21 December, 2012

Roman York to Anglian York: a speculative model


In this sequence of posts, I have summarised some documentary and archaeological evidence that may help to sketch out a picture of York in the post-Roman centuries. For a summary, see the preceding post in the series.

I have also discussed the Brittonic ruler Peredur, recorded in the late sixth century and associated with York in later medieval tradition.
I suggested that York continued to be inhabited, probably at a low density, and to be used at least on occasion by the local rulers during the fifth and sixth centuries. If correct, this could provide a mechanism for York to retain its status as a political, ecclesiastical and military centre, and possibly some of its cultural heritage, throughout the gap in the historical record.

However, the context in which such a status functioned clearly changed between the fourth and seventh centuries.  In the fourth century, York was under the control of Roman officials, part of the diocese of Britain and the Western Roman Empire, the base of a legion of regular army troops, and the seat of a bishop.  In the early seventh century, York was under the control of the early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) king of Deira/ Northumbria, had no established bishopric (or at least not one that Pope Gregory recognised), and was not part of a political entity bigger than the kingdom of Northumbria (or possibly of whatever was represented by the title of ‘Bretwalda’, which on the most generous interpretation only extends to most, not all, of modern England and parts of southern Scotland).  How might this transition have come about?  There are several broad possibilities. 

Direct transfer of power from Rome to English kings

One possibility is that power was transferred directly from the last Roman officials to the first English king, some time after Emperor Honorius told the British civitates to ‘look to their own defences’ in the early fifth century. The Late Roman Army was in the habit of recruiting Germanic ‘barbarians’ as allies and mercenaries, some of whom reached positions of great power. Stilicho, the general and de facto Emperor in the early fifth century, had a Vandal father. In the 360s the Dux Britanniarum had a Germanic name, Fullofaudes, and in 300 a Germanic warrior-king called Crocus and his troops helped to elevate Constantine the Great to Emperor in York. If the Roman Army based at York in the early fifth century was either commanded by a Germanic general like Fullofaudes or Stilicho, or relied heavily on a Germanic mercenary ally like Crocus, it is not hard to see how such an individual could have become in effect the ruler of York and its surroundings, and effectively founded a kingdom with little more than a change of terminology. In this model one of the last Roman officials could also have been the first English king.

Something like this happened in parts of Continental Europe, where Germanic kings such as Clovis in Gaul (roughly modern France) effectively took over chunks of the former Western Roman Empire wholesale. However, such a direct transfer does not fit easily with some aspects of the situation in York. First, the Christian church hierarchy seems to have disappeared in York, or at least was no longer recognised by Rome, since Pope Gregory clearly expected to establish a new bishopric there. This contrasts with the situation in Gaul, where Christian bishops continued under Clovis and were recognised in Rome. Second, although Clovis was a Frank and Frankish was a Germanic language, the language that became dominant in his territory was a descendant of Latin (eventually evolving into modern French). By contrast, the language that emerged in York was English, a Germanic language. It is possible that a particular set of circumstances could explain both of these differences – e.g. if the leader who took over in York happened to be a committed pagan who chased out any Christian church hierarchy, or if Germanic languages were already widely spoken in and around York after generations of recruiting Germanic soldiers who retained connections with friends and relatives across the North Sea. Nevertheless, my interpretation is that these differences are consistent with a less direct transition in York.

Invasion and conquest

A second possibility is that English warriors invaded and conquered Roman York and its surrounding area, destroyed the Roman aristocracy and the Christian church, expelled or oppressed the Roman population, and established their own kingdom without reference to anything that had gone before.  Such a hypothetical conquest could have happened at any time between the early fifth century and the late sixth or early seventh century. This model explains the absence of a bishop in the early seventh century, and the presence of pagan English cremation cemeteries at The Mount and Heworth in York in the fifth-sixth century.

Given York’s importance in Roman Britain, one might have expected to find such a conquest recorded in Annales Cambriae alongside battles such as Arthuret, or as a comment on an early king of Deira in the king-lists in Historia Brittonum or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (‘X who conquered York’ like the enigmatic comment about Soemil), or to appear at least as a passing reference in poetry or the Triads. It may be possible that the reference to Soemil was supposed to mean that he had conquered York, expressed in an oblique way. It may also be possible that the un-located battle of Caer Greu mentioned in the Triads, where Peredur and his brother Gwrgi were killed (see post on Peredur), could be an oblique reference to a battle at York, called for some reason by the name of ‘Caer Greu’ instead of its more usual ‘Caer Ebrauc’ or ‘Caer Efrawg’.  It may also be possible that the enigmatic entry for the death of ‘Bishop Ebur’ in Annales Cambriae in 501 AD (see post on the documentary sources for post-Roman York) could be an oblique reference to an invasion and conquest that extinguished the bishopric. I am not convinced, because these are all very oblique; they could refer to a conquest of York, but that’s mostly because it isn’t clear what they refer to, so they could mean almost anything. It seems odd to me that there is no clear ‘X conquered Eboracum/ Caer Ebrauc’ or ‘X was killed in the battle of Eboracum /Caer Ebrauc’. However, the sources are so sparse that absence of evidence cannot be taken as evidence of absence.

Staged transition from Roman to a Brittonic kingdom to an English kingdom

A third possibility is that Roman York became an independent Brittonic kingdom that later became an English kingdom. Brittonic kingdoms are recorded in the late sixth and early seventh century in what is now northern England, such as the kingdom of Elmet in the area around modern Leeds, a few miles west of York (see post on Elmet), and the kingdom of Rheged somewhere in what is now north-western England and/or south-western Scotland (more on Rheged in a later post). If York was the centre of a similar kingdom, that would fit with the pattern.

Such a kingdom could have evolved from the military authority held by the late Roman army commander based at York (by a mechanism similar to the first possibility outlined above) and/or from the civilian political authority held by the leader(s) of the colonia. It could be similar to the situation at Birdoswald, where someone was building timber halls fit for a chieftain in the fifth to sixth centuries, presumably using the Roman fort for its defensive capability or its prestige or both. If some of the people in authority in Late Roman York were members of, or had close links with, the local British aristocracy, such a hypothetical post-Roman kingdom in York could have developed into a Brittonic tribal kingdom.

This model can accommodate the reference in Annales Cambriae to ‘Bishop Ebur’ in 501.  If the hypothetical Brittonic kingdom had developed out of a Late Roman Christian Brittonic aristocracy, it may also have retained the Late Roman Christian church hierarchy, at least for a while*. It can also accommodate the medieval tradition that the late sixth-century Brittonic king Peredur was associated with York (see post on Peredur). In this model, Peredur would have been the king of this hypothetical Brittonic kingdom that had developed in or around York. Peredur’s genealogy extends back to Coel Hen, the founder figure of most of the northern Brittonic dynasties.  Generation counting places Coel Hen somewhere in the early to mid fifth century, i.e. in the immediately post-Roman period, a plausible context for the emergence of a ruling dynasty (caveat, as always, that distant founder figures in genealogies may owe as much to imagination as to history).  Peredur’s father Eliffer had the epithet “of the Great Army”, which may imply that he had considerable military power in his time.  These scraps are consistent with a powerful Brittonic kingdom based in York from the immediate post-Roman period up to the later sixth century, though they do not prove it.

This staged transition model is not necessarily inconsistent with the presence of the pagan English cremation cemeteries at York; those only pose a problem if one assumes that populations must be ethnically, culturally and religiously homogeneous. The cremation cemeteries may represent one element of a mixed population living in post-Roman York, perhaps Germanic mercenaries hired by a Brittonic king or people descended from Germanic soldiers in the Late Roman Army, who happened to practice a particular funerary custom.

The transition from such a hypothetical post-Roman Brittonic kingdom to the English kingdom of Deira recorded by Bede could have occurred by conquest, alliance, intermarriage or inheritance, or any combination thereof. Peredur was killed in battle in 580 according to Annales Cambriae, and his son did not (re)claim his inheritance according to the Triads. Peredur’s death is a plausible context for a shift from Brittonic to Deiran control of York. Whether it represents direct military conquest by Deira, or an alliance hastily patched up after a military defeat by a common enemy, or an inheritance (disputed or otherwise) by the English-oriented children of a dynastic intermarriage in the previous generation, is open to interpretation.

A speculative model

I prefer the staged transition model, for several reasons. First, because it seems to me to fit with fragmentation of Roman Britain into a large number of small local polities, each ruled by whoever happened to be in the best position to grasp and maintain power in a given place at the time, which then changed and evolved over the following centuries.  Second, because a Brittonic kingdom based at York fits easily among the known post-Roman kingdoms ruled by kings with Brittonic names elsewhere in the region of what is now northern England/southern Scotland in the sixth century. Third, because it can accommodate the tradition associating Peredur with York (this is hardly strong evidence, since it comes from a medieval romance written centuries later, but it may reflect a genuine tradition).

So my speculative model for the development of post-Roman York sees a Brittonic tribal kingdom established in and around York, initially developing from the local Brittonic aristocracy and/or Roman officials based in York in the early to mid fifth century. By the mid to late sixth century it was a powerful kingdom capable of fighting a battle many miles away at Arthuret, whose rulers were important enough to be mentioned in the Annales Cambriae and were the subject of stories that survive in cryptic references in the Triads and later medieval romance. 

In this speculative model, the early English kingdom of Deira is postulated as separate from Brittonic York, based on the Yorkshire Wolds with an important centre near the extensive early cemetery at Sancton near Market Weighton and extending east to the coast and west towards the River Derwent.  If Soemil’s action that ‘first separated Deur from Berneich’ (see earlier post on Soemil) refers to gaining Deiran independence from a polity based in York, Deira may have initially been a sort of sub-region of Brittonic York, perhaps a land-grant to federate troops employed by the Late Roman Army based at York and/or the postulated Brittonic kingdom that succeeded it.  (More on the possible origins of Deira in a later post). I see Brittonic York and early English Deira as more or less independent neighbouring kingdoms for much of the fifth and sixth centuries, sometimes rivals and sometimes allies, depending on circumstances and the personalities of their respective leaders.  If Deira was initially founded by people who were formally granted land by Roman or post-Roman authorities at York, it is possible that both kingdoms may have shared a sense of Roman heritage (however hazy it may have become over time) and a tradition that they were supposed to co-operate militarily (whether they always did so in practice is a different matter).  Intermarriage could have reinforced such a (hypothetical) tradition, eventually leading to the effective merger of the two kingdoms under a Deiran king after the deaths of Peredur of York and his brother Gwrgi in 580 AD.  Whether this was voluntary, forcible or somewhere in between is open to interpretation. Since Peredur’s son Gwgaun is said in the Triads not to have (re)claimed his inheritance, implying that he was displaced, such a hypothetical merger may not have been entirely voluntary.  I lean to ‘somewhere in between’, with the aristocracy of Brittonic York accepting a Deiran king as the least-bad option available to them in a chaotic situation after their own kings had been killed in battle.  And thus this speculative model arrives at a situation in which York is a royal centre under the control of the early English kings of Deira in the late sixth century, ready to reappear in that guise in the documentary records in 627. 

I need hardly say that this is speculative.

 

*Even if the Annales Cambriae record means that there was a bishopric in York that came to an end in 501, it does not necessarily mean that Christianity disappeared along with the bishop. Monasticism was a powerful force in western Britain and Ireland in the early medieval period. If a monastery was established in Brittonic York during the fifth century, it may be possible that it had supplanted the local bishopric by 501.

 

 

21 comments:

Beth said...

With a name like Crocus, I guess you have to do something to prove yourself. ;)

I'd certainly plump for the less direct transition as well. As far as the medieval romances are concerned, although as you point out the links are tenuous, I think it's notable that several men who feature in the romances are northern in origin (with some exceptions, like Geraint): Owain, Gwalchmai and Cynon ap Clydno are the three I'm really thinking of. So for the Peredur of romance to be a memory of an early medieval king who was based in York doesn't seem entirely unreasonable.

I'd also seen Deira as perhaps being a sub-region of York at times (for one thing it provided me with a simple way of explaining Eliffer's epithet!), although yes, its position would surely have shifted depending on who held it.

Based on its supposed meaning, I do wonder if Caer Greu is metaphorical and not the name of a real place. But not York. I agree that any record of a battle taking place somewhere as important as that would have surely have used the name Caer Ebrauc.

Constance Brewer said...

Very interesting. I like the direct transfer of power theory. You give good evidence for all the theories. :)
Merry Christmas!

Carla said...

Beth - Well, that was what a Roman writer made of the name. It was probably something rather different in the original :-) A linguist might be able to reconstruct the likely form of the original name. For what it's worth my guess would be that it was originally some compound of 'Hroth-' or something similar.

I like the less direct transition, so it's nice to know I'm not alone :-) That's an interesting point that several other romances feature figures who may be located in the north. One could add Merlin / Myrddin to the list as well. Caveat that I haven't tried to do a systematic survey to test whether names from the north are really overrepresented or whether it's just confirmation bias (i.e. noticing examples that fit a theory and not noticing the ones that don't)! If it's a real effect, it may be because a group of stories and poems that were in circulation in the north happened to survive and find their way to medieval romance writers. In which case a tale about Peredur of Caer Efrawg might have been part of the collection. Or I suppose there could be a more prosaic explanation if romancers were in the habit of picking suitably romantic-sounding names for their characters out of geneaologies...

Eliffer's epithet could mean anything, maybe just referring to one event where he happened to win a battle by overwhelming force - which could have been 50 against 10. But if you take it at face value (as I'm inclined to; the explanation for Cadafael's nickname in HB seems clear that his nickname was meant to be taken at face value, not as a sarcastic opposite-meaning nickname like Little John) it's consistent with Eliffer having control of a large army, which in turn is consistent with an allied force. (Whether such a hypothetical alliance included Deira is of course open to speculation).

I know Kathleen Herbert has Caer Greu as 'Fort of Blood' in Bride of the Spear, but I don't know the source for that. I haven't seen it anywhere else so I don't know if it's based on Old Welsh linguistics or artistic license. Do you know? If correct, that would fit with the name being metaphorical rather than literal, as you mention. Another possibility that occurs to me is to wonder if it's the result of language-mangling of a foreign name, rather as the Norse made Jorvik out of Eoforwic. I wonder whether historians would be able to connect 'Third Wipers' to Ypres several hundred years after the events if all other records had disappeared, and whether they would guess that it was a metaphorical reference to something like 'wiped out'.

Constance - thanks, and I'm glad you found it interesting! I like to try to set out the evidence (such as it is) so you can pick the theory you think fits best. Happy Christmas to you!

Gabriele C. said...

A less direct transition is the most probably scenery, considering the amount of time involved. You rarely get a dynasty ruling a few hundred years during those times while on the other hand, remains of civilisation show that there must have been periods of consolidation ad peace as well, not war only.

There may be several ways the official church could have disappeared; the most likely one here may be the rise of Celtic (Irish) style Christianity which wasn't acknowledged by the official Church (the same happened with the mostly Arian Christian Goths and some other Germanic tribes; that was almost worse than being downright pagan).

Language is tricky, too. The ruling class of the Franks was likely bilingual as the Strasbourg Oaths show, so they could later rule a Roman-ish speaking and a Germanic speaking people alike. I won't be surprised if the rulers of York were bi- or multilingual as well in a society that spoke Latin, Celtic (Gaelic and Pictish), Saxon, and later Norse, too. English has some really mixed-up ancestors, after all. *grin*

Carla said...

Gabriele - Yes, that's another good reason. Maintaining the same ruling dynasty for many generations would be a challenge even in stable circumstances, and 'stable' is not a word that immediately leaps to mind to describe fifth and sixth century Britain.

I thought about heresy as well, but decided the post was already quite long enough :-) I may come back to it another time. Bede mentions the Pelagian Heresy several times, in a most disapproving manner, so if there was a Pelagian foundation in York it certainly wouldn't have met with official approval. Whether any local flock would have been much bothered about the distinction is a different question. I did wonder if Pope Gregory sent Augustine partly to ensure that Pelagianism and/or the Irish Church didn't convert the English first, or to push them out they had - a sort of spiritual land grab, if you like. However, Bede doesn't mention that as a reason.

And yes, again, I agree that it is likely that at least some of the aristocracy spoke several languages. Bede says that Oswald and Oswy learned to speak perfect Irish in exile on Iona, and no doubt others of the aristocracy had similar 'opportunities', not to mention the possibilities of formal teaching (useful for diplomacy), fosterage or multilingual households arising from intermarriage.

Doug said...

Hi
Very well set out as always. I wouldn't previously have given your first scenario any credibility but the continental examples are convincing, and on reflection it may well have been the case in Kent, allowing for the probability that the existing ruler of Kent considered himself to be Roman, and the likelihood that many Romano-Britons were still pagan. The second scenario may have been the case in the original Deira. The appearance of English kings in York is late enough to suggest a sequence of events.
Doug

Beth said...

I'll take 'Hroth-' as a likely candidate. Tsk, can't trust these Romans with anything.

I haven't done anything like a systematic survey either. And have only really considered the Welsh romances, those which usually get lumped in with The Mabinogion; 'The Lady of the Well' (feauring Owain, with Cynon ap Clydno as a catalyst) and 'Peredur son of Efrog', which contains part of a tale involving Gwalchmai. Certainly a lot of northern material seems to have travelled to Wales and some of it was even re-localised there, so it's possible. However, I do wonder why, if the romance Peredur is the northern king and brother to Gwrgi, his father's name is given as Efrog and not Eliffer, when Eliffer was clearly known (he appears in some of the poetry of the Gogynfeirdd, for a start). Pokorny came up with what Bromwich called an 'ingenious' solution, suggesting that the name derived from the title 'Praetor ab Eburaco', but for that to be used as the name for a medieval hero seems slightly improbable. (Especially since, as Bromwich points out, Peredur is in any case an attested name.) If Peredur was known by the epithet 'Efrog' (rather as Urien went by 'Rheged' and Maelgwn by 'Gwynedd') then perhaps that might have given rise to it, though I don't know if that argument would hold water from a linguistics point of view. Clearly the name Peredur was often associated with the north, as Geoffrey of Monmouth puts an early, pre-Roman king of that name in that area and Stow has him as the founder of Pickering. But I don't suppose we'll ever be able to untangle the truth behind it. As you say, it might just be that the name was arbitrarily picked, then the character randomly located in York... A later piece of Welsh poetry talks about the 'seven sons of Eliffer' which ties in with Efrog's seven sons, but that could just be poetic convention - although I'd like to think that, like us, the poet saw a connection between the two Peredurs. :)

Beth said...

I tend to lean towards taking epithets at face value as well, although I do draw the line at such literal interpretations as Ifor Williams' suggestion that Brochfael 'the Tusked' had 'peculiar dentition'. (Although I suppose it's possible.) Indeed, I chose an alliance with Deira for the sake of plot, but in reality the alliance could've been with another tribal grouping; or maybe Eliffer was, like Guthlac, good at drawing people to follow him because he was successful. And I'm sure there are other explanations as well.

No, no artistic licence on Kathleen Herbert's part. :) Bromwich in her Triads suggests 'blood' as a possible translation of 'creu', although she's obviously not putting it out as a certainty and doesn't give any further information about the word. She does note that there's a potential link with the placename Machreu. That might be the correct form of the name Mathreu, which appears in one of the Taliesin poems. Ifor Williams says it could denote a 'pigsty' or hastily erected building like a shed, whilst John Koch goes for 'plain of carnage', which obviously ties in with the 'blood' idea. Yes, alternatively it could well be a mangling of a foreign name; Old English, perhaps? The later Welsh were adept at mangling even their own language, as when faced with obscure older words they could sometimes misread them and/or try to bring them up to date to make sense. So at a pinch it might even be an example of that.

Finally, a very Happy Christmas to you, and best wishes for the New Year! :)

Carla said...

Doug - thank you. It seems quite likely to me that the situation and events varied in different regions of Britain, depending on local circumstances, so what happened in Kent may well have been different to what happened in York.

Beth - Well, to be fair, proper names in a foreign language are tricky. I daresay Crocus and his men returned the compliment by mangling Roman names.

For what it's worth, my guess is that a title or location was mistaken for a patronymic, so 'Peredur Efrawg' or 'Peredur of Efrawg' was mis-copied or misunderstood as 'Peredur son of Efrawg'. Efrawg himself doesn't feature in the romance at all, so his name may not have been too important. 'Seven sons' is such a poetic convention that I'd be reluctant to read too much into it, but it would be nice to think there was a connection.

My first thought on encountering 'Tusked' was to wonder if it referred to a battle formation - wasn't a wedge of spearmen called a 'boar's tusk'? - or possibly to some sort of boar's tusk amulet (perhaps a souvenir of a memorable hunt). But it might be literal; the possibilities are open to imagination. Thanks for the information about the source of the Caer Greu / Fort of Blood theory! And for the (possible) connection to Mathreu. When such respected scholars disagree, it probably indicates that the answer isn't known (and is probably unrecoverable now with the evidence available).

Yes, if someone tried to make the original name (whatever it was) fit one of the 'And thus the place came to be called X....' stories that the Mabinogion delights in, it might well have changed considerably.

Thanks for your good wishes, and may I also wish you a very happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year!

Annis said...

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Carla. Thanks for another year of thoughtful posts and perceptive reviews.

Michael said...

Whilst researching the Romano-British settlement at Elmswell in the East Riding of Yorkshire, I came across an unusual name 'Halliman[wath]' near Little Driffield. The latter element of this name I would think has a Scandinavian origin, but the first element 'Halliman-'is difficult to interprete.

Your mention of King Crocus interests me as I understand he was an Alemanni tribesman.

I wonder....

Carla said...

Annis - thank you. I hope you had a very happy Christmas, and wish you all the best for the New Year.

Michael - hello and welcome. 'Wath' in place names is often from the Norse 'vath', a ford, and Norse names are not uncommon in Yorkshire (e.g. Wath-upon-Dearne). Perhaps the first element could be a personal name? Is the name mentioned in the English Place Name Society's county survey for the East Riding? There may be a clue to its origin if earlier forms of the name are recorded.

Crocus is mentioned in the Epitome de Caesaribus, where he is called 'Alamannorum rege' or 'king of the Alamans'.

Beth said...

True enough, as some names are unusual enough to begin with; I'm just not one to miss an opportunity to moan about the Romans. Don't mind me. :)

I haven't come across the boar's tusk battle formation, but it sounds like a good potential candidate, along with the amulet idea, as you suggest. Or possibly the name was a way of conveying something about Brochfael's general ferocity, warriors often being referred to as 'boars' in the heroic poetry.

Yes indeed, all sorts of linguistic gymnastics can come into play in order to force some words make sense, and explanations of place names are fertile ground for that.

Thank you, too, for the good wishes!

Rick said...

Belatedly!

In the earlier part of the transition period, the distinction between Brittonic and (proto) English might have been fairly hazy. The West Saxon line starts with a Brittonic name, someone who presumably anglicized.

For all we know, the last Roman commander might have been Germanic, but adopted the Brittonic language and practices of a majority of his troops, or local elites whose support he wanted to enlist.

One of the enduring puzzles in all this, to me, is why we aren't having this discussion in a language derived from 'Brito-Romance.' The villas indicate a substantial Romanized elite, but apparently Latin never took root with most of the population, unlike even northern Gaul.

A very minor quibble: Couldn't a battle at Caer Greu, wherever that was, have decided the fate of York? A battle doesn't have to be fought at the capital to cause its fall.

Needless to say that is no argument *for* invasion and conquest, only a note that battles can have an impact well away from the battlefield.

Carla said...

Beth - I can't remember offhand where I came across 'boar tusk' as a name for a battle formation. If I find the reference I'll let you know. Although your suggestion that it was a reference to ferocity in battle is a better idea!

Rick - Yes, I think we've touched on this before, the issue of what ethnic labels like Briton or Angle or Roman actually meant at the time. I think it's likely that it was hazy, variable (depending on time, place, social class, family background and no doubt others), fluid and mixed up with other forms of identity such as kinship, regional or tribal groups.

There are other situations where a language shift seems to have occurred without a major change in population, e.g. Gaelic in Pictland and Arabic in North Africa. One mechanism is bilingual drift. I also wonder whether a form of English may already have been in use by some people in the parts of Britain that faced the North Sea (i.e. the east and south) during, or perhaps even before, Roman rule, since the one thing that doesn't change about history is geography.

Indeed, since Peredur and Gwrgi were both killed at Caer Greu, it probably had a major effect on the fate of the territory they ruled, regardless of where the battle was fought. Unless or until something turns up that definitively locates Caer Greu, it's wide open to all sorts of interpretations.

Rick said...

Do we have any clear hints that Germanic-speaking communities might have been established in pre-Roman times? Does archeology distinguish between 'Celtic' and 'Germanic.' Or names in Caesar's account, or other early sources, that seem Germanic?

When a community's 'Germanic' speech becomes 'proto-English' is an interesting but rather arbitrary question.


When a battle was fought at an unknown location, its effects are indeed open to interpretation!

Beth said...

Thanks; I'd be interested to know its origin. :)

Carla said...

Rick - the archaeology of Britain in the pre-Roman Iron Age is consistent with cultural differences between the west and east of Britain; if I remember rightly, Barry Cunliffe distinguishes three or four cultural zones. Whether the labels 'Celtic' or 'Germanic' have any relevance in this context is questionable, but it does suggest that Britain was not homogeneous. Whether language varied along with material culture is open to conjecture, since language doesn't fossilise without writing.

Caesar's Gallic War says in Book I Ch 1 "All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in our Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws. The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae". He also says that the Belgae are the nearest to the Germans and that their territory extends to the lower part of the Rhine and looks east and north. Later, in Book 5, Caesar says "the maritime portion [of Britain] by those who had passed over from the country of the Belgae".

So the territory of the Belgae in mainland Europe included what is now the Netherlands and the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, as well as what is now the French-speaking part of Belgium and north-east France. Caesar doesn't say what language the Belgae spoke, except that it differed from the language spoken by the Gauls (central France) and Aquitainians (south-west France). Presumably the Belgae who moved to the south and east coasts of Britain took their language, whatever it was, with them. The name 'Belgae' comes from an Indo-European root that has cognates in both Celtic and Germanic. If some of the Belgae spoke a Germanic language, or a hybrid between Germanic and Gaulish (presumably languages drift apart, rather than separate all at once?) then that language could have found its way to Britain.

Ptolemy's Geography has some tribal, town and river names in Britain from the second century. Some of these are recognisably Celtic, such as Isca (from Celtic Isc or Esk, 'water'), some are of unknown origin, such as Sabrina (now the River Severn), some are sort of in between with derivations proposed from conjectural proto-Celtic root words, such as Tamesis (now the River Thames). Vedra (now the River Wear) is from the same root as English/Germanic 'water'. Presumably the names of unknown origin, like Sabrina, are left over from some language that was not obviously Celtic or Germanic. So although there's no obvious evidence for Germanic language in Ptolemy's place names, they aren't all Celtic either.

Against this, most of the handful of early personal names from Britain, such as Cartimandua, Caratacus and Cassivellaunus, are recognisably Celtic, which indicates strongly that the aristocracy at least favoured Celtic names.

Rick said...

At least that part of the aristocracy that got mixed up in high politics.

Even calling this speculation is generous, but a seafaring coastal elite might feel that they could trade with the Romans on the one hand, or escape from them on the other; in either case they are less of a problem.

tenthmedieval said...

Even more belatedly, sorry! One of the very few things you've not discussed here, though you mention it, that also tends towards a slow or staged transition rather than an abrupt one is that both the `Anglian' kingdoms of Northumbria, Deira and Bernicia, have Celtic names (Deur and Bryneich, as you say). Whatever the origin of their kings, the names used for the territories those kings ruled indicate that those territories were identifiable before the language shift to Anglian, which suggests that the territories were established before they stopped being British. Another factor that fits with your preferred idea is that this is now very much the way that the transition at Lincoln (where the kings seem to have had British names for a while and the city to have remained a focus of settlement) is being seen by historians and arch├Žologists both (see Vince ed., Pre-Viking Lindsey for a variety of writing on this). I've favoured such a transition for the far north, at Bamburgh, ever since reading Ward-Perkins suggest it in the Yeavering site report, but I find it fairly plausible for York (and indeed for London, for a first while) as well.

An aside to Rick's question about why we're not speaking a Latin derivative as we discuss this: several linguists, led by a guy from the Netherlands called Peter Schrijver but not just him and his students, are now positing that actually the reason there is so little Celtic influence on English is exactly that the lowlands of Roman Britain had become more or less Romance-speaking by the time of the English take-over. This still requires an absolutely massive language shift for English to win out so totally, of course, but apparently this helps explain the nature of the very few influences that area detectable from Celtic in English, which are more morphological than matters of vocabulary (auxiliary emphatic use of the verb `do', for example, which other Low German languages don't have). Several papers cover this in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, which is full of interesting things generally.

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - Good point. I think I've mentioned the non-English names of Deira and Bernicia elsewhere, but I didn't make the point in this post. It does support the idea of a staged transition, as you say.

Although by the time York reappears in the records in 627 it's clearly under the politcal control of Deira, I think it's simpler to imagine them developing initially as two separate kingdoms that were joined together late-ish in the sixth century. One reason I like this scenario is that it easily accommodates Peredur. Although his connection with York is tenuous (as far as I know it rests entirely on 'Peredur son of Efrawg' in the medieval romance), he appears in Annales Cambriae in the 570s and 580 and was clearly an important king of somewhere in the north.

The language question is a perennial puzzle. The idea that lowland Britain spoke mostly Latin by the late fourth/fifth century neatly explains why English isn't full of Brittonic loan-words, but if it assumes that lowland Britain spoke a P-Celtic language before the Romans arrived, it requires not one but two near-complete language shifts in only a few centuries. Which is possible, but seems a bit extreme to me. (To paraphrase Lady Bracknell, to lose one's language once may be misfortune, but to lose it twice looks like carelessness). I prefer the idea that there were already groups of Germanic speakers established in eastern England before and during the Roman occupation, so that Germanic language(s) already had a foothold, and that the odd features of English that could be derived from Celtic grammar reflect groups of people speaking Brittonic and Germanic languages living alongside each other and having to make themselves understood after a fashion in the other language. But that's more a matter of personal preference.