Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Normans and Flemings

When the Romans were in Britannia, the population was largely Celtic speaking (Brythonic). There are not so many traces of that in current English, a few dialect words, for example “brock” for badger, some place names (Dover) and strangely the names of many rivers are of Celtic origin. The traces are extremely few in the south-east, in Sussex and Kent, where the Anglo-Saxons first gained control, while elsewhere Brythonic kingdoms remained (in Devon and Cumbria (reminiscent of Cymru), for example) for a couple of centuries more. The absence of Celtic place names and Brythonic words in Old English probably indicates that the two groups, Anglo-Saxons and Celts did not intermingle or even live side-by-side but that the Celts fled to the West, to Wales (the land of the foreigners as the Anglo-Saxons expressed it) or to Brittany, or been defeated in battle and then or subsequently killed.

It took a couple of centuries before the Anglo-Saxons broke through to the West and separated Celtic Wales from Cornwall and Devon. By this time, the Anglo-Saxons had become Christianised. There are more indications by then that the two groups co-existed – there are a few more place names (for example a mix word like Penselwood) and I believe the incidence of Celtic DNA in the population is greater in Dorset, for example, than in the south-east.

We can compare and contrast this with the history of South Wales where the Normans invaded and colonised South Pembrokeshire, the so-called Little England beyond Wales. I was curious how it became so very English-speaking as the Normans in the late eleventh century presumably still spoke Norman French rather than a variant of English so that the languages involved were Norman French and Welsh. The history books refer to the Normans having many Anglo-Saxon retainers but could these retainers have been acquired from the recently defeated Anglo-Saxons as early as the 11th century? At a somewhat later date. the Normans also imported Flemish-speakers from Flanders (many refugees came from Flanders then (12th century) after a natural disaster (extensive flooding). I’m not clear what the function of these refugees were – if they were agricultural labourers or had a mix of occupations. I wonder whether there were extensive population movements after the plague years, the Black Death. But what is clear is that it was the English language that eventually became dominant in southern Pembrokeshire. The Welsh speakers seem to have disappeared as in England, fleeing northwards to the Welsh speaking areas of northern Pembrokeshire and elsewhere after the Normans seized their land, or being killed. The Normans quite clearly found the Welsh harder to integrate into their feudal system. This arouses associations to early capitalism where the rising bourgeoisie had not just to accumulate capital but also to separate the working class from the means of production, to construct a proletariat. The Welsh peasantry would initially have the memory of being forcefully separated from the land they had used or moreover had the possibility of fleeing north of the Landsker line and resuming their old life. It is not hard to think that they would be difficult to integrate into a manorial system and that the Normans would prefer to find more malleable serfs elsewhere.

There is still a clear line on the map, indicating the “Landsker”, the border between the Welsh and English-speaking areas, which for some centuries indicated the border of Norman control (Landsker is an interesting word that is not immediately comprehensive to a monoglot English person. The “sker” refers to a separation, a division ((think of the word “shears”, “skära” in Swedish, to cut)), which pops up again in the word “shire”). The border has been relatively stable although some areas lost to the Welsh were regained by them, especially areas that the Normans found it difficult to cultivate. The division between place names derived from English and from Welsh is still clear (it is an interesting mix with Scandinavian names around the coast, even a “by” name, Tenby, one etymological derivation being from “Dane-by”, Dane-town).

The Normans were interested in the fertile land of southern Pembrokeshire, also as a springboard to Ireland. Another factor that led to the establishment of the marcher lordships with looser central control and a licence to plunder was that the amount of land available to the Normans was diminishing and it was important for the Norman Kings to have access to land which they could grant to their feudal vassals in exchange for military support. Fertile southern Pembrokeshire was of interest in this respect while the northern areas were more barren and better suited to what is referred to as “tribal farming”. The Normans introduced the manorial system, high feudalism. The Welsh were presumably regarded as less desirable, perhaps less disciplined as feudal labour, and desirous of maintaining and expanding their independence.

I am unclear, however, as to whether these tribal lands were owned in common, where the tribe had its leaders but where the rights and responsibilities of the participants were different from the Norman feudal system, in other words was there a separate mode of production in the Welsh areas?

This difference persisted even after the English extended their control more deeply into Wales and crushed the Welsh efforts to construct a state. Land was held either under the system introduced by the Normans or under Welsh law.

A study of the history and development of Welsh law would be needed to  understand this properly as well as study of the development of modes of production, this focus facilitating an understanding of why the participants behaved as they did. This is not possible if the analysis is restricted to the political level of what individual leaders did and the results of battles. I’ve yet to find a satisfactory book on Welsh history but I shall try to get hold of Gwyn William’s “When was Wales”, which is held by Kungliga bibliotek in Stockholm.

There is also Rhiannon Comeau “Land, people and power in medieval Wales” and, together with other authors “Living off the Land: Agriculture in Wales c. 400 to 1600 AD” which are at Vitterhetsakademin’s library in Stockholm. I know nothing about her other than that she is established in the academic world but the titles are promising.

Strangely enough, Carolina Rediviva/Uppsala University library’s collections on Wales lack not a few important books on Wales as Uppsala is the major centre for the study of Celtic languages and culture in Sweden, but I suppose their focus is more on language and literature, more on the Mabinogion and less on modes of production in Wales.

In general, however, Sweden’s resources of books in English and catalogues are impressive and easy to access and I would miss these were I to shift my main base elsewhere. Access to academic libraries and their collections in the UK is grudgingly given, if at all, and should only be attempted after consultation with Theseus (my Thomas Hardy moment for the day)…

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