Rethinking the Emergence of the English

I recently watched Susan Oosthuizen give an online presentation on Rethinking the Emergence of the English.  Professor Oosthuizen reviewed the evidence for a large migration of people from Northern Europe to Britain between 400 and 600AD. Her conclusion is that there is very little evidence to support the widespread belief in a large scale migration.  There has been continuous migration of people into Britain since the last ice age, so in all likelihood there would be some migration between 400 and 600, but was it more than normal during this period? Professor Oosthuizen reviews the evidence from a wide range of sources to support her hypothesis that there wasn’t wholesale migration at this time and there was continuity from the late roman period.

There are two British sources for this period, Patrick for the 5th century and Gildas for the 6th century.  According to Professor Oosthuizen both these sources show continuity from late Roman Britain with administrative and religious functions surviving well into the 6th century.  I think the flaw in her argument is that Patrick and Gildas are generally agreed (including by Prof Oosthuizen) to be from the west of Britain and there could well be continuity in the west of Britain, at the same time as the east of Britain was experiencing mass immigration and disruption.

Professor Oosthuizen then continues with an unusual interpretation of Gildas, saying that the Saxons left Britain.  Gildas does say that the Saxons who had come to Britain as mercenaries, after they had rebelled and defeated the Britons militarily ‘were returned home’.  The Britons rallied under Ambrosius Aurelianus and the narrative almost immediately continues with the story of how the Britons fought the enemy, culminating in the siege of Badon Hill, and this was 44 years and one month after the landing of the Saxons.  The narrative implies that Ambrosius Aurelianus was fighting Saxons and it would need a very tortuous reading of Gildas to come to the conclusion that he was fighting somebody else.

The DNA evidence from Oakington in Cambridgeshire is then examined.  Professor Oosthuizen is making the point that those with DNA from north-west Europe have the same grave goods as those who are local and are impossible to distinguish archaeologically, so archaeological evidence cannot be used as evidence of migration.  She conveniently ignores the fact that of the four people tested, two were probably from north west Europe, one was a mixture of north west European and local DNA and one person was wholly local.  Clearly the sample size is tiny but the DNA evidence shows that there were migrants coming from north west Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The DNA evidence from modern populations is also considered and in this instance Professor Oosthuizen critically assesses the science.  This is something that most archaeologists fail to do.  Faced with the unintelligible vocabulary of a scientific paper they read the abstract, introduction and conclusions and accept all the findings. The paper claimed that between 10 and 40% of the British population had northern European DNA from the ‘Age of Migrations’. The critical assessment by Prfessor Oosthuizen highlighted the fact that the authors of the paper had fiddled the figures by removing DNA from France from the calculations, boosting the DNA from northern Europe.

Professor Oosthuizen makes a very important point in saying that we should take nothing for granted and critically reassess all evidence.  This is true but I think that the most crucial, unequivocal evidence will come from analysis of ancient DNA and hopefully the results will build on those from Oakington.

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