15.08.08, Harrington and Welch†, The Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Southern Britain

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Craig R. Davis

The Medieval Review 15.08.08

Harrington, Sue, and Martin Welch†. The Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Southern Britain, AD 450-650: Beneath the Tribal Hidage. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2014. pp. xiv, 242. ISBN: 9781782976127 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Craig R. Davis
Smith College

The Tribal Hidage is a survey of thirty-five small kingdoms and ethnic polities that appeared in lowland Britain, south of the Humber River, during the first two centuries that followed the Romans' abandonment of their former imperial diocese in the early fifth century. These peoples are quantified in terms of hides 'families,' not units of blood relationship per se, but of real estate: enough land to support a free farmer and his household. The extent of each hide depended on the fertility of local soils and other resources, averaging about 120 acres of plowland, pasture, and woods. Its system of assessment remained in use throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, although to the original form of tax payment--feorm 'FARM produce' or 'food'--was added labor on public works, military service, or hard currency. The original Tribal Hidage of the seventh century seems intended to assess tribute payments to a Northumbrian overlord from groups that conceived their primary loyalty in terms of kindred relationships rather than the particular lands they occupied, so that the precise location and extent of many of their territories is difficult to ascertain and changed considerably over time. Most groups soon disappeared as separate entities, swallowed up in the consolidation and expansion of broader regional kingdoms. The largest of these tribal polities between the Thames and Humber were the Mercians, whose heartland was in the valley of the Trent, and the East Angles, both counted at 30,000 hides each. The "people of Kent" are reckoned at 15,000 hides, followed by the East and South Saxons at 7,000 hides apiece, and the West Saxons at an implausible 100,000 hides, certainly a later interpolation to reflect the dominance of Wessex in the later ninth century. The text of the Tribal Hidage survives without explanation in an imperfect manuscript copied in the eleventh century, possibly including other items of anachronistic or false information, so that the usefulness of this register as a snapshot of the political landscape in the seventh century is uncertain. Does it reveal or mask actual economic and social realities?

In order to peer beneath this summary of tribal assessments to unearth historical conditions on the ground, the authors review approximately 12,000 burials and 28,000 objects excavated from the fifth through seventh centuries south of the River Thames. They examine these finds for what they imply about the productive capacity of the settlement areas in which they were unearthed. In particular, the authors look for the presence of already cleared Romano-British field systems, the fertility of various soil types and availability of other natural resources like timber, clay, iron and copper ores, precious stones, and metals. They examine evidence for metal-working and ceramic production from local or imported materials, and thus also for trading contacts with other regions of Britain, Francia, and beyond. Comparing this survey of material culture with the documentary evidence offered by the Tribal Hidage enables the authors to pinpoint concentrations of population and wealth within these ethnic polities, as well as the impact of their central places upon the surrounding countryside. The authors discover that much of the ruined but slowly reviving economy of southern Britain after the collapse of Roman distribution networks was driven by Frankish interest in the region and the Franks' ability to exploit the decaying but still partially intact infrastructure of roads and communication routes by land, sea and stream. Frankish goods are especially common among the people of Kent to the east, whose prosperity compared to their neighbors is revealed by many rich graves in that kingdom. Patterns of wealth distribution and social hierarchy are more variable in regions further west among groups in contact with or partially assimilated to independent Brittonic-speaking populations. These westerly groups, not all of them poor, retained a modified Romano-British form of social organization or adopted more archaic styles of Celtic chieftainship, so that the Tribal Hidage south of the Thames covers a wide range of political adaptations from the Frankish-dominated east to the British-influenced west.

In the first chapter, "The Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Southern Britain: Evidence and Questions," the authors explain their research methods and theoretical approach, that is, to coordinate systematically the documentary and material record and to keep an open mind about the applicability of an older model of early Anglo-Saxon state formation as a process by which incoming Germanic chieftains and their war-bands replaced Romano-British elites in governing a subservient population of native Britons. They also entertain a bottom-up scenario, whereby Germanic-speaking peasant immigrants effectively displaced the native occupants of southern and eastern Britain, and then developed their own hierarchical structures through time. The authors stress the productive capacity of particular landscapes in influencing what kinds of political superstructure these might support, but they also identify other crucial factors in determining the focal points of the new ethnic polities.

Harrington and Welch suggest that in choosing their settlement sites, Germanic immigrants--whether chieftains with their retinues or peasants with their families--"construed" the landscape they encountered according to a complex set of criteria that included its capacity for wealth production from various natural resources, but also its opportunities for control of or access to pre-existing communication hubs at the confluence of Roman roads, prehistoric tracks, river crossings, safe harbors, etc. The authors conclude that the Germanic material objects recovered from the initial phase of settlement in the fifth and early sixth centuries--whether deposited by newly arrived immigrants or adopted by native Britons through emulation or trade--quickly spread throughout the entire region covered by the study. This rapid deployment of Germanic material culture in the archaeological record was not the result of a steadily advancing "folk movement" up the river systems from the east and south--a popular model--but rather the result of brisk strategic appropriation of communication nodes and their adjacent rich soils, like the southern chalklands that stretch westward to the less productive Jurassic landscapes of the British West. Control of transportation routes by water or land was as important a consideration as access to fertile and workable soils in the choice of settlement sites. These often came to include a prominent cemetery, visually marked by burial mounds, prehistoric monuments or newly erected post structures to signal the community's location to travelers and traders from afar. The authors speculate that these cemeteries functioned "as a repository of community heritage and memory and also as a spatial marker for the living," whether foreign or domestic: "The conjunction of living and dead, particularly if the traveller was routed to pass or go through the cemetery in order to access the settlement, would only confirm the weight of presence in the landscape of these communities and asserted their control and domination and right to be there" (93). The occupants of these communication junctions were thus well-positioned to prosper from a share of the surplus wealth that passed under their purview to markets or overlords elsewhere, either in the form of foodstuffs and other goods produced in their own hinterlands, or brought to or through these "nodal points" by traders from a distance. The very fact that these transportation hubs were attractive sites for settlement indicates that, even during the political disruptions of "Dark-Age" Britain, its land and occupants continued to produce enough surplus goods to motivate this strategic choice.

Part of the wealth of southern Britain, the authors suggest, would have come from the recovery of Roman scrap metal and continued exploitation of mines, enabling the manufacture of durable items for domestic and agricultural use, warfare, and luxury display from iron, copper, gold, silver, and gems. These all became concentrated in the hands of those who controlled the communication junctions. The fact that shield fittings and spearheads show standardized features within particular regions also suggests the production of armaments in these central places at the instance of emergent leaders, rather than the less systematic work of individual farmers making their own tools and weapons or itinerant smiths working across the countryside. The presence of scales, too, suggests a class of entrepreneurial agents who facilitated the exchange of copper alloy, gold, silver, and decorative stones from which brooches and buckles could be cast and gilded as part of a system of gift exchange between regional elites in the context of dynastic marriage alliance.

As some communities gained wealth and influence, rivalry between the growing kingdoms becomes more apparent. The strongest polity to emerge south of the Thames ca. 600 was the kingdom of Kent, very likely because of its favorable location in mediating trade between Francia and the rest of southern Britain. The prosperity of the early kingdom of East Kent "was built on control of trade and not to a great extent on the agricultural capacity of its hinterland," the authors conclude. In fact, "[a]ccess to better soils may have prompted its expansion into West Kent and Surrey in the sixth century" (94). The Franks seem to have taken a heightened interest in their Kentish clients at the turn of the seventh century with the marriage of the Merovingian princess Bertha to Æthelberht of Kent, perhaps to protect their economic interests there, since the West Saxons were establishing their own trading emporium at Hamwic (Southampton) as a way of circumventing Kentish monopolization of trade with the Continent. Less clearly marked in the material record is some evidence that the British West had maintained its trading relations with the western coast of Gaul and the Mediterranean, which would have allowed certain western Germanic communities, such as those of the Gewisse in northwest Wiltshire and the Upper Thames, forerunners of the West Saxons, to bypass trade links from the Continent controlled by Kent. The founding ancestor of this royal family is specified as Cerdic, a Germanization of Brittonic Caraticos or Welsh Ceredig. The modern counties of Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire were the wealthiest of late Roman Britain and retained something of their Romano-British character and economic resilience, "albeit at a lower level of intensity" (82), providing a springboard for the later expansion of the West Saxons to the south and east.

Surrey, south of the trading hub at London, seems never to have been an independent kingdom with its own ruling clan and is taken by the authors for a special case study of the Germanic occupation of southern Britain, demonstrating that kingship was not the only political impulse of the immigrants and that older "structures in which freemen met periodically in assemblies and elected war leaders when required, as existed in Old Saxony in continental Germany..., may have been used by Saxon communities in the Lower Thames region" (95). This tension between the choice of leaders by a cohort of free farmer-warriors and top-down rule by successful royal pretenders would play out over the next few centuries with the dominance of the house of Wessex over the entire region, but access to trade was a significant factor in the early successes of all southern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and communities.

The volume is beautifully produced with 62 maps and figures, 49 tables and 10 color plates, plus a bibliography and index. Harrington and Welch succeed in their stated goal to an admirable extent, clarifying, at least for the larger kingdoms and polities of Kent, Sussex, Wessex and Surrey, the relationship between the suggestive but faulty Tribal Hidage and the complex realities implied by the material record, demonstrating both the value of this document and its limitations. They chart the progress and character of the Anglo-Saxon occupation of lowland Britain south of the Thames, a pattern of settlement that proceeded rapidly from communication nodes across the region from which the adjoining countryside could be colonized and exploited. Unfortunately, the authors were unable to include consideration of James Gerrard's The Ruin of Roman Britain: An Archaeological Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2013), which covers the earlier part of their period in the "long fifth century." Gerrard stresses military over economic considerations in the political fortunes of post-Roman Britain, noting that paideia--his shorthand for civilian administration by educated elites living in towns and villas--was replaced by force as the primary means of asserting leadership and control among both natives and newcomers alike. Neither study, however, clearly addresses other questions that have so far eluded answer from the available evidence: (1) what happened to the native inhabitants of southeastern Britain during the two centuries that followed the Roman withdrawal; (2) how many Britons remained there after the influx of Germanic-speaking groups; and (3) how did these people of British ethnic heritage contribute to the development of a distinctively Anglo-Saxon culture and society in the region?

Most archaeologists conclude that an indigenous population of native Britons came quickly to accept their new Germanic masters, learning their language and emulating their cultural forms after the collapse of confident Roman, British, Christian, or other forms of group identity. This "elite emulation" model has been resisted by many historical linguists and place-name scholars, however, who tend to emphasize the lack of influence upon the Old English lexicon of Neo-Brittonic or Proto-Welsh words beyond a few specialized terms and toponyms. This view of the Anglo-Saxon settlement suggests something more like "ethnic cleansing," in which most native Britons in the southeast were simply exterminated, expelled or so utterly subjugated that they were destroyed as a separate ethnic and linguistic group. Yet little evidence of such drastic genocide has yet to be found in the ground.

One suggestive anecdote from the Northumbrian scholar Bede (ca. 731) is beyond the geographical coverage of these studies of southern Britain, but tells the story of a herdsman at the monastery of Whitby ca. 680 named Cædmon, the Anglicized form of a Brittonic royal name, appearing as Catumanduus 'War-Pony' in Gaul of the fourth century BC, as well as in an inscription honoring a seventh-century king of Gwynedd in North Wales, Catamanus in late Romano-British or Catmann (later Cadfan) in early Welsh. It is thus likely that Cædmon was a native Briton himself, at least in his ethnic origin and family background, perhaps a rather distinguished one. Yet, he appears as a humble Northumbrian Angle by linguistic and social identity--in fact, the very first named poet of the English language--who thoroughly (if miraculously) had internalized the prosody of archaic Germanic alliterative verse to start a new tradition of biblical themes in Old English song. The case of Cædmon would suggest a tentative answer to all three questions asked above: (1) some native Britons and their descendants continued to live and work in Anglo-Saxon England in respectable if subordinate social positions, a status recognized in the early West Saxon laws of King Ine; (2) many of these Britons adopted the language and culture of their new masters without losing all trace of their British heritage, a good few occupying enclaves revealed by place-names like Walton 'Welshtown,' etc.; and (3) some Anglo-Saxons of British descent, even those of reduced station like Cædmon, could contribute in unpredictable and perhaps now invisible ways to the distinctive cultural achievements of Anglo-Saxon England.

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