England everlasting

n20307Taking a break in my work of the day I stumbled upon the fact that Bernard Cornwell’s series based on King Alfred’s period, which began with The Last Kingdom, is a Netflix series. To be honest I much preferred the three volume Warlord Chronicles, set more than three centuries earlier, in post-Roman and pre-Saxon Britain. A retelling of the Arthurian romance with not too much romance, George R. R. Martin admitted to me in correspondence in the late 1990s that he quite enjoyed it as well. The protagonist of The Last Kingdom is peculiarly similar to the one in Warlord Chronicles.

As a fan of alternate history I’ve occasionally stumbled upon the “what-if” scenario whereby Alfred’s Wessex is conquered, and England becomes Daneland. Would we today be speaking another Scandinavian language? Would Christianity disappear, and the pagan rites of the Norse come to rule the day? It seems broadly likely that that would not be cause at all.

First, the victory of Christianity in Europe was overdetermined by the 9th century. Even in this period there was a Christian presence in Scandinavia. A Scandinavian ruled England would almost certainly be a Christian one. And in fact in the century before the Norman conquest the Scandinavians created a hybrid society with the native English. Harold Godwinson had a Danish mother, and connections to the Danish monarchy.

The second issue is one of language. The English language of Alfred’s time was much more Germanic, so the gap between it and the tongue of the Danes was not that large in any case. And, from what I have seen, it seems that the number of Scandinavians in relation to the native population was much smaller than that of the Saxons in relation to the British, though even in the latter case it must be acknowledged that the Germans who arrived in the 5th to 6th centuries were numerically outnumbered by the native Romano-British (see PoBI results).

Perhaps if the kingdom of Wessex fell England’s identity would be more indubitably aligned with Scandinavia, as it was arguably in the decades before Norman conquest in any case. But cultural identities can be curiously resilient. The Finns endured nearly 600 years of Scandinavian domination, but maintained their language, while the long Irish interaction with the Vikings still left the Irish identity intact.

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