Sometimes, scholarship from one era of history can throw quite unexpected light on a totally different time and place. Oddly, early medieval history can actually tell us something about Biblical events that happened a millennium or more previously.
I have been reading Richard Elliott Friedman’s truly impressive new book The Exodus, in order to review it for Christian Century. Because of that forthcoming review, I won’t say much about the book here, but here is its main argument. Friedman argues that the Exodus from Egypt really happened. It assuredly did not involve the two million or so people that the Bible asserts, and nor, he says, did it involve the whole people of Israel. Rather it was a movement by a much smaller group who became known as the Levites, who fled Egypt and moved to join the pre-existing settlement of the people of Israel in Canaan. Among other things, they imported their god Yahweh, whom they identified with the older El, the deity of the people of Israel. As the Levites wrote the history, they established the idea that the mass movement actually involved the whole of what later became the Hebrew people.
I am over-simplifying brutally, but that is a rough summary of Friedman’s main case, and I think he establishes it convincingly.
So where do the Middle Ages come in? As an undergraduate at Cambridge, my emphasis was in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Studies, which amounted to a degree in Late Antique and Early Medieval history and culture. One part of that concerned the messy origins of the English kingdoms after the Romans left Britain, and specifically the emergence of what would be the mighty kingdom of Wessex, the West Saxons. Wessex, in turn, ultimately evolved into the medieval English state.
We know exactly how Wessex began! Not only do we have an extremely convincing archaeological account of the process, we also have a detailed literary-historical account. The only marginal problem is that, um, the two accounts are not just different, they are close to irreconcilable, and that fact has been known for over a century.
The archaeology is quite clear. Anglo-Saxon people entered England from the eastern coasts. Over the fifth and sixth centuries AD, they migrated to the Upper Thames region, where a great kingdom emerged by the seventh century. You can see their material remains, their graves, jewelry and brooches, as they move steadily and decisively from the eastern shores where they landed.
The literature is also quite clear. The early text known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives precise details and dates about how the Saxons entered Britain from the south, roughly via Southampton and Portsmouth – the south, with no hint about an eastern presence. Reputedly, they were led by a warrior named Cerdic, who landed with his son Cynric in 495 AD. They and their followers then moved north to the Upper Thames, where a great kingdom emerged. Cerdic is the ancestor of the British royal family, right up to modern times.
So – from the east or from the south? Which was it?
The answer is actually both. The archaeology is telling us what happened to the people we call West Saxons. The literary-historical account tells is about one particular family or clan, who became the ancestors of the ruling dynasty. In later centuries, that dynasty had a special interest in its founders and ancestors, and they paid scholars and scribes to write them up accordingly. They focused on what Cerdic and his followers did, and that applied to matters of place, date, motive and, indeed, ethnicity.Ethnically, Cerdic’s family was a mysterious bunch. Later scribes supplied him with an impressive Germanic genealogy that traced his ancestry back to Woden. Unfortunately, his own name was pure Celtic/British (Coroticus?), as was that of his son, and so were several of his royal descendants. (Cynric is a great Celtic name meaning Hound-Lord, Cunorix). The fact of the British names is actually solid evidence that we might be dealing with real people, as the later Anglo-Saxons wouldn’t have invented a founding king with such an alien name.
And that also gets us back to Friedman, who argues plausibly that no later Israelite would have invented a national hero like Moses, with a conspicuously Egyptian name, so therefore he was a real person, QED. Friedman also shows that many of the Levite characters in the Exodus stories bear Egyptian names, which none of their Israelite counterparts do. That in itself is very suggestive of a Levite/Egyptian linkage.
We have not a clue what language Cerdic (or his family) initially spoke, but some British and Celtic influence was definitely present. If that is the case, and Cerdic and Cynric were actually Celtic/British, it does raise questions about why they would need to invade Britain in the first place. Wouldn’t they already be there? Why are the British invading Britain? Unless we are dealing with some kind of internal civil war, and one British/Celtic faction is trying to regain power after exile overseas, and maybe bringing some Germanic mercenaries along with them. But that is going way beyond the evidence…
For the later chroniclers, though, these questions do not arise. In the historical record as we have it, Cerdic’s people are unquestionably Germanic conquistadors taking over the land from the decadent British Celts.
In pre-modern times, histories and chronicles tended to be highly partisan, and reflected the interests of the people patronizing the work. Such histories tended to focus on ruling families and dynasties, rather than the people as a whole. And they wrote to back-project later realities into ancient times, and to justify them. Over time, those histories come to be established as a nation’s official story – and often, the only story that survives. Newcomers can thus bring their distinctive memories with them, and project them onto a larger community.
Something like that Wessex model is exactly what Friedman is proposing for the Exodus phenomenon. It also works very well in many other European and Asian contexts that I have encountered.
The core lesson then: never forget that the historical account might well be describing what the ruling dynasty did, not the people at large. If you wrote the history, you owned it.
Incidentally, the historical novelist Alfred Duggan published a brilliantly cynical, and funny, account of Cerdic in his classic The Conscience of the King. Anything by Duggan is w0rth reading.