The first part of my story of English concluded with the coming of the Normans, and a story from the 12th century sums up what happened after the Normans settled. A local priest witnessed a miracle, where after the laying on of hands, a mute man was cured and able to speak English and French. The priest was resentful. Brother William, he said, had laid hands on this man and instantly he could speak two languages, whereas he, the local priest, had to remain dumb in the presence of the bishop. This priest, it transpired, knew little Latin, and no French.
In 1154, the English monks who had written the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (established by Alfred the great) put down their pens. French was the language to speak, and Latin was used for writing and remained the principal language of religion and learning. A visitor from another planet would assume that English disappeared, to be replaced permanently by French.
However, we know this is not so.
Here’s a little test: Torpenhow. Know how to pronounce it? Know its derivation? If it helps at all, it’s in Cumbria, and it’s a hill… and its name means hill hill hill. That’s English for you. But why? How did our language become so, well, strange? Or should that be weird? Why do we have so many different words for the same thing, and why does our spelling not even abide by its own rules?
I think the first clue might be that, as historian Ann Williams remarked, “We have little idea about what ‘spoken’ English was like before 1100 – virtually all the surviving texts are written in the literary standard (Standard West Saxon in modern scholarship) which was never a spoken language. The abrupt change in the Peterborough Chronicle in 1121 (pictured below) marks the moment when the scribe ceased to write in Standard West Saxon, and began to write in something like the local spoken dialect.”
And in reply, historian Stephanie Evans Mooers Christelow had this to add: “There is also the fact that people speak the language of their mothers: French men who married English women had bicultural children who most likely spoke English. French soldiers stationed in English towns had to learn English, and the French who resided in English villages did as well. According to the Cambridge History of the English Language, French vocabulary and syntax did not begin to significantly affect the English language until about 1300.”
So, there are two intriguing pieces of information here: a hint at the marked differences between written and spoken language, and the fact that it’s too easy, and inaccurate, to blame all our language anomalies on the Norman Conquest. So where did they come from?
So far in this series, I’ve looked at the origins of the Celtic People, how they lived and who they were. Now I’m looking at what they did:
While the Celt as a warrior has been the most colourful picture to come down for posterity, warfare was not a full time occupation, and the majority of Celtic people spent most of their time in rural, agricultural pursuits.
There was a great difference between the Germanic tribes and the Gauls, as the former consumed very little wheat and lived mainly on milk and the flesh of their animals.
Cattle were abundant in Gaul, which can be seen from the fact that during all Caesar’s expedition large amounts of livestock were seized.
The cattle in Britain were of the Celtic Shorthorn variety, first appearing towards the end of the Bronze age. Sheep were small, similar to the Soay breed. Wild animals presented a threat, to crops and to life, with wolves, bears and wild cats all still abundant.
950 years ago today, the world changed – for those living in England, at any rate. They had a new king, and new masters, and history had a brand new reference point – 1066. But legally, administratively, and ecclesiastically, how much did William change?
William of Normandy was not opposing the old regime in England, he was claiming his right to carry on the government of a kingdom of which he said he was the rightful king. The England to which he came in 1066 was a soundly organised country in most respects. William abolished nothing, and introduced little new; his reign consisted of a successful attempt to fuse old and new, building upon the already existing structure.
The power of the nobility in Anglo-Saxon England was being strengthened from two levels of the social scale. The king gave grants of almost anything that was in his power to give: land, privileges, and judicial powers. From the inferior classes came men seeking the protection of a lord. Here was the beginning of a process which came to be known as feudalism. There were at this time only two aspects: a personal bond between two free men – a superior (the lord) and and inferior (the vassal) – and a method of land tenure, whereby the vassal held a benefice of his lord. The personal relationship entailed the vassal putting himself under the protection of this lord, and in a symbolic gesture of submission he would place his hands between those of his lord and swear an oath of fealty. Under this solemn contract the man was obliged to serve and obey his lord, and the lord was obliged to protect and maintain the man.
Neither Edgar (959-975) nor his son Aethelred (978-1016) came to the throne free from controversy. Both of them succeeded their elder brothers, who reigned only briefly. King Eadwig (Edwy) succeeded his uncle in 955, while his brother Edgar was declared king in Mercia and the Danelaw. With the existence of two royal courts it seems likely that civil war was not far away when Eadwig died on this day – 1st October – in 959. He had issued so many charters that a degree of irresponsibility is probable, and he had quarrelled with Abbot, later Archbishop, Dunstan and driven him into exile.
Aethelred was Edgar’s younger son, and succeeded his (step) brother Edward when he was murdered at Corfe. Throughout his reign he was never entirely able to escape from the fact that the murder had been committed for his sake.
The youth of these kings produced an environment where faction could arise. Powerful ealdormen could be found influencing politics and the monarch, even changing the face of war, as was the case at the end of Aethelred’s reign.
This then was the political situation over which Edgar and Aethelred had to govern.
Nearly one thousand years ago, in November 1016, Cnut became king of England. How did he establish himself, a foreigner, with full authority?
For a contemporary account of the reign of Aethelred II, it is natural to look to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In it, we find the closing years of the reign fraught with difficulties; those of fending off Danish raiders. It would be easy to agree with the Chronicler who, writing with hindsight, concludes that the slide towards Danish rule in England was inevitable. The payment of the Danegeld might at first sight seem like sheer folly, yet the policy appears in the short term to have worked.
Aethelred’s problem was that paying off one Viking force would not necessarily keep another one away from his shores. The Chronicler blames the military failure of the English on the cowardice of the military leaders. But while the squabble between Brihtric and Wulfnoth caused the loss of a hundred ships in 1009, we also know that Brihtnoth’s actions at the Battle of Maldon in 991 were those of courage and loyalty, that the army of 1009 left in 1010 without tribute, and that Aethelred was assured of the loyalty of Ulfcytel in East Anglia.
In the first of this series, Who Were the Celts*, I relied mainly on archaeological evidence. For the second, How the Celts Lived,** I relied on the Greek writers, who seem to have said little about the role of Celtic women, but are still our only real sources. Some of the information for this portion is taken from the findings of modern scholarship.
Women used to provide a dowry, but the men had to offer comparable value from their own property. Husbands had absolute power over their wives.
Among the Bretons, the women belonged to ten or twelve men at a time, particularly to brothers, fathers, or their children; however, the children born of such unions belonged to the man who had the woman while she was still a virgin. In Ireland, it was thought perfectly natural for men to have sexual relations with other men’s wives, mothers or sisters. Community of wives was the rule in Caledonia.
Boadicea Haranguing The Britons. John Opie, R.A. (1761-1807). Oil On Canvas.
The status of women among the Celts seems to have been quite wretched. However, in the mid-first century AD, in what is now Great Britain, the Brigantes were in fact governed by a woman, Cartismandua (Cartimandua) and, in 61 AD, Boudicca, a woman of royal blood, commanded the army of the ancient Britons. Yet no similar state of affairs can be found among other tribes or at earlier periods.