Like so many towns and villages in East Anglia, the character of Whittlesey has now been changed by new housing and commuters. Sixty years ago, though, it was a remote and compact village, and one of the few places on earth where I did not have to spell my surname when asked for it. From the town’s mayor to the local shopkeepers, there were scores of Catlings in Whittlesey, and, in the 1840 census returns, people called Catling outnumbered all the other surnames in the town.
When, in the 1980s, I regularly visited Amsterdam in order to write guidebooks, I would routinely be addressed in Dutch while others ahead of me in the shop, bar, or hotel would be greeted in English – it was assumed that I was Dutch on the basis of my appearance, and I often saw people who looked like my brothers on the streets of the Netherlands.
From these apparently random facts I constructed a romantic backstory for my family’s ancestry: clearly, I was descended from Frisian warriors who had crossed the North Sea 1,500 years ago and settled in East Anglia.
When I shared this with my wife, she was quick to puncture my pretentions, saying it was more likely that my ancestors had come to East Anglia in the 17th century as part of the ‘little Army of Articifers’ imported by Sir Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1677), the engineer employed by Charles I to drain the Fens using Dutch methods of land reclamation. Given that my great-grandfather and all his antecedents worked in the clay pits of Whittlesey, digging the material for Fletton bricks, I reluctantly accepted my wife’s more-probable story of my family’s East Anglian origins as humble dyke-diggers.
Now I am not so sure: last month’s CA, with its account of the aDNA evidence for migration into eastern Britain from the what is now the Netherlands, northern Germany, Denmark, and southern Sweden, has rebalanced the equation of likelihood that my family arrived in the early medieval period, and I devoured the contents of CA 392 with more than usual interest.
Terminating old terminology
I have a personal dislike of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to describe the people and culture of southern and eastern Britain from the 4th to the 8th centuries because it is anachronistic – it implies homogeneity where I see much more interesting diversity – and because it is often used of Britain as a whole when it applies only to the culture of the southern and eastern parts of England (an area that John Blair, using the evidence from developer-funded archaeology, has mapped in precise detail in his 2018 book Building Anglo-Saxon England – see CA 313). I therefore join Joanna Story in welcoming the newly coined term CNE (Continental Northern European) to describe the people who migrated to England during this period.
Joanna also raises the important question of just how many people of CNE ancestry migrated here. Is it right to talk of ‘mass migration’, ‘major population movements’, and ‘large-scale colonisation of southern and eastern Britain’ – phrases that were used in CA 392 and in subsequent press reports to characterise these new aDNA findings?
Rarely are such terms quantified, and future research could usefully try to estimate just how many people migrated, over what sort of timespan, and how these numbers compare to the size of the existing populations of the regions in which the migrants settled. If the numbers of migrants were so great as to swamp existing populations, then ‘invasion’ might be the right descriptive term and conflict with existing populations would be highly likely. But the environmental evidence (CA 295) shows continuity, rather than disruption, in the delicate and complex methods used to farm the demanding Fenland environment, which suggests that relatively small numbers of migrants found niches alongside existing communities and were integrated into those communities. By what mechanisms this might have happened remains a big open question: future research might look too at how one came to occupy land at this period – what are the mechanisms by which ownership was achieved: force, purchase, gift, squatting, inheritance, or community assent?
And then there is the question, partially addressed in CA 392, of just how many of the people identified in the study as having CNE ancestry were migrants as distinct from second-, third-, and fourth-generation offspring. Bone and tooth isotope analysis can help to identify those who grew up consuming water and food from other geologies than are found in England, but England has a very varied geology and we are a long way from being able to distinguish overseas migrants from people born locally to parents with CNE gene markers.
Truth in nuance
Some people have adopted a ‘told you so’ tone in response to this aDNA study, and it is no doubt gratifying for those of us who believe that historical truths are to be found in ancient literature – albeit heavily encumbered by later perspectives – to be told that migration lay behind the changes in culture that we see in the early medieval period. But we must guard against falling back on invasion and conquest as the main theme for the history of this period.
This narrative is based on readings of the three major works of literature that have survived to the present day – De Excidio Britanniae written by Gildas, the Historia Ecclesiastica by Bede, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – filtered through one particular idea about how conquering armies operate. The reality is much more likely to have been a series of separate ethnic conflicts, local territorial battles, civil wars, gang battles, insurgencies, and opportunistic land grabs much like the conflicts that occurred in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, involving people of many different ancestries, rather than just Saxon versus Briton. We need to think ‘civil war’, not conquest of the kind that occurred from 1066.
It would be interesting to know to what extent migrants adopted a rural, agricultural lifestyle, or worked as merchants, traders, and manufacturers, and how many set themselves up as gang leaders, warriors, ‘tax’- or ‘tribute’-collectors, and ultimately aspired to be rulers and members of the wealthier classes. More nuanced studies of the choices represented by grave goods might throw some light on this, though CA 392 reveals that cultural material does not always correspond to our idea of genetic sex, let alone genetic ancestry or occupation.
These findings also challenge the tendency in the past to study insular culture in isolation from contemporary continental culture, thereby missing the fact that much of what is called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ belongs to a much wider fashion, and that similar material is found all over Europe at this time. The early medieval section of Leiden’s Museum of Antiquities, which I visited in September, explicitly points to similarities between the brooch styles of the Netherlands and those of eastern England. Do museums on this side of the North Sea always acknowledge how widespread was the fashion for garnets and gold, chip-cast belt fittings, and square-headed brooches?
As John Hines suggests in CA 392, it is time that scholarly focus shifted from insular culture to studying the wider European and Asian context, and in particular the astonishing movements of peoples during the early medieval period. The story of migration chimes with our times, and difficult as it is to study people who left little by way of archaeology or history, we need to know more about Huns, Vandals, Alans, Sueves, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Franks, as well as Jutes, Angles, and Saxons – not to mention Slavs, Varangians, and Finns and the peoples of central Asia and the steppes, all of whom were on the move, perhaps benefiting from the infrastructure of the previous Roman period.
One perspective not covered in CA 392 was the linguists’ view of the new findings, and what light might be thrown on the development of the English language as a result of what we now know about migration. Given that the languages closest to modern English are Frisian and Dutch, however, it doesn’t take a specialist to work out how the roots of English evolved if the majority of migrants came from that part of the near Continent. Perhaps that is another argument for dropping the misleading ‘Anglo-Saxon’ label in favour of Anglo-Frisian. Can we look ahead to the day when the Cambridge department of ‘Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic’ changes its name?