Until recently, if you asked who the Anglo-Saxons were the answer would’ve been that they were people from two northern European tribes who invaded England during the fifth and sixth centuries and then put down roots and stayed. They pushed the Britons (mostly Celts who’d been Romanized) to the corners of the island and formed a shifting set of small kingdoms in the island’s middle.
The kingdomlets eventually became one full-size kingdom, which was in turn overthrown by the Norman invasion in 1066.
Sic transit gloria mundi, which is Latin from Do whatever you like, in the end it all goes wrong anyway. It’s a run-on sentence, but you can blame the ancient Romans.
The Jutes and the complications
To complicate the picture (I can never resist a complication), you can also tell the traditional story so that there were three tribes, the Angles and the Saxons plus the Jutes. But the Jutes are always getting dropped from the discussion because they wouldn’t spend money on a publicity agent. So the Anglo-Saxons are the folks we know about. If you care what posterity thinks of you, you’ll find a lesson in there somewhere.
On the other hand, by the time posterity either remembers or forgets you, you won’t be around to care, so the Jutes may have been wise to spend their money on other things.
What evidence we have says the Jutes came from Scandinavia–probably from what’s now Jutland–and that the tribal members who didn’t migrate got absorbed by the Danes.
Where does the traditional story come from?
Two of the main sources of information about the period are Gildas and the Venerable Bede, and both wrote about battles between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons. But Bede lived in the seventh and eight centuries, so he’s not a contemporary source. And Gildas lived in the sixth century, so although he’s earlier than Bede he’s not a contemporary either. Gildas also considered the Anglo-Saxons God’s punishment for the British leaders’ depravity, and sorry, no, I don’t have any details, but that does kind of mark him as something less than an unbiased narrator.
So grain of salt, please, with both of those. Some archeologists have begun to notice that no one has yet found evidence of those battles, and that calls their version of the story into question.
In addition, the dividing lines between Angles, Saxons, and Jutes may not have been as clear in real life as they were in Bede’s history. Still, their names have been preserved in assorted place names, showing that they were used. The English counties that end in -sex (settle down there in back; we’ve all heard the word sex before or we wouldn’t recognize it) were Saxon. Wessex is from West Saxons; Essex from East Saxons, Middlesex from Middle Saxons. The North Saxons, as was pointed out by someone who has a better grasp of British geography and history than I do, did not leave behind a place called Nosex.
The Angles, however, left us East Anglia and England. Not to mention the word English.
The Jutes (probably) left us Jutland, and it’s in the wrong country. See why they keep getting dropped from the conversation?
The Anglo-Saxons, somewhat irrelevantly, didn’t call themselves Anglo-Saxons. The word turns up for the first time in the eighth century.
The unknowns and the new interpretations
One of the things we don’t know about the period is whether the Anglo-Saxons invaded in hordes or trickled in in small numbers and settled among the existing population. Bede and Gildas make the incomers sound like invading hordes who replaced the Romano-Celts, either killing them or driving them to the corners of the island. Until recently that’s been accepted as fact.
You’ve heard the complaints that Black Lives Matter protesters are rewriting history? Well, here’s history being rewritten with no political agenda at all. Because history’s constantly getting rewritten. New ideas crop up, and new ways of looking at things, and new technologies (social history, for example, or women’s history), and new information. They change the picture. So here’s how it’s changing at the moment:
Archeologists from Sydney and Vancouver have been rummaging through Anglo-Saxon bones from the fifth through eleventh centuries and they say the Anglo-Saxons weren’t from a genetically unified group of people. They were (much like the inhabitants of modern Britain) a mix of migrants and local people.
What sort of a mix are we talking about? Between 66% and 75% of the early Anglo-Saxons had ancestors from continental Europe. The remainder had local ancestors. And Anglo-Saxon here means people who lived in what archeologists identify as Anglo-Saxon settlements–people who lived a certain way, buried their dead a certain way, and had identifiable types of jewelry or goods buried with them.
For the middle Anglo-Saxon period (that’s several hundred years after the original migrants arrived), 50% to 70% percent had local ancestors and the rest had ancestors from continental Europe. That may mean local people adopted the Anglo-Saxon culture, that the rate of migration changed, or both.“Instead of wholesale population replacement,” they say, “a process of acculturation resulted in Anglo-Saxon language and culture being adopted wholesale by the local population. . . . It could be this new cultural package was attractive, filling a vacuum left at the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. “
The archeologists speculate that “being Anglo-Saxon was more likely a matter of language and culture, not genetics.”
Separate studies of DNA and of tooth enamel back up their findings, with incomers being identifiable only by high-tech scientific study. They were buried the same way as local people and in the same places.
The Anglo-Saxon economy
The established belief has been that when the Romans left the economy went into a sharp decline. Basically, Britain fell apart. But enthusiasts waving metal detectors have added new evidence about the period, and in Building Anglo-Saxon England, John Blair uses it (and other evidence) to argue that the economy was just fine, thanks. It produced goods. It traded with other countries. It didn’t collapse.
Susan Oosthuizen’s The Anglo-Saxon Fenland and The Emergence of the English make a different version of the same argument. The early Anglo-Saxon years weren’t the gang warfare we’ve come to think they were. She looks at the way the land was used and sees continuity. The Roman withdrawal from Britain, she thinks, created stability, not chaos.
Both households using privately held land and communities using common land continued very much the way they had. A violent transformation, she argues, would’ve overwritten field layouts. A conquering horde wouldn’t have settled into the boundaries, property rights, and land management patterns of the people they’d dispossessed.
Instead, she sees incomers and local people living beside each other, with no evidence that the earlier people became subject to the incomers. She goes as far as arguing that the period shouldn’t be called Anglo-Saxon, because that overlooks both the Britons and the immigrants from North Africa, the Mediterranean, Ireland, and parts of Europe other than where the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came from. They formed, she says, a common culture with a common language.
The number of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants was small but may have been culturally or economically significant. But (unsubstantiated theory warning) everything from “may have” is just me speculating.
But didn’t Britain collapse when the Romans left?
When the Romans left, Rome’s constant demand for taxes left with them, which may have taken pressure off the local economy. In places, arable land was converted to pasture. That can be taken as a sign of collapse or a sign that, without the need to shovel surpluses to Rome, people could afford to do this.
In 429, the bishop of Auxerre visited Britain and described it as “this very opulent island.” It “enjoyed peace with security on several fronts,” he said. And St. Patrick’s reminiscences apparently also paint a picture of a stable country, not one torn by wars and invasion.
Even Gildas–remember him? one of the sources of the war and chaos tale?–describes early sixth-century Britain as a country with a functioning legal system, a church hierarchy, monastic houses, and a military command structure and administration that were still organised along Roman lines.
A review of Oosthuizen’s book says, “What Gildas most disliked was the evidence he saw for new administrative, legal, social, religious, and political structures emerging and diverging from Roman norms, not the lack of such structures.”
The idea that historians should be neutral–or at least try to look neutral–was still centuries away.
Yeah, but the language–
But wasn’t Old English brought by the Anglo-Saxons and imposed on the country?
Not necessarily. There’s no evidence that it arrived in Britain as a fully formed language–it would’ve been, at the least, a variety of dialects– or that it was imposed. In eighth-century Britain–that’s well after the Anglo-Saxons first arrived–Bede says people spoke Old English, British Celtic, Irish, Pictish, Church Latin, and vernacular (meaning everyday spoken) Latin. A lot of them would have known two or three languages, and he says almost everyone could speak vernacular Latin.
English might have gobbled down several of those, using both a Germanic and British base for its syntax and a vocabulary that was stolen from everyone within hearing range.
Linguists–at least some of them–are now calling English a contact language, meaning not that flies stick to it but that it grew out of the interaction of various languages. That’s in contrast to a language that’s imposed by a dominant class, as English was (by way of an example) in Britain’s colonies.
The Ikea hypothesis
I can’t leave you without talking about the map of Ikea stores in Oosthuizen’s book. (It’s reproduced in the review. The link’s above.) She argues that future archeologists could mark a map with all the Ikea stores that are close to rivers leading to the North Sea, and from that theorize that Sweden colonized Britain in the late twentieth century.
They could back up the theory by pointing to the amount of Ikea furniture in people’s homes and decide that the 100,000 Swedes who lived in London in 2018 had moved there to work for Ikea.
Which is entirely possible.