Corona Diary, Day 44

Tuesday, 28 April

I’ve more or less but not quite finished with Pierre Broué’s biography of Trotsky. I have only read one review and want to find more. And to reread some sections in the light of the issues raised in these reviews. It was an interesting book and I learnt a lot especially about the period from 1920 to 1929 in the Soviet Union, the ultimate failure of the various oppositions to Stalin and whether history could have taken a different course if these oppositions had not made mistakes. Or whether the current was flowing too strongly against the Left and other oppositions regardless of what they did after the failure of the revolution in Germany, the rise of the theory of socialism in one country and the exhaustion, dispersion and physical elimination of many of the prime actors in the layers of the working class that made the Russian revolution and their replacement by others in the state and party apparatus. But also Broué’s own motives in writing the book and how he treats, for example, Trotsky’s positions and action on the Kronstadt events, the discussion on the role of the trade unions during the war communist period and on possible use of the army against the Stalinists and the ever-present references to the French revolution among the old Bolsheviks and Trotsky’s fear of appearing to be a Bonaparte figure.

I often feel restless and ill at ease when I come to the end of a book that’s been occupying my thoughts, probably because my reading is too unsystematic. After a while, I settle on a new book and trundle on contentedly once I’m rolling stably on the new rails. I’ve settled for another serendipitous find T.M. Charles-Edwards “Wales and the Britons 350-1064”, the first volume of a history of Wales.

This period interests me, not least in terms of language. I’ve always found it strange that the original Celtic British language, Brythonic, left so little trace in modern English. There’s “brock” an old word for badger, quite a few place names and river names but not a huge amount of vocabulary and very little grammatical influence, while the Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Normans have all left a much more substantial imprint. Traditionally, this has been explained by the picture of the Celtic Britons fleeing or being driven away to the West (and perhaps to little Britain, Brittany), physically eliminated or reduced to an inferior existence on the margins of Anglo-Saxon society. There are a few glimpses of light in the early Anglo-Saxon period but much that we don’t know. We know, however, that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t sweep across the Britain as quickly as the Normans did but that it was a slow process over up to 300 years. They became established in the south-east and only slowly moved westwards so that for a long time after the Anglo-Saxons had first arrived, there was still a continuous belt of Celtic Brythonic speaking people from the current Scottish border down through Cumbria to the West of England. The Anglo-Saxons didn’t reach the Bristol Channel until some time around AD 700 and it was not until after AD 800 that the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia (centred on present-day Devon) collapsed, leaving Cornwall separated from Celtic areas elsewhere and that there were still Celtic speakers in Exeter at least almost up to the time of the Norman invasion.

An interesting thought garnered from Charles-Edwards’ book is the language situation in the south and east of Britain when the Anglo-Saxons arrived. I had also thought in terms of a Brythonic-speaking community but as Britain had been under Roman rule for a number of centuries, and this area was a core area of Roman rule and close to Roman Gaul, then British Latin would have been widely spoken. How widely I don’t know but it’s reasonable to assume that the incoming Anglo-Saxons would not have met a solely Brythonic-speaking population (to the extent that they communicated with words rather than engaging in non-verbal activities) and that this would go some way towards explaining the lack of Celtic words in English.

The situation would have been different for the Anglo-Saxons penetrating western and northern England. British Latin was presumably much less widely used outside of the places where there were forts and Roman villas. There is also I believe DNA evidence that the original Celtic population was not physically removed but eventually integrated (I believe, for example, that inhabitants of Dorset have more mixed DNA, more Celtic ancestors than further east in England). By this time too, the Anglo-Saxons would have become Christian. There is evidence of contact between Celts and Anglo-Saxons in the north where the Bible nudged away the battle axe to some extent in interpersonal communication (although the battle axe probably still came in handy at times). I’d like to know more about what happened to the Anglo-Saxon language in these conditions – what was the influence of Brythonic and the Celtic environment? Are there, for example, more Celtic place names in the north? Is there any tangible influence of Brythonic over northern dialects of English?

I’m hoping Charles-Edward’s book on Wales will help me structure my confusion a bit better. “Wales” is actually an Anglo-Saxon concept (the word for “foreigners” in Anglo-Saxon). Wikipedia tells us that the Welsh call themselves Cymry with its etymology from the Brythonic Combrogi meaning “fellow countrymen” (thus also covering the Celtic inhabitants of present-day Cumbria and presumably all of the Brythonic-speaking inhabitants of Briton). Charles-Edwards deals with the process by which the terms Wales and Welsh as we now use them came into existence.

It seems a well-researched book, worthy of a slow read and I shall enjoy working my way through it

(and feel more harmonious for a while…).

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