My good friend Julius, over at his excellent blog Out of England, has spoken about the University of Leicester’s upcoming ‘multidisciplinary research programme’ into ‘population history’, titled ‘The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain: Evidence, Memories, Inventions’ and its effect on the British identity.
As Julius has established, the intended aim of the project in establishing ‘what constitutes Britishness’ is entirely questionable. For my part, the history of ‘Britain’, being as it is a political construct manipulated in its meaning up to this very day, is surely one for political and social scientists rather than those untangling a DNA helix.
From an English Nationalist perspective, however, the project is intriguing. Any new research into Anglo-Saxon history (Anglo-Saxon being a much mis- and overused title) is to be welcomed and followed with some interest. Of late, a good deal of media attention has been lavished on the Saxons, from the BBC documentaries on the matter to the discoveries of the Staffordshire Hoard and an Anglo-Saxon male in an Oxfordshire garden.
Aspects of the project focus on the Saxons specifically, including….
- Surnames and the Y-Chromosome, which will focus on the Viking genetic legacy and its impact in different regions of Britain.
- -1 Dialect in Diaspora: Linguistic Variation in Early Anglo-Saxon England, will examine the impact of Anglo-Saxon and Viking diasporas on the development of early English dialects. It will look at inscriptions on early Anglo-Saxon coins and Romano-Germanic votive stones, place names and personal names and analogies with later, global diasporas.
- -2 People and Places: This doctoral project will look at the widespread genetic impact of the Viking diaspora through place-names to gauge the relative level of Scandinavian linguistic influence and compare it with levels of Scandinavian ancestry in the modern population.
- Home and Away in Early England: this project will examine aspects of the idea of home and homelands, and its opposite – exile, exclusion and foreignness – in Anglo-Saxon England, the construction of a shared past on Anglo-Saxon identities and the importance of a sense of place and community.
The latter in particular looks fascinating. Saxon English language contains so many different words for ‘foreign’ and ‘exile’, and there are so many cross-references in the understanding of ‘foreignness’ that it would be very interesting to better understand. So, in terms of understanding Englishness, genetically and culturally, this project will be a positive boon. The investigation of our connections with our Scandinavian forebears, to whom we owe good portions of our language and our cultural heritage (see Beowulf), should be welcomed with open arms.
Unfortunately, the integrity of the study is nearly compromised by peripheral factors.
For a start, the ungainly title of ‘The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain: Evidence, Memories, Inventions’ betrays the inherent value of the projects themselves. The very placement of such loaded words as ‘memories’ and ‘inventions’ in the title suggests that the extant understanding of what it is to be an inhabitant of these islands is not grounded in any entity of any substance. This is essentially an implicit insinuation that Britain (and possibly the component nations) is/are ‘made’ or ‘constructed’ by memory and myth, and wanton fabrication. This in itself suggests that those undertaking the study have as their key belief that the nation-state is a fabrication: a very partial and partisan standpoint.
Unfortunately, the study does appear to align itself with the ‘change for the sake of change’ school of thought. In describing its mission statement, the University claims that
“… many established assumptions are being challenged and re-examined by historians and archaeologists, now in collaboration with geneticists armed with new techniques for DNA analysis. Recent research has begun to suggest more complex origins for the British peoples.
The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain: evidence, memories, inventions is a programme of six interdisciplinary projects that will result in a greater understanding of the mechanisms of cultural change and the legacies of early, proto-historic diasporas on the population history of Britain.”
Whilst I am far from suggesting that the University needs to carry out its research in the name of furthering British unity, phrases like ‘mechanisms of cultural change’ have too much of an overtone of New Labouresque deliberate revisionism rather than the simpler shift in extraneous variables that had an effect on the civilisations of this time. Furthermore, one wonders if the phraseology used to describe this study may be seized upon by the historically inept revisionists who seem to dominate the avenues of discussion on the fabric of contemporary England. Clearly, wording the aims of the study in such a way appears to suggest an effort to equate the solely European diasporic origins of England with the post-1948 influx of migrants from across the globe. This would be nothing more than inept appropriation of a vastly different circumstance, and would welcome the danger of some mammoth historical revisionism.
One wonders if such an important study needs to be so intentionally provocative; so burdened with doublespeak. Is maximum media exposure the new aim of scientists and academics? One need only to look at how the truly great Stephen Hawking has lowered himself to the level of Dawkins-like conjecture on the existence or non-existence of God. If anything, titling this study thus has allowed certain parties to make (realistically minimal) capital from it.
Science should, by its own definition, be a search for truth, unmotivated by any moral zeitgeist, contemporary political fads and concerned only with proving or disproving a hypothesis. Any manipulation of the findings of this study in the media would be to the detriment of those who have planned their research so thoroughly and with such noble intent.
I wish those undertaking this study the very best of luck, and I await their results and findings with a good deal of anticipation. I can only hope that they treat their findings responsibly and scientifically.