Tombland, lych gate and the Dane Law

Near our hotel is the church of St George Tombland. It’s not, however, as one might think a quirky mediaeval way of describing the graveyard; the word “Tombland” is older originating from the Old English/Anglo-Saxon word for an unused (vacant or empty) plot of land, “tom”. Many words of Germanic or Nordic origin would have been lost by the Middle Ages and replaced by Norman French. The “b” was probably added to make sense of the “tomland” (in fact making nonsense of it). This makes immediate sense to a Swede where the word “tom” is alive and kicking and means exactly “empty”. I treasure these moments when my Swedish helps me better understand what just looks quirky in English.

Another favourite of mine is “lych gate”, the covered gate to a churchyard. It makes no immediate sense to a modern English speaker, other perhaps than a very vague association with “lichen” attached to ancient wood. But a Swede would not be surprised to learn that it was the gate through which the pallbearers carried the corpse into the church, “lik” being the Swedish word for corpse.

Here in East Anglia, we are in the Dane Law, the part of England ruled for some considerable time by the Danish King, east of the Roman road, Watling St. Even after the end of the Viking period, a considerable number of Scandinavians remained settled in England. The relevant volumes of the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror’s massive account of the resources of the conquered country, contains plenty of Scandinavian names, for instance, in Lincolnshire (I’ve not checked Norfolk yet).

But it seems to me as if the history of the Dane Law has been poorly integrated into the history of Britain. Our focus on the period is centred on the Anglo-Saxons, Alfred of Wessex and the resistance against the Vikings. I don’t know so much about the history of history, when the Anglo-Saxons became as it were rehabilitated as England separated from the French and its power grew. But the Anglo-Saxons were admitted to official history, they became “us” and identity with the Normans weakened. The Vikings were also others. But at the same time, there is much evidence that this was anything but a temporary incursion – the large quantity of Scandinavian place names, the impact on the language and the development of the law. I would like to learn more about this but the written record seems sparse, or at least we are not spoon fed with what there is to know as with Alfred and his burnt cakes and other derring do. Perhaps one should look at Danish sources.

My visit to East Anglia has whetted my appetite for exploring this area of England. I’ve been here before but I don’t know it well. First camping beside a main road just west of Norwich, perhaps near Dereham, in my teens when I was immortal so no worries about lorries mounting the verge. But then I flashed straight past Norwich on my way to the coast and south. And then again when I studied at Essex University in Colchester close to the border between Essex and Suffolk. As an active member of the Students Union, I visited the University of East Anglia, another new University, a few times but I remember hardly anything of these visits, neither the city nor the university, just a few scenes from a trip when I was accompanied by my then girlfriend.

And more recently, I spent an enjoyable day exploring the coast between Cromer and Sheringham with a few hours between trains in Norwich on the way home; enough to note that it was a fine city but not enough to see it properly.

This time has been better but I’ll come back and explore more, including the Suffolk coast which has been on my list for a long time.

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