A Peek into "The English and Their History" by Robert Tombs, 2015
What makes a country a country, a nation a nation? A relatively new book by historian Robert Tombs takes on the challenge of providing an answer for a piece of earth that has enjoyed (endured?) unbroken habitation for, according to these pages, 11,500 years. One way is to examine its history from the very beginning.
The author's full examination of his subject in "The English and Their History" runs to 899 pages of text. No doubt he's left a few things out.
But this book has me at hello because I find myself increasingly interested in accounts -- generally based on a few facts, some interpretation, educated guesses -- of what happens at the beginning of human histories, wherever and whenever those histories take place. And also of what happened during those "dark periods" when the paper trail of information has been sundered, or interrupted, or simply disappeared. The inhabitants of "the these isles" -- one of the book's interesting terms for the so-called British Isles is "archipelago" -- do not disappear, and habitation remains unbroken -- but the light of history goes out, or mostly out, in what we have learned to call "the Dark Ages."
The term is an interesting one. At base it means we don't have a continuous written records. One existed at an earlier date. And the record resumes at a later date. But nobody, or not enough bodies, were writing things down in that dark period for a continuous and adequately detailed chronicle to survive. Which means, and here's the interesting part of the term "Dark Ages," that 'light' means writing. Written records. Literacy. Books. A "dark age" is when we don't have enough of them.
In Europe, including the British archipelago, the light of knowledge was first provided by the classical languages, Latin and Greek. These languages record the productions, reflections, narrative accounts, numbers, religious and ethical ideas, justifications or condemnations, views of oneself and one's neighbors that give us our notion of a "classical" period of history. The Hebrew and Aramaic languages add their records to the early history of Western civilization. Other streams flow from Egypt and Mesopotamia. Together these records are taken to constitute "ancient history."
Some of these streams are religious in nature. The broader secular current of narrative, social, cultural, and practical life in western society finds its source in the classical literature of the Greeks and the Romans. The Greek and Latin languages long remained the intellectual bases of "civilization." To say that Western civilization went wholly dark after the fall of the Roman Empire and the web of literacy that connected its pieces and places to one another is of course an over-generalization.
Still, we have a dimmer picture of the period that follows the extinction of classical civilization. And so I find myself drawn to accounts that promise to throw some light on what happened in Western Europe and other regions after the brutal, but remarkably productive (both materially and literarily) Roman Empire closed up shop and moved east. And also before it arrived.
"The English and Their History" starts at the beginning. England (here meaning the land mass that includes Scotland and Wales) is a unique island, we are told: habitable, temperate, northern, suitable for agriculture. It has a favored geography compared to neighbors in northern Europe; fertile, productive, mostly flat, all that rain but not so cold. The south of England is particularly suited for agriculture, the material basis for civilization. In early geological ages Neanderthals and Cro-Magon lived on the same ground, but the world's geography was so different then there really wasn't a recognizable England. As the last Ice Age retreated, the melting created the "channel" in its present size around 6,500 years ago, wide enough to keep the neighbors from popping in all the time but close enough to the continent for easy trade. Signs of agriculture go back 6,000 years ago. The great ritual sites, of which Stonehenge is the most famous and dramatic, date back 3,000 years. In what is termed The Bronze Age, 2500-1000 BC, overseas trade begins. By the so-called Iron Age, 750 BC the island appears completely settled with an impressive population of two million. Massive hill forts (or ritual sites) have been erected. The signs of what's call the population's "Druidic" religion includes ritual killing.
The Classical world gains knowledge of this place and gives it a name, "pretannike," which evolves into Britannic. The islands enter history through Mediterranean chroniclers in the first century BC, about the same time the European Celts do.
Author Robert Tombs points out that while the ocean in recent history has proved a barrier to invasion, not so in the old days. The inhabitants could hardly defend, or even watch, the entire coast. Sea travel enabled large raiding parties, or armies, to arrive quickly with little chance of being observed. Many raiders, invaders, and conquerors did arrive. But the island suffered no large-scale replacement of one population by another. Successful invaders were new management; they moved into various parts of the island and often brought a lot of their friends. Then the populations mingled.
The first recorded invasion is by the Romans in 43 AD. The Druids, the term used for the island's leaders, were defeated by 60AD, and a revolt by the warrior queen Boudicca put down. The Romans brought important, though not always permanent changes, and Briton was an imperial province for 15 generations. Rome brought straight paved roads, literacy, international networks, and eventually Christianity.
The Saxons and other warrior peoples from northern Europe arrive from the 3rd century on. These are warrior societies who follow the old Pagan gods; their practices include sacrificing some captives to their gods, understandably appalling the more civilized Britons. According to Tombs, Rome does not give up easily, sending large numbers of troops to protect the island. But the empire comes under pressure all along its extended frontiers and despite pulling back troops to defend the homeland, in 410 Rome is sacked by the Goths. During this period -- so legend has it: we are in a 'dark' period for written records -- a British king named Vortigern recruits Saxon lords and their armies for defense, but (guess what?) they take over. During this extended period of Saxon invasion, Tombs writes, some 10 to 20 percent of the island's population consists of (or descends from) Germanic war bands. What's termed Romanized Britain is destroyed, the Roman city Londinium is abandoned. Some Britons flee the island for the continent, lending their name to the region still called created Brittany.
We are firmly in a "dark" period" now. The books offers some demographic stats for this time. The average lifespan of those who survive youth lasts into their 30s.
'Legend' -- once again, the 'dark' period means few or no written sources from this period -- gives rise to the story of an inspiratonal Romano-British king Ambrosius Aurelianus (note the Roman form of the name) who wins a great victory over the barbarian invaders at Mons Badonicus, possibly Dorset, around 500. This is the famous King Arthur. Other sources (not discussed in this book) refer to Arthur as a "dux bellorum" (Latin for war leader); some authors cite largely Welsh language sources for his connection to the Merlin legend.
Tombs says his reported victory at most earned the Britons a generation of respite from Saxon pressure. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the island's first post-dark age historian of the old classical stripe, is the first recorder of the Arthurian legend in his 1136 AD history of England.
But that's getting ahead of things. In this intriguing early "Birth of a Nation" chapter, Tombs has more to tell us about the Saxon period. During this time, 600-1066, to give it some dates, the island is divided into rival kingdoms. Northumbria around York; Mercia, midlands; East Anglia; also Kent, Wessex (west); smaller ones such as Lindsey in the east and Deira in the north. Their subjects come from no single uniform ethnic origin, yet during this period they become "the English."
With the pagan Anglos, Saxons, Norse, or Germanic tribes (whichever term we to use for them) in power by the end of the 6th century, Europe's post-Empire power center, the Christian church becomes a factor. In 596 Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine of Canterbury to England to convert the Saxons. He was welcomed by King Aethelbertht to that rebuilt half-Roman town, a history given shape by the chronicler Baeda, known to history as "the Venerable Bede," a monk of the Northumbrian monastery of Jarrow. Bede saw the island's population as "a chosen Christian people." It took a while, some 200 years from Augustine's arrival for all of Saxon England to switch officially from the worship of Woden to Christian. Woten is downgraded in status to a great human hero. The church and its institutions do well in England, eventually owning 15 percent of its land as dynasties convert. Along with the church comes the return of literacy.
And, this is an interesting point (and to me a new one), Tombs writes that the influence of ecclesiastical literacy combines with the local vernacular produces "Old English" writing. Most of us know of Old English only as the unpronounceable language of "Beowulf." (Some scholars call that language "Saxon.") Apparently a home-grown English variety of Saxon produced what Tombs and others call a "flowering" of written literature in Saxon England. "It became one of most developed European languages," he writes.
Christianized Saxon-ruled England is recognized as "a single people in God's eyes," and given the descriptive "gens Anglorum" in the year 700. Arguably, this is where the nation's modern name comes from. But a wealthy, civilized region is a target, so we're not done with invasions and barbarians. The Vikings (the term means "sea adventurers") learn of rich lands to the south through trade and raid England and coastal Europe; developing a profitable sideline of selling slaves to Muslim kingdoms.
In their first major incursion they loot the famous Lindisfarne monastery in 793. Subsequent invasions take control of two major kingdoms, Northumbria and East Anglia and part of a third, Mercer. Saxon England is rallied by Alfred of Wessex -- if you believe England first achieves unified "English" identity as a Saxon nation, here's your number one hero. The story, as told hundreds of years later, is that young Alfred, his nation suffering the ravages of the Vikings, "burnt the cakes" while his mind was on what to do about the Danes. He manages to unite the jealous 'English' kingdoms and defeat the Danes in 879. The Danes accept baptism but continue, but hold onto the East, called the "Danelaw." Alfred seizes London in 886, which Tombs regards as a reasonable birth date for the country most of us call England. Alfred, he notes, called his people "angelcynn," meaning 'English kind,' and their language was "Englisc."
Alfred the Great, as he is known to later history, encouraged literacy, translated Bede, and began the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle three centuries before, Tomb notes, any other European country produced a "high vernacular" of its own. He translated into this 'Englisc' language a classic by an earlier Briton, Boethius's "The Consolations of Philosophy," a book I remember reporting on in graduate school.
But that's as far as I can go, given my theme is what we can know of the "dark ages" of the nation from which this one sprang and whose language we share. I am grateful to Tomb's book for giving me a surer handle on many dates and names and places. But when it comes to the fuller story of "A History of England" I have to confess that the information drawn that book for this post concludes page 35. Only 864 more pages to go.