Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Britain A.D.

I finally caught the last episode of Francis Pryor's series Britain A.D. on The History Channel this lunchtime. I remain unconvinced by some of what Pryor is trying to argue.

At the core of Pryor's argument is the notion that the so-called 'Anglo-Saxon settlement' was nothing of the sort, that no more than a few bands of soldiers came across, and what actually happened was that a fashion for Germanic culture spread across the south and east of Britain. Much archaeological evidence for continuity of settlement is advanced, and the absence of clear unequivocal evidence for conquest noted.

Now, as I've said when I've discussed this issue before, I don't have a problem with rejecting the common picture of the Anglo-Saxons driving out the British root-and-branch. But Pryor goes too far for me for a couple of reasons.

Nobly, he doesn't shirk the question of the British adoption of the German language, and has a talking head argue that English looks to have been considerably influenced by attempts of Celtic-speakers to learn a Germanic language. But he never really answers why the British should have so totally taken up Germanic culture. They were 'realigning themselves according to the shifts in Europe after the collapse of Rome', he says. Yes, maybe, but why? One explanation would be the arrival of a new Germanic elite, through military conquest - but Pryor doesn't want to accept that. Yet he advances nothing much in its place. (Another archaeologist talking head says that just because she is wearing jeans doesn't make her American, which is true - but if you think that the spread of American culture through Britain is unconnected with America's military might, and the presence of American military forces in Britain, then you'd be wrong.)

The other concern I have is his attitude to the written sources. He is absolutely right that we should not accept without question what our histories tell us. That is naive. But Pryor seems to want to totally ignore the histories. The assumption seems to be that, once one has established that a historian has his own agenda, he can then be dismissed as having nothing to tell us. Pryor replaces the unquestioned primacy of the written sources with the equally unhelpful unquestioned primacy of archaeology.

At the end of the programme he talks about the way in which Britain after the Roman conquest never lost its own identity. But how can that be? He has spent the best part of an hour arguing that many of the national stories that make us who we think we are, are myths. In the end, I can't help thinking that Pryor's version of what happened after the Romans left Britain is as much an invention as the Arthurian romance and Anglo-Saxon conquest that he rails against.

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