Planet Earth

Britons, English, Germans, and collective action

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJun 17, 2011 11:46 PM


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Quite often rather amusing articles which operate in the malleable zone between genetics and nationalism pop into my RSS feed (thanks to google query alerts). But this piece from Spiegel Online article, Britain Is More Germanic than It Thinks, actually appeals to some legitimate research in making a tongue-in-cheek nationalistic argument that the affinity between the Germans and the English is stronger than the latter would wish to admit. The article starts out with the interesting nationalist back story:

Until now, the so-called Minimalists have set the tone in British archeology. They believe in what they call an "elite transfer", in which a small caste of Germanic noble warriors, perhaps a few thousand, placed themselves at the top of society in a coup of sorts, and eventually even displaced the Celtic language with their own. Many contemporary Britons, not overly keen on having such a close kinship with the Continent, like this scenario. Thomas Sheppard, a museum curator, discovered this sentiment almost a century ago. In 1919, officers asked for his assistance after they accidentally discovered the roughly 1,500-year-old grave of an Anglo-Saxon woman while digging trenches in eastern England. Sheppard concluded that the woman's bleached bones came from "conquerors from Germany" and announced: "These are our ancestors!" But the soldiers were thunderstruck. At first they cursed and refused to believe that they were related to the "Huns." But then the mood darkened. The trip back to the barracks "was like a funeral procession," Sheppard wrote.

It is a coincidence which must be acknowledged that the vogue for Germanophilia amongst the English corresponds neatly to the decades when Irish nationalism waxed in the face of British imperial domination. And that Germanophilia naturally abated with the two World Wars. In lieu of the vision of Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, driving the Celtic British into the sea, Germanization was conceived as a process where an elite band of warriors imposed their culture atop a fundamentally pre-German substrate. This model is reflected in the historical scholarship, for example Norman Davies' The Isles, as well as the genetics treatments, most prominently Bryan Sykes' The Blood of the Isles. In terms of the history, we have to make due with archaeology and the rather thin texts of the Celts. From what I can gather the archaeology does imply a rapid shift in material technology and symbolic aspects of culture such as burial customs on the Saxon Shore. Linguistically the modern English language owes very little to the Celtic dialects. Finally, the Christian Church seems to have disappeared across much of the zone of expanding German territory, only to be re-planted in the early 7th century by Irish & Scottish missionaries, followed up by those from the European mainland. In the Spiegel Online piece an archaeologist quotes a number of "200,000" for total migration for about a century, presumably inferring from the quantity of material remains, and what that implies about the numbers within the settlements which are indubitably German. There are a few objections which crop up. Some scholars, such as Stephen Oppenheimer, argue that German speech was already common before the Roman conquest within the boundaries of England. Very few accept this position. A more mainstream argument is that like Gaul and Iberia much of Britain had been Latinized by the time of the German conquest. Because of their geographic isolation Cornwall, Scotland, and Wales, were the areas most insulated from both the German expansion and the dynamic of Latinization. Finally, some scholars have suggested that the outsiders get too much of the credit for the resurrection of the Christian Church in 7th century England, that an indigenous Christian culture persisted over the century of the British "Dark Ages" before the conversion of the Saxons. The problem with each of these arguments is that they don't cohere together very well. If Latin was the dominant language in Britain proper (i.e., outside of the "Celtic Fringe") that begs the question why the Germans were not assimilated in Britain as they were in France and Iberia. Unlike the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, the Frankish Empire was explicitly bicultural in that it spanned both Latinate Gaul and Germania. And yet the Franks who settled in Francia invariably adopted Latin and what later became French as their language. Additionally, Britain was one of only two regions of the Roman Empire where both the imperial languages (Latin and Greek) and the Christian Church disappeared with the barbarian invasion. The Balkans was the other zone. Overall there is a sense that in Britain in the 6th century there was a massive cultural rupture, the extent of which is unparalleled in the post-Roman world before the rise of Islam except for perhaps in the Balkans with the migrations of the Slavs. Can just a rapid transition have been occurred without much demographic disruption? I doubt it. Such rapid language shift unaccompanied by wholesale absorption of indigenous lexicon seems rather peculiar if it was a matter of elite emulation. Additionally, shifting a society from an institutional religion back toward tribal paganism, as occurred in Britain, seems to also be implausible. There are certainly cases of Christians in Northern Europe becoming pagan, but these are almost always instances where individuals have "gone native" and assimilated into a different cultural norm from the one which they are raised. These individuals exist in isolation, and generally do not operate in mass action (the main exception to this are recently paganized peoples, where the populace generally wears its Christianity lightly, and reverts back to the old religion if given the chance or if the elite pressure is removed and reversed). Sykes himself it in his work does acknowledge that in particular in the Y chromosomal lineages, the male line, that there is evidence of a German imprinting in much of eastern England, and to some extent as well as in the Danelaw. This may not be the dominant component, but it is significant. The genomics today could now rather easily test models of genetic relatedness across these populations, but to my knowledge there hasn't been a thick-marker autosomal exploration of these issues with these populations in mind. Here are two edited figures from Geography mirror geography within Europe, and Correlation between genetic and geographic structure within Europe. The two dimensions just represent the largest components of variation within the data set, and you see labeled the "centers" of the distribution for each group in the national samples.

I don't know if you can really conclude anything from these results. It's kind of hard to track down the geographical origin of some of the national samples, but note the difference between northern (Kiel) and central-south (Augsburg) Germany in the second sample. To test the proposition of the German impact on the genetic heritage of the English, or vice versa, the non-German impact on the genetic heritage of the English, you need some reference populations, and also a fine-grained geographic coverage of the whole circum-North Sea zone, along with other areas of interest such as Ireland, greater Germany, Brittany, etc. These results use a huge European pooled data set, and you don't really need to flesh out of the Spain vs. northern Europe axis, or the Finland vs. non-Finland axis, for the questions being addressed here. In terms of the reference populations, northern Europe is a pretty good place to get ancient DNA. At the very short time scales we're talking about it seems that it would be feasible to aim for autosomal DNA, not just copious mtDNA. But even with present populations you could use the Cornish, who were not truly conquered by the English, so much as co-opted by the English state-system, as references for the Britons of yore. And the various north German and Frisian populations for the Saxons. But it would be very critical to sample a lot of England, and not just a London group, which might mix and match lots of regional diversity. Going back to the Germanness of the modern English, I believe that the majority of the ancestry of the native British does pre-date the Saxon period. But, that assertion has a major caveat insofar as there seems to be a lot of variation within the British Isles. East Anglia in particular may be the exception to the general rule, as that is where the Germans landed with force. But if the majority of the ancestry of modern Britons does not derive from Germans, how could the German culture be so powerful in language and religion? I think Peter Heather's Empires and Barbarians tells the specific part of the story, and a broader theoretical understanding of how cultures might spread in some circumstances tells a more general one. Heather argues that the German invasions of the post-Roman period were "folk wanderings," whereby men brought their women and children, to recreate their old societies anew in the post-Roman landscape. This is in contradiction to some historians who posit that the German "hordes" were actually only a small number of warriors, often with a ethnic and national identity created ad hoc to generate a fictive bond. If the Saxon hordes really were whole societies, villages that is, of Saxons transplanted to the British landscape that explains the the massive cultural disruption. The Saxon warriors were not taking native British wives, who might expose their offspring to Christianity, and terms which would result in the bleeding over into Old English of many terms of Celtic or Latin provenance. At least in the initial generations. Eventually the English began to push the frontier between Briton and German outward. At this point the Germans began absorbing natives into their culture, but this was at a stage where the Germans were coherent, compact, and very efficient in collective action. This is in sharp contrast to a scenario where German warriors take native wives, and a hybrid society with mixed values develops early on. Because of the sensitivity to initial conditions it was essential that the Germans have brought their wives, to recapitulate in near totality their original culture. As they began to expand they overturned the local institutions, and at that point as a well established native ethnos they began to assimilate defectors from the local order at all levels of society, and conceded very little to these individuals because of the integrity of their own cultural complex. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that the House of Wessex itself has some pre-German origins, making it all the more interesting that this family also claimed mythical descent from the German god Woden! In sum, more genetic research in this area has to be done. But, I think one insight that will emerge is that we have to recall that in many cases ethnogenesis and cultural turnover is a matter of collective action and group mobilization, less than mass action and force of numbers. In this way the Germanization of the British landscape may have more in common with the Latinization of Western Europe than not.

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