Saturday, June 11, 2016

Ethnic Makeup in Anglo-Saxon England


Early England was composed of diverse groups of settlers. In his The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction, John Blair recites that early in the fifth century, some decades after Germanic settlers first came as mercenaries in the Roman army, do we see immigrants which we now know as the English come in sizable numbers (3). So, this is to say Germanic tribes such as the Saxons, Jutes, and Angles. This was the primary ethnic melting pot which would spring forth Anglo-Saxon culture.

                But, though we can say with some small degree of certainty that these were the primary settlers, we would be remiss if we left out the Frisians who “[had] been infiltrating the coastal settlements of Frisia in the early fifth century” (3). We need to add this apparent caveat because of Bede’s “overly neat” division; in reality, the ethnic division was blurred. Archaeology suggests that the population at large did not clearly differentiate themselves, which allowed for ethnic blending and, in the case of East Angles, manifest as their labor (metalworking), coming from one ethnic group, whereas their royalty tracing their lineage back to Sweden. 

                Migrants, traveling by sea and often in consequences of rising sea levels, would arrive in England as “small, disparate groups;” whose passage on the sea “must have weakened ethnic ties” which would enable the new types of settlements and social organization (4). All of this, in addition to the drastic depopulation which transpired in the early fifth and sixth centuries to the native Briton population, as they fled westward or to Brittany so as to escape disease and so-called Barbarian invaders, this set the stage for the creation of a distinct new territory, that which would eventually be called ‘England.’

                Of course, neighboring peoples would also influence Anglo-Saxon culture. This can be seen in the Irish missionaries; contributing religious difference by converting pagan tribes, the success of Irish priests had lie in the cultural similarities that they shared with the pagan tribes, in that, each had originated within an underdeveloped warrior system. Though but one example, it is but a single fact among many other ethnic and cultural fusions.

                Part of this multi-ethnic community meant, however, a tug-of-war between England’s Roman past and their non-Roman future. Over the course of England’s development, these two identities would form a dialectic within the culture and influence everything from art to religion; as artists, the peasant, and lord fought to carve out their own understanding of life, and what it meant to be ‘English,’ we would see the Roman and non-roman interact in a myriad of ways (such as life in the monasteries, which would be heavily influenced by Roman ideas).

Works Cited

Blair, John. The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford U.P, 2000. Print.

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