The East-West Divide: Stephen Oppenheimer’s ‘The Origins of the British’


Stephen Oppenheimer is an ‘Associate’ of the University of Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, a popular science writer and a public speaker. In this book he drew on the research of many geneticists, archaeologists, historians, linguists, geologists, climatologists etc. He is a primarily a geneticist himself (his first career was in medicine and medical research) – and I’m sure it is the DNA data, that is only just starting to be uncovered, that is going to solve this riddle of what really happened in Dark Age Britain. I’ve seen Oppenheimer interviewed on television about his other important book ‘Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World’, where some of his ideas are new and hence controversial, as are his ideas about the origins of the British that I discuss here.

Stephen Oppenheimer’s argument in this book from 2006, as far as I understand it (and without all the nuances of his 600+ pages), is that Britain was re-peopled during the period since the northern ice sheets last retreated by different peoples from geographically separate areas of Europe.
Note: the end of the last glacial period was around 12,000 years ago – before that Britain was under a thick layer of ice and no one lived there permanently; and at that time and until about 8000 years ago it’s also important to realise that Britain was still attached by a ‘land bridge’ to Northern Europe ie to what is now Denmark, Holland and northern Germany, so it was not an island.

These different peoples that Oppenheimer proposes came to Britain had different cultures and presumably spoke different languages, and this latter is the aspect I am most interested in. Germanic people (whose language probably became English) arrived in the east side of Britain (possibly some even walked over the land bridge). People from the French south west coast and northern Spain migrated to the western side of the country and to Ireland. Oppenheimer suggests that the Celtic language(s) spoken in the west which eventually became Welsh, Cornish and the long extinct Cumbric (and Breton still spoken in Brittany in Northern France) may have arrived later with another group of peoples. Note: Gaelic and Irish and Manx form a different branch of the insular Celtic languages of the British Isles and may have arrived/developed separately.

Oppenheimer’s explanation is quite complex – languages and cultures may have arrived at different times, and over extended periods – but the basic idea is the same ie an ancient East-West divide of Britain, with peoples of different origins and languages present from early times. This probably happened thousands of years before the period of the Roman occupation of Britain, let alone that of the Anglo Saxons who ‘arrived’(?) in the fifth century when the Romans left.

The assumption has always been that all the peoples of Britain at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 spoke one language – Britonnic, a Celtic language. Thus the argument goes that the ‘poor’ native Britons who spoke this Celtic language must have retreated to the fringes of Britain – to Scotland/Cumbria and Wales and Cornwall – by the ‘nasty’ Germanic speaking Anglo Saxons who first settled in the East of the country and then moved further and further west – or so the story goes. However, all our history/pre-history books are wrong if Stephen Oppenheimer’s ideas about the origins of the British prove to be correct. Perhaps the British Celts were not so downtrodden, and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were not so oppressive as we have all been led to believe.

I could never understand how the Anglo Saxon ‘invaders’ could have brought English with them and imposed it on the indigenous Britons. My gut reaction has always been that this makes no sense. When I discovered this book by Stephen Oppenheimer it was a Eureka moment – and I couldn’t figure out (and still can’t) why everyone else wasn’t convinced by it, and why just about every history book or passing reference to the Anglo Saxon period continues to trot out the same old story (first told to us by Saint Bede in 731 AD in the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English people’).

Archaeologists have found no evidence of war or destruction at the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period – the native population was not wiped out, and there is evidence of continuous occupation of farming communities throughout the period eg at West Heslerton in East Yorkshire (I’ll be looking at this and other archaeological evidence in future posts). Yet the idea has persisted that there was an ‘invasion’ and this is how the English language arrived in Britain.

More recently some historians and archaeologists have started talking about an Anglo-Saxon elite, a small rather than mass migration, imposing their language on the native population. They’ve had to switch to this theory due to new DNA evidence, and the lack of a invasion evidence in the archaeology. According to this theory the Anglo-Saxon elite did not allow the native Britons to have children which is one way to account for new genetic evidence.

However, this seems just as unlikely as an invasion if you consider what happened when the Romans and the Normans came – both of which consisted of elites who took power. Think about this: a) when the Romans came in AD 43 they stayed for nearly 400 years but their language (Latin) didn’t stick; b) when the Normans came in 1066 they spoke French, which was used at court and by all people in positions of power in England and Wales for the next 400 years, but then English re-emerged – with lots of French and Latin now incorporated, but still basically English.

What is very interesting is that recent linguistic research (as I briefly mentioned in my first post on Francis Pryor’s TV programme ‘Britain AD’) shows that English was influenced by Celtic in its grammar. There is archaeological evidence in West Heslerton from the people buried in its cemeteries in the early Anglo-Saxon period, that a lot of people from the west of Britain were emigrating east – up to 50% were in-comers from western areas according to Powlesland’s research (based on teeth enamel evidence).

These internal immigrants probably spoke a dialect of Celtic, which may have been what caused changes to English grammar (when it starting diverging from other Germanic languages which use inflected grammar systems ie word endings change meaning rather than word order as in English). The proposal is that Celtic in-comers, who spoke English as a second language, struggled with the word endings, and eventually their ‘mistakes’ started to be used by native speakers, creating the next reincarnation of the English language.

English is a world-wide language today because it has always absorbed vocabulary from other languages, it has been adopted by different peoples, and now we learn it probably absorbed grammar changes from Celtic. Even in Britain today, the original home of English, there are many different regional accents and dialects – eg depending on if you are in Liverpool or Newcastle or London etc – which is one of the things second language speakers struggle to deal with when they come to live here. But we are a global community now and we need global languages – surely this is how a global language (a new phenomenon) could be expected to develop – no one owns it, and it changes and adapts – like any living thing.

I know when I write about Britain I talk about it in a very ethnocentric way – it’s hard to break out of that habit. But in fact I wasn’t born on this patch of earth, one of my parents is (or rather was, as he has recently died) American and his ancestors that carried my surname originally came from Bavaria (before Germany existed as a nation) to the US in 1851. So I am not British through and through, but I am a first language English speaker, and I suppose that’s where I feel I belong – part of a language community as much as a geographical one.

In my lifetime there has been the revolution of the internet and the world wide web, and then Facebook and blogging and other forms of social media, and we need global languages we can identify with in order to develop an exciting, creative and friendly global community. But we all know English speaking people have dominated empires and imperial world views over the last 500 years or so, and this is definitely a mark against the language. After all the Roman Empire and Latin similarly dominated until 1500 years ago, and look what happened to them.

In addition, we mustn’t forget that we need the history and ideas that are wrapped up in all of the 7000 or so languages that are spoken around the world today (plus the ‘dead’ ones like Latin and Old English, and those struggling to survive like Manx, Cornish and many others) – every language is so rich and exciting, and I so admire people who can speak/understand more than one (I have tried to learn lots and always failed!).

So what do other people think? I will be returning to these issues, including other research I have touched on here, and to Stephen Oppenheimer’s book, in future posts, but meanwhile I would be interested in anyone’s comments.

The Wife’s Lament: A story poem composed more than a thousand years ago



I took this photograph (a bit fuzzy) of a photograph of the first few lines from ‘The Wife’s Lament’. These facsimiles of the Exeter Manuscript are in Anne Klinck’s The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study (1992). Beautiful, neat, and all done by hand – this scribe took a lot of care.

(Note to male readers / poets – you may think that this post is not for you, because it focuses on a ‘female’ poem, but let me inform you that there are only two Old English poems where women get much of a look in – most of the others have male first person narrators, or predominantly feature male characters, and tend to explore conventionally ‘male’ themes and interests such as armed conflict, adventures at sea, the loyalty a follower owes his leader etc. I will be looking at some of these poems in future posts – they are equally stirring. But meanwhile you might be interested to learn that my proof reader boyfriend has to read every post I write and he has absolutely no interest in poetry whatsoever, so pity him! Anyway I hope you will keep reading whoever you are.)

I mentioned in my last post that there are two Old English (OE) poems that have female narrators. We cannot assume that the authors were female – there is no information about an ‘author’ for these or most other OE poems – but they both feel authentic, as if they describe a woman’s experience, that if not written down by a woman, certainly feels as if it was spoken by one. The way the Old English scholars know a poem has a female narrator is via the use of grammar. In modern English we still have male and female personal pronouns like he/she, her/him, hers/his, which carry through from OE, and are used to point to a person or character, and occasionally for pets and even boats. But the Old English language also has other words that are inflected (that’s the technical name for this aspect of grammar) depending on the sex of the speaker – and each of these poems has some of these words eg ‘my’ is different depending on if a man or woman is speaking – hence the narrator in this poem speaks in line 2 about ‘minre sylfre sið’ (my self/own experience/journey/tale/personal history) and we know it’s a woman who is addressing us.

There are ongoing debates within academia about the origins of the Old English poems – some propose female authorship for the two ‘women’s poems’, some argue that most of the OE poems probably developed from oral compositions, and these are labelled by some scholars as women’s songs. Oral poems within an oral culture (prior to the use of written language) are performed, and this is how they are experienced and passed on. They grow and change with each re-telling, sometimes over many generations, partly in response to audiences, and thus they don’t belong to one author or performer. Eventually they are written down, and hence frozen in time by one person, who may have added their own embellishments, and has certainly provided their own interpretation. This may or may not be the same person who records the poem in the manuscript – this person may only be a scribe, and a compiler under the direction of another more powerful person – but even a scribe may make their own small changes, or copy the original inaccurately. We will never know for sure how most of the OE poems came down to us – as often all we have is one manuscript copy of each poem surviving, and nothing more – so we can imagine for ourselves, or decide it doesn’t matter anyway (people are people), and focus on the poem itself.

However, the Old English poems were written down at a time when very few people could read, it was not the habit to read silently, and books were not only very precious but mostly in the possession of the Christian church – thus these poems would have probably been performed or read aloud to an audience. And I’m sure people have always been like us today – we are often as interested in the poet as the poem (a charismatic performance poet today always develops a faithful following) and no doubt it would have been the same a thousand years and more ago. If you picture that person singing, reciting or reading the poem to an audience – a noisy Anglo-Saxon warriors’ feast near Offa’s Dyke*, a hushed conclave of tenth century nuns in Exeter’s Minster/Cathedral, an excited gathering of female kin in a pre-migration Germanic ‘homeland’ – you will begin to appreciate how differently the poem below would be received depending on the audience and the context.

Here is the Old English version of the 53 line poem ‘The Wife’s Lament’ from The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records edited by G.P. Krapp and E.V.K. Dobbie in 1936. Below that is the translation by Richard Hamer (1970) found in A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse. Note: the original OE poems did not have titles – these have been added by modern editors and translators.

Ic þis giedd wrece bi me ful geomorre,
minre sylfre sið. Ic þæt secgan mæg,
hwæt ic yrmþa gebad, siþþan ic up weox,
niwes oþþe ealdes, no ma þonne nu.
A ic wite wonn minra wræcsiþa.
ærest min hlaford gewat heonan of leodum
ofer yþa gelac; hæfde ic uhtceare
hwær min leodfruma londes wære.
ða ic me feran gewat folgað secan,
wineleas wręcca, for minre weaþearfe.
Ongunnon þæt þæs monnes magas hycgan
þurh dyrne geþoht, þæt hy todælden unc,
þæt wit gewidost in woruldrice
lifdon laðlicost, ond mec longade.
Het mec hlaford min herheard niman,
ahte ic leofra lyt on þissum londstede,
holdra freonda. Forþon is min hyge geomor,
ða ic me ful gemæcne monnan funde,
heardsæligne, hygegeomorne,
mod miþendne, morþor hycgendne.
Bliþe gebæro ful oft wit beotedan
þæt unc ne gedælde nemne deað ana
owiht elles; eft is þæt onhworfen,
is nu fornumen swa hit no wære
freondscipe uncer. Sceal ic feor ge neah
mines felaleofan fæhðu dreogan.
Heht mec mon wunian on wuda bearwe,
under actreo in þam eorðscræfe.
Eald is þes eorðsele, eal ic eom oflongad,
sindon dena dimme, duna uphea,
bitre burgtunas, brerum beweaxne,
wic wynna leas. Ful oft mec her wraþe begeat
fromsiþ frean. Frynd sind on eorþan,
leofe lifgende, leger weardiað,
þonne ic on uhtan ana gonge
under actreo geond þas eorðscrafu.
þær ic sittan mot sumorlangne dæg,
þær ic wepan mæg mine wræcsiþas,
earfoþa fela; forþon ic æfre ne mæg
þære modceare minre gerestan,
ne ealles þæs longaþes þe mec on þissum life begeat.
A scyle geong mon wesan geomormod,
heard heortan geþoht, swylce habban sceal
bliþe gebæro, eac þon breostceare,
sinsorgna gedreag, sy æt him sylfum gelong
eal his worulde wyn, sy ful wide fah
feorres folclondes, þæt min freond siteð
under stanhliþe storme behrimed,
wine werigmod, wætre beflowen
on dreorsele. Dreogeð se min wine
micle modceare; he gemon to oft
wynlicran wic. Wa bið þam þe sceal
of langoþe leofes abidan.

The Wife’s Lament

I sing this song about myself, full sad,
My own distress, and tell what hardships I
Have had to suffer since I first grew up,
Present and past, but never more than now;
I ever suffered grief through banishment.
For since my lord departed from this people
Over the sea, each dawn have I had care
Wondering where my lord will be on land.
When I set off to join and serve my lord,
A friendless exile in my sorry plight,
My husband’s kinsmen plotted secretly
How they might separate us from each other
That we might live in wretchedness apart
Most widely in the world: and my heart longed.
In the first place my lord had ordered me
To take up my abode here, though I had
Among these people few dear loyal friends;
Therefore my heart is sad. Then had I found
A fitting man, but one ill-starred, distressed,
Whose hiding heart was contemplating crime,
Though cheerful his demeanour. We had vowed
Full many a time that nought should come between us
But death alone, and nothing else at all.
All that has changed, and it is now as though
Our marriage and our love had never been,
And far or near forever I must suffer
The feud of my beloved husband dear.
So in this forest grove they made me dwell,
Under the oak-tree in this earthy barrow.
Old is this earth-cave, all I do is yearn.
The dales are dark with high hills up above,
Sharp hedge surrounds it, overgrown with briars,
And joyless is this place. Full often here
The absence of my lord comes sharply to me.
Dear lovers in this world lie in their beds,
While I alone at crack of dawn must walk
Under the oak-tree round this earthy cave,
Where I must stay the length of summer days,
Where I may weep my banishment and all
My many hardships, for I never can
Contrive to set at rest my careworn heart,
Nor all the longing that this life has brought me.
A young man always must be serious,
And tough his character; likewise he should
Seem cheerful, even though his heart is sad
With multitude of cares. Since my dear lord
Is outcast, far off in a distant land,
Frozen by storms beneath a stormy cliff
And dwelling in some desolate abode
Beside the sea, my weary-hearted lord
Must suffer pitiless anxiety.
And all too often he may call to mind
A happier dwelling. Grief must always be
For him who yearning longs for his beloved.

This poem appears to be less ambiguous than ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, which I looked at in my last post, but there are still endless debates surrounding its interpretation amongst the scholarly community. What crime has the husband committed? Does the ‘wife’ really still care for him? Are there two men involved? (This translation leads us to understand there is only one, but other translations create two.) Is this a literal story or should it be interpreted allegorically? On this last debate, some scholars have argued that the narrator/wife represents the Christian church, and the Lord/husband represents Jesus – this poem was in a manuscript belonging to Exeter Cathedral: is the poem really as secular as it seems to us today, would it have been given manuscript space if it didn’t have some significance for Christians?

If you are interested in the Old English poems or the Old English language you should have a look round the internet as there are websites and webpages that will give you side by side translations, and you will see how different translations can completely change the stories in the poems. And if you don’t recognise any of the written OE words try listening to some spoken OE – many people find the sounds closer to modern English than the written form (which confuses us by using some unfamiliar alphabet characters like þ which sounds like ‘th’ – so OE þing = ‘thing’ – and sometimes pronouncing letters differently eg ‘g’ is often used to indicate the ‘y’ consonant sound as in ‘yellow’.).

*BREAKING NEWS (10th April 2014) from the Offa’s Dyke Path website is that some parts of the Dyke may have been constructed in the 6th century not the 8th century (when Mercia was ruled by King Offa from 757-796) – see their website (I will remove or update this link once this is no longer ‘breaking news’) –