Post-covid planning

A few years ago I visited Tyneham on the Dorset coast, whose inhabitants were forced to move during the second world war as the area was wanted for military purposes. The promise to return was never kept and the army is still there. For years there was a campaign to make them release the village but as the still living villagers had become settled elsewhere and awareness grew that there were no caravan sites or much other development in Tyneham so that the army had, like a Hindu deity, preserved as well as destroyed, the campaign lost its passion. It had, however, encouraged more careful care of the old church and school and to allow well shepherded seasonal visitors limited access.

The children’s work from the 1940s at the old school, their detailed observations of the natural surroundings, birds and flowers struck me. They might be regarded as poorly educated with a restricted view of the world but that says as much about us, why we see what we see, as it does about them.

Here in Uppsala, the snow has mainly melted and green is replacing grey. Perhaps there will be more snow but winter has passed its peak. It’s getting lighter and the pace is quickening from the stoic trudge of the worst months. I’m looking forward to resuming my explorations of my natural environment, trying to understand, to penetrate and not dismiss what I see after a cursive glance.

A lot remains of the cultural Uppland but I want to understand the physical environment too, its geology, the landscape and the considerable traces of glaciation, its waterways. High on my list is a visit to Viksta stentorg, the remains of a beach where the sea is now far away. A beach where you could sit and dream without risking being struck in the head by a ball.

With friends and family in several European countries, I may not spend that much time in Sweden but I shall think about my priorities for my Uppland project as well as my other projects. And try to use the weeks that remain until vaccination makes it possible to travel to work on my first post-Covid plan, to decide what I want to read during the coming six months and where I can get hold of this literature on various topics that interest me, what libraries I might use, what I should download to my Kindle, what I should take with me.

In search of the Dane Law

Living in Sweden has been made me much more attentive to the signs of Scandinavia in the UK.

There are the place names where we have any number ending in “thorpe” and “by” (Swedish  torp) in Eastern England, the old Dane Law. And around the coast, in the Wirral peninsula and the islands off Scotland, where we find “Bostad” in Lewis in the outer Hebrides. And in Orkney and the Shetlands, names of Scandinavian origin are everywhere. Orkney and Shetland did not become Scottish until 1472 and the last speaker of Norn, the Scandinavian language of the islands, Walter Sutherland, died around 1850 (and presumably there was knowledge of Norn in fragmentary form after that).

Norn lives on in the Shetland dialect where, for example, “grice” means pig (gris in Swedish), “gulsa” is jaundice (gulsot in Swedish), “keek” to peek (kika in Swedish). A fluent reader of Danish or Norwegian would find many more cognates.

Further south, large areas of Eastern England, the Dane Law,  were subject to Danish law with substantial Danish colonisation in the century or so before the Norman Conquest.

Scandinavian names abound in the Domesday Book for, for example, Lincolnshire, William the Conqueror’s inventory of the loot from about 1080, Here we find landowners called Halfdan, Knutr, Sveinn, Thorulf and Esbjorn among others.

It strikes me as odd though that I have not been able to find many written traces of the Dane Law, despite a considerable number of Scandinavians having settled and lived there. The Anglo-Saxons were, by contrast, far better documented. There are gaps where the sources are thin, especially in the early period but none the less we have access to a large corpus of texts of various kinds, literature, wills, religious texts etc., in Early English and in Latin. But the Danelaw is more obscure.

I was excited to receive Cyril Hart’s “The Dane Law” (1992) from a Danish second-hand bookshop.

It looks fascinating and I shall enjoy reading it but I couldn’t find many links in the bibliography to material written during the period in Latin, Danish or English, which actually originated from the Dane Law. And not much literature in Danish at any period, while there is a lot on the Anglo-Saxons. I hope a careful reading will soften or at least explain this judgment.

History is often produced for a reason. It took a long time after the Norman conquest before a new concept of Englishness emerged which combined the history of the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans.

I should like to know more about the history of the re-emergence of the Anglo-Saxons. I presume that historians did much work on this during the rise of the UK as an imperial power, especially perhaps in the Victorian period (glorification of King Alfred, his scholarship, navy, battles against the Viking invader, burnt cakes etc).  We still only count our kings and queens from the Norman conquest – the early Edwards don’t count, even though Edward the Confessor has had a good press.


The Danes have not been pressed into service to the same extent. They are presented as vikings, storming ashore killing monks and removing their treasures. But there is much less focus on the later period when the Danes came to stay with many named settlements. We are told about the money for peace impositions by the vikings and successful resistance and pushback by King Alfred in Wessex (the plucky underdog is a recurrent theme in British history with less emphasis on the vicious overdog…). We are told about Canute (Knut) telling the sea to behave and encouraged to agree that that was rather foolish.  The extensive Danish settlement in the Dane Law, the import of administrative words such as “soke” (socken) and “wapentake” (admittedly of martial origin but later an administrative word), and other legal words makes me feel that Vikings rushing up the beaches and silly Canute are far from the whole story of the Scandinavians in England.

I suppose this is because we haven’t needed the Scandinavians in the construction of our national myth. And our insufficient skills in the Scandinavian languages don’t help. Widespread knowledge of French and German helps us understand Anglo-Saxon and Norman history.

I’ve read some material on the Scandinavian influence on the English language (I can’t remember the title but it may have been from researchers at the University of Oslo).

Swedish researchers from Lund and Uppsala were very active in the twentieth century in working on the origin of English place names and the foremost studies of the place names of Dorset for example, are Swedes. I’d like to know more about these researchers.

As we have at least access to a good selection of Scandinavian personal and place names, it would be interesting to look at the principles that governed selection of place names – the proportion of place names based on geographical features (Dalby), those named after gods and goddesses in the Asa religion. How do these vary over time and can we learn anything about gaps (for example, a cursory look at the material it seems that Thor is often used while Oden/Woden, (becoming perhaps, for example, Wednesbury) is less frequent). Distinguishing names of  Scandinavian origin from Anglo-Saxon is difficult – the Anglo-Saxons were pagan for a rather longer time than the settled Vikings. But comparing Christian Anglo-Saxon place naming with what happened in the Dane Law also seems interesting (what was Christianity like in the Danish areas – if they were Christian, we might expect names of places after saints important in the Nordic world etc.).


It would be great to find a book on the various aspects of the Scandinavian influence on England – political, legal, administrative, religious, cultural, language-wise etc.

Zeals where the willows grew

Despite having lived in Sweden for over 40 years, I still find new links between the English and Swedish languages from time to time. These have often come about through Old English (Anglo-Saxon), the language of England before the Norman Conquest. Both Old English and Old Nordic had common Germanic roots and the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons would have been able to understand one another after a fashion (and misunderstand one another as may be evidenced by the tortured tangle of “shall” and “will” in English, which lead a much calmer life in Swedish as two neatly separated verbs).

I’ve recently acquired “The Place Names of Wiltshire” by Gower, Mower and Stenton, I caught sight of the derivation of the name of the small village of Zeals on the county’s western border with Dorset (and with Somerset not far away). I’ve always thought it a strange name, giving incorrect associations to the word “zeal” meaning enthusiasm from the Greek zelos. This Zeals, however, has a different etymology and comes from the Old English “sealh” (sealas in the plural) meaning a type of willow tree, We have “sälg” in Swedish with the modern English equivalent “sallow”, used for a low, shrubby willow tree, I must check to see whether there are still any willows around in Zeals next time I’m there. The western English dialect has made its presence felt in the spelling of the village’s name, leading the s sound to be pronounced and written as a z.

The philologist and antiquarian William Barnes and his wife Julia ran a school in nearby Mere, a slighter larger community. He had a grasp of a great number of European languages as well as Sanskrit and Hebrew and I believe even Hindi. I’ve no record of him learning Old English but I suppose he must have known it. The Barnes ran a school in Mere from 1823-35 before moving to Dorchester, where Barnes later knew Hardy. Barnes became enthusiastic later in life on stripping the English language of words of French origin and replacing them with alternatives based on Old English so that, for example, Social Science as a school subject might be renamed “Folk Lore” in William Barnes’ English.

It pleases me to think of this serious community of educated and self educated in Dorchester in mid Victorian times. Hardy, Barnes and the Moules, well versed in the Bible and Classical Rome and Greece, with some of them having a command of Hebrew and great knowledge of the local Dorset dialect and the history and culture of the area. It’s a much more pleasing thought than Hardy’s death in 1928 when he wished to be buried in Stinsford churchyard where his family had lived. But he was regarded as too much of a national treasure to escape Westminster Abbey, After a few shillies and shallies, a nightmare compromise was achieved whereby Hardy’s heart was removed to be buried in Stinsford while the rest remained in Westminster Abbey. I think this was and remains a horrible ghoulish solution – perpetuating the split in Hardy’s life between Dorset and London high society, where the Hardys were drawn to hob nob with the rich and fashionable during the season.

 It’s probably apocryphal but there is a real Hardyian twist to this story as a cat is supposed to have interfered with the container in which Hardy’s heart was being transported to Dorset.

I think the solution would have horrified Hardy too but he would have been amused by the cat.