Monday, August 9, 2010

AtF: Anglo-Saxons Borrowing Genealogies

Bill Cooper loves him some genealogies.  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using genealogies.  Most historians covering large stretches of history toss one in occasionally.  They act as road maps through the odd collection alien sounding names and seemingly random connections between major characters and houses.

This, it should not be surprising to learn, is not how Cooper uses genealogies.  He trots out an Anglo-Saxon genealogy that supposedly goes back to Noah to prove that, um, the Anglo-Saxons knew they went back to Noah.  It’s ridiculous, but we’re used to that by now…

Handling this, though, is an interesting proposition.  Cooper uses his genealogy to trace six houses of Anglo-Saxons: Kent, East Anglia, Lindsey, Northumbria, Wessex, and Mercia.  Kent, East Anglia, Northumbria, Wessex, and Mercia were all Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that still lend their names to locations in Great Britain today.  I don’t know what Lindsey is doing in that list, though.[1]

Further, there are recognizable names on the genealogy that we can look at.  Specifically for this entry I’m looking at Ethelbert of Kent, Raedwald of East Anglia, and Alfred the Great of Wessex.

First, let’s get this out of the way.  According to the genealogy given by Cooper, there were 38 generations from Noah to Alfred the Great.  Further, there were seventeen generations from Noah to the scions of the Anglo-Saxon “houses.”  For those doing the math at home, if we go with a generic 20 year generation, that means there were 760 years between Noah and Alfred the Great…who was born in the year 849.  So Noah, according to the Anglo-Saxon genealogy that proves the veracity of the Bible, was born right around the time the Gospel of Matthew was being written.  Although that whole world flood thing would have accounted for the decline of the Roman Empire pretty handily…

Now, I’ve played the genealogy game with Cooper before and won.  Last time around I even hemmed and hawed and pretended there were a bunch of different ways we could define “generation.”  This time I offer no such quarter because I have a fixed date to work with: the year 400.

The Anglo-Saxon migration to Great Britain started in about the year 400.  Therefore, any number we work with when looking at the genealogy advanced by Cooper has to put that first generation of Anglo-Saxon house founders within 20 years of that date.  As it turns out, that 20 year number becomes quite handy.

Take Raedwald of East Anglia.  According to Cooper’s genealogy, he was nine generations removed from the scions.  We know that Raedwald ruled Kingdom of the East Angles in about 520.  So he followed the Anglo-Saxon migration by about 120 years.  Nine generations isn’t all that hard to believe, especially since some kings had bad habits of dying quickly.  Anglo-Saxon leaders who sat back in the great hall and sent their soldiers out to fight on their behalf would not have lasted too long, as the Anglo-Saxons were a warrior culture through-and-through.  I strongly suspect, too, that the idea of a king not going out with his warriors and leading them from the front would have never crossed anyone’s mind.  Kings, then, didn’t exactly live to ripe old ages.

That, though, leads us to Ethelbert of Kent, which is a much more confusing story.[2]  According to the Venerable Bede, “Ethelbert was son of Irminric, son of Octa, and after his grandfather Oeric, surnamed Oisc, the kings of the Kentish folk are commonly known as Oiscings. The father of Oeric was Hengist.”[3]

Cooper gives us Hengist, Oise, Irminric, Ethelbert.  I think we’re missing a generation in Cooper’s world.

Either way, we can learn two things here: first that the genealogy Cooper has tossed against the wall is based on some known account.  Second, the genealogy is at least somewhat believable.  At least, as far as the Anglo-Saxon kings are concerned.

But we have two gigantic problems, one of which I have already pointed out and a second which is extremely related.  There is the minor problem that there was no such thing as “East Anglia.”  There is also the equally minor problem that there was no such thing as Northumbria until around 600.  Basically, in 604 King Aethelfrith of Bernicia conquered Deira.  Then the East Angles got involved, Aethelfrith was killed, Bernicia and Deira fractured, and it wasn’t until 654 when Oswald, a son of Aethelfrith, re-conquered the whole area and expanded.

Even then, Northumbria wasn’t safe and wasn’t particularly long-lived.  But the point is that there was no “House of Northumbria” amongst the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain in the post-Roman world.  In fact, there could not have possibly been a “House of Northumbria.”

As best I can tell, the etymology of the term “Northumbria” is this: the lands north of the River Humber.[4]  Similarly, the etymology of “East Anglia” is, “That place over in the east where the Angles live.  When it gets right down to it, neither “Northumbria” nor “East Anglia” are particularly Germanic words.  “Anglia,” at least, comes from German roots.  But “Humber” pre-dates the Anglo-Saxon migration and is probably Celtic in origin.

The point is, there wouldn’t have been a family called “Northumbria” or “East Anglia” in northern Germany.  But that may well be considered splitting hairs.  So let’s go jump over to Alfred the Great’s House of Essex.

This is where it gets interesting.  Or, perhaps, tedious.  Depends on your levels of fascination with Anglo-Saxon chronology, I suppose.

Let’s go back two generations before Bill Cooper’s split in to the various houses.  The line goes like this:


And we’ll stop with Cynric for reasons that are shortly to become clear.[5]  This is basically the same genealogy offered by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a history of the Anglo-Saxons commissioned right around the time of Alfred the Great.

Now, this is deeply interesting for those looking in to the history of Wessex.  See, the founder of Wessex is given as one Cerdic, who may or may not have been a real figure.  Cerdic popped in to history in the year 519 at the head of a tribe known as the “Gewisse,” from which I guess we get the word “Wessex.”  Conveniently, there is a guy named “Gewis” (or Giwis in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) just a couple generations before Cerdic.  This is astoundingly convenient…

Moreover, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the genealogy of one Ida of Bernicia.[6]  The first three generations are exactly the same as the first three for our good friend Cerdic up there.  It is, I suppose, possible that Ida and Cerdic were cousins.  But it’s far more believable to think that a later chronicler just kind of borrowed Ida’s genealogy and appended it to Cerdic’s.

And what a genealogy it is, too.  Cooper lists one of his ancestors as a fellow named “Wooden.”  That’s a pretty odd name for a king, if you think about it for a moment.  In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (and, for that matter, in the work of the Venerable Bede, also carried on by Nennius in the Historia Brittonium), however, that individual appears, but with a slightly different name: Woden.  You might recognize him better according to his Norse name of Odin.  Or, possibly, by his name in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods: Wednesday.[7]

Yup.  Woden.  This was, of course, that weird period of early Christianity and its clashes with Norse paganism when attempts were made to turn the gods in to semi-mythological heroes and to, thus, diminish them.

That doesn’t make it any more believable that the Anglo-Saxons descended from Woden.  And something tells me that if I’m not about to believe they came from Woden, I’m probably not going to buy the idea that they descended from Noah a mere 16 generations prior.

The question then comes up, “What could have driven the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers to create such a genealogy?”  More, “What could have caused later historians to continue the line?”  It’s simple, really.

Alfred the Great was the first of the tribal Anglo-Saxon kings to style himself as king of all of England.  But Wessex was a comparative upstart with absolutely no history before 519.  He needed a better lineage than that.  So either Alfred or his chroniclers borrowed from a different genealogy.  And no one was apparently the wiser.[8]

Unfortunately, though, no one apparently thought of the poor, credulous Bill Cooper’s of the world when they were making up genealogies.  So someone who wants to remain ignorant was able to find a convenient source of convenient ignorance.  And I got to spend a week of my life trying to understand Anglo-Saxon genealogy.


[1]During what I guess we could call the “classical” period of Anglo-Saxon control of Britain, there was what is known as the “Heptarchy.”  These were Northumbria, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Kent, Sussex, and Essex.  There were also minor kingdoms, among them Lindsey.

Now, this idea is considered problematic.  However, if we’re talking about a random genealogy from somewhere (specifically somewhere Bill Cooper thinks is reliable), then the idea that it would take five of the Heptarchy, discard two, and then throw in a random minor kingdom is problematic at best.

Further, the idea of some sort of “House” of East Anglia, specifically, is difficult to swallow.  There was no Bob East Anglia.  The term “East Anglia” quite literally refers to “the Angles who live to the East.”  It’s like saying that South Carolina was founded by the scion of the House of South Carolina.  Further, during the Anglo-Saxon period it was known as the “Kingdom of the East Angles.”  It didn’t officially become “East Anglia” until a Danish conquest in 869.

But, other than that, the idea of a “House of East Anglia” is totally believable.

[2] There are two Ethelberts listed in the Cooper genealogy.  The first is listed as Ethelbert(I)  The second is just Ethelbert.  There's nothing that's not confusing about that…

[3]Yes, I stole this from Wikipedia.  You don’t actually want me to put effort in to this, do you?

[4]Wikipedia informs me that Geoffrey of Monmouth, who we probably all remember, claimed that the River Humber was named after a “Humber the Hun,” who drowned in the river while attempting to invade Britain.

[5]And not just because Cerdic and Cynric were the bad guys in the King Arthur movie starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley.  But that’s reason enough, right?

[6]Conveniently enough, Cooper’s genealogy does not include Ida, as it completely ignores the existence of Bernicia, instead putting in a genealogy for Northumbria that is both impossible and not replicated anywhere else I’ve seen.

[7]It strikes me, having read both American Gods and Neverwhere in the last, like, week, that you can get better lessons in history from Neil Gaiman than Bill Cooper.  And actual gods are actual characters in Gaiman’s work.  But the man does his research.  I mean, as a life-long Midwesterner who was aware of the existence of the House on the Rock but didn’t actually care, I was reading the bit of American Gods that takes place in said book and thinking, “No way, he made that up.”  Then I looked it up.  Next time I’m back in the Wisconsin area I shall be visiting the House on the Rock.  That place is fucked up.

[8]If you want to know more, I present to you the Sisam Hypothesis.  Historical detective work can be fun.


Michael Mock said...

Hey! Are you saying that my people *aren't* descended from Odin? ::grumbles ominously::

Geds said...

Hey, hey. I'm not saying you're not descended from Odin. I'm saying his line probably started some time before 300 CE. Like, y'know, back in the before time, right about the year the firmament was being created from the hollowed-out skull of Ymir.

Which means, technically, that Noah would have to be a descendant of Odin and not the other way around. Because there couldn't have possibly been a world flood without, y'know, a world.

Although, now that I think about it, the melting of all that ice when the cow started licking it would explain a lot about how all that water showed up. Also, remind me one of these days to do a post about how creation stories are all relentlessly focused on an understanding of the world entirely based on a tiny little corner of said world. I had another thing I was going to do, too, but I've totally forgotten what it is, so no one can probably help me with that at the moment...

Chris said...

The other interesting thing about Cerdic is that his name appears to be Celtic, cognate with Caradoc/Caratacus. Make of that what you will.

If I wanted to play devil's advocate on the timing of Noah, I'd say that I think the lifespans in Genesis are still pretty long by the time it gets to Noah. Not Methuselah exactly, but you could cover a millennium with three or four guys. But that only makes sense if you think there really was a man called Methuselah who lived for 900 odd years, so no.

Wessex was the kingdom of the West Saxons; Essex was the East Saxons, and Sussex the South. There were no North Saxons, apparently, although it's rumoured that they had the kingdom of Nosex, and therefore died out within a generation. Lindsey still exists as a Part of Lincolnshire.