I spent a large chunk of the first few weeks of the new year away from this blog working on a funding application for my PhD research. Consequently, of late, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I study and why I study it. The backdrop to this has been a political climate getting bleaker by the day, with all manner of worrying things being reported in broadcast, print and social media. 2017 may not be even two months old, but a few things are clearer now than ever before. Everyone is entitled to an opinion – nay, has a right to form and hold an opinion – but that does not mean everyone should expect their opinion to be treated as valid when they share it in contexts where its factual veracity is open to be examined objectively.
At the risk of sounding a mite meta, in my own opinion it is those opinions that are more well thought-through and take in a broad range of information that tend to be of more value than those with a purposely limited focus. Not that this matters to some people and more importantly to some – how can I phrase this? – sources of what may or may not be news (you know what I’m talking about). Nowadays there’s a platform for every shade of opinion-dolled-up-as-fact, and what seems a lot like a concerted effort from some quarters to erase the distinction between what’s “real” and what’s “fake”. Hence some of the less-edifying aspects of the UK’s referendum on its EU membership (especially from the Leave side) and pretty much everything that’s emanated from the mouths and Twitter accounts of Donald J. Trump, Sean Spicer et al. in recent (and not so recent) times. And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s been a definite infiltration of certain viewpoints and language of the extreme right into some mainstream media and other cultural arenas.
My chosen area of research does not have direct resonance with contemporary politics, but in some aspects has the potential to become politicised inasmuch as being capable of misuse for political ends. I don’t pretend this will be in the sphere of parliamentary politics, but quite conceivably could come to pass in the context of the myriad groups, blogs, etc. that are the engine rooms of contemporary popular politics. Scarcely a week goes by without me noticing a spike in views of an old Surrey Medieval post or page, which my dashboard tells me is coming from Facebook, but not which private group or individual user has shared it and so generated the extra traffic. I’m sure that in most cases the source has well-meaning, constructive intentions in linking what I’ve written, but in this day and age you can never know for certain…
With that in mind, I’ve decided to write a post in which I set out my stall for how I approach what I study, predicting some key aspects that might be subject to possible misrepresentation, and explaining why they cannot be understood in simplistic, blinkered ways. This is not to prejudice how I conduct my research in the future. Nor is to to state that I do things in a particular way in order to obtain the results I want/need in order to prove or reinforce a pre-ordained way of seeing things above all others. Rather, my aim is to convey that I study a complicated topic with multiple facets and as a result need to do so in a multi-modal way that is open to a plurality of factors and outcomes. Only time will tell if there are concrete answers to be found – right now I’m still formulating some of the research questions to ask of my evidence! I don’t know if what follows is an especially good idea or not, but I feel this is a time when people need to be seen to be doing something towards resisting the culture of rejecting complex arguments and explanations in favour of facile half-truths and falsehoods. So, here goes…
Medieval studies’ time is now
If I can be said to have had a New Year’s Resolution going into 2017, it was to step up and play a much more active role in helping to counter some of the deeply-regressive current narratives that have infected political and social discourse in the UK for the past year or so.* Barely had I shaken off my NYE hangover before, as an offshoot from a revival of the Icenian “proto-English” nonsense I blogged about before Christmas, I joined in a tweeted debate to unpack a claim made in a temporally-incongruous context about England being ‘substantially ethno-homogeneous’ for an extended period of time. It will come as little surprise to learn, therefore, that the person who made this claim duly revealed himself to be an Islamophobic nutjob with little interest in engaging in proper debate, and every interest in asserting his own riff on the “England for the English” trope (via a highly tangential cake-based analogy).
* Actually, that’s not quite true – the first resolution I hit upon was to do a Baggio 7, only a quarter of a century late…
In its own tiny but intensely distasteful way, the spat chimed with a broader current trend in which the medieval period in Europe and the Middle East has come to gain much greater prominence – or even, to borrow a term from the UK political lexicon, become weaponised – through moves in some quarters to raise it up as proof of Europe’s supposedly deep-rooted homogeneity in the face of Islamic aggression. Medieval studies has long been stigmatised in some quarters as an irrelevance and/or extravagance, academia for academia’s sake, so it was quite something to discover that its new-found wider renown as an ideological battleground had been reported in an Economist article. (In fact, another medieval-themed article was published in the same newspaper around the same time, this time on a fairly traditional economic history tip but with a modish ‘Brentry’ title, something I can’t recall happening in recent years – at least outside of a Game of Thrones conjunction.) I won’t belabour this sudden “relevance” here, as there’s a brilliant and important series of essays dealing with some difficult subjects being published on The Public Medievalist at the moment – I implore you to read these for a better understanding of the issues.
I don’t think it’s a gross misrepresentation of the practitioners and products of the various branches of medieval studies to say that eccentricity is a stock-in-trade. Let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with eccentricity – difference and idiosyncracy are things to be celebrated and encouraged. Nor is there anything wrong with sharing amusing vignettes uncovered in the course of research, be they idiosyncratic manuscript marginalia or funny-sounding place-names – heck, we can all do with some light relief and inspiration in this day and age! Of course, eccentricity is not a trait restricted to academic contexts. As was pointed out to me by a friend and extremely distinguished local historian over lunch just before Christmas, amateur local historical and archaeological studies are crucibles of eccentricity. But eccentricity is not immune from causing harm, through the pursuit of personal and shared agendas.
This is summed up by a news story that was doing the rounds a few weeks ago. Fella uses his life savings to buy a Welsh field on a hunch, digs it up and finds the remains of a “lost medieval city”. Initial reports shared online made it sound like a wholesome, feel-good sort of story. Then I read this Washington Post article and I got some all-too familiar shudders. Said guy (Mr Stuart Wilson, take a bow) self-identifies as a ‘militant archaeologist’, who digs with his ‘militant’ mates. Gleefully, he recounts how they ‘were more than happy to bend a few rules, and break them when no-one was around’ in the course of their excavations – to the point of trespassing on and apparently tampering with another dig site. Meanwhile, in his mind – and in a refrain I’ve seen and heard applied by other non-academics in a variety of archaeological and toponymic connections – the university-associated team digging at that other site were pursuing a narrow and self-serving agenda and ‘could not accept anything else’.
URGH. I’m sure, like grizzled old detectives who refuse to play it by the book, they think they get results, but in archaeology first and foremost results are measured in quality research outputs like books and articles – not clicks, column inches and how many thousands of miles a film crew has flown. What Mr Wilson and chums have done sounds little better than the antiquarian wall-chasing that recovered the ground plans of many Roman villas and medieval monasteries, but little information about phasing and small finds that makes properly-conducted archaeological research so enlightening. Unless they have an as-yet unannounced publication programme up their sleeves, this vital knowledge has been sacrificed in the name of headline-grabbing bunkum about a lost city. Despite this, their approach to investigating whatever lies underneath Mr Wilson’s field is treated as a valid alternative form of archaeology by what, if my social media feeds are any guide, right now must rank among the most prominent news outlets in the world.
The problem with Proto-English
The same public exposure and unwitting endorsement has been accorded in recent years to ‘Proto-English’ – in short, the idea that what would become the English language took substantial root in Britain (as opposed to the temporary presence of individuals or small groups of people speaking an ancestral Germanic language) centuries, even millennia, before the 5th century CE. Subsequent to my post about Tom Holland getting it very wrong (which discussed the merits of a paper that could be said to postulate Proto-English language but in reality is somewhat tangential to the most commonly-encountered version of the idea), people kindly drew my attention to both a piece on Newsnight (a respected BBC current affairs tv show) and a more recent (TH-presented) segment on BBC Radio 4’s flagship history programme in which its advocates get airtime without any counterposing expert response. I’m not in the habit of BBC-bashing, it’s up to its programme makers (in-house or independent) to decide what they give coverage to. Notwithstanding, it is a basic error to give a platform to a non-orthodox theory but not to a proper authority who could provide the viewer/listener with an idea of how it sits with current prevailing theory.
To express it in the parlance of the present day (a turn of phrase that didn’t even exist when I began writing this post, just to give you an idea of how fast things are moving right now), Proto-English = alternative facts. As with any bullshit that can be filed under this banner, it’s not hard to find extensive expositions of the theory and its supposed evidential basis online. A prominent early advocate was Win Scutt, featured in the above Newsnight piece, and apparently still on retainer as BBC Radio 5’s archaeological correspondent. His assertions about a lost lake on the Upper Thames are blinkered, and his re-readings of Romano-British place-names are nothing more than ill-informed – and uniformly incorrect – guesswork. A more recent site in the same mould is proto-english.org, which presents its case in a more forceful and outwardly credible manner (and with less of the Web 1.0 vibes). Several pages set out Germanic readings of Roman-era place-names, throughout which there is at best intermittent recourse to phonology and philology, the cornerstones of onomastic study, and especially important for names formed in ancient dead languages. One word looking or sounding a bit like another is not proof in itself of a theory (and instead probably explains why the theory has never been expounded before). The site’s authors have also found an outlet for their ideas in the journal Archaeologia Cantiana, to similarly unconvincing and methodologically-flawed effect.
Something common to both sites (see respectively here and here) are approving citations of claims made in paediatrician-turned-geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer’s 2006 book The Origins of The British (FYI, I have not read it). In it, as an extension of his various genetical propositions, it is argued that a Germanic language was well-established in Britain long before the centuries of Roman rule. You don’t have to go far online to find expert-authored critiques of Oppenheimer’s work, whether in terms of genetics or linguistics (both links are from the first page of my Google search results, no doubt there’s plenty more where they came from). What’s troubling for me is that the former of the linked responses begins by recounting how Oppenheimer’s work was indirectly cited by Nick Griffin, erstwhile leader of the reprehensible far-right British National Party, on national tv in 2009. That this is not addressed by the authors of proto-english.org (set up in 2005 but last updated in 2014) is a much greater problem than its failure to acknowledge the substantial and substantive critiques of Oppenheimer’s book, especially its reportedly duff treatment of the language. In fact, in my eyes, it’s a very big problem indeed.
To be crystal clear, I’m not saying that I believe those behind proto-english.org have any sympathies with the ideology of Griffin and his repugnant ilk. My criticism is that, because the work of one of their key inspirations has been used and abused in this way, it’s regrettable they have made no attempt to draw a clear distinction in how they view and apply Oppenheimer’s contentions – and ideally how their line of interpretation is incompatible with fascist ethno-nationalism. I’ve shown above how someone used an inadequately thought-through salvo of tweets from Tom Holland as a vehicle to assert just that; who’s to say Proto-English webpages haven’t been shared to the same end in far-right Facebook groups and subreddits? Thus, it’s no longer acceptable to sit on your hands and, if challenged, trot out a trite pseudo-defence of “Well, how was I to know someone would take it and use it in that way?”. Such shit needs to be actively and overtly disrupted.
Let’s step back for a second and return the focus to linguistics. I know from email exchanges that the notion of Proto-English has gained traction and acceptance/adherence in some extra-academic quarters, even though it directly conflicts with some of the other viewpoints of my correspondent. It’s seen as a challenge to the starchy orthodoxy, and the works advocating it will seem credible to many. It will not be obvious to many that the authors responsible for those works pick and choose their evidence to fit in with the pre-ordained conclusions of their argument, substituting the trickiest yet most crucial areas of analysis, and the full gamut of current thinking, for some shiny-looking science. Pretty much everyone has heard of DNA, and know its analysis and interpretation is something best left to geneticists, who are clever people, ergo what they say must be correct. How many people, by contrast, are even aware of Celtic and Germanic phonology and philology, and their paramount importance to understanding much of the material behind advocations of Proto-English?
Even more to the point, how many have sufficient grasp of the finer points of both philology and phonology – not to mention any other disciplines that may be pertinent to the name(s) under discussion – to understand fully not just the basis of the arguments being presented, but more importantly the faults therein? I’ll hold my hands up and freely admit that I don’t, at least not (yet) to the levels necessary to understand the issues inside out, but I do know enough to spot when someone is deliberately and unforgivably skirting around the tough stuff. Of course, none of this will matter to the people out there who simply don’t care, if they think they have found something that can act as another plank for their numbskull theories about national “ethno-homogeneity” and such like.
One thing that’s not helping matters right now is the notable lack of published rebuttals of Proto-English from those with the requisite skills. Should they be inclined, anyone can string together a bunch of facts (or things that look like facts) and create what seems to them to be a coherent, credible narrative, particularly when it comes to a topic like place-names that are by there very nature not simply linguistic phenomena. It is only when that narrative is exposed to responses from others with expertise on the subject(s) in hand that, for better or worse, the credibility of that narrative is established. Without such checks and balances, you’re simply making your case into a vacuum, and there’s no honour in winning a one-sided debate. But a culture of experts rolling their eyes or snidely muttering “Where to begin?” is nothing to be celebrated. Actions speak louder than Facebook comments.
My years working tedious corporate jobs has left me a bit too apt to start talking about “silo mentalities” and how to overcome them, but in this connection there is some merit in contemplating how to initiate constructive dialogues and exchanges across institutional/disciplinary/geographical boundaries. Without a filter (personal or algorithmic), it’s all too easy to find dodgy research online masquerading as robust scholarship and accept it as gospel, because counterpoints are not so readily accessible: the journals are (almost) all behind paywalls, the best books are hyper expensive (as much for cash-strapped libraries as for individuals), and the gatekeeper institutions (I include publication-producing societies here) are lagging behind in making their content more widely available. And if what I was once told about Academia and copyright is true, then that may not be an alternative for much longer; I can tell you that right now it’s the sole thing giving some people working on topics related to early medieval England outside of academic institutions topics access to scholarship more recent than Sir Frank Stenton and John Morris.
Leaving aside the economics of publication (a subject I don’t claim to have a detailed working knowledge of, although certain aspects do make it seem ripe for disruption #freebusinessidea), new channels for the dissemination of high-quality research need to be opened up, and existing ones reinforced and replicated. This Prof Howard Williams blog post on the Pillar of Eliseg and early medieval assembly sites more generally shows how it could/should be done; an invigoratingly thorough yet engaging run-through of a research project and the many angles from which a monument was considered, written by a leading academic in their field. It can’t help but convince, and moreover inspire further interest on the part of the reader (such as reading through the Project Eliseg website). I’ll draw your attention to the fact the Pillar of Eliseg is situated in Wales just like Mr Wilson’s “city-in-a-field”, but otherwise refrain from further comment, as I think it should be obvious enough what I’m trying to get at…
Playing my part
At an individual level, I can try to help challenge certain inaccurate narratives by keep doing what I’ve been doing for over half a decade now and blog about medieval subjects with the main agenda being the careful, objective use of the best scholarship available to me at the time of writing. More than that, however, I can use the modest online platform I’ve built up over the years to be more overt in explaining how I approach what I study, and why it would to be inappropriate to construe it in certain limited ways. Below and in the future, I will endeavour to show the advantages of examining things from multiple viewpoints and, just as importantly, that you cannot hope to make a compelling revisionist case when dealing with certain types of evidence without having a firm grasp of the primary methods for their analysis; arguments founded on a rag-tag assortment of secondary disciplines can never hope to convince to the same extent.
Corollary to the above has to be an awareness that aspects of the material I work on, and the conclusions I draw from it that I choose to make public, could be misused to support particular agendas through their selective presentation. Just because the majority of evidence points in one direction does not mean that the minority can be ignored as meaningless – on the contrary, it can help to finesse or even overhaul interpretations. The subject matter of my one published peer-reviewed (and co-authored) article to date, earlier medieval pig husbandry, is fairly inert (unless you are enough of a fascist loon as to really want to foreground the non-proscription of keeping and eating swine as a cornerstone of British identity), but my ongoing PhD research is a different proposition, dealing as it does with the formation of collective identities in a pivotal period in the history and archaeology of Britain. What follows, therefore, is a pre-emptive strike on anyone who thinks they can take what I do and refashion it to suit their own twisted racist/nationalist/sexist agenda.
When I’m rethinking -ingas**
I study group names and group identities in post-Roman Britain, primarily as evidenced through place-names, and with a particular focus on ones derived from -ingas because it’s the best represented of the Old English generic elements used to form group-names (see also -ware, folc, sǣta/sǣtan, -hǣme) and the toponyms have numerous analogues in early medieval literature (the general failure to consider the former in terms of the latter has been a major impediment to a better understanding of the significance of -ingas as a name-forming element). -ingas were sub-ethnic groups (for the most part anyway), i.e. they were below the level and did not possess some of the defining traits of ethnic groups – although it may not be accurate to talk of the existence of such things at all in Britain at this time – so I tend to give the term ethnonym a miss when describing them. (Note I do not use sub-ethnic as a pejorative in the manner in which the label “sub-Roman” has come to be read; rather it’s a borrowing from Fernández-Götz 2014, albeit I use it in a different capacity to indicate social groupings of smaller size and complexity than those – in a continental European Iron Age context – he terms ‘ethnic communities’.)
** That was meant to be a take on the George Formby song title. Doesn’t really work, does it?
From their earliest appearances in written sources, it is clear that -ingas had largely had their day as fully autonomous entities by the end of the 7th century CE, although the groups themselves may have continued to function in some reduced form for longer. While there is nothing that absolutely precludes later-recorded -ingas place-names from having been formed at a different time and in a different socio-political environment (and it is unquestionable that the element continued to be used in new name coinages right through to the 11th century, if not even later), the early recorded instances are best treated as stemming from a relatively early, pre-historical period of social complexity. From this arise all manner of why/when/how/where/what questions – if all goes to plan, the search for answers to these will keep me occupied for the next few years! For the time being, here are three facets of -ingas name formations that I feel I know enough about at this stage of my research to offer a few observations on how they should and should not be interpreted.
1. The first aspect of my research that I fear could be misappropriated concerns the geographical origins of the people behind the -ingas names. Traditionally (and arguably still to this day in many quarters) -ingas place-names have been approached in terms of models of Anglo-Saxon migration to post-Roman Britain. The social groups behind them have been interpreted as bands of trans-maritime settlers who brought their pre-existing shared identities with them from their continental homelands, either at the vanguard of the process in the 5th century CE or else as a secondary phase, attributed to the 6th century, in which newly-arrived people were compelled to “colonise” areas beyond the loci of initial immigration and settlement. However, it’s starting to become clear to me that many -ingas group identities were of insular, not continental, formation. The small number of -ingas place-names with what look more like Brittonic than Old English specifics are very hard to explain in any other way (Avening in Gloucestershire is an obvious example: (to) Æfeningum 896 [11th] < *Afeningas, ultimately Brittonic *abona, ‘river’ + OE -ingas). Likewise, the source of many others of wholly OE composition is perhaps better sought not in imported collective identities, but in the social and cultural flux within Britain in the post-Roman period – albeit not necessarily as early as the 5th century.
This may be born out by certain non-toponymic -ingas formations. The Oiscingas, the royal line of the kingdom of Kent recorded by Bede, based their name on that of Oisc (alias Oeric), an early member of the royal line. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (II.5) is, along with the Historia Brittonum (chapters 31, 44, 45) and various recensions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (annals for 449, 455, 456, 465, 473, 488), one of the three 8th- and 9th-century narrative works that provide the information on the origins of the Kentish kingdom and its royal line. What is clear from them is that all of Oisc’s achievements that are known to us (successes in battle, succession to the kingdom, 24-year reign) took place in Britain – he may not even have been born before his father Hengist and Horsa made their journey across the sea to make landfall at Ypwinesfleot (see Brooks 1989, 58-64, for a benchmark analysis of these sources). As such, and provided the admittedly-limited historical testimony is representative the original body of stories about Oisc, it is perverse to think that the name Oiscingas was coined outside of Britain (I might add that the way in which Bede words his account does not give the impression that he made up the name for the purpose of his historical narrative).But to see -ingas name formations as a distinctive “English” institution is to miss the point about them. Early authors, from J. M. Kemble onwards, went out of their way to make the link between English place-names that looked as if they might be based on -ingas in one of its inflections and continental cognates, whether toponymic or literary. Although it turned out many of the quoted names were of different derivation, there are many other examples that are indeed valid cognates, like Ekwall’s (1962, 39) pairing of Poynings in Sussex (Puningas 960) and Püning near Münster in Germany (Puningun 890; in this case both are based on a personal name *Pūn(a)). It could indeed be that these place-names represent the start and end points of a trans-maritime migratory journey, but they are also amenable to be understood as the products of very similar lexicons of personal-naming and social structures prevailing (synchronously or otherwise) in their respective locations. Either way, the names descend from the same Proto-Germanic root *ingoz, whence OE -ingas and its cognates. How these stems were used to form group-names did vary across the different language groups and proto-languages (as explored in this recent article I just discovered), but the fundamental point arising is that Old English -ingas names mustn’t be seen in isolation – even if that makes my study of them a more difficult undertaking!
2. Geographically, my research will have a primarily English focus. This is inevitable, for several reasons – and no, a sense of patriotism is not one of them. It’s no accident that England happens to be largely coincident with the area in which Old English was spoken as a first language (not precisely coterminous of course, what with Cornish in Cornwall, Cumbric in Cumbria, and the regions that underwent Scandinavian settlement from the later 9th century), and this guides my hand to a considerable extent. Thus it is an inescapable fact that the vast majority of place-name formations in Old English -ingas are found in England. Moreover, virtually every name of this type is helpfully calendared and analysed in a single book of definite Anglocentric nature (despite being authored by a Swede); Eilert Ekwall’s 1962 second edition of English Place-Names in -ing. Alongside the name data, I’ll be looking at non-linguistic forms of evidence. To help in this, I’m fortunate (as are you, internet user!) to be able to draw upon various electronic databases that collate material of predominantly English provenance or subject: to name some notable examples, the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds for “archaeological” material (albeit more often than not found outside of excavation or controlled field-walking), and The Electronic Sawyer and Open Domesday for historical sources.
But in Britain, the sorts of names I am studying are not just found in England. Thanks to Bede (V.12), one of the most historically-enlightening -ingas names of all is Incuneningum 731 [8th] < *Cuneningas, the part-Brittonic name of a district now known as Cunninghame in North Ayrshire on the west coast of Scotland (Ekwall 1962, 78-79). It appears in a vividly-told passage about a man who dies in his sleep only to come back to life filled with a new sense of religious fervour, that includes specific and so hugely valuable references to ‘the head of a family’ (pater familias), ‘his household’ ((cum) domu sua; this and the previous phrase potentially – but not unequivocally – describe the *Cuneningas), and ‘the village church’ ((ad) uillulae oratorium = a typical accoutrement of an -ingas-named place/territory?). Perhaps even more exciting are the early literary uses of a Primitive/Old Welsh -ing, a plural noun ending with the same general significance as OE -ingas, though often found used in a quasi-territorial sense of ‘(land of) the progeny of’. Dr Caitlin Green kindly drew my attention to a number of these references, and has indicated to me that she hopes to put together a future blog post to introduce these names and their sources. I’m very much looking forward to reading it!
What is more, -ingas was used in Old English literature to identify social groupings in some very exotic locations. Among the many group-names in the catalogue poem known as Widsith (note: the linked translation isn’t the best), for example, are those of the Amothingas (line 86), Exsyringas (line 82), and Sercingas (line 75). Joyce Hill, in her compilation Old English Minor Heroic Poems, identified these as pertaining respectively to the Ammonites or Amorites of the Bible, the Assyrians, and the Chinese or people(s) of the Far East in general (1994, 61, 66, 80). Gösta Langenfelt’s none-more-thorough 1920 monograph Toponymics, adds some more -ingas name-formations created through Scriptural translations: Sodomingas and Gomorringas (i.e. the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah) from the later 10th-century “Northumbrian” gloss to the Book of Matthew in the Rushworth Gospels, and Moabitingas (Moabites) from the mid-11th-century Anglian Psalter (Langenfelt 1920, 58). In other words, -ingas was the perfect suffix to identify spatially and/or temporally distant groups of people (although they may have known nothing about it!), as well as ones much closer at hand.
3. Female personal names are conspicuously absent from -ingas formations, despite what is claimed for a small handful of -ingas place-names. Here I’m thinking primarily of the opinion (e.g. Ekwall 1962, 22) that Rickling in Essex incorporates the name of the late 6th-/early 7th-century East Saxon queen of Kentish royal birth, Ricola (no idea why PASE pegs her as male!). Formally, it is better understood to consist of a male personal name *Rīcel(a) + -ingas, because in this case the name-stem is a plural form of a singular -ing that had a meaning “son of”, as can be seen from its use in Old English royal genealogies of the 8th and 9th centuries (a topic I’ve had cause to blog about before). This is not to state categorically that toponymic -ingas formations communicate the patrilineal descent of the (lead) members of the eponymous group. While they may well have done so, at least initially, in many cases, -ingas names with topographical protothemes/specifics like the aforementioned Avening – along with closely-dateable, relatively early formations like Bealdhuninga[s], “the (monastic) community of Bealdhun”, referred to in 790 by Alcuin in his letter to Colcu (edited in Dümmler 1895, 32-33; translated in Whitelock 1979, 840-42) – show that it possessed a more general applicability to groups of people united by their identification with a named person or place.
While they may not have been remembered in -ingas names, it is clear that women could play prominent roles within the context of such groups. Nowhere is this made more obvious than in the actions one of the best-known female characters in the OE poetic canon: Wealhtheow from Beowulf. (NB. All translations in this paragraph are from Bradley’s popular compendium Anglo-Saxon Poetry.) Wealhtheow is characterised successively as þa ides Helminga, ‘(the) lady of the Helmings’ (her own royal house/people: line 620), and ða ides Scyldinga, ‘(the) lady of the Scyldings’ (the house of her husband Hrothgar/the Danes: line 1168). The ability of the episodes and characters in Beowulf to be read in a variety of ways is one of its simultaneous joys and frustrations (at least so far as being able to get a grasp of the mass of available scholarship) of the poem, but it is an undeniable fact that the poet did not make Wealhtheow an incidental figure.
Instead, she’s an overtly political actor; not merely a beag-hroden cwen, ‘ring-bejewelled queen’, but one recognised to be mode geþungen ‘distinguished for the quality of her mind’ (lines 623-24). As such, she has the agency to deliver two extended speeches in front of all those present in the restored hall of Heorot (lines 1168-86, 1216-31), and play the leading role in bestowing upon Beowulf an extraordinary array of gold items drawn from the þeod-gestreona, ‘communal hoard’ (line 1218). Among these was heals-beaga mæst / þara þe ic on foldan gefrægen hæbbe, ‘the greatest torque of any I have heard tell of on earth’ (lines 1195-96) – analogous in form at least with the one gifted to Widsith by Ealhhild, possibly queen of the Myrgingas (Widsith, line 97; for the difficulties in ascertaining the identity of Ealhhild’s husband, see Hill 1994, 64-65).
In being the equals of their royal husbands or kingly counterparts in some important capacities, Wealhtheow and Ealhhild have parallels with 7th-century figures like Seaxburh (who ruled the West Saxon kingdom in her own right for at least a year) and Balthild (slave-turned-wife of Clovis II, sometime regent, and just possibly seal-ring owner). But what about female members of the -ingas groups that gave their names to places and territories? Is there evidence for these women possessing the same degree of authority and agency in sub-royal social echelons? Narrative sources are suggestive without being conclusive – hence Kenswith, St Cuthbert’s former nanny, is said to have lived in a settlement named Hruringaham (probably < *Hruringas + hām, ‘home(stead), village, estate’) yet she is not acknowledged as being the head of the community (Anonymous Life of Cuthbert, Chapter VII).
Charters are scarcely any less equivocal. Among the more likely to record a leading female member of an -ingas group is S 46 from the Selsey/Chichester archive, concerning 18 hides of land intended for the construction and sustenance of a monastery at Wystryng’ (a late medieval copyist’s error for a place-name equivalent to East and West Wittering in Sussex). It incorporates a note recording how the recipient of the original royal grant, Diozsa (characterised as uenerabili uiri, “venerable man”), gave the endowment to his unnamed (!) sister, apparently palming off the hard work of monastic foundation onto her – presumably on the promise that she would be its head at the end of the process. Beyond his “venerable” status, Diozsa is obscure, and his sister even more so, hence – tempting as such speculation might be – it is far from certain that they were members of the *Wihtheringas after which their landed endowment was named.
S65a and S65b, a pair of short royal diploma texts of the period circa 693 x 709 in the name of Swæfred, king of the East Saxons, granting a total of 40 hides to a woman named Fymme, allow us to start to move away from the historical towards the archaeological. The land grants seems to have been for the establishment of a monastery under her control named (in) Nasyngum (< OE *Næssingas), equivalent to modern-day Nazeing(bury) in Essex. Excavations there revealed an inhumation cemetery, made up of 86 female and 32 male graves, associated with two timber churches. It has been suggested that two burials within one of the churches represent those of Fymme and a prominent ‘colleague’, and that the site represents a female-led double monastic community, although others have questioned this interpretation (Huggins 1997, 111, vs. Blair 2005, 83 inc. footnote 22). Wherever her monastery and final resting-place were, there is once again no overriding reason to accept the notion that Fymme had a pre-existing connection to the area through being a scion of the *Næssingas.
The Nazeingbury burials would appear to narrowly post-date a phase of ostentatious female interments that emerged in the mid- to late-7th century, exemplified by the bed burials at Swallowcliffe Down, Trumpington and (perhaps most spectacular of all) Street House, although it’s a struggle to correlate any with an -ingas-derived place-name. So far as I can determine, this also applies to the much larger sample of such burials (including the above-mentioned trio) assembled and discussed by Helena Hamerow in a recent article. In her conclusions, she contemplates the reasons behind the trend, including the idea that women in the 7th century could have powerful non-monastic religious identities because they did not have to perform roles as war-leaders as men did. Perhaps more immediately relevant so far as -ingas names and identities goes is the following idea, borrowed from Matthew Innes’ primarily Carolingian-based research:
‘the transmission of family memory was largely the responsibility of women, making them central to the legitimation of family power. This, coupled with their child-bearing role, would have made women lynchpins of the dynastic structure of aristocratic families.’ (Hamerow 2016, 445-46).
One of the working hypotheses of my PhD research is that the social groups recollected in -ingas place-names were local or supra-local elites, which can – with caution – be read as them possessing aristocratic status (hence the frequency of monasteries being founded at -ingas-named places, plus a bunch of other stuff I won’t go into here). I find the idea of women playing a pivotal role in the curation and perpetuation of family/dynasty identities exciting precisely because it is so far away from the male domination of the majority of toponymic -ingas name formations. Certainly, it’s one of the aspects of my research that I’m most curious to see develop and, with any luck, yield some real insights.
Final thoughts about the future
So there you have it – Surrey Medieval v.2017. Who knows what the future holds, but in the shorter-term at least I’ll be continu-ingas as before, and certainly the ongoing existence of this website is not predicated on any active institutional association on my part. What I’ve tried to show above is the things I study – and to be honest the Middle Ages in general – are not simple, and consequently no analysis of them can return conclusive results from minimal effort. People are inherently complicated, groups of people even more so, and that’s before you throw an intervening period of a millennium-and-a-half into the mix. I am as certain as I can be at this stage of my research that there is no single explanation of -ingas place-names and of the groups behind them, despite what some have claimed. In drilling down into the various forms of evidence in the months and years to come, I hope to be able to draw upon the knowledge and opinions of others working in the same field(s), but I want this to be reciprocal, and not just limited to those within academic institutions such as the one I am based at.
How to achieve this? Firstly, by sharing and sharing alike. It’s important to underscore that there is – or else should not be – a split between an academic elite (did I really get this far without using the e-word?!) and those working outside of academia. There’s a diversity of people undertaking research, and a spectrum of research outputs accessible; regardless of background, some of it is good, and other pieces, well, not so good. Wherever I sit on these scales now and in the future, I will always extend the invitation to anyone to contact me if they’re writing on a topic I’ve covered before, or are simply interested in something or somewhere they think I might know something about. I endeavour to respond to emails as quickly as I can and, because I genuinely love receiving them, will try my best to do so as fully and helpfully as I can. That said, I cannot pretend to be the best person to answer questions on many medieval topics, and in such cases I will make sure to point a contact in the direction of someone I know who is better qualified or experienced than me. (Also, I have my limits! I recently had to cut contact with someone because they were using me as a weekly peer-reviewer and reference-mine without really responding to my suggestions and criticisms, which made a mockery of the time and effort I’d been putting into helping them. Naivety on my part really, and a valuable lesson learned.)
Second, I’ll continue to use this site and my Twitter account to draw attention to things I think are worth people knowing about. On the place-names side of things, it may not come as a huge surprise to learn there’s not a superabundance of websites dedicated to English toponymy or otherwise carrying significant amounts of trustworthy content on the subject, but at the same time there’s more than you might imagine. For starters, we have the Institute for Name-Studies at the University of Nottingham, home of the English Place-Name Survey as well as one-off projects like the useful Key to English Place-Names (KEPN). The Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland (SNSBI), as its name suggests, has a broader outlook; its journal Nomina is full of relevant works, and so too its website (notably the Gelling-Cole landscape photograph archive). Some county- or local-level place-name projects have a commendable online presence: shout outs to the Essex Place-Names Project and the Archaeox Place Names Group (with the EPNS Staffordshire Place-Name Project in its early phases). Top-drawer place-name analyses are also available on scholarly personal websites – the two that spring to mind are those maintained by Dr Keith Briggs and Dr Caitlin Green. (NB. I will use this paragraph as the basis for a proper page under my Links tab cataloguing all such resources in due course.)
Finally, the past few weeks have got me thinking about other means of creating an inclusive space in which positive discourse from different sides of the debate can happen. To this end, I’m now seriously toying with the idea of trying to organise some kind of conference that takes a long hard look at the origins of Old English in Britain, not just from a linguistic angle but factoring in current perspectives from fields like archaeology, history, and genetics. (Anyone who would like to work with me to make this happen please drop me a line!) Enabling exponents and opponents of ideas around Proto-English to come together, present their research, and discuss it outside of the silos in which things have been taking place over the past few years would be one ambition for it. Another (and for me the most important) would be the opportunity to spur those involved in Old English (place-)name studies to engage with cutting-edge thinking about the Adventus Saxonum, given a lot of pieces of published (top)onomastic research still deals in models and thinking that archaeology and history has long since moved on from. It may not yield any great accords or unanimity over issues, but I think it’s important from a broader standpoint to try and start talking to as many people as possible, regardless of background.
Except fascists. They can fucking do one.
REFERENCES (hyperlinked when available for free online)
Blair, J., The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Bradley, S. A. J., trans. and ed., Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: J. M. Dent, 1995)
Brooks, Nicholas, ‘The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent’ in Steven Bassett, ed., The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: Leicester University Press, 1989), 55-74
Ekwall, Eilert, English Place-Names in -ing, second edition (Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1962)
Fernández-Götz, Manuel, Identity and Power: The Transformation of Iron Age Societies in Northeast Gaul, Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 21 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014)
Hamerow, Helena, ‘Furnished female burial in seventh-century England: gender and sacral authority in the Conversion Period’, Early Medieval Europe, 24 (4) (2016), 423-47
Hill, Joyce, ed., Old English Minor Historic Poems, revised edition, Durham Medieval Texts, 4 (Durham: Durham Medieval Texts, 1994)
Whitelock, Dorothy, ed., English Historical Documents, Vol. 1 c.500-1042, second edition (London: Eyre Methuen, 1979)