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The Dark Ages

From the time that the Romans more or less abandoned Britain, to the arrival of Augustine at Kent to convert the Saxons, the period has been known as the Dark Ages. Written evidence concerning the period is scanty, but we do know that the most significant events were the gradual division of Britain into a Brythonic west, a Teutonic east and a Gaelic north; the formation of the Welsh, English and Scottish nations; and the conversion of much of the west to Christianity.

By 410, Britain had become self-governing in three parts, the North (which already included people of mixed British and Angle stock); the West (including Britons, Irish, and Angles); and the South East (mainly Angles). With the departure of the Roman legions, the old enemies began their onslaughts upon the native Britons once more. The Picts and Scots to the north and west (the Scots coming in from Ireland had not yet made their homes in what was to become later known as Scotland), and the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes to the south and east.

The two centuries that followed the collapse of Roman Britain happen to be among the worst recorded times in British history, certainly the most obscure. Three main sources for our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon permeation of Britain come from the 6th century monk Gildas, the 8th century historian Bede, and the 9th century historian Nennius.

The heritage of the British people cannot simply be called Anglo-Saxon; it is based on such a mixture as took place in the Holy Land, that complex mosaic of cultures, ideologies and economies. The Celts were not driven out of what came to be known as England. More than one modern historian has pointed out that such an extraordinary success as an Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain "by bands of bold adventurers" could hardly have passed without notice by the historians of the Roman Empire, yet only Prosper Tyro and Procopius notice this great event, and only in terms that are not always consistent with the received accounts.

In the Gallic Chronicle of 452, Tyro had written that the Britons in 443 were reduced "in dicionen Saxonum" (under the jurisdiction of the English). He used the Roman term Saxons for all the English-speaking peoples resident in Britain: it comes from the Welsh appellation Saeson). The Roman historians had been using the term to describe all the continental folk who had been directing their activities towards the eastern and southern coasts of Britain from as early as the 3rd Century. By the mid 6th Century, these peoples were calling themselves Angles and Frisians, and not Saxons.

In the account given by Procopius in the middle of the 6th Century (the Gothic War, Book IV, cap 20), he writes of the island of Britain being possessed by three very populous nations: the Angili, the Frisians, and the Britons. "And so numerous are these nations that every year, great numbers migrate to the Franks." There is no suggestion here that these peoples existed in a state of warfare or enmity, nor that the British people had been vanquished or made to flee westwards. We have to assume, therefore, that the Gallic Chronicle of 452 refers only to a small part of Britain, and that it does not signify conquest by the Saxons.

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