Review of Emergence of the English

This review was written by Alex Woolf of St Andrews university, and published in the journal of ‘Early Medieval Europe’, 2020, Vol.28 (1), p.157-160

The Emergence of the English. By Susan Oosthuizen. York: Arc Humanities Press. 2019. viii + 140 pp. £16.95. ISBN 9 781641 89127 1.

This volume is one of the suite of short studies produced by Arc Humanities Press that seem to combine many features of the Oxford Very Short Introduction series with an attempt to be less consensual and more controversial. This does not always work well as the volumes are simply too small to give complex arguments and alternative hypotheses the space they need to be both clear and fair representations of the debate. The present volume, on the contentious and unconsensual transition from ‘Roman Britain’ to ‘Anglo-Saxon England’, is no exception.

The introduction deals with certain key issues starting with the earliest references to the ‘English’ (Angli) in Britain from Procopius and Gregory the Great in the sixth century. Oosthuizen provides a very appropriate critique of our use in modernity of the term ‘Anglo-Saxons’ for the dominant population of Britain in the period before the Norman Conquest. This term appears very rarely in early medieval documents and mostly seems to be used to distinguish the Germanic-speakers in Britain from the continental Saxons, whom the English called ‘Old Saxons’. Its brief usage by Alfred and his son Edward as a royal style has been taken to reflect a kind of Union of Angles and Saxons in Britain but may as easily reflect the continental usage since its floruit in West Saxon diplomas coincides with a period when the style Rex Saxonum was being experimented with by post-Carolingian kings east of the Rhine. Oosthuizen instead advocates the use of the terms Late Antique (400–600) and Early Medieval (600–850), which not only has the advantage of making comparison and connections with continental history easier but also does not presume that the presence of Britons in English kingdoms was negligible.

The second part of the introduction rather curiously only covers the historiography between Gibbon (d. 1794) and the 1950s. This is significant since the thrust of this book largely ignores the fact that few serious scholars since at least the 1970s have supported the view that the fifth century saw a genocidal replacement of the entire population by invading Germans. This however seems to be the consensus Oosthuizen seeks to overthrow.

Chapter 2 starts with an analysis of the ‘documentary’ (recte textual) sources, unpromisingly contextualizing Gildas and Patrick on the basis of very late hagiography (e.g. the northern origin of both saints), repeating the old saw that Gildas was a monk when he wrote De Excidio, and presenting some surprisingly secure dates for Patrick (he visited his parents in 412 apparently!). The continental sources are dealt with much more effectively.

Oosthuizen then moves on to archaeological evidence. Here she rightly emphasizes that ‘most of the artefacts used in everyday life’ in fifth- and sixth-century Britain ‘combined to a greater or lesser extent, traditions of British and North Sea craftsmanship’ (p. 31). There then follows an excellent discussion of how the collapse in the complex market and taxation system of the late empire may well have led to a raised standard of living for the mass of the population. Oosthuizen then rightly critiques the over reliance on modern population genetics and urges us to look instead to ancient DNA. Isotopic evidence, which can show where the people whose skeletons we recover grew up, is also useful, though she is perhaps over interpreting when she attacks the reading of Berinsfield cemetery as English rather than British. Nineteen burials, dating to between 450 and 550, were analysed, of which fifteen had grown up locally. Taking the textual sources at face value any adventus would have happened in the first half of the fifth century, so it is most likely that even were the Berinsfield dead fully Germanic in descent, they would mostly have been born in Britain.

The chapter’s final section, on languages, stresses that in the area in which Englishness emerged in the course of the sixth century, the native tongue was more likely to have been some form of Romance rather than British Celtic. (Any number of distribution maps have made it clearer and clearer over the years that early England arose on the ruins of the most Romanized parts of Britain and this can be no coincidence.)

When it comes to the spread of English however the discussion goes a bit off track. The mechanism by which this happened is, as the author says, ‘opaque’ (p. 42), but going on to claim a comparison with modern Netherlands and Scandinavia where over 70% of the population speak good English (p. 43) is somewhat facile. This is a new phenomenon in these countries which not only have some of the best state education systems in the world, including compulsory English from a young age, but are also bombarded with Anglo-American media (the distribution map of IKEA stores on page 63 is equally irrelevant).

Chapter 3 on ethnicity is more confused. Whilst it states early on that ethnicity is a complex social category, it is implicit throughout the book that Oosthuizen does actually place a great deal of emphasis on biological descent. Indeed at several points in the work we are offered the choice of 158 Book reviews Early Medieval Europe 2020 28 (1) © 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd believing that the English were either the descendants of the RomanoBritish or the descendants of immigrants. Since each individual in the generation of Bede and Ine will have had something in the region of one thousand ancestors who had lived in the first quarter of the fifth century, it seems plausible that most English people had both British and Germanic ancestry (in varying proportions). The discussion of Ine’s law seems to argue that the term wealh denotes not ethnicity but the form of tenure, but this is not explained in detail nor supported by the secondary literature cited (p. 68).

Indeed, this is one of two places where the endnotes suggest that Tom Lambert’s Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England claims that Ine’s law code was based on RomanoBritish customary law. I could find no such claim in that work. Similarly, on page 77 we are told that ‘Wulfric, the leader of King Alfred’s elite troop of horse, was, despite his Old English name, a Brittonic-speaking Welsh sub-king’. The reference here is to Margaret Faull’s ‘The Semantic Development of Old English Wealh’, but in that article Wulfric’s title wealhgefera is interpreted as meaning that he was a marcher lord entrusted to keep the Cornish in check and there is no suggestion that he was a Briton himself. We are also told that Bede’s gens Anglorum ‘was the community that adhered to the Roman Church’ (p. 71); did Bede not consider Oswald and Penda to be English?

The final chapter, ‘Another Perspective’, returns us to Oosthuizen’s established area of expertise, landscape archaeology and agrarian history. Here she rightly points to the fact that since the mid-twentieth century it has been increasingly clear that continuities in landscape management outweighed discontinuities in the post-Roman centuries. The fundamental technology and range of domesticates was largely the same across north-western Europe, from Germany and Scandinavia to Ireland and western Gaul. The question here though is to what extent such continuity in land use reflects other continuities? As elsewhere in the book Oosthuizen’s straw man is the old genocide model which existed as late as Stenton, but did not make it very far into the second half of the twentieth century.

She returns, time and again, to the fact that the fifth century saw no radical disjuncture. But why should it? Even those of us who believe that there was a military aspect to the English takeover of much of lowland Britain do not claim that it happened in a single generation, nor that it was accompanied by mass slaughter. The real issue is what happened over the ten generations that separated the adventus from the age of Bede and Ine, and how the two communities, British and English, developed strategies of distinction that prevented them becoming the single hybridized society we see in France or Italy in this period.

This book contains some very good observations but it is marred by an ideological immobilism that has led the author to misrepresent some of the secondary literature. It should be handled with care.

University of St Andrews

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