Who lived in early medieval England? 

We’re programmed to imagine early medieval England as a land of straw-haired Anglo-Saxons–so much so that an article debunking that belief is illustrated by (you guessed it) a picture of a straw-haired young woman wearing a leather headband and gazing soulfully up at the clouds. 

But before I go on, let’s define the early medieval period. English Heritage opens the doors at around the year 410 and tossing the drinkers out onto the street in 1066, which means it runs from the end of Roman rule to the Norman invasion. You could call it the Anglo-Saxon period without losing too many points on your essay, even though what you’re about to read messes with the standing assumptions about Anglo-Saxon England. You could also call it the Dark Ages, but you’ll lose points. It’s got more zing but it’s gone out of fashion. 

Irrelevant photo: hellebore


That straw-haired image

The stereotype we bought into–and forgive me if I pretend I can talk for all of us–grows out of having read that the Anglo-Saxons invaded that big central chunk of Britain we call England, pushing its earlier residents, the Celts, to the margins.

The margins? That’d be Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. 

Since the Anglo-Saxons were Germanic tribes, we can call Central Casting and tell them we need blonds–lots of tall, warrior types and a few wistful maidens.

Why the gender imbalance? Because we were taught the Anglo-Saxons came as warriors–big, blond guys with big, blond swords.

The archeologists who gave us that story did it in good faith. They were working with the tools they had. They’d dig up an early medieval village or graveyard, find Anglo-Saxon artifacts, and not unreasonably deduce that Anglo-Saxons lived there. But turn a few calendar pages and before we know what hit us, science has given them new toys to work with. In other words, the next generation of archeologists could work over the same ground but now sequence DNA and read tooth enamel well enough to identify people’s tribes and know where the tooth enamel- wearer had grown up, and that’s made the picture of early medieval England and the Anglo-Saxons more complicated. 

The article that pushed me down the road toward this blog post opens (once you get past that blond-haired maiden) by questioning the assumption that everyone in early medieval English villages looked alike or talked the same way. It’s based on a DNA study of 460 people from sites across northern Europe, 278 of them from the southern and eastern English coasts. 

The Anglo-Saxons and the Celts

The first change to the traditional story is that the Anglo-Saxons (or the incomers, anyway, whatever we’re going to call them) don’t seem to have driven the Celts out. Instead, the two groups settled down alongside them and played house: Many people in these settlements were of mixed heritage. 

The study did find evidence of mass migration into the British Isles after Roman government ended, but it wasn’t a migration of warriors. These were families.

Now let’s shift to a different article. It’s about the same study but juggles a few different details. It doesn’t talk about Celts and Anglo-Saxons but people of WBI (western British and Irish) and CNE (continental northern European) heritage. If you want the percentages from various communities, that’s where you’ll find it. I hope you know better than to look to me for numbers when they’re avoidable.

But the genetic makeup of the communities wasn’t limited to Celts and northern Europeans. One skeleton–a girl of about eleven, found in Updown (yes, seriously), in Kent–had two-thirds CNE ancestry and one-third West African ancestry. The modern grouping most closely related to her African ancestors would be the Esan and Yoruba peoples in southern Nigeria. 

How’d they show up there? Trade, probably. Early medieval England wasn’t an isolated place, ad traders often exchange more than just the goods they’re selling. They exchange culture, language, DNA.

Updown Girl was buried with her family members and with grave goods similar to theirs, like any other village girl, since that’s what she was, in a manner we still call Anglo-Saxon for lack of a better term. 

Why am I looking for a better term? Because the culture we still think of as Anglo-Saxon and that we used to assume was brought over whole by the Anglo-Saxon tribes seems to have belonged to a hybrid culture–the kind that grows up when cultures meet and mix. We don’t know what that mixing was like; we can only infer it from DNA, tooth enamel, and the goods people were buried with.

Grave goods and social patterns

The second article says, “Grave goods seem to have played only a very limited role in the signalling of different ancestries–assuming that was what was intended–and where it is seen, that signalling was dependent on biological sex.” In other words, you can’t tell from the goods people were buried with who was of primarily CNE (or Anglo-Saxon) ancestry and who was primarily WBI (or Celtic), although men whose ancestry was primarily WBI–what we’d call mostly Celtic–were more likely to have been buried with grave goods primarily WBI than women were.

How come? Dunno. Any answer will be wild speculation. If I was writing historical fiction, I could have fun with that, although someone somewhere would inevitably think it was fact.

The archeologists found that the two groups–the WBI and the CNE–didn’t generally keep themselves separate and people soon had mixed ancestry. The patterns varied from settlement to settlement, but all of them change our assumptions of what Anglo-Saxon means. It’s beginning to look like a culture adopted by a group of genetically mixed people rather than something brought over whole by invading tribesmen.

As the first article–the one with the straw-haired maiden–puts it, “Early Anglo-Saxon culture was a mixing pot of ideas, intermarriage and movement. This genetic coalescing and cultural diversity created something new in the south and east of England after the Roman empire ended.”

For people who believe in racial purity, the science of DNA must be a real pain in the backside.

29 thoughts on “Who lived in early medieval England? 

    • The historian Susan Oosthuizen speculates (with some convincing–at least to me–reasons) that it may have become a contact language: one that’s used as a common language by people who speak many languages, which would’ve included various Celtic languages, spoken Latin, Church Latin, Pictish, and I forget what else. That means it would’ve picked up words from all of the above and what we now call the Anglo-Saxon language may well not have been the language the Anglo-Saxon tribes brought with them when they migrated. In fact, she considers it unlikely that they all spoke the same language.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. If you fancy a rest from Lord Goggle, there’s a book called Digging Up Britain by Mike Pitts that explores various archaeological sites in the light of the latest research that is both very readable and highly informative.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know why we make such a fuss about it. As far back as I can go, which isn’t that far, but I can extrapolate, my family has lived on the south coast. The thing about coastal areas is that they tend to receive visitors from other countries. Sometimes they stay and sometimes they leave pregnant women behind. I have Celtic ancestors (red-headed family members), Saxon ancestors (no proof, but a good supposition given that I’m not far from the capital of Wessex), and Mediterranean blood (an inherited blood disorder that exists mainly in that part of the world). I ought to do one of those ‘find your ancestors’ tests.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I let “updpwn” pass, but when you got to “Updown Girl…” I had to call timeout (to try to shed the earworm)

    I think they have discovered evidence of people with Neanderthal DNA. (Read that somewhere and can’t cite it now). Latest info indicates the Neanderthals weren’t all t hat different – if you put a couple in modern clothes instead of animal skins you would not notice a big difference. Which i kind of reassuring and kind fof ironic (at least Over Here where Being White is becoming a big deal all over again,)

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    • It’s now pretty well accepted that many of us whose relatively recent origins lie outside of Africa (and I think Asia, but I can’t swear to that) have some Neanderthal DNA. And–isn’t this odd?–that coincides with a redrawing of Neanderthal images. Suddenly they walk fully upright, they don’t drag their knuckles, they look smarter, their impressive strength is acknowledged. Gee whiz, kids, these are ancestors we can be proud of. I wouldn’t be surprised if their skin’s gotten lighter too, but I don’t have before and after pictures, so I’m just guessing.

      Yes, racism’s alive and well and living in entirely too many places.

      Updown Girl’s one hell of a name. I’m a small-time collector of English place names and I’ve added Updown to Washaway and Pityme.


    • Oooh, thank you. I’ll check that out. I read something (and can’t find the reference) about Celtic and other words getting glued onto a Germanic syntax. But since I can’t find it, we might ought to treat that like a passing hallucination.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The English often have black hair. See the Beatles. (Boris Judas Johnson surely is a recent invader). 😉
    My family is mostly from Brittany. (Invaded and evangelized by the Bretons around the 6th century. Give or take one). One of my eldest brothers is what others would call “Black Irish.” Black hair and blue eyes…
    Said blue eyes (mine are green, hehe), according to the Danes all go back to a grandmother 6,000 years ago in the Caucasian mountains…
    Love DNA…
    Be good.

    Liked by 1 person

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