anglo-saxon apartheid ended by the church?

there’s been a theory floated for a few years now that there was a sort of apartheid system in early anglo-saxon england in which the angles and saxons and jutes didn’t really mix with the native britons. or vice versa. from thomas, stumpf, and härke:

“Reproductive isolation and differential social status along ethnic lines is a frequent, temporary consequence of conquest and settlement, the best-known modern case being the Apartheid system in South Africa. In the post-Roman period, intermarriage between dominant immigrants and subject natives was banned in Visigothic France and Spain in the late fifth and early sixth century (King 1972). The Normans in eleventh- and twelfth-century England operated a conquest society in which the native English and Welsh had a lower legal status than Normans (Garnett 1985), and intermarriage, where it happened, was predominantly unidirectional, i.e. Norman men marrying English women. In Anglo-Saxon England, elements of an apartheid-like society can also be perceived in a Wessex law code of the seventh century which distinguishes clearly between Saxons and ‘Welsh’ (Britons) and gives the former a significantly higher legal status, some two centuries after the initial immigration (Whitelock 1979). Archaeological and skeletal data (Härke 1990, 1992), as well as textual evidence (Woolf, 2004), have been used to suggest a situation of limited intermarriage between immigrant Anglo-Saxons and native Britons until the seventh century when this distinction began to break down.”

for more on this theory, see: Anglo-Saxon immigration and ethnogenesis.

now it seems as though the recently published genetic study by leslie et al. may back up this idea. from the Supplementary Information [pdf – pg. 18]:

The Cent./S England inferred admixture date is older, at around 1200 years ago. This is moderately, but significantly, more recent than the historically accepted time of approximately 1400 years ago (around 600) for the Anglo-Saxon migration into England. This discrepancy is unlikely to be explained by errors in our human generation time (we used 28 years) because an unlikely generation time of 33 years or higher would be required to account for this difference. Instead, an important point is that the date of admixture cannot be earlier than the arrival of a group, but can be later if mixing did not occur for some period (e.g. if the Anglo-Saxon community remained distinct for some period after arrival), or if mixing took place gradually, and initially at a relatively slow rate.”

so, they’re saying that intermarriages between the anglo-saxons and the native britons didn’t really get going until the 800s.

both the anglo-saxons and probably the native britons (presuming they were rather like the native irish and scots), like every other pre-christian northern european group, married their cousins to some degree or another. we know for certain that the anglo-saxons did, because augustine of canterbury wrote several frantic letters to pope gregory the great about the problem (he viewed this as a problem since already by this point in the 600s the church had banned marriages to close cousins).

across the channel in the frankish kingdoms, cousin marriage didn’t became socially unacceptable until the 800s, even though there were local bans issued by bishops in the frankish kingdoms as early as the 500s. as i wrote in a previous post:

from “An Unsolved Riddle: Early Medieval Incest Legislation” in Franks and Alamanni in the Merovingian Period: An Ethnographic Perspective (1998), a collection of papers from an “historical archaeoethnological” conference [pgs. 109-110]:

“In the course of the eighth century the Frankish campaign against incest gained momentum, aided by papal decrees and letters which began to circulate in the North (De Jong 1989:38-41). When it came to blood relations papal guidelines were more radical than Frankish episcopal and royal decrees, but in other respects — such as spiritual kinship — Rome and the Frankish leadership saw eye to eye right from the beginning. Letters sent from Rome to Boniface reveal an increasingly rigid papal position. Gregory II forbade all unions between blood relations and affinal kin (‘*quamdiu se agnoscunt affinitate propinquos*’), but permitted the recently converted a marriage ‘*post quartam generationem*’; his successor Gregory III withdrew any such privilege, assuring Boniface that marriage within the seventh *generatio* was out of the question….

“In practice…it did not make any difference whether one forbade marriage ‘until the seventh *generatio*’ (Gregory III), or proclaimed an unspecified ban on all kinswomen and affines (Gregory II). Both meant the same: marriage and kindred did not go together. Pope Zachary expressed this clearly in 743, stating that no Christians were permitted to marry if they were in any way related to each other (Werminghoff 1904:19-21). Avoidance of kin-marriage had become one of the defining criteria of Christianity….”

by the 800s [pg. 120]:

By the ninth century, a marriage in the third *generatio* [i.e. second cousins – h.chick] had become scandalous, but the fourth generation remained a viable option, along with a whole range of more distant kin (Le Jan 1995:316-17). This pattern persisted well into the tenth and eleventh centuries.”

i’m not one hundred percent certain, but i think that this shift to the regular avoidance of cousin marriage by the franks probably had something to do with the establishment of parish churches in the 700 and 800s by pepin the short and charlemagne. once there was “a church in every village,” the message that cousin marriage was not permitted would’ve been more readily heard, and, perhaps, more easily enforced (by the local priest).

i don’t know anything about the establishment of parishes in england (yet), but perhaps the english — the anglo-saxons and britons — were on a similar trajectory as the franks with regard to cousin marriage. perhaps they, too, didn’t really start to take the bans seriously until sometime in the 800s, despite there having been some very early laws forbidding cousin marriage in some of the anglo-saxon kingdoms (like in the late 600s in kent). if there was such a delay in avoiding cousin marriage in england in the seventh and eighth centuries, then there wouldn’t have been much intermarriage between the anglo-saxons and britons during those centuries simply because they all would’ve been still mostly marrying their own cousins or other close kin (i.e. fellow clan or kindred members). if so, then genetic exchange between the groups would’ve become much more likely once cousin marriage began to be consistently avoided. maybe it took the church and its bans on cousin marriage to end anglo-saxon apartheid.

just a thought. Further Research is RequiredTM. (^_^)

previously: free cornwall now! and anglo-saxon mating patterns

(note: comments do not require an email. anglo-saxon rings.)



  1. Parishes came late to most of England. There were Minsters, large churches staffed by monks, serving a wide area. Warminster, Axminster, Westminster, York Minster. Control by diocesean bishops and the spread of Parish churches became the standard after the Norman Conquest (when AS or Briton wouldn’t have counted for much).


  2. We could speculate that in the 800’s, the Britons were so taken with an alien culture that there was massive wholesale adoption and conversion. A mere 1200 years later they are on the verge of losing that culture to new alien cultures. Just can’t resist the lure of different; it’s like a genetic trait.


  3. There’s also one of the cooler bits of evidence to suggest ethnic separation during the heptarchy. That’s Offa’s Dyke. The evidence suggests it was built to keep the Welsh out of Mercia, primarily because the Mercians looked at the Welsh as barbarians, relatively speaking. When one group views the other group as inferior, breeding will be limited.


  4. From the generic study it seems that even the so-called Celtic groups are very far generically from each other. Then even with the Anglo-Saxons, the subjective group (invaded) would have still been fairly different genetically from the Welsh or the Irish (just like the Germanics were), just as the Welsh and the Irish are different from each other. Basically the Germans mixed with the native Britons of now-England, not the native Britons of Wales which was a completely different group. So the major differences between Welsh and English come from BOTH the fact that they were completely different group of native Britons as well as being now part-Germanic (another completely different group) that came together. So the rivalries are still very real, and so are the differences, just the differences don’t solely come from the Anglo-Saxon side of it, but that these were always differing Briton groups in the first place. Just they became to be represented via English / Welsh, when in actual fact they could have been more ancient than the English. I’d also like to note, that from what I know, the Celtic invasion was quite similar, the Britons are more ancient than the Celtic and most likely were ruled by them and took their language.
    Look at how rapidly the new Anglo-Saxons came to accept Christianity without any bloody conflicts against its heathenism (compared to other areas anyway). No doubt they learned that from the natives (and bred with them). It took Frisians hundreds more years to accept it and most Germanic tribes were forced in the face of death to convert, yet generically and linguistically there was little difference between those first Anglo-Saxon invaders and Frisians (they were effectively the same people).
    Language side of things makes it fuzzy thought: The native Britons were forced to accept English, probably because of its use as a trade language but either because it was forced on them or English had benefits that their native tongue did not have. Or in all likelihood, they have no one national language, and so English swept through and dominated everything else. The fact that English shows no sign of the earlier Britons is probably the biggest area where the facts don’t add up. But we must not assume that Welsh was the original language of the other Britons (as many look for Welsh indicators). Other possibility is that the earlier Britons were just an earlier migration, a similar language to Anglo-Saxon, which eventually was overcome by its linguistic patterns after the invasion.


  5. If the Anglo-Saxons didn’t intermarry with the Britons didn’t mix for a couple centuries after they first arrived, the two groups must still have lived in neighboring communities throughout predominantly Anglo-Saxon areas. Otherwise, if they had simply pushed the Britons out of the initial settlement areas, I would expect the study would still show distinct clusters in southeastern England where the population had been mostly Germanic for a long period.

    “Wal-” is a common English place name element which can have a few different derivations, but it often comes from the Anglo-Saxon name of a Briton settlement. You’d expect to find those names in the former Wessex and Mercia, but I was surprised to find a “Walton” in Essex and two in Surrey, which are all supposed to have that derivation, suggesting that there were still identifiable Britons in the East when Anglo-Saxon place names became firmly established. (It also suggests that the people in question did not speak a similar language to those of the Angles and Saxons. The Germanic “walha” (foreigner) as in Wales/Welsh seems to have been used to refer to Celts and Romans- see Walloons, maybe Wallachia.)

    I’d imagine that once the consanguinity ban started to be enforced in a given area, the Saxons and Britons merged within a few generations. The vast majority of members of any given Saxon settlement must have already been at least second cousins, and they probably have had close blood ties with members of all the neighboring Saxon communities, so there just weren’t many available mates outside of nearby British settlements.

    One thing that’s notable is that many early West Saxon kings seem to have had Saxonized British names, which seems to suggest at least some intermarriage at the royal level. Perhaps the West Saxons needed to be more dynastically strategic than their more easterly co-ethnics.


  6. Muz Chick,

    Have you put any thought into the role played by orphanages in Parish exogamy dynamics?

    I was reading this:

    It struck me that missionaries typically create orphanages (as well as monasteries, hospitals, and a few other “common good” type buildings) as a staple of the Church default template, but this must have been pretty astounding when it first got started. Reading horror history about the norm of what happens to children without parents in Africa and China and Egypt provides a good clue as to what pre-orphanage Europe had to offer children before Christian orphanages increasingly became the “new normal”. Orphanages must have had a substantial effect.

    The monastery tradition of taking unwanted kids from diverse clans/ethnies/villages/etc, raising them as “brothers”, and then spreading them out, might have had interesting exogamic effects. These kids largely didn’t become clerics themselves, and probably often aimed to re-assimilate and marry into some new place that wasn’t their family (since they have none). Mostly unsuccessfully, I’d guess, but there’s going to be a lot of orphans, under some social-pressure protection from the church which raised them to not be enslaved and/or randomly murdered for being strangers.

    I can’t think of any good way to quantify lateral transmission effects of orphanages, though.


  7. @Wyvern

    Yes, if people are marrying their cousins then that’s all you need to keep two populations distinct and once that changed the Celtic layer and Anglo-Saxon layer would merge into a new thing.

    I wonder if the mysterious FRA17 is an artifact of that

    “One thing that’s notable is that many early West Saxon kings seem to have had Saxonized British names”

    Yes, to me this has always implied the initial population balance between Briton and Saxon shifted from east to west – majority Saxon along the east coast, majority Briton along the west.


    It’s only been a year or two since the official version of European prehistory – total replacement of Europeans by middle eastern farmers – was the version being pushed by the mainstream media even though it was obviously nonsense even then. This study seems to have been written with that model in mind.


  8. @Greying Wanderer

    Sorry- I didn’t express my point very well. What I getting at is that where you have a population spread out across a lot of small agricultural communities, you really have to go out of your way if you want to avoid inbreeding. Even if you started with unrelated people, you’d get to a point within three or four generations where you’d have go two or three settlements away to find a decent pool of potential mates who aren’t your second cousins or closer.

    I not any kind of expert on this, but my layman’s guess would be that a given person reaching marriageable age would only have 4 or 5 unmarried potential mates in a community of, say, 20 households, and a ban on consanguineous marriage would rule out 3/4 of the pool in the home settlement and let’s say 1/3 in each neighboring community. Not accounting for arranged marriage, as a practical matter, there probably wouldn’t be all that many opportunities too meet potential mates who live more than a day’s travel from your home, so if there’s a neighboring settlement with which your settlement hasn’t previously had much intermarriage because of ethnic differences, that becomes the path of least resistance.


  9. @Wyvern73

    “I didn’t express my point very well”

    No you did. I was agreeing with you unclearly. If you have cousin marriage then you don’t need apartheid but if cousin marriage is blocked then the path of least resistance is as you say.

    I was adding an extra piece to the point you made which is could the Fra17 component not be a component in the usual sense but a *product* of that merging process and could it be the reason Fra17 matches a similar component in NW France be because NW France underwent the same merging process of a similar pre-Germanic layer with a similar Germanic layer?

    You’d need to understand how the software works in the context of a population that has been very finely chopped over the centuries – unusually low levels of genetic linkage – but I don’t understand how the software works well enough. If so it would illustrate the out breeding theory quite dramatically.


  10. Of course it’s also possible some of the Belgae Brythons were close genetically to Germanic people. In fact there was a Roman era sampling of DNA in northern England recently that found an otherwise typically local Brython with Y DNA U106. Combine that with the Hinxton DNA evidence from Saxons and Brythons that shows the Saxons as much more different autosomally from present day English than the Brythons and it raises some questions. Questions that can only really be answered with more studies..

    Interestingly even though more “southerly” than the Saxons, the Hinxton Brythons were shifted north as well in comparison to present day English samples, possibly indicating some of this mixing may actually be from low level immigration since the middle ages.


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