THE author, a historian and journalist, sets out to answer the questions ‘what makes the English so English?’ and ‘where does English national identity come from?’.
In his travels across the country he discovers that the first English came from Germany, and then in the later Middle Ages almost became French. The section of the book of special interest to Northumbrians – ‘The Vikings Give Us Dirt, Eggs and Fog’ – begins with the devastating 8th century Viking raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne. Here in 793, as described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “heathen men made lamentable havoc in the Church of God in Holy Island by rapine and slaughter”.
Within 250 years these Scandinavian invaders would control the whole country. In 1016 the Danish leader, Cnut, became king of all England. Have we absorbed their culture and their language, so that we can claim we are part Viking?
Surprisingly a major DNA survey has revealed that while 20 per cent of our bloodline has come from the Anglo-Saxons, in northern England – where Viking influence was strongest for the longest period – only four per cent of our DNA comes from those Scandinavian invaders. This might be because they did not intermarry much with the local population.
The discovery of the skeletons of women and infants in the remains of longships suggests that the Vikings brought wives and children with them, leading the author to suggest: “perhaps the invaders were loyal family men, and not as sex-mad as we picture them”.
But while we have been left with no Viking churches or fortifications, more than 2,000 villages and towns where they settled have still today kept their Viking names. Any place name ending in -by, meaning town or farmstead, is Viking, and there are over 600 of them. Other old Norse place name endings include -thorpe and -thwaite.
And there is barely a sentence we utter that doesn’t echo back to the Danish invaders: verbs such as get, want and take, for instance, and nouns including dirt, egg, fog, cake, smile and window.