Reprinted from Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language by Robert McCrum Copyright © 2010 by Robert McCrum. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Chapter One: In the Beginning
Four Invasions and a Cultural Revolution
I felt an unconscious thrill, as if something had stirred me, half-wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond Ancient English.
—J. R. R. Tolkien
Our story begins with a human sacrifice. Stranger than this, it starts in a Danish swamp. Perhaps strangest of all, we owe this information about the violent origins of the English-speaking world to the Roman historian Tacitus, the author of Germania, ‘On the Origin and Character of Germany’. The German tribes, wrote Tacitus, love freedom, their women are chaste, and there is no public extravagance; the Tencteri excel in horsemanship; the Suebi ‘tie their hair in a knot’, and so on. But no picture is perfect. There are, Tacitus continues, seven tribes about whom there is ‘nothing noteworthy’ to say, except that they worship Nerthus, the goddess Mother Earth, ‘a ceremony performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake’. One of these seven barbarous tribes was ‘the Anglii’, better known to history as the Angles.
Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language
Tacitus turns out to have been a good witness. Peat has a curious property, and the savage rituals of the Anglii have not been entirely forgotten. In 1950, two Danish peat-cutters, working in the neighbourhood of Tollund, unearthed the body of a man. But when the police came, their response was to summon the local archivist, not the coroner, and the investigation quickly took on a historical dimension. These Moorleichen (swamp corpses), unmistakably sacrificial victims, still on display in Danish museums, are astonishingly well preserved. One man has been strangled. Another’s throat has been cut: you can see the stubble on his chin. Amid those far-off horrors, speech was dumb in the presence of a cruel death, but if, by some rough magic, you could restore their speech, you would hear a language that distantly echoes our own. These leathery corpses are the remote ancestors of the -English-speaking peoples, and the discovery of their remains is a reminder that, to this day, traces of the English language can sometimes be found in the most surprising places. The other lesson of this snippet from a Dark Age police blotter is that English was originally a foreign tongue. Albion, the ancient word for these islands off the north-west coast of Europe, comes from British roots, Celtic (albio) and Gaelic (alba), with connotations of ‘whiteness’ that may invoke Britain’s white cliffs. Albion was a place of chalky giants, primitive sorcery, sun worship and sea monsters. Albion is where England and its story begin.
The making of a recognizable Englishness, the painful transition to Anglo-Saxon ‘Englaland’, is a history of four invasions and a cultural revolution. English, of course, is not unique. French, German and Russian all have obscure and violent origins. But English was slightly different, by virtue of its location. English was a mirror to its island state, an idiosyncratic mixture of splendid isolation and humiliating foreign occupation. On the positive side, the first invasion, by the Romans, connected the island to a European Latin tradition that would linger for more than a thousand years. The second, by the Anglo-Saxons, established an independent vernacular culture. The third invasion, by the Vikings, would inspire a strong sense of national identity. Each contributed to the mongrel character of English culture, a quality that plays well in a multicultural world. Meanwhile, the arrival of Christianity sponsored a cultural transformation whose influence persists to the present day. Finally, all of these upheavals would be trumped by the Norman Conquest, the mother of all invasions. Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, summarizing the first millennium, described ‘your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English’. From 55 BC to AD 1066 the traditions of the place evolve, but there was never any doubt of the country’s identity: it was an island (properly, an archipelago) whose inhabitants were never further than a hard day’s ride from the sea.
The tides and climate of the sea shaped the making of English in countless ways. At the outset, the sea was not just the most effective natural defence known to man and a great natural highway, it also made the tribes it protected separate, proud, watchful and self-conscious. Islanders are not like other people; they have different psychic and physical horizons. It is no accident that the English were the first in Europe to produce a vernacular account of their exploits, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But insularity does not automatically sponsor an appetite for trade. Plenty of island cultures, Japan for example, have cultivated isolation. However, in this story, trade and culture became intimately related. The sea did more than just define the English, it inspired them to become sailors, merchants, explorers and empire-builders. Language and culture reflected this experience and gave English its highly interactive character. The sea linked Liverpool to Dublin and Charleston, Whitby to London and New South Wales, and Bristol to Jamaica, Philadelphia and Calcutta. In the making of an English consciousness, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the sea. There is, as the historian David Miles has put it, another way of looking at this: ‘The outside world does not bounce off the white cliffs of Dover; rather it washes around them and into the inlets of the Thames, Ouse, Humber and Trent, the Tyne, Forth, Clyde, Dee, Mersey, Severn and Shannon.’ All the climactic moments of British history – the Armada of 1588, the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the battle of Britain, 1940 – owe their significance to one thing: the defence of the realm conducted around the approaches to the English Channel, southern, western or aerial. The first of these historical milestones occurred in the late summer of 55 BC when Rome’s all-conquering general, Julius Caesar, launched a seaborne landing on the south coast.
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.
A Cowherd Who Could Not Sing
With the word of God came the building of churches and monasteries, the pillars of Anglo-Saxon culture. Bede, at his monastery in Jarrow, writes that not only were the great monk-teachers learned in ‘sacred and profane literature’, they taught poetry, astronomy and arithmetic. The new monasteries also encouraged vernacular writing, and some astonishing work in stone and glass, rich embroidery and magnificent illuminated manuscripts.
The cultural revolution of Christianity both enriched Old English with scores of new words (apostle, pope, angel, psalter) and, just as importantly, also introduced the capacity to articulate abstract thought. Before St Augustine it was easy enough to express the common experience of everyday life – sun and moon, hand and heart, heat and cold, sea and land – in Old English, but much harder to convey subtle ideas without the use of cumbersome and elaborate German-style portmanteaus like frumwoerc (= creation), from fruma, beginning, and weorc, work.
In the long run, the role of the English Church would be as much cultural as religious. Souls might be saved but sentences would be transformed. The language of the King James Bible (and The Book of Common Prayer), braided into English, echoes through the poetry of George Herbert and William Blake, the novels of Dickens, the rhetorical cadences of Martin Luther King Jr., and lately, Barack Obama. Listen, for instance to Obama’s account of his origins in his bestselling memoir, Dreams from My Father:
First there was Miriwu. It’s not known who came before. Miriwu sired Sigoma, Sigoma sired Owiny, Owiny sired Kisodhi, Kisodhi sired Ogelo, Ogelo sired Otondi, Otondi sired Obongo, Obongo sired Okoth, and Okoth sired Opiquo. The women who bore them, their names are forgotten, for that was the way of our people.
Next to Shakespeare, there is no more influential text in the English tradition than the Bible. In the seventh century AD, however, the interplay of creativity and the word of God seemed so rare and miraculous that Bede actually cites a singular example of divine inspiration, the case of an illiterate Yorkshire poet, and the author of the earliest surviving poem in English, known as ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’.
This nine-line fragment of Old English vernacular was not the work of a monk or a scholar. Caedmon was a cowherd who could not sing. When, around the fireside, the harp was passed among the other herdsmen, Caedmon would make his excuses and depart, embarrassed by his tin ear. He remained aloof from the festive hearth until one evening, Bede reports, an angel came to him in a dream. ‘Caedmon,’ called the Angel, ‘Sing something.’ ‘I cannot,’ replied the cowherd, ‘for I do not know how to sing, and for that reason I left the gathering.’ ‘Still,’ persisted the angel, ‘you can sing.’ ‘What shall I sing about?’ asked Caedmon. ‘Sing about the creation of the world,’ instructed the angel. And so Caedmon was inspired, and made his song. These beginnings of English poetry seem fanciful, but they echo the making of Ireland’s Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney. When he was growing up, a farmer’s son in Co. Derry, the closest Heaney came to poetry was through traditional festival recitations. He found his vocation through a poetry-reading circle in Belfast and then, in a burst of inspiration, completed the poems like ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and ‘Tollund Man’ (a poem about Moorleichen), that announced the arrival of an important new poetic voice. Heaney says he harks back to the Anglo-Saxons, a society whose culture haunts the work of poets through the ages, from Milton to the present. W. H. Auden, indeed, once declared himself ‘spellbound’ by Old English poetry.
In the end, the Anglo-Saxon settlement proved as vulnerable as the Roman, and its obsession with the transitoriness of life came into its own. In the eighth century as much as the fifth, an island with the promise of minerals would always be attractive to invaders. For the next three hundred years the English experienced another foreign occupation in which their culture would be forced to adapt or face annihilation. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Mixture is a secret of the English island.’ This time, the enemy from the sea was symbolic of a wider European phenomenon.
The mass movement of the Scandinavian peoples between the years 750 and 1050, one of the great migrations of European history, began as seasonal plunder-raids and ended as conquest and settlement. Collectively these people are known as the Vikings, a name thought to come either from the Norse vik (‘a bay’), indicating ‘one who frequents inlets of the sea’, or from the Old English wic, a camp – the formation of temporary encampments was a prominent feature of Viking raids. Unlike the ethnic cleansing by the Anglo-Saxons, which obliterated virtually everything Celtic in English culture, the Viking settlers had a profound influence on the making of England. There was consanguinity between these Nordic peoples; it was often difficult to distinguish between invading Norseman and resident Saxon. At the time, however, the Vikings were notoriously destructive. In 793 the monasteries of Jarrow and Lindisfarne were sacked in successive seasons and plundered of gold and silver. By the middle of the ninth century almost half the country was in Viking hands. Now the Norsemen, or ‘Danes’, turned their forces against the jewel in the crown: the kingdom of Wessex.
Wars make leaders. The king of Wessex was a young man named Alfred. In the early history of Britain, where Arthur is a myth, Alfred is a historical hero, ‘Angelonde’s deorling’, according to the twelfth-century priest Layamon. Arthur’s historical existence is at best shadowy, Alfred’s is well documented. But they have one thing in common: both Arthur and Alfred are remembered by apocryphal stories. In the making of English, fact and fantasy are sometimes inseparable. Alfred, of course, is the king who burned the cakes. This, as the historian David Horspool notes, is ‘a moment in history that probably never happened’. As the story goes – the desperate king taking refuge in a cowherd’s hovel, alone, almost destitute, and reduced to the condition of a common traveller – Alfred was sitting by the fireside, brooding on his fate, when the woman of the house asked him to mind some cakes she was baking over the embers. Then, as Charles Dickens narrates it in A Child’s History of England, ‘thinking deeply of his poor unhappy subjects whom the Danes had chased through the land, his noble mind forgot the cakes, and they were burnt. “What!” said the cowherd’s wife… you will be ready enough to eat them by-and-by, and yet you cannot watch them, idle dog?” A fugitive king, lost among his own people, is a universal tale that recurs in the Old Testament (King David in the Book of Samuel) and in the Ramayana (where Lord Rama goes into forest exile). But the legend of Alfred’s travails has a special significance: it symbolizes the moment at which it was suddenly possible that England and Englishness might be wiped out altogether. With no English-speaking kingdoms left, the country would gradually speak Norse.
Instead, the turning point came later that same year, 878. Alfred raised a fresh army from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire and overwhelmed the Danes at the battle of Edington, a victory commemorated by a white horse carved on the hillside overlooking the battlefield.
Alfred’s story benefits from the fusion of three powerful elements. First, Alfred has the luck of good spin, historically speaking. As well as a near-contemporary biography written by Asser, one of his bishops, there is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a unique document of current events commissioned by the king, together with the bounty of many other records: Alfred’s will, a peace treaty, several royal charters and one or two letters. Secondly, thanks to Bishop Asser’s biography, Alfred comes down to us as a great man but also a complex one, subtle, wise and all too human (apparently he was a martyr to piles). The third and clinching element of his greatness lies in one, indisputable quality: he was not merely victorious at the crucial battle of Edington, he also brought the Danes to heel at the peace treaty of Wedmore and set about Anglicizing his kingdom.
Alfred understood that his power-base in the south was insufficient to guarantee that peace with the Danes would hold, or that Englishmen living outside Wessex in, for example, Mercia (roughly, the -present-day Midlands) would not be gradually drawn back into the Danish empire. As king of Wessex, Alfred ruled only over people who lived in the counties of the south-west, around the ancient capital city of Winchester. He had no power over people who lived further afield, in Oxfordshire for example. Yet his survival against the Vikings depended on men and money from the kingdoms outside Wessex. He had to retain political control of territory that was not his by appealing to a shared sense of Englishness, expressed in the language. Alfred consciously used the ‘soft power’ of English to create a sense of national identity.
Without Alfred, the history of England would have been quite different, and certainly less nationalistic. Decisively for the progress of the vernacular, it was his inspiration to use English, not Latin, as the basis for the education of his people. At the age of nearly forty, amid what he called the ‘various and manifold cares of his kingdom’, he learned Latin so that he could oversee the translation of various key texts, notably Bede’s History of the English Church and People. Alfred described this campaign to win minds and hearts through cultural propaganda in his famous preface to Gregory’s Pastoral Care. ‘South of the Thames’, he writes, there is literally no one who can translate ‘a letter from Latin into English’. He goes on to argue the urgent need to ‘translate certain books which are most necessary for all men to know, into the language that we can all understand’, so that, as he puts it, ‘all the youth of free men now among the English people… are able to read English writing as well’. The champion of the English language, he was also the founder of English historical prose, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Globish In Embryo
This remarkable document is the key to Alfred’s afterlife as ‘The Great’. Possibly it was in Winston Churchill’s mind when he set out to write his own history of the Second World War. (‘Remember,’ he teased Stalin during a dispute about their mutual interpretation of the recent past, ‘if I live long enough I may be one of the historians.’) In fact, when Alfred died at the age of fifty in 899, not even the Chronicle, the house journal of his short reign, identified him as the figure he would become. Over the succeeding centuries his ‘greatness’ grew and flourished as subsequent generations found different kinds of inspiration in his story. By the eighteenth century Alfred had become the hero-king of conservative fantasy: Sir Richard Blackmore’s 12-volume verse epic Alfred (1723). Most influential of all is Alfred: A Masque (1740) by James Thomson and David Mallet, written and performed for Frederick, Prince of Wales, the son of George II. This pageant celebrates Britain’s imperial destiny, and closes with a chorus (‘Rule, Britannia!’) that quickly became an unofficial national anthem. To men of the late eighteenth century, Alfred was not just a proto-imperialist, he was even understood by some American revolutionaries to be a symbol of liberty, a man fighting tyranny on behalf of his people, and winning against the odds. One of the newly founded US Navy’s first battleships, seized from the British, was renamed Alfred, became the flagship and was commanded by John Paul Jones. Later, to the Victorians Alfred was an almost devotional figure. The radical Chartists liked to equate ‘the Code of Alfred’ with the freedoms promised in the People’s Charter. The publication in 1852 of The Whole Works of King Alfred was part of a revival that included G. F. Watts’s massive oil painting, Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes by Encountering them at Sea, and culminated in 1901 (wrongly thought to be the millennial anniversary of his death) with a bizarre ceremony at Winchester. Thereafter, the Alfred who burned the cakes had become part of England’s national myth. In a popular television poll conducted by the BBC in 2001, he was ineradicably a ‘great Briton’.
Alfred’s role in fostering national consciousness was vital, but history is not written by kings alone. For most people, there was the everyday business of raising families and putting food on the table. On the ground, Anglo-Saxon and Dane lived peacefully alongside each other for several generations. The similarity of Norse and Old English meant that both sides could communicate, in a rough-and-ready fashion that accelerated a linguistic merger: the word endings of an inflected language like Old English were slowly eliminated; Norse words like skirt, skin and sky were borrowed, adding another dimension, more light and shade, to the variety of the language. By AD 900 English had developed many of the characteristics for which it is known today. In the traffic between Dane and Saxon, it had become simplified. It was practical, direct and rich in synonyms: you can rear (English) or raise (Norse) a child. Soon it would develop the flexibility in which verbs could become nouns, and new foreign words became co-opted into everyday usage.
The fusion of Saxon and Norse traditions is epitomized in Beowulf, the undisputed masterpiece of Old English literature, and recently reimagined as a popular animation. This 3,000-line poem, a tale of the Geatish hero who fights dragons and monsters from the sea, was the first to be written down in a European vernacular language. Beowulf reveals a reflective mind, obsessed with the transience of life, and with the keeping of dignity in the face of defeat. Darker still is the predicament of Beowulf’s famous monster. Grendel never speaks. Deprived of language, he can only utter desperate cries of inarticulate rage. He becomes the personification of darkness. Like some kind of evil figure from The Lord of the Rings, he is described as a ‘hellish fiend’ and a ‘grim spirit’. And so, from Beowulf comes the first expression of a creative dialogue within the English literary tradition.
J. R. R. Tolkien, whose works also helped to inspire a new generation of make-believe in the Harry Potter series, first visited -Middle-earth in the aftermath of military service during the Great War. Demobilized and unemployed, he was given a job working on the definition of ‘W’ words like waggle, wake-wort and wampum for the still unfinished Oxford English Dictionary. Something in Old English spoke to Tolkien. He once described the consequences of his encounter with a single word – Earendel – as ‘a curious thrill… as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond Ancient English.’ Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a nostalgic fantasy, but it derives some of its inspiration from the historical reality of ninth- and tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England. After centuries of fighting this had evolved into sophisticated society. The ‘shires’, idealized by Tolkien in The Hobbit, were further subdivided into ‘hundreds’, with their own courts of justice. The government of the regions and a still-primitive central government were linked by the shire-reeve, or sherriff. This, as virtually every historian has noted, was the most thoroughly organized and administered government in early medieval Europe. It had a vigorous economy, a strong coinage, a sophisticated culture, and a prose dedicated to law and administration. From the middle of the tenth century a steady flow of charters, diplomas and writs, expressed not in Latin but in the common tongue, made Old English the premier vernacular of the western world, the precociously advanced medium of an independent-minded society isolated from, but trading with, the wider world: Globish in embryo.
The stability achieved by Alfred was short-lived. By the end of the first millennium England’s population was settled but still vulnerable. In 994 the Danes renewed their attacks and, led by King Cnut (the wave-resistant Canute of legend), transformed England into a Danish colony. Cnut reigned for nineteen years, but in 1042 the witan that chose a new king, Edward the Confessor, was dominated by fiercely independent Anglo-Saxons, led by Godwin, earl of Wessex. So Edward was never his own man. Within seven years the court was divided between the English (led by Earl Godwin) and the French (led by the bishop of London). Edward strengthened his ties with Normandy, and possibly promised his throne to the duke in a secret arrangement. He struggled on for a further eleven years, but died on 5 January 1066. Harold Godwinson, who had been Edward’s right-hand man, was crowned king the next day. In April 1066 came a terrifying omen: Halley’s comet, a celestial portent with a fiery tail, appeared in the heavens, presaging catastrophe. Perhaps news of Norman retribution had already filtered back to the court. Across the Channel, William of Normandy was preparing to invade. As spring moved into summer, William began to assemble the largest invasion force since the emperor Claudius in AD 43. The history-minded English people might place this threat in the context of a thousand years of foreign assault and enemy occupation, but they would have been wrong. This was not just another invasion, or even a new cultural revolution, though it would be both those things. In the pre-history of the world’s English, this was ‘The Conquest’. Ten sixty-six was a unique European event, different from all previous invasions. In the first place, this cross-Channel assault was a bold military challenge to a mature and vigorous rival, an independent society that was quite the equal of Norman France. In consequence, secondly, the stakes were much higher. Duke William, marshalling his army at the mouth of the Somme, was risking total victory, or utter annihilation. It was a huge gamble, finally, whose outcome would inspire centuries of complex Anglo-French relations, and many competing stories in prose and poetry, from Henry V and the archers of Agincourt to the siege of Orléans and the martyrdom of Jeanne d’Arc. That was in the future. As it turned out, the Norman Conquest was a close-run thing, and Harold might even have won.
The last English king marched into Kent to confront the invader on 14 October 1066. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Harold ‘came against him [William] at the hoary apple tree’ which stood at the junction of the roads leading out of Hastings towards London. Fighting on the field of Senlac, the English had the home advantage. The Saxon shield-wall was dug in at the top of a ridge, and the French had to attack uphill. As the Bayeux Tapestry indicates, it was a brutal battle, one of the longest in medieval history. The fortunes of war swayed backwards and forwards, as each side struggled for the decisive breakthrough. Finally, after hours of bloody attrition, Harold was killed, together with both his brothers, ‘and many good men’. Darkness fell, and, in the sombre words of the Chronicle, ‘the French remained masters of the field’.
In the tradition of previous invasions, the surviving Saxon earls, and the archbishop of Canterbury, immediately proclaimed a new English king – Edgar the Atheling – on the assumption that this latest upset would follow time-honoured custom: the triumphant Normans would simply take over the machinery of government, rule through Anglo-Saxon surrogates, and go home. Under that scenario, the influence of France would have been confined to some diplomatic niceties and a few French feasts. But William could not go along with this tradition, even if he had wanted to. The raison d’être of his army was that, if it were victorious, his commanders and their followers should enjoy the spoils of war – treasure, estates and titles of nobility. No sooner was the battle of Hastings won, than the Normans marched through the heartlands of Anglo-Saxon England, terrorizing its people into submission. It was the end of Englaland; and it should have been the end of Englisc. Certainly, the omens were not good.
On Christmas Day 1066 William I was crowned at Westminster, in a chaotic ceremony that mixed Saxon and Norman rites. This gave legitimacy to the new regime, but it did not guarantee its future tranquillity. William the Conqueror understood this only too well. After Christmas he gave orders for the construction of the castle that would become the Tower of London to begin. An imposing chain of Norman forts became the enduring symbol of William’s conquest. Saxon architecture, based on timber, brick and straw, always suggested a harmonious community among all classes. Norman stone was much more imposing, designed to convey the power of the state and the inflexible will of its alien king, as the new Norman lexicon of fortress, siege, assault and prison suggests. From now on the governors and the governed would live in separate worlds. And English became the mother tongue of an oppressed people, their sole means of self-expression.
© 2010 Robert McCrum