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

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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.

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‘Britain AD: King Arthur’s Britain’ by Francis Pryor

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This review and discussion is on the UK TV Programme (first broadcast 2004), which was based on Pryor’s book with the same title (also published in 2004). Pryor wrote and narrated this series of three episodes, which are available on 4oD (Channel 4 On Demand – you can access these programmes via the website once you have registered – but be warned, you won’t be able to skip the adverts). There is a very clear argument running through these episodes, most of which rang true for me, though there are some aspects I’m not so sure about, as you will see below. Prior describes himself as a ‘pre-historian’, and his own archaeological research has focused on the bronze age in Britain, so in this series he talks to many archaeologists in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon period, and other specialists such as geneticists and linguists, rather than presenting himself as the expert on the period. And of course he walks about in front of various ruins and across various landscapes as he unfolds his argument, which is why TV is such an enjoyable medium when it is done well.

If you are a King Arthur fan there is not a lot of support for the historical existence of this person in the series, but Pryor does keep returning to the King Arthur myth to see what its significance and origins might be (especially linking it in episode 1 to religious practices where swords were deposited in sacred waters, which has occurred through thousands of years of history, though of course not just in Britain). However, I think Pryor has primarily used this title to entice people to watch the programme, which really concerns what happened in Britain during the Roman period and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon – in what has long been known as the ‘Dark Ages’ from 410-597AD. Pryor points out that the term ‘Dark Ages’ as applied to Britain in this period is completely inaccurate – that in fact this is when the light of creativity and intellectual thought was turned on in north west Europe, not turned off, of which more below.

I learnt a lot from these programmes about the west side of Britain during this period, whereas my own focus has always been the east side. In the second episode we learn that due to Britain’s natural resources, mostly to be found in the West – particularly tin in Cornwall, which was a valuable and scarce commodity in Europe at the time – trade still continued after the Romans withdrew at the beginning of the 5th century. Archaeological evidence shows that this trade was mostly with the Byzantine empire, with ships bringing amphorae of wine or oil, fine pottery and other goods from the Mediterranean to the west coast of Britain. Here, in West Britain at least, Christianity continued after the Romans left, and thousands of stones carved with classical Latin inscriptions of a high calibre (according to Latin scholar Dr David Howlett, interviewed in two of the episodes) testify to the educational ability of at least the elite in the native population.

There is also new evidence of impressively large timber halls being built in the mid 5th century on the site of Roman ruins (at Beadoswald on Hadrian’s Wall and in Wroxeter) – pointing to the existence of powerful rulers rather than the chaos we have been told must have occurred once Roman troops were pulled out in 407AD. In York pottery was still being manufactured in this period ie some people continued to live in Roman towns rather than returning to rural living and subsistence agriculture, and pollen analysis shows that fields did not revert to wild wood except in a very few areas. It’s time to ‘rewrite the history books’ according to Pryor, much of what we have been led to believe about this period is ‘rubbish’!

Pryor’s thesis in the first episode is that the Romans were not an oppressive occupying force, native Britons were not always ‘tragic victims’, and the invasion of Britain in 43AD ‘may not have been forced’ but by invitation of client kings looking for support against other local rulers. Often Romanised native Britons were allowed to rule in the name of Rome – these were the people who lived in the grand Roman villas of the 3rd and 4th century AD, whose mosaics portrayed a deliberate mix of Roman and native gods. This fits in with Pryor’s thesis (though he doesn’t quite seem to join the dots as I am doing here with these comments) as it means the British were not a helpless people left to marauding warriors from all points of the compass, as has often been assumed in the past. According to Pryor Britain ‘thrived’ on foreign influences and, what is more important, the instability that affected the rest of Europe when Rome went into decline did not reach Britain, which actually became a bastion of civilisation in the north west just as Byzantium (centred on Constantinople, now Istanbul) did in the East.

I personally think this argument is a little over-stretched, but it makes good television. Where is the centre of power that balances out Constantinople? The beach parties held in Cornwall between the traders and the natives that Pryor points to hardly seem sufficient evidence of a meeting of civilisations or an exchange of intellectual ideas. None the less I am sure he is right that there was no widespread chaos when Rome left, that the native Britons presented a strong face to the world, and were not invaded by anyone (there is no archaeological evidence for the Anglo-Saxon invasion as Pryor points out – no war cemeteries or burnt buildings – unlike Boudica’s revolt in AD60, and the attacks of the Vikings starting in AD793).

In the third episode, Pryor visits one of the ‘Saxon shore’ forts which stretch along the south and east coast of Britain. There are new arguments (here presented by Andrew Pearson) that these massive stone forts built by the Romans may not have been defensive, but instead used to store grain, ie with an economic rather than a military purpose. The significance of this is that there were no attacks from Saxons and other Germanic tribes on Britain. I personally believe, from various throwaway comments I’ve read made by historians of the classical period, that this area could have been called the ‘Saxon shore’ by the Romans because the people who lived in this part of Britain spoke ‘Saxon’ ie a Germanic language (rather than Celtic as in the West of Britain), and had trade and other links with the Germanic tribes across the North Sea and the Channel, rather than being threatened by them.

The fertile flatlands of the east and south east of Britain were the grain basket of the land, grain which was no doubt needed to support the Roman armies scattered throughout Europe, and this valuable commodity was stored up ready to be shipped abroad from these forts. In the past the existence of these imposing stone forts (many of which still stand nearly 2000 years later), and their ‘Saxon’ label in a contemporary source, has led historians and archaeologists to assume that there was a huge threat from across the water, but there is no written record or significant archaeological evidence for such attacks, during or after the Roman era in Britain.

The idea of two languages / cultures sitting side by side in Britain at this time is not the conclusion Pryor comes to when he moves on to this topic in episode three of this series, and I have not heard it suggested by anyone except Stephen Oppenheimer, whose book and ideas I will be discussing in a future post. Pryor talks to Katie Lowe, a linguist, about her research into Celtic influences on Old English. Previously linguists have looked at the vocabularies of the two languages and found very little overlap, but Lowe has been studying the grammar and word order of English, and argues that the English language changed from an inflected language (grammar information primarily found in word endings) to one based on word order, which could have been due to Celtic speakers trying to learn English as a second language, and this would have had to take place over many generations to have caused these changes to English.

Pryor also talks to Dominic Powlesland who has been researching settlements in the Yorkshire Wolds around West Heslerton for most of his career. The evidence there shows peaceful continuity from Roman times through into the middle Anglo-Saxon period. Stable isotope analysis of teeth enamel shows that very few people buried in the early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in the area came from abroad, but nearly half grew up in the west of Britain and thus would most likely have been Celtic speakers. However, Pryor skips over discussing how this Germanic language got to Britain. I would argue that this evidence could point to a form of Germanic already being spoken in the area, rather than being brought in by migrating or invading Anglo-Saxons – for which there is very little evidence. Then over several generations of West British immigration of Celtic speakers this language of the east English evolved into a new language that was distinctly different in grammar to the Germanic spoken on the continent – Old English.

My main disagreements with Pryor’s thesis are that Pryor treats Britain in the period he investigates in Britain AD as one country, though much of his evidence seems to point to clear differences between West and East, such as the presence or absence of Christianity in the early Anglo-Saxon period. Secondly he clearly chose not to delve any deeper into the origins of the English language, perhaps deciding that was taking him too far away from his own areas of expertise. There will be more on this and other issues raised by Pryor’s stimulating TV series in future posts.