A Love of Innuendo
Caesar shared Tacitus’ verdict that the misty island to the north of Gaul was pretium victoriae (worth the conquest), but his assault on Britain was a fiasco. The Romans’ invasion force had to anchor off Dover, conceding the advantage of surprise. The Britons, watching from the white cliffs, mobilized chariots and cavalry to shadow the fleet as it moved along the coast. When Caesar’s legions finally struggled ashore, they endured a difficult month in hostile territory before retreating across the Channel to the comforts and security of Gaul. A second invasion, the following year, was scarcely more successful. Until the Romans could decide whether they were conquerors or colonizers, their invasions remained pointless and ill-conceived, but in AD 43 the emperor Claudius finally established Britannia as Rome’s northernmost province. The benefits of the pax Romana brought roads, civic values and education to an agricultural and largely illiterate society. It also established an elite cadre of Romanized Britons who enjoyed a level of civilization (as can be seen, for example, at the splendid palace at Fishbourne, near Chichester) commensurate with life in Rome or any of its great Mediterranean colonies. Latin became established as the language of scholarship, law and government; educated Britons began to have access to Continental culture. The poet Martial, for instance, claimed that his work was read in remote Britannia. For about four hundred years, while Rome was strong, this settlement went largely unchallenged. When the legions withdrew (traditionally, in AD 410) this achievement was rapidly undone, as a new generation of European raiders turned its attention to the fertile islands across the water.
And out of the confused last decades of the Romans in Britain comes the legend of Camelot, one of the founding myths of English culture. Few can resist the appeal of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Scholars will always debate the origins of ‘the once and future king’, who was perhaps both a Celtic hero and a Roman dux bellorum, but one thing is certain: history or fantasy, Arthur has inspired a literature that transcends academic controversy, includes Tennyson, Wagner and Mark Twain, and continues to flourish as a potent popular legend. Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot and the rest have become English archetypes, but Arthur – a patriot, and a noble champion of a doomed way of life – was actually British, not English, an important distinction. It was the Angles and Saxons, Germanic marauders introducing their values at the point of a sword, who represented the future – as the Angelcynn, or ‘English-kind’.
According to their own record of events, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, these raiders from Saxony were a terrifying new enemy. ‘Never’, wrote the chronicler, ‘was there such slaughter in this island’. Between 449 and 800 Roman Britannia was conquered, occupied and subdued. The Celts, driven north and west, fled from the invaders ‘as from fire’. The Anglo-Saxons occupied former Romano-British settlements and established control of the most fertile parts of the island. In the course of 150 years they set up seven kingdoms (Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Kent, Sussex, Essex and Wessex) in territory that roughly corresponds to present-day England and explains the tenacious survival of its ancient dialects. The dispossessed Britons became known as wealas (foreigners), the origin of Welsh. Saxon–Celt hostility went both ways. One fragment of an early Welsh folk song tells of a young man going with ‘a heart like lead’ to live in ‘the land of the Saxons’. The conquerors were always ‘Saxons’, but gradually the terms ‘Anglii’ and ‘Anglia’ crept into everyday usage. About 150 years after the first sea-raids, the people came to be referred to as Angelcynn in the vernacular. Their language, which is known today as Old English, was Englisc. By 1000 the country would be generally known as Englaland, the land of the Angles. Despite the chasm between the English on the one side and the Scots, Welsh and Irish on the other, there was an important cross-fertilization that still makes a powerful contribution to contemporary English culture.
The lyrical spirit of the Celts imbues English speech and literature, from the earliest ballads to the poetry of George Mackay Brown and Seamus Heaney, with a quality unknown to the Saxon mind. Many of the finest writers in English – Swift, Burke, Burns, Scott, Stevenson, Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, Joyce, Dylan Thomas – are of Celtic origin. Their work tempers the plainness of the Anglo-Saxon tradition with wit, plangent melancholy and an indefinable sense of ‘otherness’. The Welsh writer Jan Morris has identified this ‘concept of unspecified yearning’ peculiar to the Celts as hiraeth. ‘Pathos is part of it,’ she writes, ‘but in a lyrical form to which I am sentimentally susceptible… it is as though I have been taken, for a brief sententious glimpse, out of time to nowhere.’
Compared to the Britons, the Anglo-Saxons were pragmatic, with a can-do approach to life, reminiscent of gung-ho Americans. They came as raiders, and conquered as warriors, but settled as farmers and artisans. They were an agricultural people whose sinuous and complex art, visual as much as literary, seems to celebrate both the mystery of the world and its miraculous design. Their vocabulary is full of farming: sheep, earth, plough, dog, wood, field and work all derive from Old English. When the daily struggle of life in the field was over, they loved to celebrate with glee, laughter and mirth. Their language is the robust and charismatic heart of an extraordinary literary tradition.
Old English – Tolkien’s ‘Ancient English’ – remains the cornerstone of English. All its basic building blocks – words like the, is, you – are Anglo-Saxon. It is impossible, without tortuous circumlocution, to write a contemporary English sentence without Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; and some Old English words, for instance mann, hus and drincan, hardly need translation. Everyone who speaks or writes any kind of English in the twenty-first century is using accents, grammar and vocabulary which, with several modifications, can be traced in a direct lineage to the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons. Popular lyrics, for instance, often echo the simplicity of the Nordic tradition. In the Beatles song Yesterday on the word “trouble” has and old French/Latin root, troubler/trubidare. In ‘Sonnet 80,’ Shakespear achieves a similarly brilliant effect with ‘O how I faint when I of you do write’.When in 1940 Winston Churchill appealed to the hearts and minds of the English-speaking people, he did so with the plain bareness for which Old English is renowned: ‘We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds; we shall fight in the fields and in the streets; we shall fight in the hills…’ Churchill was inciting the emotions of an island people. After nearly two thousand years there was still plenty of rhetorical voltage to be found in allusions to beaches, cliffs and Germanic invaders.
The Anglo-Saxons were sophisticated in the arts of speech. Theirs was an oral culture, favouring understatement and wit. Their expression for allusion and bawdy wordplay is wordum wrixlan (to weave words together). Their love of innuendo – a distinguishing characteristic of English, and one that will always commend it to DJs and comedians – is most clearly demonstrated in the pleasure they took in punning ambiguity, for example The Exeter Book of riddles. In a pagan world, with some lingering traces of Roman Christianity, people worshipped local deities and the gods or goddesses of old Germania. Their priests and sacred buildings (about which we know very little) celebrated a pastoral way of life with heathen rituals not far removed from those described by Tacitus. When Christianity arrived in the country in 597 it achieved a cultural revolution that transformed England and Englishness, and continues to shape the world’s English: the global communion of the Anglican Church, for example, is as much African and American as English. The extraordinary impact of Christianity is reported by the Venerable Bede in his History of the English Church and People, a story that says as much about the fruitful collision of Latin and Old English as it does about the spread of God’s word.
According to tradition, St Augustine’s all-important mission in 597 was inspired by the man who would become Pope Gregory the Great. Walking in Rome’s marketplace, he came upon some fair-haired boys being sold as slaves. He was told they came from the island of Britain, and were pagans. ‘What a pity’, said Gregory, ‘that the author of darkness is possessed of men of such fair countenances.’ And what was the name of their country? They were called Angles (Anglii). ‘Right,’ replied the holy man, ‘for they have an angelic face; it is fitting that they should be co-heirs with the angels in heaven. What is the name’, he asked, ‘of the province from which they have been brought?’ He was advised that they were natives of the province known to the Romans as Deira. ‘Truly they are de ira,’ is how Bede expresses the future pope’s reply, ‘plucked from wrath and called to the memory of Christ. And how’, he went on, ‘is the king of that province called?’ They told him his name was Aella. Gregory, who appears to have had an incorrigible appetite for puns, replied: ‘Alleluia, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts.’
Gregory intended to undertake the mission to Britain himself, but in the end he sent Augustine and about fifty monks to Kent, a minor English kingdom. When the missionaries preached at the court of King Aethelbert, the king replied, ‘Your words and promises are fair indeed; but they are new and uncertain, and I cannot accept them and abandon the age-old beliefs that I have held, together with the whole English nation.’ Aethelbert, however, was a fair-minded man. ‘But since you have travelled far, and I can see that you are sincere…’ he went on, ‘we will not harm you. We will receive you hospitably and take care to supply you with all that you need; nor will we forbid you to preach and win any people you can to your religion.’ Augustine’s mission went ahead unimpeded.