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The Displaced History of First Millennium Western Europe

4 November 2012

The headline is the title of a talk and article by Dick Gagel that he gave at the last Study Group Meeting in Willesden (London). Steve Mitchell has responded in an email but I thought other members might be interested in the thrust of the talk as it relied to some extent on the revisions to history as advocated by Illig (and he has written articles in SIS journals). He began by saying the river Rhenus recorded by Julius Caeser could not be the Rhine, basically because the Romans reckoned it was half the length it actually is. The Rhine, he thinks, was several hundred km to the NE of where the Roman army was, in pursuit of the Helvetii and Suevi tribes. He also claimed Charlemagne defeated Saxons that had settled in northern France rather than Saxon tribes in Saxony in Germany. It is true that Saxons were settled along the channel coast and were subsequently absorbed into the empire of the Franks – but this is thought to have occurred prior to their expansion eastwards. If Charlemagne never actually crossed the Rhine, as Gagel seems to think, a lot of history would come undone. Albert Delahaye, on whom Gagel bases his article and talk, claimed that large areas of what is now the Low Countries between France and Scandinavia had been flooded during a Transgression event (well documented in the literature). It is the extent of that transgression by the sea that is disputed. The transgression by the sea coincides with a similar transgression event on the other side of the North Sea, from Humberside to the Fens and a large tract of Norfolk, which is generally dated to the 5th and 6th centuries. Delahaye, however, went further, and claimed the transgression event lasted until around 1000AD, and Gagel seeks to further that hypothesis. Of course, most historians do not accept such a lengthy period of flooding, although some parts of the Netherlands were probably flooded until the medieval period when the Dutch became famous for their drainage engineering projects. This is described in some detail in Jeremy Purseglove, Taming the Flood: A history and natural history of rivers and wetlands, Oxford University Press:1988, but the idea a large area of the Low Countires was submerged is a radical hypothesis that has never really had traction among historians. They point out various names of towns, villages and rivers that are otherwise mentioned in documents and records, precisely in the location of the transgression. The response by Delahaye, and expanded by Gagel, is that Frisians and Saxons were living in what is now French Flanders, and after 1000AD many of them migrated and colonised the drained landscape while at the same time transplanting several hundred place and river names. This kind of restructuring of history is something that suits Illig, and those, mainly on the continent, that claim some 300 years of that history does not exist, or is misplaced. One aspect of the argument revolves around whether Tacitus, in his Germania, was referring to the lands north of the Danube. The argument is that he was referring to the west and not so much to the north as large tracts were under water. This means the various tribes and places he describes must be located elsewhere. That might imply the Romans had little knowledge of anything happening inside Germania and yet we know they traded extensively with the Baltic States. During the Viking era (prior to 1000AD) there were major iron working plants on what is now the border of Denmark and Germany, and they traded iron products over the whole of NW Europe and elsewhere. As it stands now merchants from Roman Europe were able to move freely across central and northern Germany in order to reach the Baltic, and they have left evidence of their journeying in the archaeology. Merchants from the Roman world also traded beyond the frontier, in Scotland for example, and in Ireland, and almost everywhere along the frontiers of the Roman Empire, from sub Sahara Africa to the mountains north of Syria. In the Delahaye model Germania is reduced to a dark, unknown country, inhabited by tribes never encountered by enterprising Romans citizens, a most unlikely scenario.

Now, it is fairly easy to picture rising sea levels around all the coasts of the North Sea, of the kind described by Steve Mitchell in SIS Review 2005, 'When the Sea Flooded Britain', the impetus behind migrations of people across the North Sea, from the Netherlands (Frisians), N Germany (the Saxons) and Denmark (the Angles and Jutes), as this is described in contemporary documents. There is plenty of evidence of a transgression by the sea from the eastern portions of northern Scotland to the English Channel and therefore we can deduce a similar thing happened on the other side of the North Sea. However, archaeology also shows that in places where water levels were high they fell back down again, to some extent, in the 7th and 8th centuries, and this process is described comprehensively by Basil Cracknell (see later). He also claimed they rose for a short time in the medieval period and most of the drainage that took place at that time was in compensation for that higher water table. On that basis it is clear that Delahaye's work should not be ignored as it would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water. Most historians have totally ignored the rising sea levels at this time – and they have still not receded to the levels they were in during the Roman period. Drainage of the Fens has revealed Roman period farms, even a blacksmith's shop, flooded, and drowned, and covered in peat. Rising sea levels were a feature of the Early Saxon period, and Norwich was situated on an arm of the sea deep into the medieval era – not necessarily continously so. The Norfolk broads (lakes) were formed after peat cutting on the flat table top like landscape between Norwich and Yarmouth, the cutters inadvertently bringing the water back again (wherever their spades penetrated to any kind of depth). The watery landscape made it that much easier for the migrants from the Low Countries to spread into what is now central England, immediately and without hindrance. They appear to have settled down alongside the Romano Brits already living there and there is no evidence that Wales was deluged under a tidal wave of refugees, pushed westwards by the newcomers. However, their language was adopted universally, it is thought, aided and abetted by the elite class of newcomers that had replaced or married into the aristocratic Romano Brit families that controlled the different regions, and occupied the former villa sites and Roman period large farm complexes – developing into manors and the manorial system. This group appear to have been mercenaries introduced to repel invasion by Picts and Irish people that were likewise becoming displaced by rising sea levels. They were emplyed by the ruling elite and simply inherited the kingdoms of lowland Britain by marraige, and dark deeds (if Gildas is believed) and probably naturally imposed their tongue in the process (a situation aided by the number of migrant peasants that arrived a bit later). However, language is a living thing and while the top bods may have favoured one language above others it doesn't mean that Romano Brits necessarily totally abandoned their own tongue, the 'old way of speaking'. I have a little book at home where a native of the Middle Thames, who has ancestors in farming going back many generations in the area, claims there was still people using the old way of speaking all the way up to the 19th century. This was when universal schooling was introduced and that would have quickly led to the demise of that form of speech – see Michael Bayley, The Survival of the Lowland British Language (2004) (self published). Most historians would not accept this could have happened but often it takes somebody looking at a subject sideways fashion to tickle out some new ideas.

Other titles of interest include … Basil Cracknell, 'Outrageous Waves: Global warming and coastal change in Britain through two thousand years', Philimore:2005 (the title appears to be aimed at taking advantage of the popular meme of the day, global warming, but it would have been far better if the successor meme, climate change, had been in vogue, as that is what Cracknell catalogues, an ongoing tale of climate change). In contrast, Nigel Pennick, Lost Cities and Sunken Lands, Capall Bann: 1997. catalogues an ongoing tale of cliffs collapsing in storms and heavy rainfall, and a gradual and continuous loss of land to the sea, most of it occurring in what were cool and wet phases of climate, especially towards the end of the medieval period. Hubert Lamb's Climate History and the Modern World, Routledge:1982 and 1995 (update) is especially interesting and comprehensive. Lamb was Emeritus Professor in the School of Environmental Sciences and was the Founder and first Director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. He appears to have become sidelined by modern AGW climate scientists who have been keen to distance from the sort of data that appears in the books of Pennick and Cracknell. Most importantly, this book clearly shows that people, including Lamb, were debating a warming climate in the 1930s and 1940s, and the prospect of an ice free Arctic Ocean. It all changed in the 1950s and 1960s – the weather cooled and the Arctic Ocean was overtaken by growing ice levels. One can see why CAGW people might want to hide such data from the general public – after all, they are trying to convince us something awful is happening, and has never happened before. Another set of titles comes from the Archaeology of a Middle Thames Landscape series – see especially, Gathering the People, settling the land: Anglo Saxon to post medieval' Foreman, Hiller and Petts, Oxbow Books:2002 (www.oxfordarch.co.uk and www.oxbowbooks.com) which came about as a result of archaeology prior to the digging out of Eton College and the Olympic Rowing Lake in conjunction with archaeology done on the Maidenhead and Windsor Flood Relief System. Some other titles worth exploring are Petra Dark, The Environment of Britain in the First Millennium AD, Duckworth:2000 and Ken Dark, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, Tempus:2000

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