Saturday, May 16, 2009

Down to earth scholarship

Cleaning out my mailbox after the trip to Kalamazoo, I came across a link to this Telegraph obituary for Margaret Gelling, whose work I was entirely ignorant of. But now having heard of it I am very impressed, and you may be able to guess why from the following excerpt.

When Margaret Gelling began her career as a research assistant at the English Place-Name Society in 1946, the field was dominated by scholars such as Sir Frank Stenton, who, as she put it, "empathised with the ruling classes" and were more interested in place-names designated by members of the elite, such as Kington or Knighton ("royal manor" and "estate of the young retainers"), than by names with a popular origin.

The topographical vocabulary of the early Anglo-Saxon settlers was highly nuanced and exact, she argued, because in an age without maps or signposts, the distinctions between a "knoll" and a "creech", a "don" and a "brough" or an "ofer" and an "ora" would have been very important navigational concepts. As a result of her work, place-name scholars no longer indulge in etymological speculation without looking at the landscape first.

Margaret Gelling's work offered an insight into the Anglo-Saxon imagination, and provided an invaluable reference tool for archaeologists looking for previously unknown sites indicated by place-name references to, say, farming or ancient routes. She also showed how a study of place-names can help historians gain a more accurate picture of early history.

For example, she challenged the view – based largely on the writings of the sixth-century historian St Gildas – that the ancient Britons were forced out to the "Celtic fringe" by the Anglo-Saxon invaders. If that were true, she asked, why do so many place names in southern England have Celtic origins? "If you believe Gildas, the Anglo-Saxons would have been chasing the ancient Britons, catching up with one who wasn't fast enough and saying, 'Look here, before I cut off your head, just tell me the name of this place'."

In 2001 new genetic research confirmed that the majority of Britons living in the south of England share the same DNA as their "Celtic" counterparts, suggesting that, far from being purged when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the fifth century, many ancient Britons remained in England.

Image: Gelling in an appropriate pose.

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