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  • Fusion and Confusion in Post Roman Britain September 18, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

     ***This extended essay was written as a sequel to a previous post on Roman Britain signalled in the first link***

    We have looked before in the place at the darkness that descends on Britain after Rome decamps from the island. Our ignorance about this period of British history is simply astounding. We know that there were barbarian invasions – above all on the part of Anglo-Saxons, the first of the English – and we know that there was resistance from the British Celtic natives. But we do not know when these events took place or when the British Celts lost control of different parts of their island. Take, for example, Londinium [London] and its environs. Did the capital of Britannia fall in the first wave of pirate attacks in the early fifth century? Did it, instead, resist to be finally reduced only in the middle years of that century, when the Anglo-Saxons seem to have won some decisive victories? Or did it even falter on into the early sixth century, a British-Celtic enclave surrounded by hostile Anglo-Saxon kingdoms? We have little archaeological material and no written words to give us any clues at all: we are guessing. This is, after all, the blackest century in British history, more obscure than any other from when Caesar attacked the island in the first century B.C. But in all this darkness one account stands out like a violent flame. The author, a British-Celtic monk, is describing a series of major victories of the Anglo-Saxons against his people in Britain, victories that had made possible the creation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It also contains, significantly, the first reference to the British-Celtic Diaspora and is replete with Biblical imagery that has been italicised in the translation from the Latin given below.


    A fire heaped up and nurtured by the hand of the pagan Anglo-Saxon spread from sea to sea. It devastated towns and country round about, and once it was alight, it did not die down until it was licking the western ocean with its fierce red tongue…. All the major towns were laid low by the repeated battery of enemy rams; cut down the inhabitants – church leaders, priests and people alike, as the swords glittered all around and the flames crackled. It was a sad sight. In the middle of squares lay the foundation stones of high walls and towers that had been torn from the lofty bare holy altars. Fragments of corpses, covered (as it were) with a purple crust of coagulated blood, looked as though they had been mixed up in some dreadful wine-press. There was no burial to be had except in the ruins of houses or the bellies of beasts and birds… A number of the wretched survivors were caught in the mountains and butchered wholesale. Others, their spirit broken by hunger, went to surrender to the enemy. They were destined to be slaves forever, if indeed they were not killed straight away, the highest boon. Others made for lands beyond the seas; beneath the swelling sails they loudly wailed, singing psalms that took the place of a shanty: ‘You have given us up like sheep for eating and scattered us among the heathen’. Others, instead, while fearful, resisted in their homeland, putting their faith in the high hills, precipitous, steep, and protected, in the deep forests, and in the coastal-cliffs, their minds plagued by worries. After a time the cruel invaders returned to their bases. To those [British Celts] that survived, made strong by God, came the desperate citizens from every direction begging God that together they might not be wiped out.

    It is impossible to pass this passage by without a nod to the scholarly storm that has thundered over it in the last hundred years. Perhaps a thousand pages have been written concerning these three hundred words, for there is a tendency among modern readers to disbelieve or to play down this extract: the author wrote too late – no eyewitness account this; he relied too heavily upon Biblical sentiments and quotations; historically it is a useless work, it appears in a sermon; this was not by an early writer at all but was a later forgery…

    On that last point, at least, we can offer an immediate and resounding answer: while there used to be concerns about whether this work was genuine these questions have now been resolved. The passage appears in a work entitled the Ruin of Britain and was written by a certain Gildas, a British-Celtic monk. There has been argument about when Gildas wrote, some preferring to date the work to the late fifth century, others to the early sixth century. It is difficult to choose between these. But we can say that the events that he is describing cannot have happened much more than two generations before he wrote: in other words his Latin sentences will have been read or listened to by men and women who had lived through those years and could have contradicted him. Likewise, it must be acknowledged that the Ruin of Britain is a sermon, one that is dripping with fire and brimstone: this is most certainly not a sober historical account. But while sermon-writers take no oaths to defend historical truth (neither, for that matter, do historians…) they wish to be convincing to their audience. They might embellish but they would hardly say things that the audience knows to be false. Then there is the beautiful Old Testament imagery that grows around the account like a powerful ivy. It too is not historical. But read again the same passage with the Biblical texts removed – it is enough to ignore the italicised section in the passage above – and we still have an account of events that no sane individual would wish to live through.

    These first objections are easy then to dismiss. However, another objection is more difficult to brush away: namely the claim that Gildas has exaggerated the violence and the savagery of the attacks. In fact, it has been alleged that there is no evidence of this kind of activity from fifth-century Britain. So there are, for example, no cases of fire from the last phase of city life as might have been expected from the apocalyptic words cited above. There are no cases of mass graves of slaughtered British Celts. Perhaps what happened, goes the argument, is that the later British Celts were so downcast and bitter at losing the majority of their lands to the Anglo-Saxons that they blew up a few inevitable clashes between the natives and the incomers and Gildas took up the cry in his extraordinary, keening account. This alternative version of British history has become more and more fashionable over the last thirty years: helped along by a generation of well-meaning academics who would like to think that the ancestors of the English did not partake in genocide. These same writers claim that the Anglo-Saxon settlements involved relatively few invaders who persuaded the British Celts to change their religion and language. It is a stimulating viewpoint: though one with which Gildas would clearly not have agreed.

    Scholars who believe that the early Anglo-Saxons persuaded rather than threatened the British Celts into change have noted that there are, hiding beneath the surface of fifth-century Britain, not only examples of war. There is also, these same scholars point out, proof of British-Celtic and Anglo-Saxon culture growing together in a non-violent fashion. We know, for example, that the Anglo-Saxons brought some British-Celtic words into their language: words that survive in modern English – hog, tor, bin, dun and ass to name the most significant. We also know that in some cases British-Celtic placenames survived in areas that the Anglo-Saxons settled.

    But it is important to put these Celtic contributions to English and England in perspective: for, yes, it is true that Celtic words and Celtic placenames survived in Anglo-Saxon England and made it through to the modern day. But what is striking about these cases is how very, very few they are. So there are about ten British-Celtic words that were sucked into English. But this is nothing considering that British Celtic was the language of Britain before the Anglo-Saxons came – such unEnglish languages as Irish and Japanese have both donated many more. In parts of East Anglia and the Home Counties British-Celtic placenames make up less than one percent of the total of modern place-names. Indeed, in parts of modern Suffolk or Norfolk you could walk for a whole day and not find a single Celtic name. Then those few British-Celtic placenames that have survived have been hopelessly mispronounced into an almost unrecognisable English equivalent of the original Celtic word. So the unfortunate Romano-British city Eboracum, a British-Celtic name that may have meant ‘the Boar Town’, was slurred out of shape by generations of English-speakers and not a few Vikings into the more familiar but hopelessly malformed ‘York’.

    It is interesting to compare this situation to the rest of the old Roman Empire. After all, Gaul, Italy and Spain were overrun too by barbarian warriors, albeit on slightly different timetables. And like Britain they were eventually broken up into barbarian-controlled kingdoms. If these had followed the pattern of Britain then Latin would have been given up, perhaps contributing a few lowly words to the new Germanic languages before vanishing entirely. Their placenames would have too for the most part disappeared, being replaced by Germanic equivalents and most of Western Europe would have become a greater Germany. But in the rest of the western Roman Empire, where events were not particularly pleasant either, but where there was more room for collaboration between invaded and invader, the opposite happened. It was, strange to say, the Germanic languages of the conquerors that vanished. And these were replaced by Latin: though sometimes these ‘conquering’ Germanic languages left a few stray words behind to be picked up by French, Spanish and Italian, the successors of Latin in those countries. If Britain had followed the destiny of the rest of the conquered Empire then today the English would be speaking a slightly Germanised form of Welsh. Instead, the violence of change in language corresponds to the violence of change reported by Gildas.

    But what about the objection that these violent acts that Gildas describes are invisible in archaeology and other historical sources? Of course, this is a very dark time in British history and most things are invisible to the modern age. However, when we look at the sources, archaeological and historical, we can find traces of this violence. The historical sources are, as we have already noted, incredibly sparse. But it is striking how often in the few words given over to Britain the idea of disaster comes up: an oracle in Italy talks of disaster in Britain; a Gaulish chronicle mentions disastrous wars; a saint’s life has its hero come to Britain where he runs into a disaster-bringing barbarian warband…  And for all the claim that there is no record of violence in the British soil for the fifth century, if we scrabble a little we also find traces of a unpleasant interlude in the island’s history. So we have burnt villas in areas of Anglo-Saxon activity, there is evidence too of siege and burning in cities – and there are bodies strewn around streets in the cases of some settlements, not to mention several ‘battle cemeteries’ that may date to this period. It is unconvincing then to insist that Gildas’ description is hysterical when describing the invasions. He communicates in his baroque and booming Latin what his people remembered of a decisive moment in their recent past.

    None of this is to say, of course, that the vast majority of British Celts in the conquered territories were killed: Gildas does not say that. And, in any case, for the purposes of understanding the significance of the changes underway the body-count matters far less than the end result. It does not matter for our purposes whether the Anglo-Saxon conquerors outnumbered the few British Celts who survived or whether they were a tiny minority clamped parasitically onto a large British-Celtic population. What is clear is that few or great in number the newcomers managed to intimidate the older native population through the kinds of acts described by Gildas and worked a transformation on the world around them. Britain that had been Celtic or Celtic-Roman became Anglo-Saxon or English. It is no accident that in Anglo-Saxon the word for ‘slave’ and the word for ‘British-Celt’ are the same, walh. And it is also noteworthy that of the few British-Celtic words to be found in Old English most were the kind of agricultural words that a master would have shouted to his slave – ass, hog, bin… When we think of fifth-century Britain in the occupied territories then we should think of a warrior caste from across the seas that had taken control of a docile civilian population and that used that civilian population for its own ends. There was no growing together; and if there was persuasion it was the persuasion of force.

    But how did enemy warriors manage to take an entire people hostage in this way? The truth is that even if these warriors had been few it would not have mattered. The British-Celtic population had no training in warfare: they had sheltered under the umbrella of the Roman army. The British Celts had lost too the very rudiments of their civilisation as the Empire came crashing down: this was a population demoralised and in shock, easily prey to outsiders. But the key was the fact that so many of the British Celts in these territories fled. As Gildas explains large numbers of British Celts either ran to safety in the depths of the wilderness – this is presumably a reference to the unconquered wilder British territories in the north and west – or sailed to lands over the ocean. And among those British Celts attempting to start their lives anew elsewhere there will have been not only the rank and file, but also the leaders, the villa owners, the sons of Roman officials and priests driven out ‘at the point of swords’, typically the most mobile as the walls of Empire began to crumble. It is no wonder that among those left behind, depleted, leaderless, demoralised the invaders appeared unbeatable. If there had been no diaspora a very different world might have come up – one that combined Celtic and Germanic. As it was a wholly Germanic culture was created in the ruins of what would soon become England.

    Against violence in fifth century Britain: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    Douglas writes: Somebody very kindly sent me an article from The English Historical Review (2000) [Ward-Perkins] just the other day and it’s directly pertinent to your argument. One thing with the lack of Celtic words in EnglishThere are signs – and a discussion – that English grammar has been heavily influenced by Celtic. I suspect it’s early days as yet in how this discussion plays out: language log, and languagesoftheworld. Not sure that the Brits were as militarily weak as you suggest, but this article takes issue with that idea better than I can. Somewhere (maybe in a Michael Wood book) I remember it mentioned that post-Roman earthworks and defences can be identified that follow the old pre-Roman tribal boundaries. I’m kind of fancying the idea that the Anglo-Saxon ‘conquest’ was similar to the Brit conquest of India, with various statelets and cities allied with and played off against each other, another European power doing the same, and a messy range of battles and wars. It’s looked at as the British Conquest of India, but in reality it was far more nuanced and did not need hordes of Brits invading. I guess the Brits had better tech and trade?’ Thanks Douglas!