Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Old New England

What do you know about the founding of New England?

No, not that New England, the other one.  Although there are some significant parallels, notably a king in a completely different country granting settlers land despite the fact that he didn't own it and it inconveniently happened to be already occupied by someone else.  (Hardly the only time this has happened, of course.  See the history of South and Central America, Indonesia, India, and pretty much the entire continent of Africa for other notable examples.)

This particular New England is on the northeastern shore of the Black Sea, in what is now Ukraine and Russia.  According to three medieval manuscripts -- the French Chronicon Universale Anonymi Laudunensis, Orderic Vitalis's Ecclesiastical History, and the Icelandic Játvarðar Saga -- it was founded in the late eleventh century by a group of pissed-off Anglo-Saxon noblemen who, after the Norman Invasions of 1066, didn't like that the country had been taken over by a bunch of Frenchmen, so decided to up stakes and leave.  There's some indication that they were led by prominent English thegn Siward Barn, who had been imprisoned by William the Conqueror, and after being released in 1087 disappears from the records entirely.

This, apparently, may have been because he went to Constantinople.

The English group was mostly made up of powerful and wealthy landowners; after the Conquest, the peasant class pretty much went on with their miserable lives just as before, only with new kings and masters.  Most of them probably reacted to William's accession to the throne the same way these guys did:

"King of the who?"

In any case, Siward and his disaffected noblemen decided to take off for greener pastures (figuratively, not literally, as it turned out) and sailed to the Mediterranean, sacking the city of Ceuta near the Straits of Gibraltar, and pillaging and plundering their way from Mallorca to Menorca to Sicily (which at that point was also being run by the Normans).

It was in Sicily where they found out that Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenos was in trouble from Muslim invaders (and also from the goddamn Normans, who just would not mind their own business), so they decided to head over to Constantinople and give him a hand.  The battle went poorly for the Muslims (ultimately they'd come back and pretty much take over the place, but this was a significant setback, at least for the time being); the Normans were routed completely, and limped back to Sicily to regroup and figure out who they would annoy next.  Alexius was grateful enough to tell the English they could stay in Constantinople permanently if they wanted.  Siward said thanks but no thanks -- figuring, probably correctly, that he'd remain in a subservient position if they stayed there, and after all that was why they'd left England in the first place -- and asked Alexius if he had any other deals to offer.

Alexius said "Sure do," and described a region on the northeastern shore of the Black Sea that Siward and his friends could have.  This was ignoring the aforementioned minor details that (1) Alexius didn't own the land in question, and (2) someone else did.  So it was no skin off his nose either way.  But Siward thought that sounded just ducky, and after all they'd already proven to everyone they could pillage with the best of 'em, so they took off for the spot in question, wiped out the people who lived there, and settled down.

They called the spot "New England."  They named some towns they founded "London," "York," and "Sussex," amongst others named after "other great towns in England."  Eventually they intermarried with the local population (what was left of it), and were assimilated into the Byzantine, and ultimately the Russian, Empires.

The most reliable of the three sources, Vitalis's Ecclesiastical History, spells out in detail how it all went down:

[They] went into voluntary exile so that they might either find in banishment freedom from the power of the Normans or secure foreign help and come back and fight a war of vengeance.  Some of them who were still in the flower of their youth travelled into remote lands and bravely offered their arms to Alexius, emperor of Constantinople, a man of great wisdom and nobility...  This is the reason for the exodus of the English Saxons to Ionia; the emigrants and their heirs faithfully served the holy empire, and are still honored among the Greeks by the Emperor, nobility, and people alike.

It's a pretty fantastic story, but is it true?

As amazing as it sounds, it appears to be.  It's attested in three unrelated sources -- details differ some, but they all substantially agree on the main points.  Further, linguist Ottar Grønvik found distinctive West Germanic -- i.e., Anglo-Saxon -- words, morphology, and syntax in Crimean Gothic, a Germanic language spoken in the region until the sixteenth century.  Most strikingly, there are still place names on the northeastern coast of the Black Sea that seem to come from this settlement; notably a Londina River and a town named Susacho (from "Sussex" -- later renamed Novorossiysk by the Russians).

None of which is proof, of course.  My training as a linguist impressed upon me the danger of taking chance sound or spelling correspondences as hard evidence of an etymological common root.  But I have to admit that the case still seems pretty strong to me.

So there you have it; a New England that pre-dated the more famous one by five centuries.  It'd be interesting to do some DNA testing of the people who live there now and see if there are any discernible traces of English ancestry.  Not that it's likely to happen soon; the coast of the Black Sea is once again a pretty dangerous place to wander around.  But curious to think that almost a thousand years ago, some Anglo-Saxon long-distance soldiers-for-hire may have settled there, never to see Merrie Old England again.


1 comment:

  1. That is absolutely fascinating. Thank you.