Review: The Emergence of the English by Susan Oosthuizen

Susan Oosthuizen, The Emergence of the English (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2019), 148pp.

Susan Oosthuizen’s short book The Emergence of the English is a thought-provoking (not to say provocative) contribution to the ongoing debate about the origins of an English national identity that will no doubt continue to be discussed for years to come. I made my own modest coribution to this discussion in my 2018 book Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King, where I argued that the idea of England (albeit not Englishness) owed a great deal to the cult of the martyred King Edmund of East Anglia. Oosthuizen’s book deals with a much earlier period, and does three things: it provides an overview of past and current thinking on the emergence of ‘Englishness’; it casts extensive doubt on accepted explanations for the shift from a British to an English identity in parts of early medieval Britain; and it offers a new perspective on early medieval British history that foregrounds continuity within a longue durée approach to common rights over land.

It is now accepted among scholars that the British population remained largely stable, with limited immigration and replacement, between the departure of the Roman army at the start of the fifth century and the arrival of St Augustine of Canterbury to convert the English people to Christianity at the end of the sixth century. The old idea of Germanic invaders driving the native Britons to the edges of Britain and replacing them in the landscape has long since been discarded in the light of archaeological and, above all, genetic evidence. The challenge for early medieval historians is now, therefore, to explain how a post-Roman population became ‘Anglo-Saxon’. Oosthuizen adopts a radical position within this debate, questioning whether the concept of an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ identity is justified at all; she argues that it is founded on slim and dubious evidence within textual sources of an adventus Saxonum which has coloured the interpretation of all subsequent archaeological discoveries from early medieval England. The result is an endless circle of confirmation; when Germanic-seeming cultural artefacts are found in early medieval cemeteries they are interpreted as evidence for an adventus whose factual basis is slim.

Oosthuizen deftly demonstrates her thesis via an unparalleled knowledge of landscape archaeology, especially for the Cambridgeshire Fens which are her particular specialism, and makes a convincing case for a narrative privileging continuity over discontinuity in the early medieval period. This chimes with the emerging archaeological evidence, which (at least so it seems to me) is constantly revealing new evidence of cultural continuities between the communities of post-Roman and early medieval England. I am thoroughly convinced by Oosthuizen’s central thesis that continuities in common rights to land are evidence for the continuity of populations during the fifth and sixth centuries. Oosthuizen rightly draws attention to the multiple interpretations possible for shifts in fashion from post-Roman/Celtic to Germanic designs in jewellery and other artefacts, which may not be significant markers of cultural or population change. She is also right to emphasise the culturally constructed nature of ethnicity and the impossibility of recovering how the inhabitants of fifth- and sixth-century Britain conceptualised their ethnicity.

Yet questions remain. Although Oosthuizen makes strenuous efforts to induce a Cartesian level of universal doubt regarding everything we were ever taught about the adventus Saxonum, legitimate doubts do not obviate the need to find an explanation for some radical discontinuities. It is perfectly legitimate for a historian to conclude that we simply do not have enough evidence to explain something, but this becomes increasingly difficult when what we seek to explain – such as the advent of the English language – is of such profound historical importance. Some explanation, however sketchy or hypothetical, must surely be suggested for the adoption of a West Germanic language by most of the population of England. There may not have been an adventus of people, but (unless we accept the extremely contentious idea that the Iron Age inhabitants of southern Britain already spoke a West Germanic language) there was an arrival of the English language. Oosthuizen says little about this, but hints at a process whereby a largely Latin-speaking southern Britain became multilingual in the post-Roman period as a result of the freedoms and prosperity consequent upon the withdrawal of Roman authority. I am perfectly happy with this idea, and it is plausible that people on the southern and eastern sides of Britain began to be conversant with West Germanic in this period. But this does not explain why Old English became so dominant within a relatively short period of time, nor why the peoples of southern Britain adopted the name of a Germanic tribe, the Angli, to refer to themselves. Nor does it explain why British people groups adopted specific Germanic tribal identities rather than just a generalised Germanic identity, and the sheer depth of connections between early England and the Germanic northern world.

A further question that Oosthuizen leaves largely unaddressed is that of religion. While she briefly references recent discussions of the persistence of Christianity in pre-conversion sixth-century England, she makes no reference to English paganism. While we know little about the religious beliefs of pre-conversion England, we know that paganism existed and that it bore little if any relation to Romano-British paganism (which, in any case, had probably largely vanished by the end of the Roman period). How did the peoples of southern Britain move from Christianity to paganism, and where did this pagan religion come from? While the persistence of Christianity in this period has no doubt been underestimated, there is little sign that Christianity was anything other than a minority faith in England before the Augustinian conversion. Even if we do not truly know what it was, we can reasonably conclude that something big went down in fifth- and sixth-century southern Britain that transformed the Latin-speaking post-Roman society encountered  by St Germanus into an English-speaking, largely pagan society.

While Oosthuizen makes a number of comparisons between what happened in fifth- and sixth-century Britain and the modern world, the book would surely have benefitted from some comparisons with transformations occurring at around the same time elsewhere in Europe and the Mediterranean. Was England, as a region whose population remained largely stable but which underwent dramatic linguistic and cultural change, an unusual outlier in fifth- and sixth-century Europe? It would be interesting, for example, to compare England to Illyria (modern day Croatia), a region that moved from Latin to Slavonic in around the same period. Was the adventus Slavorum likewise a cultural rather than a population movement? Another example that springs to mind is the Arabicisation of North Africa during the period of the Islamic conquests – once again, the consensus seems to be that the number of Arabs who settled the area was quite small, but their cultural and linguistic influence was immense and completely transformed North African society. The question that Oosthuizen leaves unanswered is why England was not another Francia, which also experienced a cultural shift towards Germanic preferences but where the Latin language prevailed. Why did the language that Oosthuizen calls Late Spoken Latin (the embryonic British romance language I like to call ‘Bratin’) not prevail as it did in other former Roman provinces such as Frankish France and Visigothic Spain?

The end of urban life in England (I agree with Oosthuizen that words such as ‘collapse’ or ‘decline’ are invidious) and the end of church organisation may be significant here, but why did one (presumably imported) West Germanic language gain such a hold in the rural landscape? By way of comparison, we know that Old Irish was introduced to southwestern Britain in the same period, but the region did not become Irish-speaking. And why did ‘Bratin’ lack the vitality of Brythonic, which evolved into a dynamic language group? Although Oosthuizen suggests that Late Spoken Latin may have survived as late as the eighth century in England, and she is no doubt correct about the importance of Latin placenames, she does not provide an explanation for why it lost out so comprehensively to English within a few generations.

I am left with a strong sense, after reading this fascinating book, that a significant multidisciplinary conference is required to bring together specialists in different fields to develop a comprehensive post-adventus historiography for early medieval Britain. Linguists of Old English and Old Welsh, archaeologists of late and post-Roman Britain, archaeologists of Anglo-Saxon England, textual scholars and experts on comparative regions in the same period would all have important contributions to make. I have two anxieties about the revisionist approach Oosthuizen adopts, however; they are not so much criticisms as areas where I am concerned that alternative perspectives deserve exploration. Firstly, I am concerned that adopting too sceptical an approach to the textual and mythological material risks patronising the early English, as if their myth-making about their own past cannot be of any historical value. Secondly, I worry that by reinventing the early English as essentially British, we risk erasing the identity of those Britons who continued to identify as such and became the Welsh and Cornish peoples. Assimilating the identity of a minority people group within that of the majority (like, for example, the tendency of some Peruvians of non-Incan ancestry to identify with the Incas) can be another form of oppression. But perhaps these pitfalls can be avoided.

Overall, The Emergence of the English is an important, broadly convincing yet iconoclastic book that will be essential reading for anyone studying early medieval England. However, limited space does not allow Oosthuizen to develop a comprehensive alternative paradigm for the emergence of Englishness; what she offers instead is an important case study derived from landscape archaeology. Oosthuizen has opened an extremely important argument in style – but, as so often, more work needs to be done.


11 replies on “Review: The Emergence of the English by Susan Oosthuizen”

This is very interesting stuff. Was recently looking at archeological finds in a church in Wareham, Dorset, with (hamfisted, not elegantly patrician) inscriptions that mingle Latin with old Welsh. Fascinating evidence, that needs more exploration, as you conclude.

I finished the book last night, and it’s definitely provocative. I’ve been out of the trenches for a long time and am not up-to-date on all the relevant literature, particularly on migrations/resettlement from NW Europe in the late antique period. Was there any impetus for so-called “Anglo-Saxons” to leave NW Europe and move to England in large numbers?

I enjoyed the book but have serious doubts. Listened to Dr. Oosthuizenon the BBC this week, I found her case to be pretty shaky and when the host asked her why the British started speaking English, a Germanic language, if no such wave of Anglo-Saxons ever emigrated, she had no answers other than to stumble on for a while about people speaking more than one language.

One wonders whether the possibility of scant population caused by plague may have any relevance.
I remember it was recorded at that time in Rome. Perhaps fewer inhabitants are more likely to absorb the invaders’ language. Perhaps the British had less resistance.

Although I agree with the general idea that the transition was not cataclysmic, and it’s also worth noting we have evidence for continuity between Britain and the Empire as late as 450 AD suggesting the Roman hold on Britain did not magically disappear under Honorius as so often insinuated, painting the Post-Roman situation as “free and prosperous” is patently absurd. The best analogue remains the work of Bryan Ward-Perkins who compared the collapse of Britain to that of Roman Noricum in the same time period, where administrative centers shifted from Roman imperial control to that of local “city states.” One can also find a parallel in Gallaecia and eventually the rest of Roman Spain.

Her work also clearly ignores the fact that there was an “adventus,” there are two waves of genetic and archaeological markers for North Sea Germanics that appear in Britain, the first largely associated with the Frisians from the late 3rd to the second half of the 5th century AD, and the second with the Saxons from the second half of the 5th to the 7th century AD. This does not mean there was a series of violent conquests, but like how our understanding of the Imperial practice of establishing Foederati within the empire has changed, there was clearly a notable population movement probably of middle-class and upper-class Germanics with their retinues and associated families. Hundreds of thousands of peasants did not swarm into Britain, but men of importance and the men who made them important found themselves making a permanent home on the island to participate in the existing administrative structure, just like the Goths, Franks, Vandals, and others all came to participate in the existing administrative structure.

So yeah, I disagree with many of her major points. The outright rejection of migration and population movements in the post-Roman era is just not a tenable position.

Just encountered some stuff about the Schleswig region at the border between Denmark and Germany. There seems to be quite a lot of evidence for germanic people (which might identify as Saxons or Angles) in the time span discussed here, leaving a lot of homesteads vacant, later to be resettled by slavic migrators from the eastern baltic.
Wonder where those Angles/Saxons could have gone to if not to England.

One of my questions is, how does it explain the development of some of the mythology (such as the early Arthurian material) if nothing much happened in the way of conflict? Why would people invent mythical narratives so far removed from events? Have they been shifted from other time-periods (possibly even earlier?) or places? (Some narrative elements are clearly part of a wider tradition.)

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