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Early Britain - Anglo-Saxon Britain
The Origin Of The English
by Allen, Grant (B.A.)


At a period earlier than the dawn of written history there lived somewhere among the great table-lands and plains of Central Asia a race known to us only by the uncertain name of Aryans. These Aryans were a fair-skinned and well-built people, long past the stage of aboriginal savagery, and possessed of a considerable degree of primitive culture. Though mainly pastoral in habit, they were acquainted with tillage, and they grew for themselves at least one kind of cereal grain. They spoke a language whose existence and nature we infer from the remnants of it which survive in the tongues of their descendants, and from these remnants we are able to judge, in some measure, of their civilisation and their modes of thought. The indications thus preserved for us show the Aryans to have been a simple and fierce community of early warriors, farmers, and shepherds, still in a partially nomad condition, living under a patriarchal rule, originally ignorant of all metals save gold, but possessing weapons and implements of stone,[1] and worshipping as their chief god the open heaven. We must not regard them as an idyllic and peaceable people: on the contrary, they were the fiercest and most conquering tribe ever known. In mental power and in plasticity of manners, however, they probably rose far superior to any race then living, except only the Semitic nations of the Mediterranean coast.

From the common Central Asian home, colonies of warlike Aryans gradually dispersed themselves, still in the pre-historic period, under pressure of population or hostile invasion, over many districts of Europe and Asia. Some of them moved southward, across the passes of Afghanistan, and occupied the fertile plains of the Indus and the Ganges, where they became the ancestors of the Brahmans and other modern high-caste Hindoos. The language which they took with them to their new settlements beyond the Himalayas was the Sanskrit, which still remains to this day the nearest of all dialects that we now possess to the primitive Aryan speech. From it are derived the chief modern tongues of northern India, from the Vindhyas to the Hindu Kush. Other Aryan tribes settled in the mountain districts west of Hindustan; and yet others found themselves a home in the hills of Iran or Persia, where they still preserve an allied dialect of the ancient mother tongue.

But the mass of the emigrants from the Central Asian fatherland moved further westward in successive waves, and occupied, one after another, the midland plains and mountainous peninsulas of Europe. First of all, apparently, came the Celts, who spread slowly across the South of Russia and Germany, and who are found at the dawn of authentic history extending over the entire western coasts and islands of the continent, from Spain to Scotland. Mingled in many places with the still earlier non-Aryan aborigines—perhaps Iberians and Euskarians, a short and swarthy race, armed only with weapons of polished stone, and represented at the present day by the Basques of the Pyrenees and the Asturias—the Celts held rule in Spain, Gaul, and Britain, up to the date of the several Roman conquests. A second great wave of Aryan immigration, that of the Hellenic and Italian races, broke over the shores of the Ęgean and the Adriatic, where their cognate languages have become familiar to us in the two extreme and typical forms of the classical Greek and Latin. A third wave was that of the Teutonic or German people, who followed and drove out the Celts over a large part of central and western Europe; while a fourth and final swarm was that of the Slavonic tribes, which still inhabit only the extreme eastern portion of the continent.

With the Slavonians we shall have nothing to do in this enquiry; and with the Greek and Italian races we need only deal very incidentally. But the Celts, whom the English invaders found in possession of all Britain when they began their settlements in the island, form the subject of another volume in this series, and will necessarily call for some small portion of our attention here also; while it is to the Germanic race that the English stock itself actually belongs, so that we must examine somewhat more closely the course of Germanic immigration through Europe, and the nature of the primitive Teutonic civilisation.

The Germanic family of peoples consisted of a race which early split up into two great hordes or stocks, speaking dialects which differed slightly from one another through the action of the various circumstances to which they were each exposed. These two stocks are the High German and the Low German (with which last may be included the Gothic and the Scandinavian). Moving across Europe from east to west, they slowly drove out the Celts from Germany and the central plains, and took possession of the whole district between the Alps, the Rhine, and the Baltic, which formed their limits at the period when they first came into contact with the Roman power. The Goths, living in closest proximity to the empire, fell upon it during the decline and decay of Rome, settled in Italy, Gaul, and Spain, and becoming absorbed in the mass of the native population, disappear altogether from history as a distinguishable nationality. But the High and Low Germans retain to the present day their distinctive language and features; and the latter branch, to which the English people belong, still lives for the most part in the same lands which it has held ever since the date of the early Germanic immigration.

The Low Germans, in the third century after Christ, occupied in the main the belt of flat country between the Baltic and the mouths of the Rhine. Between them and the old High German Swabians lay a race intermediate in tongue and blood, the Franks. The Low Germans were divided, like most other barbaric races, into several fluctuating and ill-marked tribes, whose names are loosely and perhaps interchangeably used by the few authorities which remain to us. We must not expect to find among them the definiteness of modern civilised nations, but rather such a vagueness as that which characterised the loose confederacies of North American Indians or the various shifting peoples of South Africa. But there are three of their tribes which stand fairly well marked off from one another in early history, and which bore, at least, the chief share in the colonisation of Britain. These three tribes are the Jutes, the English, and the Saxons. Closely connected with them, but less strictly bound in the same family tie, were the Frisians.

The Jutes, the northernmost of the three divisions, lived in the marshy forests and along the winding fjords of Jutland, the extreme peninsula of Denmark, which still preserves their name in our own day. The English dwelt just to the south, in the heath-clad neck of the peninsula, which we now call Sleswick. And the Saxons, a much larger tribe, occupied the flat continental shore, from the mouth of the Oder to that of the Rhine. At the period when history lifts the curtain upon the future Germanic colonists of Britain, we thus discover them as the inhabitants of the low-lying lands around the Baltic and the North Sea, and closely connected with other tribes on either side, such as the Frisians and the Danes, who still speak very cognate Low German and Scandinavian languages.

But we have not yet fully grasped the extent of the relationship between the first Teutonic settlers in Britain and their continental brethren. Not only are the true Englishmen of modern England distantly connected with the Franks, who never to our knowledge took part in the colonisation of the island at all; and more closely connected with the Frisians, some of whom probably accompanied the earliest piratical hordes; as well as with the Danes, who settled at a later date in all the northern counties: but they are also most closely connected of all with those members of the colonising tribes who did not themselves bear a share in the settlement, and whose descendants are still living in Denmark and in various parts of Germany. The English proper, it is true, seem to have deserted their old home in Sleswick in a body; so that, according to Będa, the Christian historian of Northumberland, in his time this oldest England by the shores of the Baltic lay waste and unpeopled, through the completeness of the exodus. But the Jutes appear to have migrated in small numbers, while the larger part of the tribe remained at home in their native marshland; and of the more numerous Saxons, though a great swarm went out to conquer southern Britain, a vast body was still left behind in Germany, where it continued independent and pagan till the time of Karl the Great, long after the Teutonic colonists of Britain had grown into peaceable and civilised Christians. It is from the statements of later historians with regard to these continental Saxons that our knowledge of the early English customs and institutions, during the continental period of English history, must be mainly inferred. We gather our picture of the English and Saxons who first came to this country from the picture drawn for us of those among their brethren whom they left behind in the primitive English home.

These three tribes, the Jutes, the English, and the Saxons, had not yet, apparently, advanced far enough in the idea of national unity to possess a separate general name, distinguishing them altogether from the other tribes of the Germanic stock. Most probably they did not regard themselves at this period as a single nation at all, or even as more closely bound to one another than to the surrounding and kindred tribes. They may have united at times for purposes of a special war; but their union was merely analogous to that of two North American peoples, or two modern European nations, pursuing a common policy for awhile. At a later date, in Britain, the three tribes learned to call themselves collectively by the name of that one among them which earliest rose to supremacy—the English; and the whole southern half of the island came to be known by their name as England. Even from the first it seems probable that their language was spoken of as English only, and comparatively little as Saxon. But since it would be inconvenient to use the name of one dominant tribe alone, the English, as equivalent to those of the three, and since it is desirable to have a common title for all the Germanic colonists of Britain, whenever it is necessary to speak of them together, we shall employ the late and, strictly speaking, incorrect form of "Anglo-Saxons" for this purpose. Similarly, in order to distinguish the earliest pure form of the English language from its later modern form, now largely enriched and altered by the addition of Romance or Latin words and the disuse of native ones, we shall always speak of it, where distinction is necessary, as Anglo-Saxon. The term is now too deeply rooted in our language to be again uprooted; and it has, besides, the merit of supplying a want. At the same time, it should be remembered that the expression Anglo-Saxon is purely artificial, and was never used by the people themselves in describing their fellows or their tongue. When they did not speak of themselves as Jutes, English, and Saxons respectively, they spoke of themselves as English alone.
[1] Professor Boyd Dawkins has shown that the Continental Celts were still in their stone age when they invaded Europe; whence we must conclude that the original Aryans were unacquainted with the use of bronze.


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