How old is English?


This section suggests that the Germans (Anglo-Saxons)who came to Britain at the beginning of the 5th century (around AD 428) were highly esteemed by the British lords who hired them. The hiring of those professional soldiers went on for almost 20 years. This is time enough to find out what the real mentality was of the Anglo-Saxons. They proved to be serious, loyal and steadfast. They were NOT bloodthirsty and arrogant and they did not believe in their own supremacy nor in the superiority of their language. So they made no attempt whatsoever to impose it. On the contrary, they integrated themselves smoothly within the British (high) society, learned the local language but maintained their attitude of seriousness and professionalism.

[1] This is attested. At a certain moment an emperor decreed that rich landowners were compelled to send men to the army. They could bail out by paying in gold. Many landowners did so. Others sent their most worthless persons.

[2] Finn did not necessarily live in Friesland (Holland). Fries was also spoken in (at least) 2 other separate regions in northern Germany. Those regions are attested and speak a different Frisian dialect. Finn probably lived in Nordfriesland, which is situated today just to the south-west of the Danish border.

[3] There is an interpretation of what happened by J.R.R. Tolkien (yes, the author of "The Lord of the Ring" ). He made a study of the subject and proposed a far more complicated scenario. It involves a feud between the 2 guards. But that is not very important here. The story just illustrates the special mentality of a sort of warrior class in northern Germany and Scandinavia in those days.


German mentality

Germany united itself very late, in 1870. Before then, the country was very much divided. There are Germans and Germans. Even today, the mentality in the north is different from the one in the south. This internal division must be a natural condition, as in 1946 Germany was federalized and split again in Länder (states). During the Roman Empire the situation was not dissimilar. An estimated 4 million Germans lived west of the Rhine and south of the Danube, within the Empire. The recruitment potential was enough to fill 6 legions assuming about 1% professional soldiers. No wonder that many legions consisted mainly out of 'Germans'. Most of them were simply Roman citizens.

The reason why there were more legionnaires from the German part of the Empire than for example Gauls lay in the local social structures. At the end of the Empire there was almost no middle class left. The rich and powerful landowners in Gaul discouraged their subjects, landless farmers (tenants) and servants, from joining the legions in order to keep the workforce at their service [1]. The (lower) middle class survived better in the German part of the Empire, as it was less Romanised. The gap in language and traditions with the rest of the Western Empire was greater. The ancient German heritage laws (division of land) were applied more. Consequently, there were more candidates for the army.

During the late Empire, Roman emperors had a tradition of having a personal guard that consisted exclusively out of Germano-Romans. When such a high ranking person sets an example, then it is natural for lower ranking persons to follow. I believe that many local 'governors' had Germans at their service too. So, having Germano-Romans in your personal guard was nothing special in the 4th and 5th century. Except that having a personal guard itself was not normal, even illegal in most cases.

Finnesburgh fragment

Gildas mentions one tribal origin: Saxons. Later writers add Angles, Jutes and Frisians. The Finnesburgh fragment, a part of Beowulf, tell us more. It's the tale of Hengest-the-Jute (a south-Dane), almost certainly the same Hengest who became the military governor of Kent. He is presented as a captain of the 60 men guard of Hnaef-the-Dane. Hnaef seemed to be a difficult person with a lot of enemies. Typically, his second in command, Hengest, was probably the opposite: a conscientious and respected man. He had sworn an oath of loyalty to his lord. This included that he had to defend his lord up to the bitter end and that he had the holy duty to avenge him if he was killed. In return, his lord had the duty to pay and to provide accommodation. Ordinary mercenaries are only loyal to money. The relationship here is very different. We cannot speak about mercenaries here but about loyal knighthood.

One day, Hnaef is invited by Finn-the-Fries, his brother in law, probably to settle a dispute [2] . Finn had a guard too, noblesse oblige. One must take in account the very strict rules of hospitality in those days. The host had to behave accordingly and so did the guest.

What happened that night has been partly reconstructed. During the talks a violent row suddenly broke out and Hnaef and the two sons of Finn were almost simultaneous killed. Their guards were too late to intervene. J.R.R. Tolkien proposed a feud between the guards as the cause. Anyhow, it must have been obvious that the laws of hospitality had been broken, whoever the culprit was.
Duty now obliged Hengest to avenge his lord, but he hesitated. He probably had good reasons to do so. The death of Hnaef left Hengest and his men without a lord and income.  What was left was the compelling duty to avenge their lord, although it must have been clear for all that Hnaef had been the one who had broken the laws of hospitality first. Tension grew dramatically but nobody was eager to risk his life for his pledge.

Eventually, difficult negotiations started and Finn managed to convince Hengest that he was the victim, as his 2 sons had been killed. He proposed as a sort of compensation, that Hengest and his men would join his (Finn's) personal guard. Hengest accepted reluctantly and he and his men swore a new oath to Finn. However, his burden was that his former lord, Hnaef, remained unavenged. Hengest had now duties to two lords, one alive, one death. It must have been clear for the audience of the tale that Hengest had conflicting duties, a moral dilemma.

A few days later, after some facts had become apparent, Hengest decided to kill Finn. We can only speculate why. Most likely is the eternal cause: money.  Finn had probably not the means to pay for a double guard, and/or Finn wanted to get rid of Hengest and his men so he plotted against them. Both guards clashed and Hengest and his men won. At least Hengest had now fulfilled his first oath, but at the same time, he had broken his second. This meant shame and dishonour. Hengest knew that his career in the region was over. All that was left was to emigrate to Britain (well, that's the assumption).

There are more interpretations of this story [3]. The trouble is that we only have some fragments. Most researchers do however agree upon the following:
(a) the tale is important, not because of the size of the scuffle (there were maybe 120 men involved), but because of the circumstances. Those circumstances were felt by the audience as exceptional.
(b) the focus point is the moral dilemma.

It is striking that the plot of the story evolves around a moral choice. The habit to wrap myths and legends in morality is not West European.  It is eastern, from the Middle East. The Bible was written in that way. Some biblical stories, such as Noach and the ark, also occur in other civilizations, in Mesopotamia, but without the typical Jewish moral background.
The story of Finn, Hnaef and Hengest must therefore been considered to be some sort of textbook example of the mentality of the north German upper class and the warrior class at its service, their housecarls. Housecarls would be called knights in the Middle Ages. The etymology of the word knight is servant.


There can be no doubt that the Roman Empire was riddled with corruption during the 3th and 4th century. The rich upper class set the example. When high-ranking people are openly corrupt, then everybody follows. Being corrupt is lucrative when overall corruption is limited, but it is a different story when everyone is corrupt. Suppose that a corrupt landowner sends his police force to collect rent from his tenants. If his police is corrupt too, then chances are that a part of that money would never reach him. So, the corrupt British lords needed people who were NOT corrupt. Therefore, they had to come from outside the Empire.

Who better than such serious people as the Anglo-Saxons? The British landowners needed people they could completely trust and who would function as a security buffer between themselves and the guardsmen of local origin. Those local guardsmen were needy trained, less disciplined, and therefore potentially dangerous for the lord and his family. The Anglo-Saxons were expected to train, discipline, command and control the local British. All that at the service of the local lord.