Widowers on the Prowl

Tom Shippey

  • Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400-1070 by Robin Fleming
    Allen Lane, 458 pp, £25.00, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 7139 9064 5

Robin Fleming’s history is Volume II in the Penguin History of Britain, for which the general editor, David Cannadine, ‘laid down three inviolable rules’: no footnotes, no historiography (that is, no discussion of the ebb and flow of historical opinion), and make it accessible to everyone, general readers, students and professional historians alike (in other words, don’t just write for the trade). Fleming’s study is clear without being simplistic, and full of new information, bringing together in particular data from many archaeological sites that have been hidden away until now in specialist publications.

After explaining how patchy or misleading much of the written evidence from the early part of her period is, Fleming sets out by asking what the archaeological record tells us about what really happened in late Roman Britain. Are we looking at ‘decline and fall’ or, as is now very much the historical fashion, should we think in terms of continuity with a difference? The material evidence she presents is clear and depressing. Levels of trade in second-century Britain, then firmly under Roman imperial rule, were not reached again for 1500 years. Much of that trade was due to the large imperial ‘public sector’, in particular an army 40,000 strong and representing about an eighth of the empire’s total military forces. But as Rome abandoned hopes of further expansion on its northern frontiers, the inflow of cash and supplies into Britain dwindled, and the military transport wasn’t there for private merchants to cadge a lift on. Trade shrank accordingly. As it declined, local industries like Oxfordshire pottery sprang up to replace imports. Nevertheless, the third and fourth centuries represented, as Fleming puts it, Britain’s ‘high-water mark of romanitas’. There were villas in every city and many small towns, some of them enormous and luxurious, like the one at Woodchester near Stroud, with its 8500 square-foot principal room. Some were no doubt occupied by Roman officials, but the majority must have been owned by Romanised Britain’s native aristocracy; these people would have spoken both Latin and proto-Welsh – rather like Tolstoyan aristos speaking French and Russian.

As the fourth century wore on, Roman-occupied Britain was hit by a string of attacks from the other side of Hadrian’s Wall, with Picts and Scots increasingly working in conjunction with Saxon and Frankish sea-raiders. The attacks came (and here we have good textual evidence) in 343, 360, 367, 396-98. The military coped with them fairly well, but what was harder to take – and doesn’t show up in the documentary evidence – was the increased cost of rebuilding and defence, which had to be paid for by local taxation as imperial funding slowed, then ceased altogether. Even before the Roman army withdrew from Britain some time before 410, these costs and taxes sent the British economy into a downward spiral, the signs of which show up archaeologically. Villas were not maintained; principal rooms were converted into barns or corn-dryers; the Oxfordshire kilns and the Wealden ironworks stopped producing; the Roman sewers of Canterbury clogged up and were not fixed; in Cirencester the forum was kept clean but the stone flooring, which had worn paper-thin, was not replaced. There may still have been rich people living comfortably, and there are signs that some big landowners extended their estates as smaller ones had to sell up, but it didn’t do them much good, once the local markets and the middle-range consumers on whom their prosperity was based had gone.

Luxuries continued to be imported to favoured places like Tintagel even after the Romans withdrew, but the trade was no more than a trickle. The hobnailed boots which Romano-British peasants had worn – and often been buried in – disappeared. No nails for boots, or for coffins, and so ‘the British slipped in the mud and buried the people they loved directly in the cold, hard ground.’ As pottery disappeared, teeth got worse with people chewing grit picked up from open hearths. In the fifth century the inhabitants of Cadbury in Somerset were scavenging cremation urns from 200-year-old cemeteries to cook with. An Iron Age earthwork there was extensively refortified in the post-Roman period, causing some believers in the King Arthur legend to imagine it as the original Camelot, but their imagination will not have stretched to the notion of the Knights of the Round Table grave-robbing for pots.

It’s worth pointing out that there is no entry for ‘King Arthur’ in Fleming’s index, and not a word about him in the book. The Arthurian scenario for post-Roman Britain is largely a 20th-century construction, put forward especially strongly in the 1960s and 1970s, in books like Geoffrey Ashe’s The Quest for Arthur’s Britain (1968) and John Morris’s The Age of Arthur (1973). Professional historians have long been embarrassed by the whole thing, but the image created – Roman cavalry leader rallies the British after the Roman army withdrawal and fights off hordes of invading Angles and Saxons – has stuck firmly in the work of popular novelists from Rosemary Sutcliff to Bernard Cornwell and Allan Massie, and (in this case with strident claims to historical accuracy) in movies like Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur (2004). Fleming ignores the phenomenon, and the scenario.

It isn’t the only piece of historical tradition she rejects. Right at the start she says, addressing her historian colleagues, ‘we have to put aside our copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,’ and with them Bede and Gildas and the Historia Brittonum. Much modern history of the Anglo-Saxon period has consisted of cautious commentary on the few written accounts of it that survive. But the major sources were either composed centuries after the events they describe – like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which gives a detailed account of warfare in the fifth and sixth centuries but did not itself take shape till the late ninth – or else have their own agenda, like Bede in the early eighth century, who wrote a determinedly ‘ecclesiastical history’ in which political events are a backdrop to his narrative of Christian conversion. On the non-Anglo-Saxon (or native British) side, Gildas wrote about contemporary events in the fifth and sixth centuries in his On the Destruction of Britain, but only to denounce contemporary sinners; and the ninth-century Historia Brittonum mixes in large amounts of fantasy (much appreciated by later romancers) about dragons and magicians. Information can be extracted from all of them, but most of it has been: they have been chewed over again and again. Time to try doing without them.

All our textual evidence, whether derived from Anglo-Saxon sources (Bede and the Chronicle) or from British-Welsh ones (Gildas, The Gododdin, the Historia Brittonum), tells the same story of warfare and ethnic takeover. Some of the facts are unarguable: even if they were drawn in by a power vacuum rather than being the cause of the upheaval, the Angles and the Saxons, and the Frisians and Jutes and other Scandinavians, did start making their way into England, the main immigration period being perhaps 470-520. If you believe traditional accounts, the Jutes first took Kent, the Saxons subsequently landed along the south coast, and the Angles everywhere from Suffolk to Northumbria. Fleming doesn’t dispute these arrivals but spends several chapters rejecting the ‘myth of conquest’, arguing instead that there was peaceful ethnic co-existence. Even archaeological evidence is seen as part of a ‘fictitious narrative’: she argues that Kentish and East Anglian elites, like the Wuffingas of Sutton Hoo, used Scandinavian interlace styles on their jewellery not because they had Scandinavian origins but because they wanted to proclaim their difference from the common folk – they may, she implies, have been trying to disguise their own less glamorous and possibly native origins.

Fleming’s rejection of the narrative of genocide and ethnic cleansing is a relief. But one has to be wary of modern interpretations which come up with the answer one would like to believe. There is a strong political motive for rejecting the narrative of the triumphal Anglo-Saxon takeover of Britain: no one wants to get mixed up with ‘Anglo-Saxonism’, the English variant of Germanic racial superiority doctrines, which was enthusiastically put forward by 19th-century historians. Fleming’s position isn’t without its complications. A subject she discusses only briefly and tangentially is language. In her period there were three major foreign-language incursions, the Anglo-Saxon from the fifth century on, the Norse in the ninth and tenth centuries, and the Norman Conquest of 1066. The last of these had surprisingly little immediate effect on the language, though it did set up the conditions for major borrowing from French later on. The Scandinavian takeover of several counties in the North and the Midlands caused changes even in English core vocabulary, but Norse soon died out even in areas once controlled by Danish armies. The Anglo-Saxon immigrations, by contrast, led to total language replacement across most of England, including the renaming of almost the entire eastern half of the country. Why the difference? Why do we speak English and not a language derived from Latin or from some form of Insular Celtic? The simplest explanation is large-scale population transfer, as in the King Arthur scenario of gallant Romano-Britons eventually overwhelmed by invading Germanic hordes. But is there another one that would fit with the fact, noted by Fleming, that some of the people in the fourth-century Romano-British cemetery at Queenford Farm in Oxfordshire, and some of those in the fifth-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery half a mile away at Berinsfield, had remarkably similar teeth, indicating that the two groups were related?

One suggestion is that the native British – the Brittunculi or ‘little Brits’, as they are derisively called in the Roman army’s Vindolanda tablets – suffered a total collapse of cultural self-confidence in the post-Roman era, especially in the most Romanised and so least self-sufficient areas, and that they may have been ready to accept the language and lifestyle of their new competitors. Something like that happened in later and better documented eras. Anglo-Saxon clergymen worried about Anglo-Saxon slave runaways joining the Vikings, turning pagan and no doubt learning to speak Norse, and Irish annals from the Viking era complain about the Gall-Ghaoidheal, the foreign Gaels, who had turned their backs on Irishness and Christianity and given themselves a new identity. Possibly, even probably, the post-Roman language shift was as much cultural as ethnic.

Fleming is, however, generally much less reliable on language issues than on archaeological ones. Old English ceorl did not always mean ‘rustic’, and so the name of the first recorded king of Mercia need not be a joke: it’s the same name as Karl, or Charlemagne, and was perfectly honourable till downscaled later on. Old English wealh (from which we derive ‘Wales’ and ‘Welsh’) doesn’t always mean ‘slave’ either: its Germanic cognates suggest a root meaning of ‘non-Germanic speaker’. Fleming takes the fact that it came to mean both ‘Briton’ and ‘slave’ as a retrospective attempt by later elites – as with the East Anglian jewellery – to assert their imaginary ethnic distinctiveness from the natives. But the seventh-century laws of the West Saxon King Ine make it clear that free Britons (Wealas) had a recognised place in society, though their wergild – the monetary value placed on a life – was lower than that of free Saxons. Going back to the jewellery issue, there is evidence in Old English itself which suggests a strong and early Scandinavian element in the linguistic mix, and evidence like that would be much harder to fake than interlace styles. The preservation of river names like Thames and Severn, from the Roman Tamesis and Sabrina, does not necessarily indicate extensive Anglo-British bilingualism. A lot of American place names are derived from Native American sources, but they don’t bear witness to peaceful intermingling. Fleming consistently tries to play down any suggestion of ethnic conflict, but sometimes her pleasingly pastoral images of natives and incomers ‘talking together on long summer evenings, helping one another at harvest time, marrying one another’s daughters and doting over the same grandchildren’ sound too good to be true.

Her story then switches to towns and money. A lot of excited attention was paid recently to the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009: the largest cache of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever found, more than 1500 items, many of them stripped from sword-hilts or scabbards. Fleming’s conclusion is that the hoard represents five or six generations’ worth of battlefield loot, collected by the kings of Mercia, which makes one wonder how it came to be buried and lost. But somewhere round that time (the early 700s) the kings figured out that they could do much better by collecting tolls on trade, and making and controlling their own coinage, than by running a domestic pirate economy, which just stirred around the same fixed stock of precious metal. For a while trade picked up again, and a new pottery industry started up in Ipswich: but then the Vikings came.

One of Fleming’s successful strategies, repeated several times, is to make clear that different things happened in different places. The master narrative of ‘Vikings in England’ is the triumphal West Saxon version, based on the Chronicle, which begins with King Alfred waging guerrilla war on the Vikings from his hideout at Athelney in 878, then goes on through the English recovery under his many descendants down to Edward the Confessor, and the eventual unification of England under the West Saxon dynasty. How did the story look elsewhere, and how might it have looked if things had gone slightly differently? Fleming focuses on three widely different places: Llangorse near Brecon; Repton in Mercia; Orkney and the Western Isles. Around 889, as King Alfred was getting set for another major bout in the Saxon-Viking wars, the king of Brycheiniog, Elisedd ap Tewdwr, decided to build himself an Irish-style crannóg, an artificial island in Llangorse Lake. Why? To protect himself from Vikings? It was Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd, ‘Lady of the Mercians’, who eventually conquered Llangorse, but the kingdom of Brecon itself probably fell victim to the kings of neighbouring Gwynedd. English and Welsh rulers used Viking chaos to pick off their competitors.

Fleming does full justice to the ghastly discoveries at Repton that I discussed in the LRB last year (22 July 2010): the stone coffin, perhaps of the Viking leader; the charnel-house of bones stacked round it, mostly of unusually big, strong men; the horribly mutilated body of a man with a Thor’s hammer pendant; and the cremation pyres two miles away where animal sacrifices were burned. All this, Fleming believes, marks the Viking occupation of 873, which put an end to independent Mercia, with rites that must have seemed to Christian Mercians ‘a terrible abomination’. In the Western Isles she uses a new technique, strontium isotope analysis of teeth, to show that graves in Norse style with Norse grave-goods may not be those of Scandinavians at all. One woman buried on Lewis came from the South Downs, or more likely, the Yorkshire Wolds; she was probably a slave. Other ‘Norsemen’ may well have been ethnic Picts, and (once again) the more alien their ethnicity, the harder they may have worked to redefine it.

On the positive side, Fleming again picks three different sites – Worcester, London and Lincoln – to show different aspects of the way trade picked up after the turmoil of the ninth century. It’s revealing that Lincoln took 700 years to regain the population it had in 350; and that the Anglo-Saxon rebuilding of the London quays does not bear comparison with the Roman works, soundly built with wood from centuries-old oaks, not ‘cobbled together’ from much younger trees in a fashion best described as ‘quick and dirty’, a product of ‘a world with little engineering knowhow’. Worcester meanwhile did well on Droitwich salt, lime made by burning Roman limestone ruins, and Severn trade; its citizens had enough civic spirit to fight off King Harthacnut’s professional household troops in 1041.

By the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, English prosperity was, in some respects, quite hard to believe. Thousands of thegns were beginning to look like 18th-century squires, with five and ten-hide estates (a hide being perhaps 30 acres), comfortable timber halls, silk and linen clothing, and a diet partly derived from hunting deer and hawking game birds: the bones of more than a dozen wildfowl species were found among the rubbish of a household at Portchester in Hampshire. Higher up the scale a canon at Waltham Holy Cross must have looked like someone out of Trollope, with an annual clothing allowance of 480 silver pennies, more than a pound and a half of silver. Waltham’s patrons, the Godwinssons, could afford it. Their annual income, according to the Domesday Book, worked out at more than two million silver pennies, close on three tons of silver. No wonder William the Conqueror thought that England was worth a serious gamble. The country, with its rich estates, centralised bureaucracy, efficiently run coinage and – something at last that Roman Britain didn’t have – its hundreds of watermills (a new technology), looked as if it was going to skip the Middle Ages altogether and move on to a new level of prosperity. But it took a long time to get there, and upper-class prosperity remained politically vulnerable.

In every TV programme about Anglo-Saxon England someone is always wheeled on to say, in effect: ‘Dark Ages? How can anyone call these the Dark Ages? Just look at the amazing jewellery/magnificent artwork/superb illumination.’ Fleming certainly has no doubt that the early part of her period, at least, was dark in the sense that we have no reliable documentation and have to make what we can of material evidence; dark also in the sense of being, as the material evidence plainly shows, a long step back economically and technologically. It’s true that the jewellery at Sutton Hoo would cost megabucks if you asked a modern jeweller to duplicate it. But less commonly noted is the pottery flask found in the same burial. It was a high-status item for the time, wheel-turned and so probably imported, but the finish is rough and the material porous: three centuries earlier a Roman villa-owner wouldn’t have had it in the house, and even one of his workmen would have thought it unremarkable. Nails, pots, tiles, bronze and copper coins: it’s the absence of useful low-cost items in bulk that make a Dark Age, and their loss is not compensated by the ability to manufacture elite bling.

Graves tell us a lot about daily life, and life expectancy, and none of it looks very good. Statistics vary considerably, but analysis of bones from the tenth-century Christian cemetery at Raunds Furnells in Northamptonshire indicates that fewer than 30 per cent of female inhabitants reached the age of 35, and only slightly more than half of the men. That leaves a substantial gender imbalance, and Fleming wonders what this meant in practical terms. ‘What chance did a 20-year-old man have of finding a wife, with so many older, better established widowers on the prowl? Were 35-year-old women lonely because most of the girls they had grown up with were already dead?’ Every village must have had its ‘sad little gang of orphans’. People grew slowly. A 16-year-old boy probably looked like a modern 12-year-old. Bones furthermore show evidence of poor health and disease. Bone lesions in the skull and round the eyes indicate childhood anaemia; lines on tooth enamel come from malnutrition or parasite infection; lines of increased bone density show that a child stopped growing for a while; bone plaques on the shin go with leg ulcers, a result of injury or infection. Yet another sign of post-Roman decline was the replacement, in urban centres like York, of brick and tile by thatch and timber, much harder to keep free of fleas and lice and dangerous micro-organisms. The cesspits from four houses in York’s Coppergate alone were home, it’s calculated, to something like ten million insects. And, confirming one further modern stereotype, monastic cemeteries show both a much enhanced life expectancy and, often, signs associated with late-onset diabetes and obesity.

Dark Ages indeed. But parts of them are darker still, both more opaque and more depressing. The hoards of Mercian pennies buried in London c.871 suggest that Londoners were frightened of Vikings, while the almost exactly contemporary Croydon hoard, with its hack-silver and its coins from France and Baghdad, ‘bears all the signs of Danish swag’. But what is one to make of the woman buried on the banks of the Thames at about the same time, wrapped in bark, her face, knees and genitals covered in moss, all staked down to the foreshore and with a gravel mound over it? A warning of some kind? Two centuries earlier, in Yorkshire, a young woman was carefully buried, in her own coffin, with especially rich grave-goods including a bronze cauldron and a necklace with more than 200 glass and amber beads. But once the lid was put on her coffin, the mourners pushed another, older woman into the open grave, threw a broken quernstone on top of her to fracture her pelvis, and then buried her alive while she was still trying to struggle up. Fleming thinks this was a punishment burial rather than a human sacrifice to pagan gods, but who knows what the executioners were thinking? Archaeology cannot tell us about motives.