Book Reviews, History

Where Did ‘The English’ Come From?

History has this reputation for immovability, doesn’t it? Historians are the keepers of lost knowledge. We know reams and reams about events that happened in the past, and we’ll talk your ear off about them if you give us half a chance. We write book after book telling you exactly what happened, when, and why.

Oh, to be so innocent.

The truth is, history is just as flexible as the sciences. New things are being discovered all the time which change our understanding of the past. And all those solid narratives, the stories we tell over and over again that we call history? Well, most of the time they’re just someone’s best guess. And sometimes someone comes along with an even better guess, and we have to rewrite it all.

Suddenly historians are telling you something exactly the opposite of what you were taught. Like how to pronounce Boudicca, for instance. And we scratch our heads, avert our eyes and say: ‘yeah, we got it wrong the first time. But now we’re sure! Mostly.’

Susan Oosthuizen’s new book, ‘The Emergence of the English‘, is one of these.
A map of the ‘Tribal Hidage’, a list of tribes written c600-800AD (source:

I’m a bit disappointed in myself that it’s taken me almost a year to finally read this book. I’m putting it down to the cost: now I’m no longer at uni, I can’t just get it from the library, and academic books are expensive. That, and the book has gone out of print several times – which I’m not mad about, of course, because it means it’s been very successful. And you’ll see later why that’s a good thing.

Before I talk about Oosthuizen’s ideas, however, we need to do some groundwork. Find some context.

The Mystery of the English Transformation

The rise of English culture is one of the mysteries history has always struggled to solve. It happened some time between 400AD and 600AD, the time we sometimes call the Dark Ages. Britain was a part of the Roman empire from 43AD and was a flourishing colony for centuries. By the mid 300s, however, things were beginning to break down. There were several rebellions and mutinies, raids from Ireland and Scotland increased, and towns shrank. Contact with Rome fell away and eventually the old province was left without central leadership.

Before this, though, Britannia was a stable and prosperous Roman province. Its people were Christian, they spoke Celtic and Latin, they built their towns the Roman way and the countryside was dominated by Roman villas.
A maps of sites mentioned in the ‘Antonine Itinerary’, written c200AD (source:

Insert Dark Ages.

Two centuries later, Christianity was all but dead in England. The people were worshipping new gods, speaking a new language, and had a new material culture (that is, their everyday objects – buildings, cups, clothes etc looked different). They were organised into new kingdoms and had their own literature, including myths about their origin. By this time, the pope was referring to them in his letters as the Angli – the English.

What happened?

The Old Tale

According to the traditional argument, the Anglo-Saxons were able to militarily dominate the Romano-Brits, establishing their own political institutions and becoming a warrior elite. The Romano-Brits were reduced to second-class citizens, and they adopted Anglo-Saxon language and culture to have a better chance of advancing in this new system. Put simply, the Anglo-Saxon culture was more robust than the Romano-British one – which was still in chaos after the Roman withdrawal – and so was able to replace it. This argument has been commonplace since Victorian times.

It’s this that Susan Oosthuizen sets out to dismiss. As she says in her conclusion: “The emergence of the English should be sought among prehistoric communities and territories that had developed through a period of Roman control and into the post-imperial decades and centuries that followed.”

In layman’s terms: the English aren’t Germanic invaders who replaced the ‘native’ population of Britain: they are that native population, but their culture evolved dramatically in those two dark centuries after Roman rule ended.

Crazy, right?

Let’s talk evidence.

Tearing The Old Tale Down

Susan ties the bulk of her argument to the long duree, the idea that historical events travel at different speeds. Things like the Roman legion leaving Britain in the 400s was something that had rapid, immediate effects, but most of those effects had largely disappeared within a few years. Other processes, though, change very slowly over a long course of time, barely seen by the people who live through them – events like climate change (not the one we have today – the centuries-long drift between warmer and colder overall temperatures).

In the book, she looks particularly at how land was used – a very slow process, part of the long duree. Britain was an agricultural economy until the 1700s, so most people worked in the agricultural sector in some way. And she notes that, while some land was indeed abandoned in the 400s and reclaimed later, there is no evidence for the upheaval that would be caused by a total population change. Farming continued largely unmolested through the Dark Ages. She also notes that Britons had had two types of property right – private, aka their own land, and communal, aka shared ‘commons’ – since before the Roman conquest, and these privileges remained untouched through the Anglo-Saxon ‘invasion’. Effectively, Britain’s economic and political base didn’t change, suggesting the population remained the same throughout.

But that still leaves us with a very puzzling fact: the English came out of that post-Roman period speaking entirely differently and using Germanic styles in art and architecture.

In Oosthuizen’s eyes, this was a matter of trade rather than conquest, and I find her points convincing. She uses IKEA as an example: Two thousand years from now, archaeologists could look at Britain in the modern day and note the sudden boom of IKEA stores across the country, along with the spread of Swedish furniture into nearly every household. But if they interpreted this as a sign that Britain was suddenly invaded en masse by the Swedes, who replaced Britain’s material culture, they’d be wrong.

She speculates that something similar happened following Rome’s withdrawal: with the end of the empire, England’s trading sphere drifted north, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. Less trade south and more trade east gradually led to a change in fashion and in cultural tastes.

She uses this idea to explain the dramatic language change, too. First, she notes that pretty much all Dark Age historians accept that the Celtic language was almost gone from Britain by the Anglo-Saxon period – but she points out that many Latin place names persisted alongside the new Anglo-Saxon ones. She infers that the native population of Britain was bilingual, speaking Latin and Celtic – with Latin the most common. As trade with the Germanic east increased, more and more people learned the Germanic language for trading purposes.

However, perhaps her greatest point, in my view, is when she uses the example of the Apartheid system. She points out that Apartheid was an attempt to create a 1st-class and 2nd-class system in modern South Africa. It required strenuous efforts on the part of the state to maintain, including the systematic use of force and repression – and it was still unable to do it successfully. So what makes us think the patchwork Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from over a thousand years ago could manage it?

This plays into her general point that the way we view ethnicity today is a cultural construction – and all cultural constructions are human inventions.

We have no way of knowing whether or not people in the ancient world thought of ethnicity in the same way we do – but considering nationalism and the nation-state wasn’t really a thing until the modern era, it’s more likely that it just wasn’t something they considered. They didn’t live in a world of strong governments and macro thinking: everything, from trade to relationships to culture to politics, was done on the local level. They had no concept of an overall ‘race’ who comes ‘from here’. Plus, she points out, we have evidence that people born outside Britain were buried in exactly the same way as natives were in their burial sites. We infer from this that they saw no reason to distinguish between the two.

All this is to point out a key fact that we often forget: there was no driving force in these times. There was no central authority – and sometimes there was no authority at all. This makes it very difficult to make a narrative that fits neatly. Because Germanic migration to Britain was likely a local decision – there was no chief of the Anglo-Saxons who ordered the people to move to Britain in one go, it was hundreds of communities who made the decision independently – different parts of the country would have seen different levels of immigration for different lengths of time, and that immigration would have had wildly different effects in every single community. The problem with the Dark Ages is that it is so granular: one narrative doesn’t fit it.

So yes, there almost certainly was Germanic migration to England. But there almost certainly wasn’t a total replacement of British people and institutions by these new arrivals. Much more likely, they were just absorbed into the British communities they found themselves in. Since the fall of Rome, the native English had turned their trade and cultural focus inwards, towards the North Sea instead of the Mediterranean – so when these new Germanic settlers moved in, the cultures merged. Moreso in some places than others, but over the course of centuries, the new mixed culture took on an increasingly Germanic appearance until the very people who lived there believed they had come from across the sea.

Does It Work?

Oosthuizen does a fantastic job of tearing down the old narrative and exposing its many, many flaws. And she sets down the foundations of a much more plausible explanation that we can believe based on our modern, better understanding of how migration and cultural change works. But there are problems with her argument.

Chiefly, for me, she doesn’t put forward a good enough argument for how a Germanic language became the dominant language of the people. The argument that it started as a trade language is very plausible and I like it, but it doesn’t explain that final step. For example: English is used across the world today as a language of trade and convenience, but has it truly replaced the native language of any country? (Outright colonisation aside.)

Further, the writer in me is very uncomfortable with how happy she is to disregard the literature of the period. We have an Anglo-Saxon source (Bede) and a Celtic source (Gildas) who both refer to the widespread conflict between the two sides and say that the Anglo-Saxons successfully conquered the Romano-Brits. We also have sources attesting the use of Anglo-Saxon soldiers in late Roman Britain as mercenaries, so we know there were Anglo-Saxon military units in England around the time. Finally, we have the fact that the English were calling themselves the Angli by 600, the name of a Germanic tribe. It takes a considerable amount of cultural force to convince and whole culture to change what they call themselves – their very identity.

They had a mythos surrounding their arrival on the shores of Britain by ship and replacing the Celtic population: they certainly believed it, so I believe we should at least be looking more at the reasons why, rather than dismissing them as cultural stories as Oosthuizen does.

Another key point she largely ducks is religion. We know that Christianity largely disappeared from England between 400 and 697. We know that it was replaced by paganism, and a paganism that bore almost no resemblance to native Celtic paganism – it was a Germanic religion. This she hardly mentions, but the conversion of an entire culture to a new religion is no easy feat – the Romans accomplished it through successive missions and active attempts to convert. How did the Germanic religion become so entrenched in English society? Much like the language question, a satisfactory answer is yet to be found.

But then, Oosthuizen didn’t set out to give us a whole new raft of answers. Her book is aimed at tearing down the old narrative – and it does that with strength, showing us that the evidence no longer enforces that old idea. We need new answers to the many questions she highlights for us. But those answers are yet to be found. The Dark Ages are still as dark as ever and a big debate awaits. Let the games begin!

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, you might like my extended piece on Conisbrough castle, where I took a detailed look at its architecture and history.

As always, you can find me on Twitter.

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