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Of Genes, Vowels, and Violence

Why do the British speak English and not a variety of Welsh?  Philip Jenkins, having fallen under the sway of a Harvard medieval historian, Michael McCormick, believes it is because the invading Germans of the fifth and sixth centuries killed all the Celtic-speaking male Britons in what is now England.  (See “Once There Was a War,” Breaking Glass, November 2009.)  The evidence offered for this hypothesis is the rhetoric of a sixth-century Welsh cleric, Gildas, backed up by a similarity in the Y-chromosomes of Englishmen and Frisians.  And why is this recondite argument being aired in the pages of Chronicles?  Because Mr. Jenkins thinks that softy, left-liberal historians “invent comfortable fictions to justify their political ideologies,” and that it is time someone told the unpleasant truth, not just about the English, but about war, barbarians in general, and their influence on culture.

Mr. Jenkins (whose name, I notice, is Welsh) has opted for an uncomfortable fiction from Harvard, but it is a fiction nonetheless.

First, Gildas does not tell us that “a million Romano-British men alive in 400 vanished without genetic trace.”  He tells us that towns were wrecked, that some people were killed and others emigrated, but there is no evidence in Gildas’s vague and overheated rhetoric for what we would describe as a genocidal massacre.  As for the genetic evidence,...

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