Non Angli Sed Angeli

Origins of the English, Catherine Hills, ISBN 0715631918

This book concerns the transition between Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England, the evidence regarding it, and the interpretation of that evidence.

The traditional story, going back to the Anglo-Saxons themselves, is that in the centuries after the Roman departure, south-eastern Britain was overwhelmed by Germanic-speaking invaders from the European mainland, who became the English. But we can hardly take ancient historical writings entirely at face value. The habit of ancient historians of making things up, particularly concerning the origins of their society, is well known; another problem is that they tend to be interested in the elite rather than the peasantry, which would make a large-scale migration or just the replacement of the rulers look identical.

The archaeological evidence is scanty and open to very wide interpretation. Certainly many things changed, but similar changes are found all over Europe, suggesting they might have more to do with the general decline of the west at the time rather than a particular invasion. A recurring theme is that interpretation of the past, with or without evidence, has varied widely over the years, often speaking more to current concerns than what really happened long ago. So if we are interested in facts then we must identify and jettison preconceptions, and not read more into any particular bit of evidence than it will actually support.

An interesting point was that some Anglo-Saxon dynasties traced their ancestry to people with British names (for instance Cerdic in Wessex) suggesting that whatever levels of society were affected any replacement was far from complete - i.e. the language change need not have reflected a geographically uniform political change. Since our current Queen traces her ancestry to Alfred the Great, that raises the amusing possibility of drawing a connection from the royal family back almost to Roman times.

A booked pitched as “designed to be accessible to students and serious scholars alike” might risk going over the head of the interested layman, but in this case has comfortably avoided any such difficulty. An interesting and illuminating read.


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