I’m wrestling with a truly baffling linguistic mystery, with some far-reaching implications for Christian history.
In a couple of recent posts, I looked at the fate of the British Christian society that appears to have been overwhelmed by pagan Germanic invaders during the fifth and sixth centuries. According to traditional accounts, invaders killed or enslaved most of the earlier Celtic inhabitants in the south and east of England, driving many into exile to the north or west, or overseas. That’s the story told by the author Gildas (around 540), and later literary accounts. The old British Christianity was wiped out. Britain (Roman, Celtic, Christian) was replaced by England (Germanic and, originally at least, pagan).
The problem – or rather the first of many problems – is that this story receives very little confirmation from archaeology. If you go by the archaeology alone, it’s hard to see such sharp breaks. Roman cities and structures decay but are not obviously destroyed in any scale, and Germanic objects appear only gradually. It’s almost as if the older society receives a smallish migration, and gradually adopts the culture of the newcomers. We even see occasional traces of churches possibly continuing through the darkest ages, at Canterbury, St. Alban’s and elsewhere. If that’s true, then most of England’s later inhabitants are British/Celtic by origin, but adopting Germanic culture, dress, and, above all, language. It’s an easy transition then, or so we are told, and it’s disguised only by the ravings of fanatical Christians who invented a pseudo history for their own rhetorical purposes. That, or something like it, has in the last thirty years or so come to occupy orthodox status in the modern British historical world. The people continue, but their languages die utterly.
I don’t believe it for an instant. Language, above all, seems an insuperable objection. The English language is very well studied, and in that language, including all its dialects, only about thirty words of Celtic origin have ever been identified (“crag” is the least obscure). Has there ever in human history ever been an example of a population moving from one language to another with virtually no survival of the original tongue, nothing of what linguists call “interference”? Nor, incidentally, is there a word of British Latin – all the early Latin loan-words come from later church sources. Of course, I am speaking of linguistic transitions in pre-industrial eras, before the enormous power of modern media.
I’m also discussing Celtic loan-words in spoken language, not in place-names. Celtic and Roman place-names survive in Britain in some number, eg for rivers like the Thames and Avon, but that’s not surprising. Even when older populations are altogether driven out, their place names are often retained by the new conquerors, particularly for obvious physical features. In North America, for instance, look at countless names like the Narragansett or Aliquippa or Ohio, none of which imply a large surviving native population. Even in the colonial era, the British borrowed a sizable number of words from the peoples of its Indian Empire, although nobody has ever suggested that the white rulers represented anything more than a microscopic fraction of the subcontinent’s population. Linguistic borrowing is a natural and common phenomenon – except, it seems, when the Anglo-Saxons conquered Britain.
The Anglo-Saxon spoken in England was as linguistically and grammatically pure a variant of the Germanic language as we find anywhere. As far as we can tell, we find no evidence whatever in Anglo-Saxon England of any minority population continuing to speak British, except for some legal references of the Welsh in the kingdom of Wessex shortly after it had annexed some Celtic territory. If in fact a linguistic transition occurred, it must have happened close to overnight – well, in at most a few generations.
Is that vaguely credible? Do we honestly have to imagine father coming from one day and telling his family, “Well, I’ve decided. We are going to become Germanic, and as of tomorrow, we must speak nothing but that language. So tell the kids, not a word more of this Celtic! We’ll start by working on our strong verbs. Oh, and by the way, I’m changing my name from Claudius to Aethelfrith.” Really? Is it not vastly more likely that British numbers were reduced massively, and the survivors reduced to such brutal slavery that their language had absolutely no impact on the new Germanic master race? Gildas, in short, would have been exactly right. If not literal genocide, then it was cultural annihilation.
To put this in context, look at four major regions of the Western Roman Empire as it existed in the fourth century: Gaul, Spain, Italy and Britain. All to differing degrees fell under barbarian rule, and all experienced significant Germanic immigration. In three of the countries, Latin ultimately triumphed, in the form of the modern languages we now call French, Spanish and Italian, not to mention tongues like Portuguese, Catalan and Provençal. The glaring exception is Britain, which mainly speaks English, with Celtic outliers.
Why the difference? Partly it’s a matter of who the barbarians actually were. The tribes who invaded mainland Western Europe had long contact with the Roman world, and had borrowed some of their ways and attitudes: the Anglo-Saxons had not.
Also, the native British/Roman people fought in a more determined way against the invaders, leading to some extraordinarily violent and destructive wars that peaked between 440 and, say, the 470s. Vastly aggravating the effects of warfare was severe and recurrent plague, likely accompanied by famine as economic structures collapsed. These disasters utterly destroyed the old urban structure, and with it, the Latin of Roman times. Latin-speaking elites were eliminated or fled, including, most significantly, the church. The British church that was quite well established in, say, 420, pretty much vanished without trace by the time Roman missionaries appear in the 590s. The diocesan structure was wholly uprooted, and an entire new structure put in its place. (Again, British bishops survived in the north and west).
Again, let’s contrast Western Europe, where Latin survived as the language of the cities, however reduced those were, and of the bishops who effectively ruled them. In Britain, in contrast, cities, bishops and Latin perished together.
This meant that the Anglo-Saxons were not confronting Latin as the native language, but British Celtic. They were in a radically different position from the continental Franks or Goths, who confronted the prestigious Roman tongue of Latin with its enormous potential values for ambitious chieftains and would-be kings. However numerous the British Celtic survivors may have been, no self-respecting Anglo-Saxon ever bothered to learn a word of it. Well, maybe thirty words, but no more, not in half a millennium.
By the way, it’s not just Gildas who refers to mass expulsions. Bede, for instance, whose Northumbrian sources were impeccable, refers to the king Ethelfrith c. 600: “For he conquered more territories from the Britons, either making them tributary, or driving the inhabitants clean out, and planting English in their places, than any other king or tribune.” That’s an explicit reference to ethnic cleansing. In the 670s, we hear of the Northumbrian churchman Wilfrid being granted lands that had been confiscated from British congregations.
One more point to complicate matters. Just when I have decided that story of Britons adopting the language voluntarily is ludicrous, we then find the curious story of Caedmon, the very first known and named Anglo-Saxon poet, and the first English Christian poet. He lived around 680, and we still have a few of his lines. The problem is that this pioneer of English verse bears a name that is certainly Celtic or British. It is in fact the same name as Catamanus, a famous early Welsh king who would have died not long before Caedmon was born, and possibly the younger man was named after the elder. Can we really take this as evidence that already by 680 the British Celts had so mastered English that they produced one of its first literary masters?
So yes, I’m puzzled.
But the question goes far beyond language, and gets to religion. If in fact the British really did survive in any numbers, then that would have made the lives of later Christian missionaries much easier. Instead of introducing a faith, they would have been reminding people of what their grandparents used to do, and maybe even reusing some of the once sacred Christian sites.