Defending the Indefensible

On Germanic and English Ethnogenesis

An odd hypocrisy pervades the academic sphere. Created to gird the liberal piety that mass migration from the developing world is an unalloyed joy, while European migration in the modern period amounted to an unmitigated disaster, its sullen, silent axiom that non-white nations possess ethnicity and indigeneity while ‘white’ equivalents have neither has become increasingly threadbare.

Armed with this political hammer, everything resembles a historical nail. And which white ethnos is singularly worthy of bashing? Which gens is uniquely “guilty” of building the modern world, a society that every postmodern reviles? The English. And to what racial group do they claim to represent? The Germanics. 

To fulfil this brief, academics cum lumberjacks scuttle about the dark Teutonic forests of ethnogenesis taking axes not only to the notion of ‘Germanics’ ever having possessed an ethnicity but also the great English oak; that gentle giant under whose shade looms nothing positive, only the archetypal goblins (that dominate the reigning ideology’s nightmares) ranging from the pith-helmeted blimp to the gurning yeoman and lager lout. 

Attacking the notion of the ‘Germanic’ is an easy way to censure Europe by proxy. After all it was the Volkerwanderungszeit (Migration period) of Germanics and not the Athenian Academy that created the West. Most Western Europeans trace their primary identity back to a Germanic tribe: the Franks in France, Anglo-Saxons in England, Lombards in Italy, the Germani in Germany, Nordics in Scandinavia, and Visigoths (and Sueves) in Spain. Everything else constitutes ‘Eastern Europe’ – even after the Elbe was crossed by Germanics in the medieval Drang nach Osten.

Guy Halsall (York) — a figure who self-identifies as “most significant historian of early medieval Europe aged under 60” — for instance, attacks the Germanness of these conquering tribes as “an assumption.” Moreover, he accuses the Franks of “allegedly” creating France and the Germanics of being the “supposed historical ancestors of moderns Germans.” Worse, he suspects the label “masks numerous uncritical assumptions.” 

In reality the historian doesn’t have so much of a grudge against ancient Germanic tribes as a gripe with the historiography of long-dead German philologists like Gustav Kossinna (d. 1931) whose theories on Germanics and Aryans promoted notions that caused so many deaths when abused by the Nazis. He hates the self-mythologising of Anglo-Saxons as freemen, the Franks as peerless paladins etc. In short, his bogeyman is the Germanic as conqueror. 

When the historical sources refer to these peoples as conquering Germanics, however, it means the revisionist’s scalpel must be swivelled, strategies must be altered. In other words, the notion of ethnicity itself must be scourged. Suddenly its mutability is prodded into the foreground. Academics froth at the prospect of applying the ethnogenesis of Huns to others. Leaders, these historians protest, created ethnic units by being successful (gathering loot and land). Never mind if the casualties are obvious lynchpins such as mothers (and their cultural capital) or the clannish elements to any ethnic unit. 

The first non-abstract enemy (in this ideological war) to be lined up before the firing squad is ancient Rome’s greatest historian, Tacitus, who stands accused of unfairly bracketing the “fair-haired races” off from the Gauls in Germania. Others such as Strabo and Dio Cassius saw them as “related” complains Halsall in a manner that preposterously suggests making distinctions and drawing similarities can’t simultaneously be true. God knows what he thinks of the Roman authors who accepted Britons and Gauls were both akin and yet different. 

The same historian then takes a pop at the notion that their common language might constitute an ethnic glue by kowtowing to some eccentric Roman ethnography that framed the Germanic-speaking Goths as Scythian, conveniently ignoring the fact this designation was due to the displacement of ethnic markers by an origo gentis that placed them near Scythia. 

Changing tack, Halsall then argues that the tribes shared “no sense of a shared Germanic identity.” A brave suggestion considering the Germanic alliances made in battles such as Teutoburg (AD 9). More to the point, just because the tribes of Papua New Guinea might not recognise their shared ethnicities, it doesn’t devalue the biological insights that science gives us. 

Indeed, pinning the tail of something as woolly as ethnic consciousness to the donkey of time is a fool’s game. Walter Goffart may have had a go claiming the Frankish campaigns against Muslims in Spain spawned this awareness but why not nail it to their joint crossing of the Rhine (406), the epic stand at the Catalaunian Fields (451), the clash at Vouille (507) or the victory against the Eastern menace at Lechfeld (955)? It’s ultimately a parlour game.

One of Halsall’s more excitable coups appears to be that the English language is backwards for having only the word to describe Germans ancient and modern. French, meanwhile, distinguishes between “germains and allemands” and German has “Germanen and Deutsche.” But the two tongues mark a cleavage between the ethnicity and the later nation-state, they do not deny the former’s (ethnic) links with the latter. 

In general, revisionists seek to win the argument via attrition rather than Achillean showmanship. Things that are — all things considered — likely (such as the fact the Germani shared a common range of cultural traits compared to their neighbours of other ethnicities) are disparaged as “unlikely.” Furthermore, silly notions such as the fact these tribes’ Germanness is dubious because they warred against one another are continually paraded when even Neanderthals know ethnic solidarity is but a single factor among many when it comes to conflict.

This is a shame because there is a lot to be said for a messier, hybrid model of ethnogenesis that isn’t highly politicised. Just as there is something faintly ridiculous about quibbling ethnicity out of existence, so the older historiographical orthodoxy of claiming the West was forged when hermetically-sealed billiards balls were flung out with explosive force in the clash between the imperium Romanum and a sea of hostile gentes is equally risible. Indeed, the two positions melt into one another: revisionists essentially buy into the notion that the gentes lacked proper ethnicities; that they all swam in a roiling mass of deracinated barbarians.

Many of the interesting elements of this muddled world came from the career cycle in which a large fraction of Germanics left home to serve in the Roman army before retiring to their native land. According to Ammianus, an Alamannic ruler even named his son Serapio without anybody lifting an eyebrow. Indeed, by the late empire it was considered normal for Germanics to adopt Roman names. 

Other forlorn facts omitted because they don’t tie neatly into binary blocs (and instead speak to a Roman centre and expansive barbarian periphery that shared a single political dynamic) include the settlement of 40,000 Suevi and Sicambri in 8 BC, 50,000 Getae in AD 5 and 100,000 barbarians in Moesia under Nero. Similarly, even the Huns (who couldn’t have had a stronger deus ex machina dynamic) were yoked to the factional politics of the imperial court until 451.

The problem is that the wheat lies hidden beneath heaps of chaff. Revisionist texts, for example, are often riven with perverse comments such as Halsall’s observation that historians “want to maintain the idea of large-scale folk wanderings” as if large numbers of Vandals, Visigoths, Lombards and Suevi ended up at distant locations via aeroplane. The same author contends that “significantly more migration took place… before the collapse of the western empire than afterwards.” A shrewd point only if the reader can ignore that managed migration is a very different animal to its unmanaged equivalent.

At least the Germanic debate is submerged within the polite norms of academia (with professors tilting at the windmills of nineteenth-century historiography). At its most venomous a snide remark about Peter Heather’s conservatism might be smuggled into someone’s footnotes. The question of English ethnicity, however, is more loaded. Scholars will tap highfalutin words about ethnicity into their keyboards but in their mind’s eye they are superheroes battling the dark arts of blut und boden types. Instead of viewing ethnicity as a legitimate factor alongside other forms of identity in a giant alphabet soup of jostling ingredients, they insist English ethnogenesis is a “myth,” that their Germanic heritage is a “dream,” and that their existence is based on “misreadings” of the evidence.

Yet their own evidence is weak. John Moreland (Sheffield), for instance, despises the English for viewing themselves a coherent, homogeneous people. As if, first, the self-mythologising that bound its members were not the entire point of an identity. And second, as if heterogeneity negated an identity’s existence (a bizarre inverted version of a racist’s purism). On the contrary, the English have often revelled in their heterogeneity (albeit within a small North Sea genepool) or at least been able to lampoon themselves. The most famous example being Defoe’s True Born Englishman (1701), the first stanza of which runs:

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot,
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Whose gend’ring off-spring quickly learn’d to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus’d betwixt a Saxon and a Dane.
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv’d all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen.

Perhaps the nuclear weapon in the revisionist arsenal is the backwardness of archaeologists who’ve insisted on tying grave objects to ethnicities in a naïvely static manner when the link between material culture and ethnicity was more fluid than that. The golden cross-bow brooches of the late empire, for instance, were worn as emblems of allegiance regardless of ethnic affiliation and if the Anglo-Saxons settled (at least initially) as foederati then many of them would have worn these artefacts. Moreover, the basis of elite power was often a chieftain’s ability to acquire and distribute foreign objects.

Indeed, other revisionist points contain truth too. One of the most pertinent is the fact that as Britain demonetised (from the late fourth century onwards) Roman soldiers of various ethnicities acquired land and assimilated to local power structures. It is this foederati aspect that undermines the strength of the traditional adventus theory, which may in fact be a later mythologisation of later waves of Germanics joining their mutinous cousins rather than some sort of singular invasion. And it is this slow, scattered mutinous aspect to the Anglo-Saxon take-over that remains so intriguing, especially as the western Britons i.e. Welsh hired Irish mercenaries (to keep their Hibernian compatriots away from the Welsh coast) who managed to resist the temptations of treachery.

Constantly, however, revisionist hands are overplayed and the active cum plastic elements of a culture are unfairly privileged over inherited and rigid ones. In this warped discourse the polyethnic elements of ethnogenesis swamp notions of common descent and clannishness. In reality, the core of an ethnic unit (however ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’ we want to portray it) was historically inflexible and involved a relatively closed circuit of rituals and prestige lineages. The periphery would have allowed merit and fortitude to override any ethnically insular arguments. 

Two of Moreland’s more entertaining claims are, first, that “it is not at all clear that ethnic identity formed the basis of these new communities” in the face of Ine’s law (discussed later in this article), countless ethnically-labelled battles, and genetic analysis by Weale et al. (2002) which concludes that there is “the presence of a strong genetic barrier between Central England and North Wales and the absence of a barrier between Central England and Friesland.” Second, Moreland notes “there was no confrontation between Anglo-Saxons and British ‘people’ in a few cataclysmic years” which is true in that Britain suffered no Germanic armada but is false in the sense that pivotal battles were exactly how the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were forged according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle once you stretch those “cataclysmic” years out from 477-577 (battle of Dyrham); these realms didn’t fall out of the sky.

Just as envisaging Anglo-Saxons acting as a (proto)nation-state would be anachronistic, so to frame them as postmodern actors mulling over how fluid, constructed and multi-layered their identities were (in confrontation with a similarly introspective and fractured group of Britons) would be absurd. Yet this pettifogging, this over-intellectualising has twenty-first century professors lecturing men like Gildas and Bede on the concrete identities of their contemporaries.

The final strategy to imprison the Anglo-Saxon identity in the postmodern giblet is to claim it is dim to believe all members of a social group constituted the ethnos when a gens was solely the people in arms. To conflate the passive members of a polity with being non-members, however, is sophistry; to confuse the engine room of a culture with the culture in toto is ludicrous; to reduce ethnicity’s scope to power’s lens is opportunistic. Slaves, concubines etc. had identities and ethnicities, they simply didn’t have the power to enforce them. 

Lost in the academic acrobatics are the banal truths of history. Namely, that ethnic identities have both roots born in the random concatenation of events, and the myths that immortalise and simplify them, sustaining homogenising narratives in easily digestible forms. 

Other truths left adrift include the fact the Anglo-Saxons clearly had a forceful enough sense of their own ethnicity to mutiny as a unit, make war over centuries as a unit, steal very few Brittonic words (only around thirty snuck into Old English, which — must be clarified — did not borrow much lexis, but was affected by grammatical and phonological transfer from Latin British and only showed in writing in the Early Middle English period after the demise of Old English diglossia: H. Tristram, “Why Don’t the English Speak Welsh”), refuse to convert to the British faith (the first Anglo-Saxon bishop wasn’t elected until AD 655 and his people preferred to convert under the auspices of Rome rather than the local Church), cast their lineages back to Woden (instead of the pride prestigious Britons took in tracing themselves to the loins of Magnus Maximus), bury their royal unions (such as that of Oswiu of Northumbria and Rhiainfellt of Rheged) in obscurity, and finally deride their military alliances (as Penda of Mercia allied with Cadwallon of Gwynedd) as isolated incidents in a sea of otherness and hostility. 

To put it bluntly, neither the Britons nor the Anglo-Saxons were peoples who were unsure about their identities. Instead they often appear to have positively enjoyed their hard-and-fast differences. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, thundered that the Anglo-Saxon victory at Brunanburh:

“Was the greatest slaughter of a host ever since the Angles and Saxons came hither from the east… [at Brunanburh] they overcame the Britons and won a country.”

The western Britons were no less clamorous. The author of the Armes Prydein relished the day when the Welsh would drive the Saxons from Lloegr (the future England) with such slaughter that their corpses would “Stand up, supporting each other as far as the port of Sandwich.” Then the “foreigners would be desperate for exile, one ship after another returning them to their kinsmen.”

And this antipathy remains remarkably entrenched. While the modern Frenchman can raise aloft both the (Celtic) Vercingetorix and (Germanic) Clovis as equally loved heroes, in the British Isles Alban and Arthur vs. Cuthbert and Alfred essentially speak to two different loyalties. 

Given all the above, a much more interesting question than whether England has a ‘valid’ ethnogenesis is why (relatively) small bands of mutinous Anglo-Saxons (neither the archaeological nor the textual evidence show how many Anglo-Saxons were in Britain) were able to culturally annihilate the Britons (of central Britain) with quite so little pushback. 

Nicholas Higham (Manchester) is probably correct to argue that the Anglo-Saxons formed military elites (war-bands) who anglicised (terrorised) great swathes of the ethnic British. Indeed, in areas like Devon and Cumbria where there can never have been significant numbers of Anglo-Saxons compared to natives it is likely the latter (seeing the game was up elsewhere) culturally assimilated long before violence was necessary. Hence why the majority of their place-names were Old English (not Welsh) by the early medieval period. Only Cornwall resisted this trend (and to an extent still does). It is also the only place where most of the inhabitants still refer to themselves as Cornish rather than English.

Being an ethnic minority in general does not, of course, preclude ethnic predominance in limited areas. The majority of central Britons must have submitted to these Germanic mutineers and those who didn’t were killed, enslaved or fled west. Anglo-Saxon texts occasionally celebrate the massacre of Britons (ASC s.a. 491, for instance). 

In addition to violence, Anglo-Saxon law was probably a two-faced creature that oppressed Britons if the law code of Ine (r. 689-726) is anything to go by. Ine’s wergilds for British folk (wealas) in Wessex (and the burden of proof required to incriminate them) were both considerably lower than those for Saxons of comparable status. Interestingly, the law code also includes an early use of the word “English” (Englisc) suggesting it was already a recognised language — though as the text only survives appended to the laws of Alfred it’s possible that it’s a later interpolation.

Over time the (eccentrically) conquered Britons identified themselves with their conquerors. Though the method was peculiar, the outcome wasn’t. Indeed, their fate was not unlike the inhabitants of the Near East between the seventh and tenth centuries who shed a Latin, Greek, Coptic and Syriac civilisation and Christian faith for an Arabic speaking society that believed in Islam; morphing from Eastern Romans to Arabs. Closer to home, Gallo-Romans identified as Franks, the eastern Slavs identified as Rus, and later the western Slavs became Magyars. Even on the British Isles the Picts identified as Dalriadic Irish i.e. Scotti. Indeed, in many ways this trend frames the Welsh rather than the English the outliers. As J. Campbell (Oxford) outlined in 1982, by repelling the Germanics until 1282 (when Edward I conquered Gwynedd) the Welsh had rebuffed the barbarians for longer than Constantinople (1204).

The question then becomes what made the Welsh one of the few peoples able to successfully resist the Germanics that harried the future Europe? Can their level of Romanitas have been higher even than the Gauls; the likes of Sidonius Apollinaris, Ausonius, Rutilius et al.? Probably not. If anything the likes of Britannia Prima — perhaps hobbled by the Justinianic plague — held on its Roman cities by the skin of its teeth. Instead it’s likely that the western Britons were able to de-Romanise and re-militarise, falling back into their tribal units based on Iron Age forts. 

It was as Britons, not Romans (though they retained their Romanitas as a prestigious sheen to their international image) that they kept the Germanic menace at bay. Most notably the Brigantes in the north, the Dumnonii in the south-west, and predominantly the Silures and Demetae in South Wales. These Britons never forged a nation-state, and arguably have refused to even to the present day. In its place the Welsh — like the Italians — favour regional identities like Deheubarth, Gwynedd and Powys.

These events left Britain divided into the identities it still avows today: England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. A map Alcuin (734-804) would have recognised when he explained that:

“Famed Britain holds within her bounds peoples divided by language and race according to their ancestors’ names.”

Cover by Imbued with Hues: London Pub, 1899 (colorized)

Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian from London. He writes at byzantineambassador.com. Follow him on Twitter.


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