An interrupting interruption

I’ll get straight to the point. After months of frustration, followed by a sudden stroke of inspiration and then a lot of deliberation, I’ve made the arrangements necessary to interrupt – that is, take time out from (I never know if UCL admin-speak is universal or institutional) – my doctoral studies for a period of 12 months from this autumn. And, quite honestly, I doubt if I’ll ever go back.

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It’s email offish

Okay, maybe that last sentence is my current negative line of thought talking. I’ll admit, currently I’m fresh out of positivity so far as my degree is concerned, and perhaps some time away from it will be just the tonic to revive my love for what I do and more to the point my conviction that it is a worthwhile endeavour. But it doesn’t change the fact that I no longer see this as a valid career path, one leading to a positive and profitable (in any sense of the word) outcome. Therefore, I have no motivation to complete my thesis other than for my own satisfaction, plus the interest of whoever might be interested in its subject matter. Frankly, however, I think I’m beyond the event horizon and so wouldn’t bet against me having called a stop to things for good.

I should stress again that this is not a brand new, spur of the moment decision. It’s all been lined up for weeks. Thus it was weird to sit on this knowledge for the duration of Leeds IMC, divulging the truth to one or maybe two trusted confidantes over the course of the four days, while pretending that everything was a bed of roses to anyone else I met for the first time or didn’t feel like I knew well enough to admit the reality. I had the best time in Leeds but keeping schtum about interrupting nonetheless did impinge upon my experience of the Congress.

My decision to interrupt all comes down to funding, and my failure to be awarded a full-time scholarship for the second year in succession. I know, once was not enough so I came back for a second kick in the teeth! I wrote my mum an email in the weeks after, in which I told her that things to do with the future were becoming clearer but that my studies were like an addictive drug, one that you can’t simply come off straight away. I’ve spent years training/reading/writing in support of my doctoral research, and consider myself to work at the highest standards required to do my topic justice, so you’ll understand why I’ve couched the shift away from this to something new and completely different (whatever it will turn out to be) in such stark terms.

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Bye, UCL (for the time being at least)

It hardly needs saying but, for me, this whole situation is massively annoying and frustrating. Had the chips fallen differently then no doubt I’d be all happy and keen and mapping out a future in which I tied Old English group-name and habitative place-name elements, archaeology, and history together, and blew everyone’s minds (at least a little bit) in the process. That’s not going to happen now. Ever. And it really saddens me to type those words. Someone else will have to take up the baton, whenever that might be (if that sounds like you – email me).

Perhaps it’s my fault. Perhaps it’s the fault of those who advised me on my application and gave it the green light. Perhaps it’s the fault of those who assess applications and award the funding – in the wake of my rejection, I heard some pretty “interesting” things about the none-more-opaque funding body I applied to but there’s not a lot to be gained by elaborating on that point. Ultimately, I’m an adult and so I realise that some of the responsibility (blame?) must rest on my shoulders. And you know what? I reckon I’m okay with that. I really do. I went into the process with my eyes wide open, knowing it might not turn out the way I wanted it to. At least I gave it a go – twice! – to see if it would happen for me.

Right now, I feel too old, too conflicted, too depressed, too tired to carry my research on to its conclusion. There are younger, more motivated and ambitious research students out there working in my field who can (and no doubt will) drive things forward. Maybe I don’t give enough of a shit to strive to be among their number. Three-and-a-bit degrees later and there’s a lot (maybe too much) about academia that I don’t like; years away from university working in jobs of various corporate shades really awoke me to its shortcomings, and I’ve never been able to overcome them. I do fear that academia as we know it in the UK is fucked, comprehensively outgunned by those who have it in for it and too slow and undynamic, for all the talk to the contrary, to make its own fundamental changes for the better. (PS. I’m not an arch-capitalist, quite the reverse in fact; it’s more my professional experiences with people, not processes that have left me feeling and thinking the way that I do.)

And maybe all this is a blessing in disguise. Call me idealistic or whatever, but I want to make a difference in this world, and I don’t think telling people how and why people adopted the social identities they did in bits of north-west Europe 1,500 years ago is really helping in the same way as if I was to apply my grey matter to some other issue at hand. I’m highly educated, with some hot-to-trot skills in some areas, and ample ability to learn in others, so I reckon there’s a really awesome line of work out there for me somewhere. I’m genuinely excited for what the future holds, a sense that came with my initial decision to interrupt, and hence which makes me think I’m onto a winner by choosing this path.

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London, my oyster (PS. can you believe this is the view from my friend’s new flat?)

In the immediate future I’ll be tying up loose ends with my doctoral research and other bits and pieces, so don’t be surprised if this is marked by a spike in activity on SM and elsewhere. I’m aiming to have a lot of things put to bed by the end of them summer, be it submitted or else in a position whereby I can let them be for months or years. Beyond that, however, expect a corresponding diminution in activity, but not a cessation – I still have a small number of medieval-related projects I’m aiming to undertake. Likewise, I’m not going to mothball this blog, although the frequency of posts will inevitably slacken as my attention is diverted elsewhere (not that my content creation has been voluminous these past few months!). I’ll also be continuing in my role as meetings secretary for the IoA/British Museum Medieval Seminar series, so expect some chat about that. All the same, I need to recalibrate my relationship with medieval studies, and consequently how SM fits into that and the new life I’ll be establishing for myself in the coming months. Rest assured, this won’t wind up with me going full-bore M J Harper-style anti-academic nutjob.

By way of some parting thoughts. To those who are doing or are about to do a funded PhD; you are privileged to be in that position and you should do everything you can to make the most of the opportunity. True interdisciplinarity is a mirage, now and for the immediate future. Fuck the LAHP. I wish academic medieval studies all the best, but come late-September I shall be at best semi-detached from it and I wouldn’t bet against that remaining the state of play thereafter.

Posted in London, News, PhD | 2 Comments

Leeds International Medieval Congress 2017: Part 1 – four days, 16 hours, 20 minutes

Last week was largely taken up by attending what was my third Leeds International Medieval Congress (if we discount an accidentally-larcenous first experience of the IMC a decade back when I worked as one of the people who looks after a group of session rooms). I blogged about the 2015 and 2016 editions, and can’t help but notice from the introductions to those posts that I’ve set to work on my reflections on this year in record time.


The thing is, I don’t even like Game of Thrones…

The reasons for this are three-fold. First, I have the time to do so (although I must confess this is eating into the time I had earmarked for other writing). Second, this year’s IMC was the most stimulating and productive one I’ve been to – something to do with being present for all four days, perhaps? – and many others would seem to have had a similarly superlative experience. Third, and very much interlinked with the previous point, I met a host of great new people and reconnected with many from IMCs and other conferences gone by. I even went out for a few pints with my Leeds first year undergrad tutor (from the days when I had visions of being a transport planner!) who had taken time out of his schedule earlier in the week to come and see me give my paper.

I have some pretty big fish I want to fry in the wake of this year’s IMC, but also want to talk about my paper and the session – The Medieval Landscape / Seascape II: Landscapes of ‘The Other’ and Identity (#s217) – of which it was part. Rather than try and combine personal reflection and polemic in a single post, I’ve chosen to write two, beginning with some thoughts about my own contribution to the Congress and the host session for the paper.

Let’s get the travelogue bit over and done with first. I spent the Sunday night into Monday morning travelling to Leeds from Killarney in Ireland, a journey that took 16 hours door-to-door, and involved three buses, one plane, and finally an uphill walk from Leeds Coach Station at 5.10am because this was Leeds and not London, so there were no night buses. (It also included a whistle-stop tour of the historic Limerick, which is worth a look as you’ll gather from the pics above.) All of which meant plenty of time sat around in airports but very little time for sleeping. Therefore, given I was operating on scarcely an hour’s sleep when I stood up to speak, I reckon my paper went ok!


Central Leeds at 5.10am Monday morning. The design of the new John Lewis store doesn’t convince when you’re running on a few minutes of sleep, and doesn’t fare much better when you’re feeling much more rested.

Ever since seeing the CFP and putting together a proposal while travelling across the US last summer, I wanted to use my paper as a means for taking a really good look at the social identities and attendant processes of othering embodied by the -ingas group-names that I study. It gave me the opportunity to flesh out an idea I first hit upon a couple of years ago and presented as a postscript to a paper I gave at a workshop in Leicester; namely, that -ingas name formations were self-legitimating through ancestry and the choice of titular figureheads, and that these had wider resonance, meaning the group’s name could be applied to land or landscape features in order make/defend its claims in a period which lacked written title deeds. I investigated this through a series of case studies drawn from points named in Old English charter boundary clauses, culled from the database of the brilliant LangScape website. This culminated in a discussion of Sunningwell in Oxfordshire based in part on observations I made during a visit to the village and parish precisely one week before.

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As I said at the start of my paper, it’s not a proper place-names presentation without at least one picture of a signpost

The two papers that followed mine were different in their approaches to the topic of otherness, as well as in their particular geographical foci. Daryl Hendley Rooney looked at representations of the Irish as constructed by Gerald of Wales in his Topographia Hibernica. Gerald did something of a hatchet job on those west of the Irish Sea, making them out to be a barbaric “other” by comparison with their Welsh contemporaries, and Daryl gave a brilliant introduction to how this was reflected in part through descriptions of the Irish landscape. This was followed by Marta Sancho i Planas presenting some preliminary findings from her excavations at a remarkable site named Els Altimiris in Spain. This has been revealed to be an unusual example of a religious community that established itself in an elevated, isolated site in order to assert its right to exist outside of the control of powerful local archbishoprics and bishoprics. I especially liked Dr Sancho i Planas’ final conclusion that this was a pioneering community of others, paving the way for a “new normality”.


The excavated remains of the church at Els Altimiris. The church was of two cells, first built in the 5th or 6th century CE, and rebuilt or remodelled in the 7th century, when the buildings whose remains you can see beyond were also erected. Photo from the Els Altimiris project website.

As I think I say after every conference I speak at, I much prefer presenting in sessions like this one where there’s a spread of themes, rather than everyone dancing on the head of pin, as it makes audience and speakers alike work that little bit harder to make connections between the papers, which I find much more rewarding. The questions that followed our papers and the discussions they stimulated were similarly diverse. One thing which struck me was all three papers were presenting research that’s a few years away from being completed, whether as doctoral thesis or published excavation report. I like the idea of all three of us coming back to IMC 2022 and reprising our paper subjects to give the full story about our research!

More immediately, for anyone who wasn’t at the session (and also for anyone who was!),  I’ve tidied up my paper script and uploaded it to read right here. I’ve added it to my Academia profile, too, where, for what it’s worth, you’ll also find the abstract I submitted to the session organisers way back when. I’ve reintroduced some material back into the paper that I had to cut in order to get it to around the 20-minute mark. Bonus content yo! (If you would like the PowerPoint slides that went with the paper, email me at surrey and I’ll hook you up.) I wrote the paper before reading James Harland’s debut article for Medieval Worlds, which among many things emphasises the important point that otherness is not the same as difference, rather it is the opposite of sameness. I think this view has a lot of applicability to -ingas names, which (as linguistic items anyway) are so obviously variations on a theme. However, I’m not prepared to cast out all talk of otherness in conjunction with -ingas just yet (and certainly not rewrite large chunks of my paper!), as I think it is an interesting concept with which to examine the strategies behind such name formations, particularly in a landscape context.

Without committing myself to something that will never happen, I hope to be able to find the time during this summer to do put together a short blog summarising my trip to Sunningwell and why it was crucial to my thinking on the place-name and history of the estate/parish. But these things have a tendency to take months to happen, not weeks, so bear with me!


The spring-fed pond in the centre of Sunningwell village, almost certainly the source of the place-name. Overlooking it is the medieval church of St Lawrence. But just how significant is this pairing?

Lastly, thanks to the wonderful Drs Kimm Curran and Karl Christian Alvestad for organising the session and another successful Medieval Landscape / Seascape series; to Prof Sam Turner for moderating; and most of all to my fellow presenters for presenting such interesting research.

Part 2 will be with you shortly…

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Barrows, Charters, Conference, Landscape, Leeds, Old English, Place-Names, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

New work (in progress): Bassishaw and Basinghall

A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar given by Prof. Andrew Reynolds (my primary thesis supervisor, if I haven’t mentioned that before) in which he revisited a paper on the Anglo-Saxon archaeology of the City of London first delivered at a conference last year. Without giving too much away, seeing as how it is to be written up for publication, a cluster of evidence was highlighted that seems to suggest an enduring intramural focus of political activity pre-dating the famed reestablishment of London as an urban centre by King Alfred in 886 (and separate to any ecclesiastical centre at St Paul’s). Part of this hypothesis is founded upon minor place-name evidence, including two names that appear to contain a form of the Old English (OE) element -ingas. Now I hardly hide the fact that this is the main focus of what I research, and indeed I’d developed my own line of thinking about the significance of this brace of names previously. Having the impetus to take a closer look at them, however, has led me to drastically alter my interpretation of one of the two: Bassishaw aka Basinghall.


What began life as the rest of this post, intended as my Easter gift to Surrey Medieval readers, has now made the leap into a separate page, and a new kind of page for me or rather this site. Click here to read it. To acknowledge that the piece sprawled into something far too long and detailed for quick and easy consumption, but remains at an intermediate point in its evolution, I’ve styled it a work in progress. This is in the hope some people might be minded not only to read it but also offer comments and criticisms that will serve to improve any future version. Certainly, any rewrite will distill the content into a much shorter, sharper form – build it up to tear it down, if you will! All the same, if you just fancy reading some thoughts about a relatively mysterious period in the City of London’s history and archaeology, accompanied by more photos of street signs than you can shake a stick at, then put your feet up and give it a go.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Charters, Dating, History, London, Old English, Place-Names | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

410-1066 CE: What should we call the period (at least so far as Surrey is concerned)?

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Snippets of ‘Saxon’ Surrey – Godalming/Tuesley to be precise – as seen in Godalming Museum in January 2017

Midway through last month, I finished editing my first Surrey Archaeological Society Medieval Studies Forum Newsletter. I’m pretty proud of the finished product, if I do say so myself! You’ll have to join the Forum to enjoy the whole thing, but I thought I’d share something from it on Surrey Medieval. In fact, I’ve added to the published piece, written as an attempt to answer to the misleadingly simple question posed in the title of this post. All the usual suspects are given the once-over: Early Medieval and Middle Ages, Anglo-Saxon, Late Antiquity, even Dark Ages (but anyone expecting to see a weighing of the merits of the label “The Age of Arthur” or cognates need read no further). Click here to read it – but maybe read the following first…

As I hope is clear from my title, whether it is explicitly stated or not, the discussion throughout is geared primarily around evaluating the merits of various labels in terms of the archaeology and history of Surrey rather than England or some other wider historical geographical area. Notwithstanding this fact, it does offer some more general commentary as well. In doing so, it follows in the footsteps of —nay, is overshadowed by— some truly excellent recent contributions from several scholars of whose research I am a great admirer. So, as much as anything, it serves as a place where links and references to a number of important pieces are collected together.

What I’m hoping is that we’re witnessing at least the start of a shift change in the choices of words and phrases used when writing about the archaeology and history of the period (NB. I largely omitted issues surrounding linguistics in the piece because I was writing originally for an audience consisting primarily of amateur historians and archaeologists). Just because the issues are complex and may in the end require a break with what has gone before doesn’t mean we should shy away from the task. The vibrant and vital contemporary discourses around choices of terminology concerning gender and sexuality show how the considered (re)evaluation of terminology can lead to changes for the better — though not always consensus! Indeed, my piece perhaps does not offer as many hard-and-fast conclusions as you might expect, and and is certainly not intended to be any last word on the matter. With this in mind, maybe think of it more as a setting down and sharing of my opinions at the present point in time. I’ve changed my mind and my praxis in recent years, and no doubt will to do so again in the future!


Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Architecture, Dating, History, Language, Middlesex, Soapbox, Surrey, Sussex, Viking | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is it a castle? Is it a causeway? Further adventures in historical field-names

Everyone likes castles, right? They’re one of the things that make the medieval period what it is in many people’s eyes. Of course, not every castle looks like Bodiam (yes, that one that’s on the cover of pretty much EVERY book to do with castles or medieval England) or, to pick one I visited not all that long ago, Warkworth in Northumberland…

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Warkworth Castle is marvellous, definitely worth a visit if you’re ever on the Northumberland coast. In one of the few good things to come out of my old job, I managed to blag a weekend in Warkworth (a delightful old town in its own right) at the company’s expense. SUCKERS!

Many medieval castles lack any (above-ground) masonry remnants and instead exist as earthworks – and many others nowadays have little or nothing whatsoever to show for themselves on the ground. But they can be remembered in other ways: in documents, for example, or in a place-name. A few years ago, I spotted a trio of field-names that looked to me as if they could denote the site of a lost castle in the Surrey countryside. Well, to be accurate, I thought they might represent either a later medieval castle or an earlier, Anglo-Saxon-period fortified/defensible centre. I tinkered with the possibility for a little bit, trying to understand which might be the more likely explanation, but didn’t take it very far and soon moved on to something else.

In recent months, I’ve had cause to revisit the matter and dedicate more attention to it, because a significant chunk of my time has been spent writing and now revising a research article on the burh or stronghold of (to) Escingum, i.e. Eashing, just outside Godalming in south-west Surrey. The primary purpose of the article is/will be to critically evaluate the site of the burh that was first suggested in a note published by Fred Aldsworth and David Hill in 1971, and has been accepted by all others who have written on the matter subsequently. It’s not that the original note and the contributions that followed do not make a solid case for the site in question, but a quarter of a century later David Hill himself wrote that the identification was ‘less convincing’ than others made in relation to different “lost” Burghal Hidage strongholds, which suggested to me that there’s reason to look at the evidence in a fresh, 21st-century light.

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Looking across the accepted, and by far the most credible, site of the Eashing burh from its north-west corner. My photo, taken late December 2016.

I’ve blogged previously about the main “new” piece of evidence I wish to bring to the table through my article (in fact, I have since discovered multiple earlier and later occurrences of that particular field-name) but there are other elements to the analysis besides. One of these was checking that there was not a more credible burghal site awaiting re-identification in the immediate surroundings of the present-day Eashing hamlets. In the end, I identified three possible alternative sites, one of which being the field-name cluster that implies the former existence of a castle.

The anonymous reviewers of my article draft quite rightly commented that what I wrote was overkill in view of the fact that none of my three alternatives comes anywhere near to being as credible as the one suggested by Aldsworth and Hill – albeit Nicholas Brooks seems to have been the first to come up with the idea, but that’s another story… Most of the words I wrote about this trio have been excised from the revised text, but I felt some of them merited presenting here as a standalone piece that shows the benefits of paying close attention to historic name-forms (not that I didn’t write about this very topic at the very end of last year). As for the other two candidate sites, well, you’ll just have to wait until the finished article is published; not this year as I’d hoped, but next year or the year after (else you should have come to the talk I gave about it back in February!).

The fields and field-names I want to focus on here were situated in the vicinity of Oxenford, approximately one mile to the south-west of the Eashing hamlets in the neighbouring parish of Witley. (Their sites are largely free from later development but their boundaries have been largely erased, hence why I don’t refer to them in the present tense.) Oxenford is a small sub-parochial place that first emerges in the historical record in the 12th century as a property of Waverley Abbey, located a few miles further west. In a document of appendices to a 2010 article entitled ‘The home estate, granges and smaller properties of Waverley Abbey’, Mark Service reported the field-names Castle FieldCastle Field Mead and Castlefield Row from the tithe apportionment for Witley, shown on the accompanying map in a cluster south of Elstead Road close to Oxenford Grange (S29, S31; both the apportionment of 1844 and map of 1840 are kept at the Surrey History Centre, catalogued as respectively MIL/10/1 and 864/1/135).

Castle Field

The view south from Elstead Road across what was mapped as Castle Field in 1840; the big tree on the right marks the line of the former west boundary of the field (image from Google Street View)

This trio of abutting fields were positioned at and just beyond the eastern end of a low outcrop of Sandgate Beds sandstone on the southern edge of the Wey floodplain, adjacent to a small tributary stream. This is not a site of great natural defensibility, but the field-names would seem to point to the former presence of a fortification (albeit not necessarily one of medieval origin; the district of Castlefield in Manchester takes its name from early recognition of the remains of the Roman fort of Mamucium). The first half of the name would appear to represent OE castel or ME castēl, ‘castle’, which got me thinking about a curious reference made by John Aubrey on page 40 of the third volume of his Natural History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, written in the late 17th century but revised and published in 1718:

West of Oxenford, near the Heath, is a round artificial Hill or Barrow.’

There is no such feature visible in the approximate location today. But, bearing in mind the relative proximity of Castle Field and its namesakes, might it be possible that this round artificial hill was a motte, and that, instead of West, Aubrey meant South? I’ll readily admit that I’m forever getting my directions muddled up in writing, and that south of the fields lay Bagmoor Common, now a heathland nature reserve. Nonetheless, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept such a fundamental error (more so given that west of Oxenford is Royal Common, another area of ‘open acid grassland heath’), and to be certain of the credibility of the field-names – let alone that they marked the site of Aubrey’s mound – requires additional, earlier attestations.

A lot of searches of online catalogues led me to identify a number of other historic sources in local archives that I anticipated could contain earlier forms of the same field-name(s). My first port of call was the Surrey History Centre in Woking, and a date with a curious 1812 notebook of tithe information from the Godalming area (G145/BOX64/5). However, there was no trace of any Castle Field/Castlefield-type field-name under Oxenford. What was in evidence, on the other hand, was Causeway Field – not so different in spelling, but very different in meaning.

I felt like I had a game on my hands, and the halftime score was Castle 1, Causeway 1. I kicked off the second half (sorry, but I like this footballing metaphor and I’m sticking with it) by turning my attention to an early 18th-century transcription of information from a lost Oxenford estate map of 1715 (G145/BOX1/1). This yielded what on first impressions was an equivocal, could-stand-for-one-or-the-other name: Causey field. With everything still to play for, I took the match to extra time…

…and a different venue, the small but perfectly formed Local Studies Library of Godalming Museum. Among its small collection of original local deeds (the earliest of which is a gorgeous mid-13th century charter that will be the subject of a future SM post or page) is a 1681 release of a moiety of Oxenford with an appended, seemingly contemporary schedule of lands and properties (PWD/27/2). It’s a somewhat difficult document to read, but after a good deal of peering and getting used to the handwriting, I spotted the name I’d come for – Casey Feild:

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“called Casey Feild”: excerpt from the schedule of lands and properties attached to the 1681 release. Go to Godalming Museum’s Local Studies Library and see it for yourself – details of its location, opening times and accessibility can be found here.

By this time, I knew enough on the language side of things to be confident that a spelling like Casey (or Causey) was not some vernacular mangling of Castle, but something consistent with a form of ME caucē(e) < Anglo-French caucié(e), ‘A raised and surfaced road; a highway or causeway’. With what was now getting on for a century and a half of consistent written testimony weighed firmly in favour of this interpretation, I blew the final whistle: 3-1 to Causeway, and a clear winner – if not the one I’d expected when I started!

It must be noted that there are differences between the recorded acreages of these fields, sometimes fluctuating by more than an acre, but these may represent boundary alterations or differences in surveying techniques/competency! Over all, I find it highly probable that they all pertain to the same piece of land later mapped and named as Castle Field. My confidence is also based on the trip I took at the end of January to the Historic England Archive in Swindon, where I looked at aerial photographs of this and the other possible burghal sites. No likely cropmarks were perceptible in any of the images I looked at, which spanned several decades and were taken at different times of the year.

The Causeway

The causeway of Casey/Causey/Causeway Field fame as it exists today (okay, in 2009). Note how it is clearly elevated above the level of the pasture field on the right-hand side of the image; this formed part of Castle Field Mead in the 1840s (image from Google Street View)

The original reference would appear to be to the causeway that still carries Elstead Road (the B3001) across the apparently-nameless stream that flows north to join the Wey. It is possible that this superseded an earlier crossing that gave its name to Oxenford (an unusually transparent OE name *Oxenaford, “ford of the oxen”), although this may pertain to a crossing of the Wey between Witley and Paper Harow parishes. Indeed, it’s got me wondering if the causeway was perhaps a creation of Waverley Abbey, not only holder of Oxenford but also proposed as the patron of the nearby 13th-century Somerset and Eashing Bridges.

But how to account for the change Cause(wa)y > Castle? If 1812 is treated as a terminus post quem, then it would appear to have occurred remarkably late in time. My preferred explanation currently centres on the fact that the Witley tithe apportionment was created at the same time as the finishing touches were being applied to a new gatehouse and barn at Oxenford (plus an extraordinary arched wellhead for the medicinal Bonville Spring nearby) designed by the great Gothic Revival architect, Augustus Pugin. The building of such unapologetically medievalist structures hereabouts in 1843-44 (according to pages 12-14 of Christopher Budgen’s West Surrey Architecture, 1840-2000; The Pugin Society attribute the farm buildings to the year 1841) may have been the spur for a similar intervention in the surrounding toponymy. Could it be that, as a counterpoint to the lavish ecclesiastical stylings of Pugin’s new edifices, someone was inspired to reanalyse the name of Causeway Field and its smaller neighbours as something altogether more estimable and befitting of (neo-)medieval Oxenford?

Posted in Castle, Causeways, Field-names, Godalming, History, Landscape, Middle English, Place-Names, Surrey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Not in my name or theirs: in defence and celebration of the diversity of what I study

In my previous post, I attempted to underline that medieval studies nowadays finds itself in a position of having an unusually high level of political relevance. Not through any moves obviously engineered by academic medievalists, rather through the rise in Europe and the US of popular nationalist politicians and political parties/movements, and the gradual creep of elements of the ideology and vocabulary of the far-right into more mainstream political debates. Their obsessions with hot-button issues of national and ethnic identity, migration, and the relationship between Christianity/Christendom and Islam/the Ummah, are all topics within the purview of medieval studies. Indeed, certain members of the medievalist community must rank among those who most rigorously study and best understand such issues, but this does not mean their voices are the ones that are heard in public discourse. There will always be risks surrounding the use, misuse, or non-use of scholarly research by non-specialists, whatever their political persuasion and motive. In this current political climate, I think it’s contingent upon those of us who want to contribute to wider debates to not just be the authors of research outputs in the public domain, but as far as possible the authors of the destinies of the ideas they contain as well.

What I wish to do here is scale back from such grandiose hopes by setting out how I, a humble doctoral-level student, approach my chosen topic of study – one that, as I have said before, is not overtly political but has the potential to be drawn upon for inappropriate political ends. This exercise is not intended to create a manifesto or credo that restricts and prejudices how I conduct my research in the future. Nor is it to state that I do things in a particular way in order to obtain the results I want/need so as to justify or reinforce a pre-ordained way of seeing things. 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!

Going the extra mile to examine things from a range of perspectives rather than just one or two may not drastically change my ultimate conclusions, but it can add some important details and throw up some interesting new lines of inquiry. And if you accept the benefits of seeking to understand a diverse and transnational topic through careful, extended investigation, then maybe you will appreciate the benefits of a diverse society, and a world in which conformity, domination and the exclusion of others are not the ultimate goals.

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 -warefolcsǣta/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?


Meet the -ingas? A double burial, probably made in the 7th century CE, recently excavated at Exning in Suffolk – interestingly a place with a purported link to East Anglian royalty of the same period. Photo via BBC; copyright would appear to rest with Archaeological Solutions.

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 first 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 – the sole additional detail is Bede’s statement that Oisc was with his father Hengist on the 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).


“488. This year Esc [i.e. Oisc] succeeded to the kingdom, and was king of the Kentish people for 24 winters”. Annal from 12th-century C-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (BL Cotton Tiberius B I f. 118v)

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), 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!


Did I ever mention how all the fuss made about Magna Carta back in 2015 did my head in? All that nonsense about Runnymede being the birthplace of democracy and (from what I can recall) fulsome demands that every US school should display a copy of the charter. Well, it’s great to find there are historians like Dr Reynolds who would prefer people were aware of the bigger picture – here’s a link to access the full article (which will cost ya, btw).

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.


Speaking of -ingas names and coins, here’s a pale gold Pada sceat of the period 665-80 CE found in the environs of Dorking in Surrey (in fact, from a site that might be the root of the place-name; I hope to be able to say more about this in the coming months). PAS Unique ID SUR-2CF753. Image used on a CC BY attribution licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme / The Trustees of the British Museum

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’ ((aduillulae 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 such 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.


The start of Widsith, preserved in the 10th-century Exeter Book. Look carefully and you might be able to pick out some names in -ingas (inflected in the dative plural form -ingum). Image from The Making of Medieval England: Text, Manuscript and Context – sounds like a great course!

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.


If you were thinking you’d seen/heard the name Ricola somewhere before, let me help you…

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 mæstþara 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).


The gold seal matrix in the name of “Balthild” (the precise name-form is the Latinised BALDEHILDIS) in all its glory; one-time possession of a real-life ‘ring-bejewelled queen’? From the History@Manchester blog; copyright may rest there or with Norfolk Museums Service.

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 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.


What I’ve tried to show above is the things I study – and to be honest the Middle Ages in general – are not simple. 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. Consequently, no analysis of them can return conclusive results from minimal effort. 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. The next phases of my research will seek to establish in how many ways a given facet of the name formations or their geographical locations can be explained. 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. Above all, however, I hope I’ve conveyed just how interesting -ingas name formations are, and the excitement I feel from working at the borders of language and archaeology.

REFERENCES (hyperlinked if 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

Dümmler, E., ed., Epistolae Karolini Aevi, 2, Monumenta Germaniae Historica Epistolae, 4 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1895)

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)

Huggins, Peter, ‘Nazeingbury 20 years on, or “where did the royal ladies go?”‘, London Archaeologist, 8.4 (1997), 105-111

Langenfelt, Gösta, Toponymics, or derivations from local names in English: Studies in word formation and contributions to English lexicography (Uppsala: Appelbergs Boktryckeri Aktiebolag, 1920)

Whitelock, Dorothy, ed., English Historical Documents, Vol. 1 c.500-1042, second edition (London: Eyre Methuen, 1979)

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On trying to be a better medievalist (and make the world a better place)

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, why I study it, and how I go about doing my research. 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.

For me, 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.


There’s been a lot of disquiet in my neck of the woods of late as a result of the discovery that an obscure local gallery/arts space played host to an alt-right exhibition and ‘conference on Reactionary and Neo-Reactionary thought’. I say discovery because these events were not generally publicised at the time they were held, which fatally undermines the gallery director’s claims that calls to shut the place down fly in the face of principles of free speech and open debate. To say nothing of the disgusting past statements of some of the invited speakers, and the fact press enquiries were directed to a Twitter account featuring some incredibly racist tweets. No platforming sometimes leaves me feeling uneasy, and likewise calls to run something out of town, but in this case I think pressure to remove this pathetic excuse for a gallery from Dalston is entirely justified. For more info, see Shut Down LD50.

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 all that in mind, I decided to write a post in which I did some scene-setting before making my case for how I approach what I study; predicting some key aspects of my subject matter that might be subject to misrepresentation; and explaining why they cannot be understood in simplistic, blinkered ways. Two months later, I finally hit the Post button – and then quickly realised that what I’d written was far too “overlongform” for anyone to be expected to read in full, no matter how many pictures I inserted to try and break up the monotony of paragraph upon paragraph. So instead, I’ve split the original post into two still-hefty pieces (but remember, there are images!). Here, I deal with the context: how it’s important in my eyes that practitioners of medieval studies are both aware of and kick back against past and future misuse/misrepresentation of their work by political extremists, and find ways (however minor) to influence non-academic discourse by sharing their knowledge and fruits of their research in wider circles. In the second post, I will identify three aspects of my own chosen area of research that sometimes I struggle to reconcile with my own personal attitudes and outlook on life, and explore the breadth of direct and indirect evidence that demonstrates its complexity – a characteristic that also happens to be the reason why I am so keen to study what I do.

I don’t know if either of the two posts is an especially good idea, 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…


Here’s a run of early replies to a tweet sent out by Tom Holland (at the request of the fantastic Dr Levi Roach) in which he admonished those of his online followers who were trying to argue for some seriously bigoted readings of early medieval British history. You’d think it would be a more or less universally-acceptable sentiment, but it seems there’s no shortage of arseholes with Twitter accounts ready to state otherwise.

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.


Here’s a little vignette of where we’re at right now – one of my favourite British MPs getting trolled by a tweeter with a clearly part-medieval handle (moreover, by someone who is (or claims to be) US-based). Surely no coincidence, and surely not something we’d have seen even a couple of years ago?

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.


Talking of fields, here’s one in Surrey that I’m all but certain covers part of the site of a late 9th-century stronghold (a subject that has taken up another significant chunk of my time over the past few weeks, preparing an article for publication). If by some miracle I was able to afford to buy said field with a view to conducting excavations in it, rest assured I would not get all “militant” and start “bending the rules”. That would be stupid.

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, 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.


A banner by the artist Conrad Shawcross made for the recent Bridges Not Borders protests in London, before being displayed (and tweeted) by the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

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 (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 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.


Every now and again I get emails like this one from Ancestry, a hangover from a bout of family history research a few years ago. What I really want to see is the look on Alex’s face when he finds out he’s not actually a Viking and has been taken for a mug. A mug who’s shelled out a stack of cash to be massively misled. Oh, Alex…

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.


Another apposite bit of art I saw somewhere on Twitter recently, this time by Bob and Roberta Smith. While its basic sentiment is hard to begrudge, from an early medievalist’s point of view some of the wording is fraught with complications (British? Culture? What do they really mean?!)

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 freely 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. In the future – starting with the counterpart to this post – 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. 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. My next post, therefore, is intended as 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.

This is 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. 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. But 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 possible. That said, I cannot pretend to be the best person to answer questions on many 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.)


Fascist shutdown goals c/o Towards a Bibliography of Medieval Anglo-Jewry. I hope never to receive any comments or emails as vile as the one that prompted the above, but if I do I’ll be ready to bite back.

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.

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