Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Model of Sub Roman Britain

his has been about 12 days in the creation and probably needs a lot more tweaking. But here it is. Next: Aelfric of Eynsham: Nobleman or Commoner?

I've been doing some thinking and tieing some reading together, of course quite outside the dissertation work I should be doing. But I thought I'd set it down here in part to help get my own thoughts in order.

Turning to sub-Roman/early Saxon Britain, there are several unresolvable problems at this point. The current model, being challenged in some quarters, is that the Anglo-Saxons completely displaced the British populations in the fifth century in the South and East of the island. This makes sense of our historical sources, and of the fact that linguistically, Brittonic had very little impact on early Old English.

Archaeology and now genetics have been challenging that view, however. Archaeological finds over the last half century have rather strongly suggested that in fact Celts remained in Anglo-Saxon controlled territories, and we add to that that Celtic names appear in the the regnal lists of almost all the A-S kingdoms, and add to this sources such as Ine's laws that describe Welsh being landowners in early Wessex and having status. In 2002-3 two studies were produced that proved on genetic evidence that other than the East Central portion of the island, Germanic genetic impact on the population was slight, and the further west and south, the less Germanic impact genetically, even in areas traditionally and historically where there were Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. So how do we explain all this? Well, I have a model, and I'm working on the details that does explain it, and I'm told that while some parts of my model have been discussed, other parts have not. So here goes:

The Saxon Shore forts likely were chiefly staffed by Germans under Roman command in the 4th century, as witnessed by the Germanic goods found in some and the name. These Germans likely had functional Latin, not necessarily literacy, but enough to communicate with their Roman commanders and cohorts, typical of other Germanic foederati on the continent (thinking in particular of the Goths). Further, we know that the Romano-Brits were fairly Latinate, the amount of Latin inscriptions, esp. graffiti, from the period far outnumbers the number of Brittonic inscriptions. We also have Patrick, out in the West who mentions being taught Latin, but he didn't apply himself as a youth, and he uses Latin terms to describe the position of his father, etc suggesting that though a learned language, Latin nonetheless made significant inroads. So when the Romans pull out, and the Romano Brits remain and continue to "hire" the German foederati in the Saxon Shore forts as their military muscle, they use Latin to communicate as a common language, again on the model of the Goths in Italy and Acquitaine. As Roman Britain breaks up into localized areas of power and new kingdoms, and at first this process has nothing to do with the Germans so much as powerful provincial level taking control where they can, there is naturally some friction between these new emerging kingdoms. Some allied with the Germans, but over time the Germans began demanding more, as Gildas tells us. In some cases, this demand was met, in some cases (like the later Vikings) it wasn't and the Germans either left, or fought and took over. As the Germans took over in some areas, the Brits split into essentially 3 groups: a) those who followed the Germans, or the mixed Celtic-German alliances b) those who rejected the Germans and c) those who left to Brittany. It can not be sustained on the basis of genetic evidence and archaeological evidence that the divide is solely Saxons in the North and East chasing the Celts to the South and West. We know from ethnogenesis on the continent that the lines among the various Germanic groups was porous and peoples were born, died, and were transformed into new entities with regularity. We also see on the continent that new peoples coming into being were united not just by conquest but also by laws, stories, etc to form an identity. That almost seems contradictory, but it took time for that identity to solidify and if a "people" like the Franks could maintain their hegemony long enough for the new identity to solidify and take hold, they remained far longer whereas others like the Hunnic empire quickly dissipated after Atilla. So back to Britain: I'm suggesting the same forces of ethnogenesis were active there: that we have the blending ethnically of Romano-Celt and German and the identity that won out and solidified greatly depended on a number of factors, but we see the "Saxon" success in the south with the Gewissae, Essex, Sussex, etc even though most of these royal geneologies contain Celtic names in the early days. They seem to have quickly adopted wholesale not just German culture but the migration myth (an old one: even the Romans had one as did the Greeks) as well. In the West, there were probably far fewer Germans since they weren't needed there as foederati, so it is natural that the Romano-Celt identity won out, and in Wales, the last place Romanized, and so the first unRomanized, the almost "pure" Celtic identity in the North. So this gives us several Celtic and Germano-Celtic kingdoms vieing with one another over the course of the fifth and sixth centuries.

Now several things are resolved here since this model differs somewhat from what the model of German displacement of Celtic populations or the model of an "elite" ruling over Celts, both long debated. This model involves fusion of Germans and Celts in the North and East, and not in the West.

First, many have problems with the lack of Brittonic words borrowed into Old English during the initial or Early Anglo-Saxon period. But if the language of exchange during this period with the Romano-Brits was Latin, there would be few such words from Brittonic save those borrowed into British Latin==and this is why we have 25-30 words borrowed from British Latin into Old English and only about a dozen Brittonic words, many of them place names or geographical features.

Second, it uses models of ethnogenesis of German and Roman intermixture that we see in Gaul, Hispania, and Italy, and to a lesser extent in Vandal N. Africa. In the absence of the Empire, the Romano Brits split into defensible units, those especially in the east hired the Germans the empire had already hired. And in true Roman fashion for most of the late empire period, those with the backing of the military get the power, and within a generation or two the Germans were promoting their own chiefs as rulers of the area rather than Romano-Brits.

Third, this model resolves the tensions between the historical, archaeological, linguistic, genetic, and ethnogenetic evidence that the current two models do not do.

There will be objections. Most place-name scholars and history of english scholars for instance assume that the Romano-Brits largely spoke Brittonic, and so explaining the lack of Brittonic words in Old English is difficult to explain: hence most of these would argue for a displacement theory. But this really hasn't made sense of the level of Latinity that we find: Patrick, Gildas, and lest we forget, Pelagius and how widespread his teachings, written in Latin in Rome, were and the visit of Germanus, the Latin graffiti. Vindolonda provides an interesting model: one of my favorites is an Egyptian soldier writing home for socks in LATIN! Even in Hellenistic Egypt, this soldier can expect his mum to read enough Latin to send him socks. By the time that letter was written c. 100, Egypt had been a Roman province just over 130 years or so. Can we expect any less in 410 after Britain had been Romanized for 350 years? My answer is that we should in fact expect exactly that. And if so, and if as suggested above the original language of exchange between Roman-Brits and Saxons would be Latin rather than Brittonic, then we should be looking for words borrowed into English of Latin origin that came in during that early period. *wic as a word and place name is such a case, from Latin vicus, a dependent economic unit near a Roman road according to Coates. Another such word is cempe, from Latin campus, a warrior in OE, a military camp in Latin. So it seems to me we ought not be assuming a low level of Roman culture and language in Britain, but rather a relatively high one.

I've been told that a number of sub-Roman British scholars view Britain as itching to throw off the Roman yoke, and so would say that Latin and Roman culture was a mere veneer on top. My source indicates that the basis for this view is Tacitus who talks about his father's experience in Britain. But there is something a bit obvious here and I have to say that I can hardly believe that this hasn't been brought up, but my source doesn't think so. Tacitus is writing the Agricola circa 98-100 CE, about 50 years after the Romans take over. He also has an axe to grind, presenting the "freedom of the native Britons vs. corruption of the empire." Now we know from many many many sources that the Romans were patient and as in Gaul slowly and surely Romanized everything. But it took time. Tacitus should no more be taken as evidence of attitudes and actions in 400 CE in Britain than Herodotus should be taken as a description of Roman era Greece or William of Malmesbury be used to describe Tudor England. By 400, Rome had controlled and been Romanizing Britain's provinces for 350 years and what evidence exists suggests a successful strategy of Romanization. To such an extent that men in the east of the island like Vortigern are following Roman policy of hiring German mercenaries. (and on this there was an article, I've forgotten by whom but should look it up, that argued that Vortigern was most likely hiring Hengest and Horsa against a threat from the continent (prob. the Romans) rather than the Picts. And we should expect as we see in Patrick and in the inscriptions and in Pelagius a rather high level of Romanization there, linguistically and culturally.

But wait, some might say, what about the British usurpers! They surely show Britain's willingness to throw off the Roman yoke in the late fourth century, and hence indicate less Latinity and Roman culturalization. No. The usurpers are Constantine wannabes. They want not to throw off the yoke of Rome: they want to be at the center of Rome as Constantine before them had begun in York and ascended to the purple. Look at their actions: they aren't rebelling against Rome and setting up shop, they're invading Rome and setting up shop, or trying to. Constantius III is trying to stop the German advance in Gaul not because he feels threatened in Britain, but because if he does, he'll have made a huge step to taking over the Western empire, similarly Maximus before him. In fact, I'd argue that these usurpers actually are evidence for the level of Romanization: they are so Romanized that they behave just like the usurpers of the third and fourth century elsewhere in the empire who want Rome so much that they are willing to take it by force. Maximus isn't a rebel, he wants to be emperor! Likewise Constantius etc.

Well, there's tons more to say, about Orosius and all the details etc, but the gist of the argument. Its greatest impact is on the linguistic end, but the model does strive to make sense of all the evidence we have.

5 comments:

Michelle said...

Well, this is very similar to the model I've been working from for quite a while so more agreement than not.

A couple of points though...

First, in the far west the Roman federates were Irish. This is why we see colonies of Irish all over Wales, Devon, Cornwall and parts of the Somerset. They are more culturally akin to the British and blend in better but they still retain some identity, especially in Dyfed. The Irish federates are probably protecting the Irish Sea trade.

Second, the "pure" Celts in the North are a very mixed lot. The difference north and south of Hadrians wall are huge. Remember the area between Hadrians wall and the Humber was the most militarized in Britain. Many of the "men of the North" are Romano-British warlords who seize Roman forts of various sizes and hold the territory around them. I think this explains a lot of the tone between Deira and Bernicia. Deira was founded by German federates in the civilized former Roman province holding York the former capital of the province, while Bernicia was a more Germano-Celtic mix up there with the barbarians outside of the 'real' Roman territory. Even the Romano-British considered the Border country (Strathclyde, Gododdin, Bernicia and further north) as raiders and barbarians. Some of this comes from my old paper on "The Politics of Exile in Early Northumbria" in the Heroic Age where the Bernicians fled to the Celts further north, while Edwin runs around the south for exile.

I don't think the Romano-British wanted to throw off Rome either. They wanted control of it or at least rescue by it. There is a difference between willful separation of the church from Rome and a desire to be outside the empire. To think otherwise is to project modern ideas of Rome as being the church rather than a secular government. Pelagius is an example of the British church conflicting with the Roman church long before the empire fell. At the same time Pelagius was stirring up trouble Britain was also still raising new Emperors who really did hope to control the West. Maybe Constantine's elevation at York gave them grand ambitions. :-)

Deanna Forsman said...

I think that there is a lot that is compelling about this model, and it bears a lot of similarity to what I've argued in my dissertation and elsewhere. I have argued rather forcefully for a reinterpretation of the British usurpers, and that 4rd-5th century Britain needs to be understood within the context of Roman provincial organization, particularly with the establishment of the Gallic Prefecture.

There are several problems with the way ancient and medieval history are framed in Britain/England: the lack of conformance to standard periodization, the claims for British exceptionalism, the idea that the Channel was somehow a barrier between Britain and the Continent . . .

We need to stop thinking about "Sub-Roman" Britain and starting thinking about Britain as a part of Late Antiquity.

Kyna said...

Interesting to know.

Alan said...

The likelihood of Vulgar Latin being the language of Lowland England does explain the dearth of Celtic borrowed words in Old English, but then the number of Latin borrowed words is not great either?

Also why if the lowland Saxons and Romano-British merged was there no continuity of literacy, and above all what ever happened to Christianity: surely we must accept that late Roman Britain had a developed church with a diocesan system along the lines common to the late Empire; so why so very little evidence of Sub Roman Christianity in the ‘Saxon lands’ and so much in the areas left to the Romano-British/Welsh? Why when St Augustine arrived did he have to travel to the banks of the Seven to speak to representatives of the British Church?
Then again the ‘Saxons’ took at least 150 years to spread across England from the East Coast to the Bristol Channel, yet the later Danish armies ranging all over England, conquering vast areas in weeks not decades? Against the Danes the Wessex Burh system was key to the defence of Alfred’s kingdom, yet the Romano-British had far more strong points already provided for them in the numerous Roman forts and walled towns (including the many small walled towns) yet there seems to be no evidence of these stone walled ’burhs’ being so used.
To my mind the most likely explanation for the apparent disappearance of the Romano-British population is extinction or mass emigration/expulsion, yet the DNA evidence now available seems to be against this hypothesis.

So we must hope for further illumination. One source of further evidence might be the Papal archives, for surely the Sub Roman British Church must have had some correspondence with the Roman Patriarch and possibly even the other Patriarchs of the Church in Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. First Pelagius was not active himself in Britain, he left Britain for Rome long before he became a thorn in the side of Orthodoxy and after the sack of Rome in 410 moved on to North Africa and then Palestine..
The likelihood of Vulgar Latin being the language of Lowland England does explain the dearth of Celtic borrowed words in Old English, but then the number of Latin borrowed words is not great either?
Also why if the lowland Saxons and Romano-British merged was there no continuity of literacy, and above all what ever happened to Christianity: surely we must accept that late Roman Britain had a developed church with a diocesan system along the lines common to the late Empire; so why so very little evidence of Sub Roman Christianity in the ‘Saxon lands’ and so much in the areas left to the Romano-British/Welsh? Why when St Augustine arrived did he have to travel to the banks of the Seven to speak to representatives of the British Church?
Then again the ‘Saxons’ took at least 150 years to spread across England from the East Coast to the Bristol Channel, yet the later Danish armies ranging all over England, conquering vast areas in weeks not decades? Against the Danes the Wessex Burh system that was key to the defence of Alfred’s kingdom, yet the Romano-British had far more strong points already provided for them in the numerous Roman forts and walled towns (including the many small walled towns) yet there seems to be no evidence of these stone walled ’burhs’ being so used.
To my mind the most likely explanation for the apparent disappearance of the Romano-British population is extinction or mass emigration/expulsion, yet the DNA evidence now available seems to be against this hypothesis.
So we must hope for further illumination. One source of further evidence might be the Papal archives, for surely the Sub Roman British Church must have had some correspondence with the Roman Patriarch and possibly even the other Patriarchs of the Church in Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. I do hopee someone is surching these archives.

Grady Edward Loy said...

I think your model is excellent and I think may be expanded upon further. Roman Federates (Angles, Saxons etc) predominating in the area of the Wash, East Anglia, Kent and Sussex put down roots as you say from the 400's. Federates were likely drawn from these communities, not from Germany as on the continent in the 5th century. This explains how there were Angle and Saxon farmers in Eastern England from the 5th century. Anyone who suggests farmers came with their families, pigs and chickens in long boats has no conception of farming life in more traditional times. The only people who came were soldiers. Later, when North sea trade had picked up, a trickle of people came from the German shores and Scandinavia as grave goods have suggested and these people had a great influence on the Saxon community.

In Berenicia an Angle warrior marryied well into a Celtic royal family (so legend tells us) Re Wessex, J. N. L. Meyers who wrote the "The English Settlements" (Oxford History) from a very fire and sword perspective gives a very insightful description in his 50 years later rewritten of how Saxons may have come to meld with a British royal family in Southern Wessex. And indeed Gildas’ "Cuneglasus" is as likely a forgotten Cynegils of Dorchester, father or grandfather of Ceawlin as he is a mythical cousin of Maelgwn of Gwynedd.

Two other things that support your model - British populations were hit by a plague in about 547 and died in disproportionate numbers compared to their eastern Saxon neighbors resulting in some shift in Anglo Saxon populations around mid 6th century to take up abandoned or underpopulated British lands.

Secondly, after the Gildas "British resurgence" Saxon and Frankish warriors again began coming in force from Austrasia where they had returned from failed adventures in Italy. These largely pagan Saxons probably contributed to the Pagan character of the English when Augustine came. Maybe this setback for christian leaders whether British or Saxon spurred Pope Gregory to evangelize England. I rather suspect a reversal of the British church's fortunes in the late 560's as much as loss of territory by the Britons. Bede did not want to memorialize conversions through the corrupted British church but directly from the as yet untainted pagans. I am unsure about the first Bishop at Dorchester and the baptism of the West Saxon (Gewissan) King. Like Clovis, he may not have been entirely as pagan as his biographers would have us believe. And, among the high status Saxons of the 7th and 8th centuries paganism was often a more political than strictly religious choice)

Finally, fire and sword are not representative of the whole relationship of Saxons and Britons. The emnity felt by the Welsh dates from 7th century expansion of Penda of Mercia and his successors into Eastern Powys. Penda was a subordinate ally, of Gwynedd. Cadwallon of Gwynedd was close to becoming high king (Bretwalda whatever) of Britain when he was killed in Northumbria (635). His death left Penda, his reputed brother in law, to fill the power vacuum in the west. Penda's attitude to Powys may have been colored by Gwynedd's. When Cadwallon was king in Gwynedd, Powys (which had suffered brutally at the hands of the Northumbrians 15 years earlier) may have been completely suppressed. The ruling princes of the Magonsaete and Hwicce appear to be old Welsh families in the Severn valley Penda managed to bring into his camp in the lands he took from Powys. The Welsh Mercian emnity lasted to Alfred's time when the Welsh showed great partiality for Alfred (perhaps knowing something of his alleged British roots but politely keeping silent) Penda and Offa were Anges of the continental royal line. Bede is accurate but through a lens designed to ignore the British component in the formation of England to the greatest degree possible. I like your model. Have a look at Meyers and Michael Jones if you have not already.