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24.02.04 Rippon, Territoriality and the Early Medieval Landscape

24.02.04 Rippon, Territoriality and the Early Medieval Landscape

This volume investigates the formation of small folk communities among Germanic-speaking immigrants to post-Roman Britain in the Northern Thames Basin during the fifth century CE as these evolved over the centuries into the pagi or regiones--administrative units--of the kingdom of the East Saxons. These local districts were eventually incorporated into the broader national polity of Englalond in the tenth century and often registered as “vills” in the Domesday Book of 1086 after the Norman Conquest. Evidence for the location of these early communities can be further gleaned from place-names, early maps, and archaeological investigations, where they frequently coincide with later ecclesiastical parishes or one or more manorial estates.

The study seeks to uncover more generally the nature of relations between incoming Germanic groups and native Romano-Britons, hoping to answer a question that has long divided archaeologists, linguists and historians, that is, whether the post-Roman speakers of Neo-Brittonic or Proto-Welsh quickly assimilated in large numbers to the language and culture of new masters after the Roman withdrawal from the island in 409 CE or whether they suffered something more like “ethnic cleansing,” in which native communities were simply exterminated or forced to flee west, as dramatized in the De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (“On the ruin and conquest of Britain”) by a British cleric, Gildas, in the earlier sixth century. Gildas attributes the loss of lowland Britain to divine punishment for sin on an Old Testament model:

"For the fire of [God’s] vengeance, justly kindled by former crimes, spread from sea to sea, fed by the hands of our foes [Saxons] in the east, and did not cease, until, destroying the neighbouring towns and lands, it reached the other side of the island, and dipped its red and savage tongue in the western ocean. In these assaults...all the columns were levelled with the ground by the frequent strokes of the battering-ram, all the husbandmen routed, together with their bishops, priests, and people, whilst the sword gleamed, and the flames crackled around them on every side...

Some therefore, of the miserable remnant, being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes." (trans. J. A. Giles [1841])

Rippon, to the contrary, finds neither rapid capitulation nor anything like genocide, but rather a slower and more gradual process of accommodation over two or more centuries in which distinct language communities occupied separate but proximate localities. These were eventually subsumed into a more integrated polity with the rise of a powerful ruling dynasty on the banks of the Thames, epitomized archaeologically by elite burials like that of the “Prittlewell Prince” near Southend-on-Sea in southern Essex. This inhumation is dated to about 580-90, shortly before the arrival of the first Christian missionaries from Rome in 597 across the Thames in the kingdom of Æthelberht of Kent. Æthelberht was married to a Christian Frankish princess, and Rippon interprets the Prittlewell grave as likely to be that of the East Saxon king Sledd, Æthelberht’s brother-in-law and subordinate ally. The grave goods are predominantly Christian in character. The study includes territories as far west as London, the still-active trading emporium on the north bank of the Thames, which also became the seat of the first East Saxon bishop Mellitus in 604, the building of his church financed, according to the Northumbrian historian Bede, by King Æthelberht himself. Rippon also covers likely royal estates at Wicken Bonhunt and Maldon, the latter becoming the site of a battle with Vikings in 991. St Peter's Chapel at Bradwell-on-Sea is the earliest church in the kingdom still standing from the seventh century, as shown in an aerial photograph on the book cover.

The early history of the East Saxon kingdom is poorly recorded, but much progress has been made during the last decade or two in defining its character. In 2007, Nick Higham collected seventeen studies on the fate of the Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, also published by the Boydell Press, posing three then-unanswered questions: (1) What happened to the Brittonic-speakers of riparian and lowland Britain after the Roman withdrawal from the island in the early fifth century? (2) How many native Britons remained in southeastern Britain after the influx of Germanic-speaking groups? And (3) how did these British people contribute to the development of a more unified culture and society in southern Britain before the Viking attacks of the ninth and tenth centuries?

Archaeologists have tended to stress continuities between Romano-British and early medieval English field systems, communication routes and biological populations, which show no major sign of disruption during the fifth through seventh centuries, though there was a sharp decline in building construction and in the amount of land under cultivation. Roof tiles fell in and were replaced with thatch; Samian ware vessels broke and were followed by hand-throwns, some decorated with swastikas; fields gradually crept back to wild, though many were still used for pasturage. Excavators concluded that a much larger indigenous population simply came to learn the language and adopt the cultural forms of a comparatively small number of Germanic newcomers after the collapse of confident Roman, British, Christian or other forms of group identity. Higham suggested that “English-ness” won out over “British-ness,” prompting a mass defection of Britons to an English identity, a process he characterized as “ethnocide, as opposed to genocide” (2007: 78).

This “elite emulation” model has been resisted or sharply qualified by other scholars, however, who have tended to emphasize the lack of Brittonic influence upon the Old English language, beyond a few specialized terms or Anglicized place-names. This minimal lexical impact suggests that there were very few Brittonic-speakers remaining in the land. However, Peter Schrijver suggested that Germanic-speaking immigrants met in the southeast of Britain not speakers of proto-Welsh, but of “Vulgar Latin,” just like the Franks and Burgundians in Gaul, so that Old English is unlikely to reflect the influence of substratum Brittonic influence in any case. This view was challenged by Hildegard Tristram, who suggested that the Old English language had indeed been strongly impacted by grammatical features of Brittonic. These were introduced by a large number of shifters from that language to Old English, initiating the erosion of inflectional case endings as pragmatic but illiterate interlocutors from the two communities attempted to communicate in simplified sentences, while choosing lexical items from the higher prestige vocabulary. These grammatical changes introduced by Brittonic-speaking shifters to Old English do not manifest themselves clearly until the Middle English period, Tristram argued, since most extant Old English texts have been preserved at an elite register of literary production rather than a demotic oral one spoken in the countryside.

There is also evidence for the continuing presence of Romano-British technological influence upon emergent early medieval English material culture. Lloyd Laing assumed the continuing presence of Britons with metallurgical skills in lowland England, suggesting that native artisans introduced ornamental techniques like enameling and dress-accessories like the disc and penannular brooch to Germanic immigrants. Gale R. Owen-Crocker saw a similar transfer of technology from natives to newcomers in which she notes the presence of a type of Roman twill in early medieval English cemeteries not characteristic of continental Germanic weaves. The context for this transfer, Owen-Crocker suggested, is marriage between English men and British women, the latter of whose contribution to a household’s economy traditionally included spinning and weaving.

As a landscape archaeologist, Rippon digs deeper into the ground to provide a more precise chronology of the way the lands upon which these disparate language communities lived eventually coalesced into the broader kingdom of the East Saxons. By the early eighth century, the folk territories of most groups came to include “polyfocal central places (comprising a royal vill, minster church, and communal assembly place) usually located towards the geographical centre of the territory and close to the best agricultural land,” but embracing “areas of low agricultural potential such as the watersheds between river valleys” (277). Rippon concludes that the physical topography of the landscape constrained the extent of these early folk territories, but that “social agency,” that is, ethnic or linguistic or religious affinity, “determined the identities of the communities living there” (277).

On relations between Britons and Saxons, Rippon notes that in the region under investigation, “evidence for Anglo-Saxon colonisation is restricted to some coastal or estuarine districts, and is absent in the numerous large-scale surveys and excavations in inland areas” (286). There, land use for agriculture indeed became less intense, but remaining fields retained their Late Roman orientation and there was not much regrowth of woodlands, so that livestock were still being grazed on once-cultivated ground. In addition, the fossilization of British place-names in the inland zones suggest that Britons continued to occupy several Romano-British towns, like Ware, on major Roman roads and river crossings. He concludes “that the landscape was divided into areas that saw Anglo-Saxon settlement and those that did not” (288). In fact, the location of these early Germanic settlements with diagnostic Grubenhäuser (“Pit-Houses”) and cemeteries with non-Christian features do not coincide with sites giving evidence of Late Romano-British occupation at all. Rather, the new settlements appear in marginal riparian lands unoccupied by native Romano-Britons in the late fourth century. In other words, Rippon suggests, “perhaps two-thirds of the East Saxon kingdom remained in the hands of communities who did not adopt the new identity in the fifth and sixth centuries” (288).

When and why did they?

Old English folk names like Tendring appear in coastal and estuarine districts, but also in inland zones with no other evidence of English settlement. Numerous toponyms with the -ingas suffix, denoting in Old English “the followers of...” or “those belonging to...”, suggest that British communities came to accept the denomination of dominant Saxon leaders or adjacent Saxon territories. In Figure 13.3, Rippon offers four models for the evolution of territorial structures from the fourth-century Roman civitates and pagi--townships and country districts--through to the seventh-century regiones and regna--provinces and kingdoms (289). Rippon concludes that key features of Romanitas--thriving urban centers, a market-based economy and monetary tax collection--all disappeared in the fifth century, but that in the countryside “large numbers of farmers would have continued to cultivate their land and tend their livestock, albeit on a subsistence basis... This raises the possibility that while the Roman political and administrative structures--the civitates--disappeared, the identity of smaller-scale, locally based territories--such as pagi--may have survived,” especially in more inland regions where the most immediate impact of the Saxon immigration was limited. This conclusion suggests a degree of continuity with the regional organization of post-Roman Britain and that of the English kingdoms that emerged from within an “existing framework of territorial identities, which led to their boundaries forming in very similar areas to those of the Romano-British civitates” (290).

And on an even more local scale, it is now clear that “some Romano-British villas saw continued occupation into the early medieval period,” including “an increasingly common correlation between villas and medieval parish churches, which in turn were often located near manorial complexes” (290). But Roman roads, a persistent feature of the landscape, seem not to have factored significantly into the creation of these folk territories, which concentrated on the most productive and self-sustaining agricultural land in river valleys moving center-out towards less productive liminal zones at elevated watersheds, largely ignoring the former communication networks linking nodal points of Roman civil authority and commerce.

After the conversion of the East Saxons to Roman Christianity in the seventh century, many folk territories were “broken up into discrete estates that kings were granting to the church,” as when King Swæfred in 706-09 gave a large portion of the territory of the Deningei (modern Dengie in Essex) to Ingwald, bishop of London, or when King Æthelbald of Mercia (r. 716-57) granted an estate in the territory of the Geddinges (modern Yeading in Middlesex) to his thegn Wihtred (291). However, Rippon notes that these estates would still need to be integrated into the life of the local communities in order to oversee grazing rights and other matters of concern, so that the “folk territories and their customary meeting places probably survived through to the tenth and eleventh centuries, when local government was reformed and a series of new districts known as hundreds and shires were created. In some areas the hundreds recorded in Domesday appear to have been very similar to the putative earlier folk territories” (291).

Rippon had earlier addressed in his Kingdom, Civitas, and County (Oxford UP, 2018) the process by which the kingdom of the East Saxons was formed from these folk territories of different ethnic and linguistic identities, noting that the Tribal Hidage (parts perhaps as early as the seventh century) reflects “the situation part way through that process, at the point when several larger kingdoms had already emerged (e. g. the 7,000-hide East Saxons), but some earlier smaller units still survived (e. g. the 300-hide Hicca)” (278). A “hide” is roughly the extent of a viable family farm, so that the East Saxon kingdom was comparable in extent to the Romano-British civitas of the Trinovantes, bounded on the north by a strip of sparsely settled high ground in southern Suffolk. Rippon concludes: “While the political and administrative functions of the Romancivitates disappeared, the social and economic ties within these regions appear to have survived in part because of the survival of a large local Romano-British population in particular across inland parts of the Northern Thames Basin” (279). Sixth-century communities living to the south of this “frontier” with Suffolk were naturally oriented southward toward the Thames and eventually adopted the cultural identity of the English-speaking rulers who had risen to power on its banks.

A catalyst for the formation of a kingdom of the East Saxons from these ethnically diverse folk territories, Rippon suggests, was an expansion of Kentish royal power north of the Thames during the sixth century, primarily through marriage alliance. As noted above, the early East Saxon king Sledd was married to King Æthelberht of Kent’s sister Ricula and his son Sæberht ruled under the overlordship of his Bretwalda uncle. But even while “at its maximum extent the kingdom extended across most of the Northern Thames Basin as far as the Chiltern Hills...three extremely rich East Saxon burials--at Prittlewell, Rainham and Broomfield--suggest that the heartland of the East Saxon dynasty was, however, in the south-east of the kingdom” near the riverbank with its opportunities for water-borne commerce and political alliance (279). Rippon believes that these inland communities came to assume a “Saxon” identity during this period in order to improve their fortunes in the new royal polity.

This is a carefully argued, well-documented, and beautifully illustrated study that represents a major advance in our understanding of the early settlement period in southeastern England during the centuries that followed the Roman withdrawal from their diocese of Britannia. It is a model for further investigations into the formation of the early medieval English kingdoms.