Friday, October 24, 2008

Our English Cousins

Anyone who has used Sons of Norway’s Norwegian for Reading Comprehension program knows that modern English and Norwegian are closely related languages, due to a shared ancestry and a long history of contact between the cultures that spawned them. But the connections between Britain and Scandinavia go far beyond the languages. To get a sense of why and what that means, we have to go all the way back to Roman times.

Julius Caesar, who had been busy conquering Gaul (modern France, more or less), led the first Roman expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC. Over the next hundred years other Roman generals would visit the island, gradually bringing most of it under Roman rule. The native people living there belonged to various Celtic tribes. The tribes living in modern England and Wales we now call Brythonic peoples, or Britons and they were related to the other local Celts, the Goidelic or Gaelic peoples, living then mostly in Ireland. Later, around 400 AD, the Romans left Britain and some ambitious Germanic tribes called the Angles, Saxons and Jutes swept in from their homelands in Northern Germany. It’s not clear as to whether the invading Germans (typically known as Anglo-Saxons) mixed with the indigenous Britons, suppressed them or just wiped them out. But whatever the case, in a very short time the Anglo-Saxons were the dominant group in central Britain and would remain so until 1066 (see my earlier blog post about that).

When the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain, they brought with them languages, cultures and customs that were very similar to those of their Germanic relatives. The early Anglo-Saxons were pagans, and worshipped more or less the same gods their Scandinavian cousins did, including Woden (Odin) the chief god, Thunor (Thor) the god of thunder and Tiw (Tyr) the god of war, among many others. Although we tend to think of these as being “Norse” gods because the Scandinavians preserved more of their pagan culture, they were in fact worshipped by all Germanic peoples before the expansion of Christianity. The Anglo-Saxons wrote in runes, composed heroic poetry, and buried their honored dead in mounds, sometimes with ships, weapons and armor – much as the Vikings later did.

Relative to Scandinavia, Christianity was established quite early in England, in about 600AD, and so very little information about Anglo-Saxon paganism survives. However there is a wealth of fascinating literature and history from the Anglo-Saxon period including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Domesday Book, the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem and most famously, the epic poem Beowulf. The story of Beowulf actually takes place in Scandinavia, mostly Denmark and Sweden, and contains references to characters later mentioned in Norse sagas.

The Anglo-Saxons also left behind many material artifacts. The greatest Anglo-Saxon archeological site is at a place in Suffolk called Sutton Hoo, which is understood to have been a cemetery in the 6th and 7th centuries. The Sutton Hoo site contains the ship grave of a high-status person, and dozens of other graves. Some of the artifacts have actually been connected to Sweden, indicating that the Anglo-Saxons traded far beyond Britain. Check out this and this for more information and pictures from the Sutton Hoo excavations.

During the Viking Age (approximately 800-1100 AD), Britain was invaded, plundered and at times settled or governed by various groups of Scandinavians, mostly Norwegians and Danes. In the 860s an enormous Danish army terrorized England, and for a time Danish law actually held sway over most of Central England, an area known as the Danelaw. They also established a kingdom in Northern England called Jorvik – modern York – that was later taken over by Norwegians. Other (mostly Norwegian) Vikings expanded into the Northern Isles of Scotland, the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. Vikings also raided in Ireland, and established the city of Dublin.

The common ancestry and long contacts between the British and the Norse made deep impression on both cultures. Long after the end of the Viking Age Orkney and Shetland were considered part of the Scandinavian community, and a Scandinavian language called Norn was spoken there until as late as the 1800s. Recent research has indicated that a large part of the genetic makeup of modern British people comes from Scandinavia. More obviously, a large number of British places names come from Old Norse. To learn more about these click here and here.

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