In this series of posts I will put forward the following set of ideas. They are not entirely new or original, but I think that there is a strong philological case to support them.
In southern Britain in the fifth century there was a significant Latin-speaking Christian British population. This is evidenced by pre-550 Latin loanwords in Old English and in particular by Christian terminology. The loanwords are most likely to be due to this population adopting Old English as their first language. This may be why there is also an important group of religious terms coined in Old English rather than borrowed from Latin. And it also explains why there are virtually no British loanwords in Old English.
Christian lexis and pagan Anglo-Saxons.
It is generally agreed that the Germanic settlers of Britain from the fourth century to the sixth century were pagan. We can only infer what beliefs they had from the scraps of information to be gleaned from archaeology, place names, and earlier and later, but not contemporary, written sources. Obviously they had the common Germanic word god, though its original scope cannot be clearly discerned owing to its adaptation to Christian use (how did it relate to os, for example?). And the same problem applies to other linguistically Germanic religious terms which exist in the records as Christian in character, and may or may not derive from earlier pagan use. Since we are looking back at these through Christian spectacles, we can only state with certainty that they are Christian terms and we cannot assume a priori that any of them were in use, by pagans, before the Conversion period.
It is also a fairly safe assumption that communities of different faiths, when not in close everyday contact with each other, have very limited knowledge of, or indeed interest in, each other’s belief systems. Historically, a Christian community is likely to have an image of the beliefs of a non-Christian community, though this image may well be merely a stereotyped picture derived from Old Testament stories of idolatry and theological concepts of heresy. But even a Christian community coexisting in acknowledged tension with another faith community does not necessarily display great awareness of the real features of that faith, and in particular of its nomenclature.
So for example, despite the Crusades and centuries of medieval contact with Muslims, Middle English has little more to show for it than the following:
Alcoran (which is attested from the 12th century in Latin sources)
mosque (attested from the 14th century in French)
ramadan (15th century in French)
Mahound and mammet (Middle English)
These last two words witness to the erroneous but deeply ingrained belief that the Prophet Muhammad was worshipped as a god, and well illustrate the point about ignorance (perhaps wilful) of other faiths.
In the sixteenth century occur masjid (1594), muezzin (1568 in French), mufti (1546 in French), and shereef (1599); and only in the seventeenth century, when contact is at an altogether more sophisticated level, do we find a properly representative set of words: alfaqui, Al-Hajj, fakir, maghrib, Allah, hadji, imam, Islam, mullah, haram, madrasah, fatwa, khatib, Koran, Muslim, Shiah, Sunni, salat, mihrab, minaret, minbar, jinn, and ulema.
Similarly the Judaic terminology in English (and other western languages) before the seventeenth century is largely what would be expected from the common dependence of both faiths on the Hebrew Bible. Only after 1600 (and more after 1700) does terminology distinctively relating to Jewish religious practice begin to appear. It appears that little familiarity with actual Jewish faith and practice was acquired during the two centuries that Jews lived in medieval England. In fact the reverse is the case, seeing that the medieval English propagated a version of the blood libel, which (it goes without saying) could never have been derived from first-hand acquaintance with the Jewish community.
How much less then would we expect non- or scarcely literate pagan Anglo-Saxon settlers to attest in their vocabulary to any familiarity with the Christian faith? (When we say ‘their vocabulary’, we mean the vocabulary inherited from common West Germanic that they brought with them as part of their language.) Especially when we consider that their homelands in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia did not immediately border on the Christianized Roman empire, and their migration routes to Britain are generally agreed to have passed directly across the North Sea. Even words denoting visible structures (such as church) require a reasonable period of sojourn in a district where such structures are frequent and where contact with the inhabitants is sufficient for the word to be acquired and retained for its usefulness.
A pagan community could only have begun to acquire Christian terminology when (i) they were in regular, relatively peaceful contact with some kind of Christian group, either a settled community or missionaries, and (ii) when this terminology had some practical use for them, either because they adopted Christianity or because they actively resisted it. For example, pagan Scandinavians in the tenth century found themselves living under the rule of assertively Christian kings, and amongst Christian communities. They could hardly have failed to acquire a reasonably active knowedge of at least rudimentary aspects of Christianity. We know that quite a lot of them practised syncretism, honouring both Thor and Christ. This is a very different situation from that obtaining in the homelands of the pagan Anglo-Saxons when they undertook their immigration into Britain.
This being so, I believe that the following Christian terms, despite what has been written about them, cannot have been part of the vocabulary of Old English at the time of the settlement:
- deofol ‘devil’
- engel ‘angel’
- abbod ‘abbot’
- biscop ‘bishop’
- preost ‘priest’
- munuc ‘monk’
- mynster ‘monastery’
- cirice ‘church’
To take the first pair of terms, it is impossible to see what role Christian concepts of angels and devils could possibly have played in the belief system of the pagan Anglo-Saxon settlers, nor how they could have come by these concepts on the banks of the Elbe, in the Frisian marshes, or in the southern Danish peninsula.
The four terms for Christian functionaries are equally unlikely to have been picked up before the settlement. To acquire a working knowledge of their functions would have demanded a period of close acquaintance with a community in which they were exercised.
The final two institutional terms could conceivably have been picked up by migrants passing slowly through a landscape well furnished with ecclesiastical buildings. But there’s really no reason to think that the Anglo-Saxons did spend any significant time in such an environment before settling in Britain.
But if these words were not in their vocabulary at the time of the settlement (fifth–sixth centuries) when were they acquired? The obvious assumption is that they were borrowed in the course of, or soon after, the Augustinian mission to Britain at the end of the sixth century. It is indeed very likely that a collection of Latin religious terms was acquired at that time, as will be shown later. However, I believe that for these words—and some others which will be discussed later—this assumption is incorrect. On phonological grounds it seems to me inescapable that these words, and some others, were acquired between the settlement and the mission.
In the following post, I will offer some arguments in support of this contention.