Review Article by Richard Blake
Myth and History
Stephen James Yeates
Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2012, 496pp, £29.95 (pbk)
I was told about this book by Dararis Tighe, whose own review can be found on Amazon. I refer you to her comments on its poor writing and sloppy editing. These are entirely just. Instead of repeating her, though, I will concentrate on the substantive claims made in the book. These are summarised in the product description:
Our recent understanding of British history has been slowly unravelling thanks to new techniques such as DNA analysis, new archaeological data and reassessment of the literary evidence. There are considerable problems in understanding the early history of Britain; sources for the centuries from the first Roman invasion to 1000 AD are few and contradictory, the archaeological record complex and there is little collaboration or agreement between archaeologists, Roman and Anglo-Saxon historians. A common assumption concerning the development of the English language and, therefore British history, is that there was an invasion from northern Europe in the fifth century, the so-called Anglo-Saxon migration; a model based on the writings of Bede. However the Bedan model has become increasingly unsustainable and is on the verge of collapse. Myth and History offers a comprehensive re-assessment of the present scientific, historical, archaeological and language evidence, debunking the model of British history based on Bede, and showing how Roman texts can be used in conjunction with the other evidence to build an alternative picture. Stephen Yeates demonstrates that the evidence that has been used to construct the story of an Anglo-Saxon migration, with an incoming population replacing most, if not all, of the British population has been found wanting, that initial attempts to interpret literally the DNA evidence based on historical sources are problematic, and that the best DNA analysis of the British Isles fits the evidence into a broader European view which attempts to plot the movement of people across the Continent and which sees the major migration periods in Europe as occurring in the Mesolithic and the Neolithic. This DNA analysis is constant with the latest assessments based on language development, contemporary historical reports from the Roman period, and the analysis of archaeological data from the Iron Age and Roman period. He also argues that the Roman texts can be used to identify where the Late Roman provinces of Britain actually lay and this leads to important conclusions about the ethnicity and origins of the early British peoples. This book is a timely attempt to unravel myth from history, present a cogent platform for Anglo-Saxon studies and understand who the British people really are.
In short, Dr Yeates claims a history for the English people and the English language that begins on this island long before the fifth century and that was merely overlain for a while by the Roman conquest of the first century. His approach is similar to that taken by the Whig constitutional historians of the seventeenth century. It was essential for their response to the demands of the Stuart Kings to show that there had been no break in the continuity of our history, and that the rights they were defending had emerged from the mist of time, coterminous with, or even prior to, the Monarchy itself. I will not speculate on whether Dr Yeates has an underlying agenda – though I might be in sympathy with it. I only say that I find his claim unlikely.
Antiquity ended in Western Europe during the fourth and fifth centuries. At the beginning of this transformation, the whole of Europe, from the southern banks of the Rhine onward, was part of a single Empire, ruled from Rome or Constantinople or Ravenna. At the end, it was a set of barbarian kingdoms. This formal change was accompanied by a shrinkage of population and trade that ended the urban civilisation created and sustained by Imperial rule.
In Continental Europe, however, the transformation was not total. Christianity survived. Latin remained the language of the common people, and of law and administration. Though their populations fell greatly – even in Rome, from about a million to perhaps thirty thousand – the cities were mostly not abandoned, and they tended to keep their Roman names. The civilisation of Antiquity declined, but never wholly fell. In time, the barbarian rulers were assimilated in language and faith to their subjects, and the new civilisation that emerged retained many continuities with the old.
The common sense evidence suggests that it was different in what became England. The British provinces of the Empire were often heavily Romanised. London may have been the third largest city in the Western Empire, after Rome and Carthage. The countryside was dotted with opulent villas. Christianity was the established faith, and the British Church sent bishops to the Councils of Nicaea and of Rimini, among others. Latin was used for all written purposes, from inscriptions to graffiti.
By the sixth century, Roman civilisation was ended in Britain. Christianity did not vanish, but the new rulers were pagans. The English had to be reconverted, from the end of the century, by a fresh mission from Rome. The cities appear to have been abandoned for several hundred years. When rebuilt, it was always with different street patterns, and usually with different names. Very few Roman structures, other than the usefully defensive, survived into the mediaeval period. Latin disappeared from common use. It was reintroduced by the Church, but the language of law and administration was English. Indeed, the earliest vernacular literature in Western Europe is in English.
The only exceptions can be found in those areas of Roman Britain where the majority spoke a Celtic language. Here, Christianity remained the faith of the people. Here, some knowledge of Latin remained.
From this, we can reasonably assume a much more radical break on this island than elsewhere in the Western Empire. On the Continent, the barbarians settled among the natives, and assimilated. In England, there seems to have been some degree of replacement. If we had no literary evidence, it would be reasonable to assume an invasion and conquest, and a mass-settlement of outsiders.
But we do have literary evidence. We have the writings of Gildas and of Bede. The first was a Celtic monk, who seems to have lived through the invasion. The second wrote a few generations after the newcomers had been converted to Christianity. They wrote from opposite sides in the battle for this island. They both positively assert what the evidence suggests.
Of course, no historical text can be taken for granted. Just because something is written does not make it true. This being said, there are some obvious rules of evidence we can apply to historical statements, to distinguish what is probably false from what may be true.
First, we ask if an alleged statement is inherently unlikely. The resurrections from the dead and other miracles recorded in religious history can be largely dismissed. In some cases, they may have an alternative natural explanation: perhaps someone was not dead after all. Mostly, they are claims that, if true, would overturn our experience of the world as a place governed by natural and invariable relationships of events. For example, Bede records that, when St Alban was martyred, a well miraculously appeared where his severed head stopped rolling. I find this an unlikely claim.
I grant that historians have often rejected facts that we know to be true, when they were inconsistent with what was believed at the time about the world. Herodotus records the claim of someone who sailed round Africa that, the sun at midday was to the north. He takes this as evidence that the claim was false. But we know more about the world than Herodotus did. We have better grounds for distinguishing between the marvellous and the probable. This is not to say that miracles do not happen – only that there must be a strong presumption against specific interventions by God.
Second – and this is similar in its nature to the above – we ask if historical claims are supported or contradicted by archaeological or other evidence. For example, Herodotus says that Xerxes led an army of three million men into Greece. This is an unlikely claim. Armies that size were unknown till the twentieth century, because they could not be fed or coordinated. Looking at this and other numbers he mentions, it seems that he inflated the numbers from his Persian sources by about a thousand per cent.
Again, much of what he says about Egyptian history is not supported by our own reading of the Egyptian sources, or by the archaeological evidence – though it may tell us what foreign tourists in Egypt were told when Herodotus was writing.
Third, we ask if a writer has an interest in making a particular claim. For example, ecclesiastical historians have an interest in alleging miracles, and also in blackening the reputations of their opponents. Again, Soviet historians had an interest in blaming the Germans for every atrocity committed in Eastern Europe during the Second World War – including those, like the Katyn Wood massacre, that were committed by the Soviets. Finding that an historian has an interest that may override his duty to the truth does not invalidate anything he says, but should make us cautious about accepting any claim unsupported by good outside evidence.
Fourth, we ask if the truth of what a man says about contemporary or semi-contemporary events is likely to be known by his contemporaries. We know that a powerful State can sometimes impose falsehoods, so that they are accepted even by those who would otherwise know better. But States with this degree of power are a modern development. An historian may fill his narrative with accounts of miracles and with self-serving falsehoods. But he will probably not make incidental claims that are scandalously false, and that no one else has any obvious reason to make himself believe against all the other evidence. For example, Cicero says many things against Mark Antony that may not be true. But he does not claim that he was a hunchback, or a coward, or that he had been replaced by Cleopatra with an imposter. He does not say that Gaius Verres was illegitimate or a barbarian immigrant.
There are other tests that we can apply to claims about the past. But these will do. Strip out all the miracles, and there is nothing improbable about the invasions described by Gildas and Bede. Their essential claims are supported by other evidence. Neither had any obvious interest in lying about the fact of the invasions. No one is known to have stood up and laughed in their faces. We say, then, that there was a movement of peoples into Britain from about the fourth century onwards; that the newcomers displaced the Romanised Britons, who thereafter lived on the fringes of the island; that the civilisation of the Anglo-Saxons was a new and alien growth. Unlike the French and Spanish and Italians, the English did not start as degraded Romans. We were a new people. We felt the influence of Rome only after we had emerged into history.
Against this, the DNA evidence alleged is of no value. If someone says that slitting a live pigeon open and applying it to the buboes was an effective cure for the Black Death, we have the right to be dubious. We know too much about medicine. But DNA testing is a new science. Its conclusions are often turned upside down by fresh discoveries. So far, indeed, its main use has been by the authorities to fit people up for crimes they may or may not have committed, but for which the normal evidence would not convince a jury. In its present state, DNA testing is not sufficient to overturn claims as well-attested as the English invasions of Britain at the end of Antiquity.
This being said, I feel no obligation to enter closely into the question of what language the Britons spoke. The Romans seem to have thought they spoke a sort of Celtic. Hardly anyone has doubted that since. The Welsh and Cornish speak, or spoke, Celtic languages. Looking at the names of people and places we have from the native Britons – Boadicea, Caractacus, Sulis, Camulodunum – I am not persuaded by Dr Yeates that they spoke any sort of Germanic.
Nor need I explain the details of how the native Britons were displaced, or how their descendants became the Welsh and the Cornish. Broadly speaking, though, there are two possible explanations of what happened. The first is that most of them died or were killed. Leaving aside the possibility of genocide – a regrettable, though not unusual, approach to settling who owns a territory – the sixth century was an age of pandemic diseases. These may have differentially affected the inhabitants of Britain. Perhaps the Britons had close contacts with the Mediterranean world, and the English had none. Perhaps the English settlers moved into a demographic vacuum.
Just as likely, the Britons were not killed, but conquered and converted. A thousand years ago, most people who lived in modern Turkey were Greek Christians. Today, without overwhelming demographic change, they are Turkish Moslems. In that time, people changed their religion and their language. Also without any evident change of people, Coptic lost place to Arabic in Egypt during the later middle ages. It was the same in Syria with Syriac. When Spain was conquered by the Arabs, many Christian Spaniards are known to have converted. By the end of the first century, every Italian language but Latin was extinct – including Etruscan, which had no relationship with Latin. Why should it not have been the same with Britain?
But, as said, I do not know what happened it detail. I only say that the established evidence is so general, and so internally consistent, that it will take much more than this book to change my opinion of how England began.