Earliest Singular They According to the OED

I’ve long been seeing mentions that the use of the plural pronoun they to refer to a singular antecedent is older than the present attempt to introduce it as a gender-neutral option. Here’s a little history I ran across.

Dennis Baron, Professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, blogs about singular they for The Oxford English Dictionary. According to him, the oldest recorded use within the OED is from 1375, in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf.

BrLib Digital Catalogue Illuminated MSS Royal 10 E IV f12 Detail

Continues Baron:

“Here’s the Middle English version: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ In modern English, that’s: ‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’ [original emphasis]

“Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older.”

Since I’m a Finn and we don’t have grammatical gender in our language, singular they seems natural to me. In fact, I fail to see a reason to choose to kick up a major kerfuffle over it; after all, (normative) English already mixes up the numbers with singular and plural you.

I’m pretty sure that within the past decade or so I have spotted multiple examples from non-woke modern English sources, both television series and novels, that do use singular they seemingly unconsciously, very naturally, and entirely unambiguously. I wish I had realized to write them down for my own interest.

Image: Group of men, detail of illuminated manuscript Royal 10 E IV, f. 12, via The British Library Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (France, S. [Toulouse?]; last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century; illuminated manuscript)

On, of, and about languages.

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A Rich Anglo-Saxon Burial Chamber Found in Essex

A new-ish Anglo-Saxon burial chamber found at Prittlewell in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, in southern England has all of the markings of a valuable find, both in terms of quality and quantity of the grave goods and of historical significance.

The male body was placed within a wooden coffin in a timber room. The burial most likely dates to the late 6th century (575-605 CE). It was first discovered in 2003 in remarkably good condition.

MOLA Prittlewell Burial Chamber Drawing

Artefacts from the burial were studied at Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), and the most impressive items are now on permanent display at Southend Central Museum in Southend-on-Sea. MOLA has also created an interactive website for the find.

Just some of the items discovered include a gold belt buckle, two Frankish gold coins, a beautiful sword, iron-bound buckets, a huge metal cauldron, latticed glass beakers, a tall iron candelabrum, a folding iron stool, a basin and a flagon made from copper alloy, a silver spoon, a painted wooden box, and an Anglo-Saxon lyre.

MOLA Prittlewell Blue Glass Decorated Beaker

Incidentally, the wooden box is so far the only surviving example of painted Anglo-Saxon woodwork!

MOLA Prittlewell Painted Wooden Box

MOLA The Guardian Prittlewell Gold Copper Item Collage

There are two interesting implications for the burial. Firstly, two gold foil crosses were likely placed on the body’s eyes. If the burial can indeed be placed at its earliest possible date, it makes the connection to Christianity remarkable because it would predate Augustine’s mission to convert the British in 597. A royal connection has been surmised (Seaxa, a younger brother of king Sæbert of Essex, whose mother Ricula was Æthelbert of Kent’s sister) but not confirmed.

(King Æthelbert of Kent married a Merovingian Christian princess called Bertha in 580, so Roman Christianity was known to Anglo-Saxons to some degree by the end of the 6th century, but to my knowledge we had previously not known of other converts outside their court prior to 600.)

Secondly, although Essex has earlier been seen as an Anglo-Saxon backwater of sorts, this rich burial chamber suggests otherwise. Indeed, some of the luxury items come from the near-by continental Europe (the Frankish gold coins), but others have much more far-reaching origins (the Byzantine or Syrian copper alloy flagon, for example).

Having studied Anglo-Saxons myself and witnessed Erik’s research on the side, I keep being amazed at how much paraphernalia is extant from the Roman period and early middle ages onwards. Not only that, but how much of it is still being discovered! If you tour any of the major museums of Roman history in Germany, for example, you will see massive (massive!) amounts of metalwork, gold, silver, glass, and pottery. And what’s on display doesn’t even account for the remnants in storage.

People from old cultures had as large incentives as we do today to dress up and surround themselves with ornate household goods—after all, we are humans who like their stuff, right? Their ability to do so naturally depended on the resources available in the area and era, and—despite what most of us seem to have been taught—early history is full of times when our predecessors were able to produce items on a massive scale and the richest in those societies did have the wherewithal to go all out.

Like the Staffordshire helmet, the Prittlewell burial will be of immense importance to our understanding of Anglo-Saxon history and culture. I’m so delighted it was found!

Images by MOLA; collage of the gold and copper alloy items by MOLA via The Guardian.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Trailers for the Tolkien Biopic

It’s three weeks to the release of Tolkien, the new biopic directed by my fellow Finn, Dome Karukoski.

IMDB Tolkien Biopic

Two trailers are out at this point:

TOLKIEN | Official Trailer | FOX Searchlight on YouTube

TOLKIEN | Trailer 2 | FOX Searchlight on YouTube

Looking very shiny! At just under 2 hours and chock-full of great actors—Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Genevieve O’Reilly (Mon Mothma in Star Wars!), Colm Meaney, Pam Ferris and Derek Jacobi, among others—it sounds promising.

Image: Lily Collins as Edith Bratt and Nicholas Hoult as J.R.R. Tolkien, via IMDB.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

The Staffordshire Helmet Reconstructed

The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest and perhaps the most magnificent find from Anglo-Saxon England. The hoard dates from the 7th century and comes from the Kingdom of Mercia. It was found in 2009 by an amateur archaeologist with a metal detector, and is now owned by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils on behalf of the nation.

The vast majority of items in the hoard are war gear, especially sword fittings. Among the items, all of which are of exceptionally high quality, is a helmet. Two copies of a reconstruction completed in 2018 are now available for public viewing, one in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Birmingham, England) and the other in The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England).

And it’s utterly breathtaking!

Twitter Staffordshire Hoard Helmet on Model Sm

Potteries Museum Staffordshire Helmet Sm

The so-called Staffordshire Helmet is very rare—only five other Anglo-Saxon helmets are known—and looks exquisite: the gold filigree with red accents make an arresting combination, and the dyed crest adds to the wearer’s height.

Birmingham Museum Staffordshire Helmet Sm

As Erik pointed out, ancient Greeks and Romans portrayed northwestern barbarians as violent, ignorant, savage, and lacking in technology and social organization. On the basis of the Staffordshire Hoard alone, whatever else they were, there’s absolutely no basis in calling Anglo-Saxons technologically unskilled!

Visit The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery or Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for more.

Found via Express & Star on Twitter.

Images: Staffordshire Helmet worn by model via Staffordshire Hoard on Twitter. Side view via Staffordshire Hoard. Front view via Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Visual Inspiration: Now I See from Where Ents Might Have Come

As a kid, I spent time playing in the small wooded areas nearby and imagined all sorts of critters living there. I know I did, but at some point I lost the ability (or willingness, or perhaps leisure? I remember an increase in homework around the same time). By the time I read of the enormous woodlands in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I remember having trouble imagining the really large trees of Lothlórien or Mirkwood, or how Ents might be mistaken for trees.

You see, I grew up two hours south of the Arctic Circle. We have woods up there, of course, thanks to the Gulf stream. The trees may not necessarily grow very big, however—although there are exceptions—and the ones that do grow tall tend to be relatively thin and arrow-straight instead of bulky and gnarly. (Two examples here and here. Both are further south than where I grew up, but nevertheless very similar.)

So, even I can easily imagine how a forest might invoke stories of elves, trolls, ents, and other creatures on the basis of photos of Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor, Devon, England.

Flickr Andy Walker Wistmans Wood

Flickr Clifton Beard Wistmans Wood

Flickr Natural England Peter Wakely Wistmans Wood

Isn’t it breathtaking? It’s like there are Ents about to walk out from behind a tree at any moment!

Images: Andy Walker (CC BY-ND 2.0) via Flicker. Clifton Beard (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr. Natural England/Peter Wakely (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Race in Antiquity: The Ivory Bangle Lady

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

It sounds like a simple question that ought to have a straightforward answer, but both the question and its answer are far more complicated than they appear. In these posts, I dig into the topic to explore what we know, what we don’t know, and what we mean by race in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Part 9: The “Ivory Bangle Lady”

In the past entries in this series, we have talked a lot about theories of identity, how we can interpret (and sometimes misinterpret) both written and artistic sources, and the problems in knowing just who we mean by Greeks and Romans in the first place. Today we approach the question from a different angle, looking at one individual and the world she lived in.

Around 400 CE, a wealthy lady was buried near the Roman city of Eburacum (modern York) in northern Britain. She was buried with jewelry including an assortment of bangles, some of white ivory from Africa, others of black jet from Britain. Her name is not recorded, but she has come to be known, because of her jewelry, as the Ivory Bangle lady.

Examination of the Lady’s remains using the techniques of forensic anthropology shows that she was of African ancestry and had spent her childhood in a warmer climate, perhaps somewhere in southern Europe or North Africa. Her skull has features typical of sub-Saharan African populations and in fact the reference measurements that most closely match her skeletal morphology come from nineteenth-century black Americans. Although no indication of her skin color survives, it is almost certain that, if we passed her on the street today, we would describe her as a woman of color.

Roman York may seem like the last place we would expect to find evidence of racial diversity. It was the northernmost city in the Roman empire, just a little over a hundred kilometers from the Scottish frontier. There are few places in the Roman world that were farther from the cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean, yet archaeology has revealed late Roman York to have been a vibrantly multi-ethnic city. Individuals from Gaul, Italy, and Egypt are mentioned in Roman-period inscriptions from around York. Local potters made cooking vessels characteristic of North African cuisine. A Germanic king with his retinue of warriors is attested in the city backing the emperor Constantine’s rise to power. Not far away, in the forts along Hadrian’s Wall, soldiers were worshiping gods imported from Syria and Persia. A North African woman of Sub-Saharn African descent would have been right at home in such a place.

What did she think of herself? We have no way of knowing except to try to interpret the circumstances of her burial. The bangles with which she was buried may suggest a consciousness of being both African and British, although ivory and jet were both prized in late Roman jewelry. They certainly, however, point to a family of wealth and status. The remains of a wooden box were also found in the grave, including a decorative mount carved with the text “Hail, sister, may you live in God” (AVE S[OR]OR VIVAS IN DEO). The text suggests a Christian connection, although the richness of the lady’s grave is at odds with the contemporary Christian preference for simple burial. The Lady may or may not have been Christian herself, but she certainly had contact with the Christian movement.

The most noteworthy thing about the Lady’s burial may be how unremarkable it is. It is in many ways an entirely typical late Roman provincial grave for a woman of high status. Her choice of jewelry may have been meant to say something about her origin, but it was a choice that would not have stood out among her peers. She was in touch with one of the major religious movements of the day but buried in a traditional fashion; she was neither ahead of nor behind the times. If we had only the grave goods and not the remains, there would be nothing to suggest that the deceased belonged to an ethnic minority.

The most important thing for us to learn from the Ivory Bangle Lady is this paradox: the relative scarcity of people of African origin in the ancient Mediterranean literary record is the product of their presence, not their absence. There were enough North Africans in York to influence the local pottery market, but in most respects they were just like other provincial Romans. They followed the same social trends and religious developments as their neighbors. They had come as soldiers in Roman service, as merchants, or as travelers, just like the Gauls, Italians, and Germans who also ended up in York. They were of all genders and lived at all levels of provincial society, from the bottom to the very top. Among them were people with features typical of sub-Saharan Africa and who would likely appear to us as black, but in their historical context, they were just Romans like everybody else.

If there were women like the Ivory Bangle Lady in York, the farthest Roman city from Africa, then people of black African descent cannot have been uncommon in the cosmopolitan cities of the Mediterranean. If they are not evident to us in the sources, it is in part because they were so commonplace and so thoroughly integrated into ancient Mediterranean culture that contemporary authors didn’t feel the need to mention them. People tend not to write about the ordinary. We know this well enough from modern social media: our Facebook friends and Twitter celebrities mostly post about the unusual things that happen to them, good or bad, not the everyday events of a typical day. The same principle applies, even more so, to ancient authors, given how much more costly and difficult it was to put their observations onto papyrus in ink than it is to fire off a tweet today.

Archaeology, especially with current developments in genetic research, may provide us with individual cases like the Ivory Bangle Lady, but most of the racial diversity of ancient populations will always be invisible to us because most graves don’t survive in good enough condition and the resources available for research are limited. But individual cases like late Roman York are a reminder that there was nothing the least bit unusual about people of many different backgrounds and—in modern terms—different races living side by side in antiquity.

Further reading

H. Cool, “An Overview of the Small Finds from Catterick,” in Cataractonium: Roman Catterick and its Hinterland ed. P. Wilson. York: Council for British Archaeology, 2002, 23-43

S. Leach et al., “A Lady of York: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain,” Antiquity 84, no. 323 (March, 2010): 131-45.

Patrick Ottaway, Roman York. Stroud: Tempus, 2004.

V. G. Swan, “Legio VI and its Men: African Legionaries in Briatin,” Roman Pottery Studies, 5 (1992): 1-33

R. Warwick, “The Skeletal Remains,” in The Romano-British Cemetery at Trentholme Drive, York, ed. Leslie P. Wenham. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1968, 113-76

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Modern artist’s reconstruction of the burial of the Ivory Bangle Lady, from Leach, “A Lady of York.”

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Medieval Realism: Holding a Distaff Under One Arm While Feeding Chickens

As usual, some days ago while doing something quite different I found an intriguing detail I wanted to look into. Finally I had the time to chase it down.

So: I was struck by this scene from an English illuminated manuscript.

British Library Add MS 42130 f166v Feeding Chickens
Add MS 42130, f.166v via British Library (England; 1325-1340; illuminated manuscript)

The way the woman in the image is holding a distaff under one arm while she feeds chickens from a bowl feels incredibly authentic. I may not have to spin my own yarn nor feed chickens in 2018, but I have often held a thing under my arm momentarily while taking care of a small, short task. Such a lovely, realistic detail.

I do have one question for the artist, though: what on earth is that chick doing, standing on top of the hen and pecking her? (“Mom, look, I’m up here! Mom? Mom? Mooom!”) LOL!

The manuscript is from England and known as The Luttrell Psalter. Fortunately for us, British Library has digitized the whole manuscript. In addition to the chicken-feeding one above, the illuminations include a slew of other everyday scenes, like a miller in his windmill, bear-baiting(!), a wattle pen full of sheep, and various stages of tending fields and preparing food.

Being a textile nerd, I enjoyed the image of two women preparing fibers into yarn: one is using a spinning wheel, the other is carding.

British Library Add MS 42130 f193r Spinning Carding
Add MS 42130, f.193r via British Library (England; 1325-1340; illuminated manuscript)

The coloring is quite lovely. I do wonder, however, what’s with the awkward poses. The chicken-feeding image felt much more natural in that respect, too.

Images via British Library

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Cheddar Man: A European Mesolithic Male with Blue Eyes and Brown Skin

I saw these headers go by earlier this spring, but didn’t really have time to really dive into it until now. Well, better late than never, as they wisely say. 🙂

Despite the name, the Cheddar Man isn’t some silly cheese ad bloke. Instead, he has opened doors to very intriguing discoveries about European population during the later Stone Age.

The remains of an anatomically modern human male from about 10,000 years ago were found near Bristol in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England in 1903. Recent DNA analysis of the skeleton—Britain’s oldest (almost) complete one—suggests that he had blue eyes, dark curly or wavy hair, and dark brown to black skin.

Natural History Museum Tom Barnes Cheddar Man Bust Closeup

They also found that the Cheddar Man belonged to the same population as Mesolithic individuals whose bones were recovered from Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary, usually referred to as western European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers or European early modern humans.

Hannah Devlin at The Guardian writes most aptly:

“The discovery shows that the genes for lighter skin became widespread in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today.

“Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, said: ‘It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.’”

A new bust model of Cheddar Man was made by Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions. (See a photo of the previous model made by a team at the University of Manchester here.) They took measurements of the skeleton, scanned the skull, and 3D printed a base for their model. Then they applied certain conventions to shape the face.

I fully confess I’m having a hard time keeping track of the exact timespans and geographical limits of the various Stone Age eras in Eurasia and Africa—what’s paleolithic, mesolithic, or neolithic and where and at what time. But it is so fascinating (and delightful!) that we continue to develop new methods of finding more about our past, and that so many different disciplines seek to understand where we came from and what makes us tick.

Image: closeup of the model of Cheddar Man by Tom Barnes / Channel 4 via Natural History Museum, London

Game of Thrones Stamps to Be Published in U.K.

Royal Mail in Britain is releasing Game of Thrones stamps. The Character Stamp Set focuses on popular characters:

Royal Mail GoT Character Stamp Set Jan 2018

According to the BBC, an additional five-stamp sheet is also going to be published. It features giants, direwolves, dragons, the Iron Throne, and the Night King and his undead White Walkers.

The stamps will be available at post offices across the U.K. or by calling Royal Mail’s customer service line from next Tuesday, January 23, 2018. Pre-orderes on the Royal Mail website are also possible.

I’m counting 5 women and 5 men on the Character Stamp Set. Counted another way, 4 Starks (go, Starks!), 4 Lannisters, and Daenerys plus old dame Tyrell. Cool cool cool!

Found via File 770.

Image via Royal Mail

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

History Doesn’t Look Historical

It’s an unavoidable fact that when we look at historical artifacts, we’re looking at things that are many years old, sometimes centuries or millennia. Physical objects, even those made of enduring materials like metal or stone, are changed by the processes of time. Exposure to light, moisture, changing temperatures, air pollution, wind, water, and other effects works changes on artifacts that can range from subtle to drastic. Our sense of what history looks like is shaped by things that no longer look like what they were when they were first being made, admired, and used by people in their daily lives.

Take, for example, the sculptures and architecture of ancient Greece. Our perception of ancient Greek art is shaped by the white marble statues and temples that remain today, but the originals were not white. We know from ancient descriptions and a few pieces with surviving traces of paint that the stone buildings and sculptures of ancient Greece were brightly colored.

Examples like this statue of a woman, with traces of paint on her dress, suggest what such a statue might have originally looked like.

Statue of a woman (kore), photograph by Nemracc via Wikimedia (Keratea, Greece, currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 580-560 BCE; marble)

Evidence like this makes it possible to attempt to reconstruct what statues of this type looked like when first created. The two reconstructions on the right here offer two possible interpretations of what the original, on the left, may have looked like when it was new.

Statue of a woman (kore) and two reconstructions, composite of photographs by Marsyas, via Wikimedia (original: Acropolis, Athens; c. 530 BCE; marble; reconstructions: Acropolis Museum, Athens)

The striking colors of the past are not just a phenomenon of ancient Greece. At Stirling Castle, in Scotland, a recent restoration project has brought back the original rich yellow color of the walls of the medieval great hall, which was determined from traces of ochre mixed with the remains of the lime wash applied to the stone. You can see the striking contrast between the restored great hall in the background and the bare stone of the buildings in front.

Stirling Castle, photograph by dun_deagh via Flickr (Stirling, Scotland; c. 1500-1600; stone and lime wash)

Studying history requires an act of imagination. Just as we have to imagine ancient monuments are artifacts new and fresh, not as the worn-out relics we see today, we also have to imagine peoples of the past as vibrant, complicated, living societies, not the stilted, dry facts of textbooks. Fiction has a great value to the student of history, as it helps us imagine ourselves into the lives of people different from ourselves. Our history is always somebody else’s daily life.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.