How English is England? a quick lesson in geology

England’s creation story as we once knew it went like this: In the beginning, whatever god(s) you like to give credit to, along with all the ones you don’t, separated England from France because they thought it would be better that way, and all the humans with an interest in either country agreed that, yea, this was wise.

It wasn’t easy for the humans to do this, because humans only joined the planet some 2.8 million years ago and the separation of England and France took place 400 million years ago. But the tension between the English and the French is pronounced enough that it could have easily predated the human race by some 397 million years, give or take a few months.  

Gods, as it turns out, can be vain–it’s an occupational hazard–and they were so pleased with all that human praise that many million years later they poured the English Channel into the space between the two countries to mark their accomplishment. And lo, the humans lavished them with more praise.

Endangered species: This is a relevant photo–see below for a comment about
stone monuments, although in keeping with tradition this isn’t quite the kind of monument I was talking about.

To be marginally more scientific about this, until very recently the belief was that Britain–that’s England, Scotland, and Wales–was formed when two ancient landmasses, Laurentia and Avalonia, met and married. France had nothing to do with it–it was on a landmass called Armorica–and a marriage can only take place between two landmasses. The third could have been, at most, a witness.

It’s true that this was before marriage had been invented, and possibly even before sex had been invented, but for richer and for poorer, for better and for worser, the two landmasses became one and everyone was happy with the arrangement, especially the English, because there’s something about being English that compels even the most broad-minded people to get sniffy about the French.

We’re going to assume that the French were just as happy, because (at least in my limited experience) they can be sniffy about the English as well. I’m basing that on the number of people my partner and I met in France who asked, “Are you English?” and when we said we were American said (more or less, and in French), “Oh, wonderful. We like Americans.”

That was back when it was easy to tell people what nationality we were. These days it’s complicated. Are we American? Yes. Are we British? Yes. So are we British-Americans? Americo-Britoids? Passport-hopping cosmopolitan nuisances?

Never mind. Let’s go back to our origin story. Here was an arrangement that suited both parties. The English were from Laurentia-Avalonia and the French were from Armorica and never the twain would meet. They didn’t have to trace their geological histories back to a common point.  

It turns out, however, that it didn’t happen that way. Some wiseacres from the University of Plymouth have spoiled it all by taking rock samples from southwestern Britain and Brittany (in western France), playing geologist games with them, and announcing that the deposits left from volcanic explosions in part of Cornwall and Devon match those in France.

This explains why the mineral deposits in the southwest (primarily tin, but also copper, antimony, arsenic, a bit of silver, plus in case you’re still interested, tungsten, uranium, zinc, and occasional supermarkets cart–called a trolleys–that show up when they drain canals) match what’s found in Brittany (with the possible exception of the supermarket cart) but not what’s found in the rest of Britain (again with the exception of the supermarket cart).

So geologically speaking, a fair chunk of southwest England is French, including most of Cornwall, which culturally and historically may not be part of England at all, but let’s not argue about that, I only brought it up to complicate things. And because people I know bring it up regularly, so I feel a kind of duty to toss it into my posts.

What can we learn from this discovery? That marriage is more complicated than anyone imagined and can indeed involve three landmasses. That everyone should settle down and stop being sniffy about whole swathes of people because if we go back far enough we’re all related, as is the land we live on. That we should all save our spikiness for deserving individuals. And for the people we’re closely closely related to and have to play nice with on holidays.

We can also learn that it’s good to have our brain molecules rearranged periodically. That’s the lovely thing about the sciences. They start with a theory, they test it, and when they find information that contradicts it they either update it or throw it out altogether.  


But the French-Southwest England connection is more than just geological. The cultural links go back to the Neolithic age–that’s the late stone age–when the people of southwest Britain traded with the people of what’s now France. It couldn’t have been easy sailing stone boats back and forth across the channel, never mind hollowing them out, so they must’ve wanted to see each other really badly.

If anyone decides to link to this, please, please note: that’s a joke about stone boats. I had another joke go wrong again recently and I’m feeling just the slightest bit sheepish. If sheep can giggle (sorry, I can’t help myself), which I’ve never seen them do but can’t rule out.

The two groups would’ve shared shared overlapping cultures, because both spent their free time setting huge stones in place to mark we’ll never really know what. Their presence, maybe. It’s too weird an activity not to mark an overlap.

English Heritage (the name doesn’t play universally well in Cornwall) says that “by the later Iron Age, southern England’s principal trading partners were northern Gaul (France) and Armorica (Brittany).” 

If we slip forward to the years after the Romans left Britain, we’ll  find Celtic refugees fleeing the invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes–or so it’s said. Archeologists are challenging that belief, but we’ll get to that some other time. If the Celts did indeed flee, they left with their language folded neatly into their suitcases. And where did they land? Armorica, which they renamed Brittany.

Then in the eleventh century, the Norman French invaded England, changing the language to French and completing the circle on influence, connection, resentment, and bizarre spelling. They didn’t care about landmasses, they just wanted the land. And its people.

We, of course, live in an enlightened age and do care about landmasses. Please take a few minutes to feel smug.

95 thoughts on “How English is England? a quick lesson in geology

  1. As my daughter, who was a geology major in college, would likely point out: It’s pretty difficult for rocks and minerals and sediments to lie. Also, that whole marriage thing…she would likely also point out, although not because she even thought about marriage while in college, that the whole system is too perilous to give credence to or even attempt to enter into either for landmasses or people.
    Apparently she is an expert in both of these areas. Please appreciate her wisdom ;)

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “ancient landmasses, Laurentia and Avalonia, met and married. France had nothing to do with it–it was on a landmass called Armorica–and a marriage can only take place between two landmasses. The third could have been, at most, a witness.” – Well, there is a “menage a trois”, isn’t it?

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Have not meant many people from France. Or French people. Know a lot of Spanish folks. Were Dpain the Dngland ever married? And why shouldn’t three people be able to marry? Is it because no one wants to sleep on the middle or ride in the back seat? That would be my guesss.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Britain is geologically complex because it’s spent a lot of its time hovering on the edge of one continental mass or another and it keeps getting squashed up in movements of the geological plates. It doesn’t surprise me that Cornwall is geologically part of Brittany (or vice-versa) – Northwest Scotland is actually part of NE America, for similar reasons.

    As for the Normans, well they were really Vikings weren’t they? They succumbed to the camembert and the wine to the point where they gave up speaking Vikingish and took up French instead. Then they decided to impose their newly acquired French ways on the English but in the end only succeeded in giving us a taste for red wine and making our language look like French even though it isn’t.

    Which reminds me of the latest pronouncement from the language police in France. I quote from the BBC News website: “The Commission for the Enrichment of the French Language (Celf) has asked French speakers to use the phrase “information fallacieuse” instead of the term “fake news”, which was popularised by Donald Trump.”
    Now even if you are French, if you’ve got a choice between saying “information fallacieuse” and “fake news”, which is going to win?

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’ve been fascinated (not to say horrified) by the French effort to freeze the language. I can only wish them luck in their losing battle. As for the rest of your comment, you really should take up writing history. Or geology. Or just about anything else. Your comments are always well informed and fun.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. As usual, I am in awe. You must have educator blood- make ’em laugh while teaching them something. As to the separation of the continents- actually, it is all the fault of Saint Patrick. He so wanted something to brag about, he claimed he drove all the snakes out, but actually, they simply evolved into dinosaurs, who, harnassed, in the manner of the time, were set to pulling from both shores, to keep the continents from drifting apart. After the ice age and the death of the dinosaurs, however…. And as to the stone boats….simple….barges to carry the menhirs back and forth. Et, voila: information infameuse. (or something like that…I only have reading French.) And as to the Northwest Scots- ah yes. the highland fling. So that’s where those NY City cops learned to direct traffic like that.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Some of the blood on my mother’s side were Cornish.Something I’ve always been rather proud of.I’m not sure why, but I was rather fascinated by pirates and wreckers (in books, that is) so maybe I I imagined an ancestor as a dashing sort of Johnny Depp.

    And I think I know why those french folk who said they like Americans…the word sounds comfortingly close to Armoricans.

    I’ll stay well clear of any phrase about getting one’s rocks off…

    Liked by 3 people

  7. A lot of New England farmers used stone boats, but they were flat wheelless platforms dragged behind a team of horses – you walked along beside and picked up big stones, threw them on the platform and dragged them out of the way. It cleared the fields and was useful for fence building. But they didn’t attempt to fish from them.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Celtic peoples (what we’s call Irish, Welsh, Scots, Bretons and the Cornish) have been nipping across the waterways in their little boats for hundreds of years, some as far south as the Mediterranean, to trade.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m a sucker for driving the guardians of high culture crazy. When I worked as an editor, even while I was enforcing the rules I could still argue passionately against them. I don’t even want to think about what that says about me. One of the things I love about English (and equally, one of the things that drives me nuts about it) is what a mess it is.

      Liked by 3 people

  9. I’m just over here in the land of rejects not feeling the right to be sniffy or smug about anyone. We Americans emancipated from the Franco-British menage-o-marriage at a young age and still haven’t found our way out of adolescence. 🙄

    But, if it matters, nobody ever seized landmasses like we’ve seized landmasses. Sea-to-shining-sea, as they say. Thank goodness for the breakup of Pangaea or we’d still be claiming Amorican dirt.

    (It already belongs to us, we’d say, it even SOUNDS like America)

    Interesting piece, and hilarious as well!

    Liked by 5 people

  10. Many years ago I was on a small tour of the West Country given by a private guide. He gave an interesting and light history lesson with each place we visited. He was also exceedingly polite. But at Stonehenge his demeanor changed in an instant when a group of people trampled through our party in the middle a talk he was giving to us. He looked at them with disdain and muttered, “French!” and just as quickly returned to his charming self. We didn’t dare laugh!

    Liked by 4 people

  11. About 30 years ago, when my brother was barely 21 and just starting out as a property master’s assistant, he worked on a film crew in Paris, making a major TV ad for cigarettes. The crew was American, Spanish, and Italian. On the day shooting wrapped up, an American admitted that he felt kind of guilty about promoting cigarettes. The others tended to agree, except for the Italians, who smoked like fiends.
    “On the other hand,” said a young Spaniard sanctimoniously, “If our work causes the early death of even one Frenchman,…”.
    Everyone burst into loud peals of prolonged laughter.
    No, of course they didn’t mean it, says my brother – not remotely! They were guys. They were young. And – oh, you had to be there, he says – “It was an… international moment”.
    Then he laughs. Every time.

    Liked by 5 people

  12. Fun! Seems science (and most religions) seem to think we all started out somewhere in Africa anyway, which makes us all immigrants LOL even the “natives”. Pretty sure I’m descended from aliens so I have no dog in this earthly war of claimings and namings.

    Liked by 3 people

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