By Stephen Basdeo
Professor Susan Oosthuizen’s The Emergence of the English (2019) is a lively and engaging book which takes aim at many widely and long-held assumptions about the emergence of an “English” people in the British Isles after the withdrawal of the Roman legions in 410 AD.
Most people in English history lessons at school are taught a fairly straightforward narrative of these times: the Romans left, and their departure left the island defenceless; petty little warlords grew in their place and some of these invited mercenaries from northern Europe—the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—to defend their lands. These people then invaded in ever greater numbers and gradually displaced the Romano-British, often reducing them to the status of serfs. Much of this happened in that murky period called the “dark ages”, a term which, in spite of its flaws, remains embedded in popular historical understanding.
I have always wondered what happened to the Romano-British immediately after 410 AD. Did they ever begin to “feel” English as opposed to Saxon? What most surprised me in reading Oosthuizen’s book was the fact that, although the Romans withdrew from the isle, there was hardly an apocalyptic breakdown of Romano-British social and economic structures, as has often been touted. I know from my own research into Victorian medievalism, is a narrative which has had currency for much longer than it ever should have. Indeed, in her literature review, Oosthuizen points out that in spite of lots of new research into this period many historians still cling to a narrative similar to the one outlined above, which began in the nineteenth century. Yet as Oosthuizen points out that even after the withdrawal of the legions in 410 AD, late Romano-Britons still believed that Britain remained Roman in culture and outlook. Through an extensive critique of the main textual sources such as accounts from St Patrick and Gildas, as well as the Gallic Chronicle (452 AD), which allegedly support the prevailing narrative of violent Saxon conquest, Oosthuizen convincingly concludes that
‘There is, then, no reliable, contemporary documentary evidence from early British or continental scholars for substantive invasion, settlement, or conquest of Britain from northwest Europe in the fifth century’.
To simplify the findings presented in further chapters somewhat: essentially what we have is a case of continued and lengthy continuity of Romano-British society along with a gradual arrival of northern Europeans, during which the Romano-British adopted some of the new immigrants’ customs and traded with them, and the English people evolved out of this process. The two groups interacted, intermarried, and adopted an increasingly “English” culture. As Oosthuizen further points out towards her conclusion:
‘There is little evidence of any early medieval social restructuring in which “Anglo-Saxon” migrant elites reduced existing Romano-British communities to servile status. Instead, continuity of agricultural exploitation and the invisibility of differences in or between communities in terms of their political structure, the languages they spoke, or their material culture, suggests that local groups continued to occupy land their ancestors had held, and that incomers, whether large or small in number, were by and large assimilated.’
Oosthuizen proves her point through an impressive analysis of a wide range of primary sources, comprising not only textual sources but also archaeological evidence—it truly is an interdisciplinary work. Oosthuizen had images specially commissioned for this book (which I expect I cannot reproduce here for copyright reasons), but they do help the reader to visualise the processes of integration and assimilation between the Romano-British and the Anglo-Saxons (see Fig. 7 in the book if you buy it).
Oosthuizen should also be thanked for choosing to publish her research with the newly-established Arc Humanities Press. Most of the major academic publishers’ monographs retail at exorbitant prices and are mostly off-limits to the general public who (understandably) would be mostly unwilling to spend £70 plus on a single volume. However, this volume came with an RRP of £14.99, which is a lower price than many popular history books. So, buyers can get access to the latest top quality research without shelling out an arm and a leg. It is a concise book and mostly avoids overly complicated jargon, although where technical terms are used these are explained in plain English first. This will therefore interest the general reader, the student, and the academic, even if their specialism is not in this immediate area, and readers will likely be left wanting to know more, which is meant in the most positive sense. I have a feeling that this may become, in time, one of our standard works on that “dark age” that this book sheds much light on.
Susan Oosthuizen, The Emergence of the English (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2019), RRP £14.99, 140 pp. ISBN 9781641891271