Anglo-Saxon ethnic origin stories

I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me about the Yffings’ origin story in Hild...

Her lips went numb, and then the drug was coursing through her, cold as a cataract. Her tendons tightened and flattened against her bones. She trembled as she walked alone between the flames.

The corridor was high-walled and lidded by nothing but a now-lurid sunset. The king and Osric had vanished, gone ahead around the curve, and Hild walked, alone—they all walked alone—along the inwardly spiralling path painted with tales, the characters from songs she had heard in hall all her life, songs of music and magic and might, of heroes and beginnings. The story of the Yffings. As she walked their eyes stared from cunningly painted knotholes in the elm, the prows of their ships gleamed along its ridged grain: the three ships of long ago, filled with land-hungry lords and their men in old-fashioned helmets and hammered armour. She shivered, standing between the narrow wooden walls—and shivered as her ship’s keel ground up the pebbles and coarse sand of the beach in Thanet. Her throat bobbled as she leapt with her men from their ship, roaring. Ravens fought over broken bodies, Britons knelt bareheaded…

For a heartbeat she was Hild again. Huge, vivid scenes of great faces and blood-spattered swords, all outlined in black, loomed from the curving walls. Everything stank of wood tar. Then she was in the forest, running through the mist to the pounding beat beat beat of her heart, driving the sinews of her forefather as he howled and ran, tireless, through the ferns and brambles, leaping the stream, pounding through the heather, burning out the Britons, sweeping the ghosts of the slain to the hills, taking their gold.

In the novel, Hild herself believes the cultural myth that, generations before, mighty Anglisc heroes arrived in Britain from across the water and killed all who stood in their way; they took the land in one fell swoop1, they were destined to do so; that the Anglisc are distinct from the native British in all ways; and their kings are descended from gods.

This, of course, is nonsense. It’s partly a story the Angles told themselves in order to forge a common bond, a group identity around which they partied, a banner under which they fought and formed alliances—a way to belong. But at this stage the Yffings have turned it to their advantage as political propaganda: they claim they are special, better because they are descended from gods; it’s natural that they rule.

It was a challenge to set aside the most recent hypotheses about the ethnogenesis of the English and write purely from Hild’s experience, her cultural perspective. At one point—not long after the above scene where Hild and all her people take part in the post-harvest ceremony in the wooden (sort of) temple—I couldn’t resist having Fursey scoff at Hild’s naïveté (and assumptions) and tell her how it had really happened. In the end, though, it just felt like the author showing off, so I held my (his) tongue and tossed out the scene.

I’m actually rather fond of the temple scene—and proud of coming up with a picture of how some parts of Anglo-Saxon beliefs might have worked—but I know it’s most likely not true. It’s a relief to have figured out how, in the next book, to help Hild past her family propaganda to a glimpse of the truth.

But what is the truth?2 Opinion is divided.

I’ve been reading Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, edited by N.J. Higham (Boydell Press, 2007). It’s stuffed with chewy appraisals of evidence—ranging from textiles to law codes to grave finds—by a fascinating array of academics. I’d already read a couple of the individual articles (a particular shoutout to Alex Woolf whose “Apartheid and Economics” I’ve discussed before and I think is brilliant) but I was struck by several passages from articles new to me. Take this quote from Edward Said:3

Stories become the method colonised people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history. The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future—these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative. As one critic has suggested, nations themselves are narrations.

In other words, as I’ve been saying for a long time (not just about history but everything ranging from recipes to politics to corporate missions), it’s all about story.

Later in the book (I’m only halfway through) I found myself nodding at Damien J. Tyler’s conclusion that in the mid-seventh century, certainly in the Mercian hegemony (think: the whole mid-section of England), non-ethnic forms of group identity were more important than whether you were British or Anglo-Saxon. That is, privileged elites were more like each other than like other classes of their own ethnic group; they formed a new identity based on “shared elite status and outlook, common aims and enemies, and shared economic and patronage elements.”4

In other words, being ‘one of us’ is all about class, which of course is about power and access—not only to resources but to messaging. The elite control the stories.

There are many theories (historians tend to call them theories even though in the real world I’d label them hypotheses) about why the English don’t all speak Welsh. Some still believe in the biological replacement theory: that the Anglo-Saxons arrived in boats and either killed the inhabitants or drove them into the west (whence they either settled or migrated to what became Brittany). In a subset of the replacement theory, some think the land was already somewhat depopulated, though their reasons for that vary (and this seems to be a minority opinion).

On the other side there’s the cultural absorption theory/elite emulation theory (depending on whether you think about it as culture/language spreading upwards or downwards, class-and-numbers-wise): that the British just adopted Anglo-Saxon culture. That is, their language, clothes, weapons, outlook gradually changed and became indistinguishable from their neighbours.

There are outliers, subsets, and combinations of both theories. It’s complicated, the material and documentary evidence contradictory. Perhaps wergeld laws tilted the balance of economic power towards those who looked and sounded English rather than British5 but perhaps what we think of as English is a fusion identity, a new über-fashion/practise came into being formed from both so-called British and so-called Anglo-Saxon cultures but belonging wholly to neither—or even started to some degree before some of whom we think of as Anglo-Saxons set foot on insular territory.6 But the more we learn from material culture/archaeology and the more we let go of assumptions and myths instilled in us by early writers with very particular agendas, the more it seems clear that what changed in Britain was culture/language, not just population genetics. Native Britons (whether you consider them Roman or British or both) started to speak a variety of what we now know as Old English; they followed what we think of as Anglo-Saxon fashions in clothes and burial practise.

In the end, though, all I think we can probably say is that the native Britons didn’t go anywhere; they just changed. They are us.


1 We can lay some of the blame for this at the feet of writers with particular, though dissimilar, agendas, e.g. Gildas and Bede. And it was an easy story to get behind: why, for example, do we the English speak a Germanic rather than Romance language? But ask yourself why the Welsh don’t speak a Romance language, either, then consider Tyler’s point about elites.
2 When it comes to history, I don’t believe there is such a thing as truth, just stories. Even physical evidence and science data have to be interpreted and a story told about them. What is a theory/hypothesis but a story? Also, you’ll just have to wait to find out how Hild figures it out.
3 Quoted by Higham on p. 72 but what’s represented here is not taken directly from the text but my notes on same, so apologies for inevitable minor inaccuracies.
4 I’m mostly paraphrasing from notes; I don’t have the book to hand.
5 And how could you tell the difference? Fashion? You can change your clothes. Language? Learn another. Accent? Change it. Religion? Pretend. When a lot of money was at stake, people will do almost anything. Having said that, I can see that if one prominent land owner whom everyone knows is culturally British gets into it with a landowning neighbour who is culturally Anglisc, we all know how that will end…
6 Yep, it’s possible. As I say, it’s complicated.

5 thoughts on “Anglo-Saxon ethnic origin stories

  1. Good to have you blogging again Nicola. I hope you are working on a sequel covering the next phase of Hild's life!
    As to the ethno-genesis question, I think you are absolutely right that it is all about stories/narratives. But in the light of events during my lifetime (and I am thinking of Rwanda and Bosnia in particular, but also Iraq and Kurdistan etc.) I find it very hard to imagine that the transition from British to Anglo-Saxon religion and culture was peaceful. On the contrary, I strongly suspect that it was extremely bloody.

  2. I was just reading in “Britain After Rome” by Robin Fleming that the rise to power of the Anglo-Saxon kings only took place in the hundred years or so before Hild. Before that, it was an intermixing of the newcomers with the Britons, and there's not much evidence that the Anglo-Saxons were particularly warlike, and no evidence of the kind of tributes to royalty we see in Hild's time. The fascinating question for me is how some families were able to convince and/or force other groups to accept them as lords and kings and give over a portion of their produce to them. It seems to me it had to be something more than coercion. You depict that beautifully in the way Edwin mixes his offers of protection with threats of force, along with the constant singing of his family's story. (And thanks to you for wading through all this research and presenting us with such a vivid picture. I found all the lists of grave goods and other archaeological evidence in Fleming's book to be tough sledding.)

  3. Sally, yes, more Hild 🙂

    I have no doubt that it was bloody–to begin with. Followed by a couple of hundred years of assimilation. Followed by (essentially) cultural extinction.

  4. Larry, thanks.

    I found Fleming's book to be refreshingly light after some of the stuff I've read in which footnotes, end notes, and index take up half the text. It was fascinating, though, to see her integrated summary of all that research.

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