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.
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.