Genetic Medieval Studies: Upper Classes

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Genetic Medieval Studies: Upper Classes
Genetic Medieval Studies: Upper Classes

Upper Class Inbreeding

"Hengist and Horsa" are "Romulus and Remus" of the English - the mythical Anglo-Saxon twin brothers who helped the Germans secure Britain and banish the Celtic menace from the north. Because of them and their kind, Englishmen and Germans could still be more alike than some would like to believe.


Similarities are always a matter of perspective. It is clear, for example, that from the point of view of an Australian native, South Americans and southern French do not differ very much – or Americans and Canadians, Czechs and Bulgarians or Ghanaians and Angolans. Two neighbors in the distance, certainly not only the typical Aborigine thinks, are actually always different from oneself in a rather similar way. Seeing similarities is also a question of familiarity - the more familiarity grows, the finer details of difference become increasingly important. And so neighbors objectively perceive very similar neighbors subjectively as very different.

Not convinced? Well - then ask the average Scotsman whether the Nungar tribe of southern Australia and the Nyoongar of south-west Australia differ any more than they differ from the Englishman. If he's clever, he'll say "I dunno" - if he's typical, for all his familiarity with his fellow southern Brits, he'll surely insist on one thing: A Scot is different from a "Sasunnach" - the Gaelic, more derogatory label for all south of Hadrian's Wall.

Although the average Scotsman is right somewhere, as a research team led by Mark Thomas from University College London has once again confirmed: All Sasunnachs, i.e. the modern descendants of the early medieval Saxons and Angles, are at least genetically different today than they always were a mixture of the Scots with their Pictish and Scots ancestors with a touch of the Ur-Celtic.

Ironically enough, Picts and Scots themselves are to blame for the English Anglo-Saxon ancestors, according to historians. A brief flashback: It was probably raids by these two northern peoples into the south of Britain that prompted the locals to call for hard-fighting helpers. The Romans' former protective and occupying force was about to abandon Great Britain, leaving behind a temptingly defenseless demilitarized zone. A few Germanic Angles and Saxons were perhaps already there at that time, probably as former Roman auxiliary troops - but in the course of the 5th century a veritable invasion of other Germanic people via the Channel and the North Sea began. In addition to more and more Anglers and Saxons, a few Frisians, Jutes and Franks soon settled. They soon merged into the new population of nascent England - the Anglo-Saxons.

We are mostly German

(Mark Thomas) It goes without saying that these Anglo-Saxons have also left their mark on modern Englishmen, and in large numbers: in their genes - more precisely, in their Y chromosomes - there are sometimes far more than fifty percent gene sequences that were typical for the immigrated Angles and Saxons. However, it is precisely this enormous entry of the ancient migrants into the gene pool of England that is extremely difficult to accept for some archaeologists who have de alt with the real magnitude of the "invasion" in the 5th century in more detail. Because around two million ancient British Celts had lived at that time - but only an estimated 10,000 to 200,000 pre-English newcomers had gradually trickled onto the island from the Germanic part of the mainland in two centuries. How could these few be so dominant in genetic heritage?

By violence, according to computer analysis Thomas and colleagues – at least gentle, social violence. There is evidence from a variety of sources that the commanding upper class of the changing society was soon made up exclusively of Anglo-Saxons, who, as a few valuable nobles, dominated a large lower class of Ur-British. Old legal texts such as those of the ruler Ine, who died in 695, provide eloquent testimony to the social structure: He stipulated that the murder of a Celtic native should be atoned for with up to five times less blood money than that of an Anglo-Saxon.

In this system, and not just Thomas' idea, a reproductive isolation of higher rated and lower social classes then ensured a kind of early medieval apartheid. The researchers calculated that if the Anglo-Saxons had been just 1.8 times more likely to reproduce than the natives, then in five generations more than half of all Y chromosomes would have to be of Anglo-Saxon origin. Indeed, perhaps only 20,000 Germanic "invaders" were enough to make their mark on the modern English and marginalize the Celtic heritage. So "we are mostly German", the Englishman Thomas shortens his study result for the sake of publicity.

Obviously he's provoking resistance on the island. Not only from today's British of Pakistani, Caribbean and African descent, even Anglers and Saxons would have had little use of the term German - even when they tilled tribal lands of what later became northern Germany and Denmark long before their England adventure. Incidentally, the Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes ended up there at some point as a collective group of the West Germans or Ingvaeonen, long after we had all come over from Africa as Homo sapiens e. If anything Mr Thomas, from Scotland to South Australia we are all African.

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