There were German tribes who lived far away from the zone of Roman contact. The economy of the Germans in the far north and west of Europe was not much intertwined with that of the Roman Empire, and they remained more fragmented. These fragmented groups eventually ended up in Britain and were then called the Germanic settlers.
The German Impact
There is a very striking contrast between the German impact on the Roman Empire and the German impact on Britain.
The Roman Empire had to deal with extremely large groups of people who moved by land and settled contiguously right in the heart of Roman territory. These were the famous ‘successor kingdoms’ that were founded by the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, the Vandals, and the Franks. Ancient sources report that the barbarian groups that entered Gaul and other parts of the Roman Empire in the late 4th and early 5th centuries often consisted of hundreds of thousands of people.
Such a movement of people was difficult to pull off by land, let alone by the sea, and in fact, we have no sign that a naval action on such a large scale took place in this period.
The early settlement of Britain, by contrast, consisted of small bands of settlers arriving by boat, perhaps no more than a few dozen in some groups, and they settled haphazardly along the southern and eastern coast, wherever they could establish themselves.
This article comes directly from content in the video series England: From the Fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Legacy of Language
Language was one of the most striking legacies left by the Germanic settlers. We don’t have any texts written in the vernacular languages spoken by these settlers from this time, but scholars of Old English have done a lot of work to reconstruct what these early dialects were probably like.
We certainly know that there was linguistic diversity, but the Germanic languages spoken in Britain were probably closely related enough to be mutually intelligible. The very fact that there were small groups from many different micro-dialects probably aided in the linguistic convergence that gave rise to the broader dialect groupings that characterized Middle English.
The Germanic tribes were not broadly literate, but a system of writing did develop in the Germanic areas of the continent in about the 5th century, and it made its way to Britain later on. This system was based on the Roman alphabet but took distinctive forms. The letters they developed are known as runes.
In general, the Germanic people that crossed the North Sea were a diverse mixture, united in only a general sense by language.
Invaders or Farmers?
There is a narrative that comes from medieval scholarship that the Germanic migrations constituted a violent conquest of Britain.
However, there is no real archaeological evidence of conflict, and the settlements we find are too small and unprepossessing to represent an invasion that established itself by force. There is very little other evidence that the Germanic settlers in Britain were anything other than farmers on a rather small scale.
They did bring some new seeds and animals into Britain, but methods of farming did not change much. There ended up being far more continuity than change in agriculture as a result of the Germanic settlements.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell from the archaeology exactly why these Germanic groups decided to leave Continental Europe to come to Britain, but we may hypothesize that they were in search of fertile land in an area with a milder climate and a low population density.
The Germanic Settlers
Germanic people seem to have started arriving in around 420 AD, and they settled primarily in southern and eastern Britain at first. The drop-off in productivity in the south and east may have cleared a niche for the newcomers, and it was fortuitous that the areas thus affected were on the coast, where the newcomers could most easily get to them.
The degree of prosperity of these newly-arrived settlers varied from place to place. Two 5th-century sites where they settled have been excavated, one at Beckford, in Worcestershire, and the other at Mucking, in Essex.
At Beckford, the farmers seem to have lived in comparative poverty. Archaeologists have determined that the pottery available was of very low quality, as was the cloth that people wore. Their bones reveal that they did a lot of squatting, as if they had to perform repetitive tasks without adequate furnishings, and their teeth were very worn, which probably indicates that they did not have access to good quality grindstones.
Life was a bit better at the other site, at Mucking, but it was still quite primitive. The settlement does not show signs of being organized along any particular pattern; we are not talking about a village with clear lines of authority or lordship. In other words, this is not the case of a chieftain who has brought retainers or underlings with him, but rather a bunch of independent, quite small-scale farmers who have settled side by side.
These were tiny places. Mucking was on the large side, at about 80-90 inhabitants, but most of the early settlements had probably 20-30 people.
In other words, archaeology tells us that these newcomers were not warriors, undertaking a concerted invasion. They were settlers.
Common Questions about the Germanic Settlers in Britain
Language was one of the most prominent legacies left by the Germanic settlers. There was significant linguistic convergence that gave rise to the broader dialect groupings that characterized Middle English.
The Germanic settlers appear to have entered Britain around 420 AD. They settled primarily in southern and eastern Britain at first. The drop-off in productivity in the south and east may have cleared a niche for the newcomers, and it was fortuitous that the areas thus affected were on the coast, where the newcomers could most easily get to them.
According to archaeological data, the settlements of the Germanic settlers don’t show any signs of organization based on specific patterns; there are no clear lines of authority or lordship. The settlements apparently belonged to a small group of independent farmers living together. Archaeologists believe that the newcomers weren’t warriors, but a number of farmers who probably turned to Britain for a better life.