the 5th century;
  • As all Old English dialects were influenced by Lowland British Celtic, this language must have been spoken from south-eastern Scotland to the Isle of Wight;
  • Lowland British Celtic was the language of the British lower classes who formed a ready workforce for the Anglo-Saxon migrants and were assimilated into Anglo-Saxon society;
  • Through intermarriage between the colonists and the socially lower-ranking population of sub-Roman eastern Britain there developed a merged culture which “spread westwards in largely hostile fashion…”;
  • On the other hand, the population of sub-Roman eastern Britain who spoke Latin belonged primarily to the upper classes who fled west into the Highland Zone where they influenced the development of Highland British Celtic (Welsh, Cornish, Breton); and
  • Why only features of the Lowland British Celtic sound system and none of its syntactic features influenced Old English “can only be guessed at.”

There is also the issue of vocabulary. Adams writes in this respect: “Despite the lack of inherited vocabulary from this language, its distinct pronunciation shows that there was extended contact between Germanic speakers and indigenous Britons. In other words, Old English was spoken with a British accent.” Adams goes on to conclude:

One of the joists supporting the argument that Anglo-Saxon invaders and colonists physically displaced the natives of Britannia has been sawn half-through.

So why did the Anglo-Saxons adopt the accent but none of the syntactic structure and hardly any of the vocabulary of Lowland Celtic? Adams’s response is that far too little is known about the social upheavals of the time to “say how such profound changes in culture and language came about.” A related question is why did the native Britons apparently go along with the pejorative use of the word wealh (the origin of Welsh) to mean slave or “unfree?” Adams speculates that this may have been an epithet applied by socially advantaged people to the socially disadvantaged – “that is, the lower casts came to be called Britons, rather than Britons becoming a lower caste.” All of which confirms the complexities at issue in trying to recover the realities at work in this obscure period of British history, where the supporting joists of many arguments are sawn half- but not right-through. Often cited in support of the assimilationist argument is the fact that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the first king of Wessex as Cerdic, a name apparently derived from the British Caradog. This argument Morris dismisses, writing that what the Chronicle tells us about the origins of the Anglo-Saxons kingdoms is “clearly legendary.”

What does Naismith have to say about these obscure centuries? Of the three books, Early Medieval Britain c 500-1000 is the most ambitious, not so much narrative history as a thematic treatment of the political, economic and sociological dimensions to post-Roman Britain and beyond. Naismith looks at everything from kings to coins, from Kent to the land of the Picts, picking up in between the histories of such vanished kingdoms as Strathclyde and Bernicia. Diverging perceptions of identity are considered, along with developments in religion, family life, language and communication. The account of the relationship in Scotland between the kingdoms of the Picts and the Gaels of Dal Riata is particularly interesting, turning as it does the traditional version of the triumph of the Gaels on its uppers.

In respect to the world of post-Roman Britain, Naismith doesn’t want impressionable undergraduates rushing off to one extreme or another. He walks the line, therefore, between competing approaches with a view to offering a balanced summary grounded firmly on the available sources. Presented is a regionally diverse picture, of military elites developing in the west and north, with more complex processes at work in Lowland Britain where, despite the possibility of some continuity in politics, administration and culture, “a sharp break” occurred in the fifth century, including in funerary customs and the forms of buildings used. If the claims of physical genocide are no longer viable, then Naismith suggests that the case for “cultural genocide” may yet be on stronger grounds. Thus, while Naismith does not go down the nineteenth-century path that led to “the narrative of migratory conquest and settlement,” he is of the opinion that:

…the archaeological profile of early medieval Britain is difficult to account for without allowing for some degree of migration. Linguistic changes also point strongly towards the migration and influence of Germanic-speakers.

What Naismith envisages in relation to eastern Britain, is the development of a new martial identity along with the spread of Germanic languages, the two developing together, “partly through immigrants and partly because the success of those immigrants in achieving local military dominance made them role models.” The bulk of the Romano-British population remained in place, Naismith argues, especially its peasant backbone, as evidenced by the fact that “the landscape did not revert to uncultivated woodland and by patterns of agriculture and common land usage remaining intact.” Nonetheless, other developments, in building types and the abandonment of settlement sites:

…hint at a significant disjuncture in post-Roman-Britain: if people were not being killed or displaced, they were nonetheless experiencing substantial change.

The take-home message for students is that “no hard and fast conclusions are appropriate” for the “historical black hole” that is the period from 400 to 600. On the language question, Naismith contemplates a period of bilingualism or even trilingualism involving the ancestors of English, Welsh and British Latin, only to concede that “the limited influence of these languages on one another suggests that this relationship may not have been a close or prolonged one.” He also points to the dangers involved in equating changes in material culture with ethnicity, warning that these and other changes might have taken over a century to develop, “leaving the field open for a retrospective fiction of mass migration and genocide.” Ethnic designations, especially use of the contentious term “Anglo-Saxon,” with its origin story of “triumphant takeover through migration,” tend in Naismith’s words to “paper over a more complex, mostly unrecoverable reality.”

In time the archaeological record may tell us otherwise; for the present, Naismith concludes with a bob-each-way:

A cautious interim approach might be to ‘have it all’, acknowledging that there was migration but also continuity in most of the population, and that both Britons and migrants from mainland Europe consciously created new, militarised identities for themselves.

Drawing these three recent works together, despite their differences, there is still significant common ground to be found. They all reject the racial swamping of the Britons by the incoming Anglo-Saxons, a version of history popularised in the nineteenth century by the likes of Edward Freeman and John Richard Green. Likewise, all three struggle with the gaps in our knowledge, the growing yet still radically incomplete archaeological record. At the outset, Naismith notes the difficulties in writing a balanced history of the different regions of Britain when the written and other sources are so unevenly balanced. He and Morris extend the story far beyond the post-Roman period into centuries when perceptions of ethnicity sharpened and social differentiation increased. According to Naismith, the Britain of 1000 was a very different place to that of 500: its kingdoms larger and smaller in number, all of them Christian; its economies more developed, at least in England; and with diversity the key across culture, politics and language.

Any history of post-Roman Britain will be speculative to some degree or other. At a certain point all explanations run up against the problem of evidence, its paucity or conflicting nature. Behind every theory lies the paradox of abandonment and continuity. For all the regions of Britain there is no one-size-fits-all explanation and for each region there may be competing versions of reality. If the “Dark Ages” are getting lighter, they are not light yet and perhaps never will be.

There is of course a lot more to be said about early Medieval Britain and plenty more about its interpretation in these three books. Just as archaeology has only scratched the surface of the fifth and sixth centuries, so this review only provides the barest outline of the works under consideration. Perhaps the note on which to end is that none of us should be rushing off to one extreme or another and that, in its own way, each of these books is a valuable and thought-provoking addition to what is a lively and increasingly crowded field of study for popular and academic historians alike.

Dr Gareth Griffith is a writer, researcher and formerly the manager of research for the Parliament of New South Wales. He is author of the novels Glass Island and Iron Island. You can follow Gareth on Twitter @garethgriffith_

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