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The Angles is a modern English word for a Germanic-speaking people who took their name from the cultural ancestor of Angeln, a modern district located in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Ancient Angeln preceded all modern national distinctions and was probably not coterminous with the modern. For more information, see under Angeln.
Evolution of the name
The ethnic name has had various spellings. The earliest attested is Anglii, a Germanic tribe mentioned in the Germania of Tacitus. It is an adjectival form. One individual of this identity would be an Anglius (male) or an Anglia (female), which in the plural is Anglii or Angliae. The masculine is used for the generic form.
The noun from which this adjective was produced remains unknown for certain. The stem would have had the form *Ang?l/r-. Etymology theories have been:-
From Latin angulus = "angle". From the Germanic god Ingwaz and the Ingvaeones federation of which the Angles were part. (the initial vowel could as well be "e" or "a"). It may refer to fishing by the method called angling. The Old English word for the district of Angeln (where the Angles may have come from) on the Baltic is Angel. It may mean "the people who dwell by the Narrow Water (i.e. the Schlei)", from the Proto-Indo-European language root ang- meaning "narrow". Pope Gregory the Great is the first known to have simplified Anglii to Angli, the preferred form for the Anglii in Britain, which he did in an epistle. The country remained Anglia in Latin. Meanwhile, English had changed its vowels. Alfred's Orosius uses Angelcynn (kin) for England or the English people; Bede, Angelfolc (folk); however, we also find Engel, Englan (the people), Englaland and Englisch.
Angles is used as the root of French (and Anglo-Norman) words Angleterre (Angleland, i.e. England) and anglais (English).
Angles under other names
Two important geographers, Strabo and Pliny, are silent concerning the Angles. Their reasons for this exclusion was their consideration of the south shore of the Baltic to be terra incognita, "unknown land." They both go on to describe that shore, however. As the Angles took a geographic name, they must have, then, had other names not based on geography. The two silent geographers can help us with this question.
The knowledge of neither one of them predates Tacitus by very long. Strabo's mention of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest places his securely to the final years of Augustus' reign and after; i.e., the early first century.
Strabo (7.2.1, 4 and 7.3.1) states that the Cimbri still live on the peninsula (Jutland) where they always did, even though some of them liked to wander. Beyond the Elbe the coastal people are unknown, but south of them are the Suebi from the Elbe to the Getae (Goths). Strabo was moving in his mind eastward from the Rhine.
Pliny on the other hand moved mentally from east to west (4.13.94). His description leaves the Black Sea, crosses the Ripaei mountains to the shore of the northern ocean, and follows it westward to Cadiz. In the first direction is direction in Scythia, where the Sarmati, Venedi, Sciri and Hirri are located, as far as the Vistula.
Then the Inguaeones begin. Baunonia (Bornholm) is an island opposite Scythia. We arrive at Cylipenus, probably the Bay of Kiel, and from there to another gulf, Lagnus, which is on the frontier of the Cimbri. Its location is not known, but it must have been in the Angeln region.
In Pliny, the Inguaeones consisted of the Cimbri and the Teutones (the Chauci as well, but they were not in this region). If Lagnus was situated on the Cimbrian frontier and after Kiel, then Angeln must have been in the territory of the Teutones. They were perhaps not named Angles at that time; however, the territory of the Teutones probably included the Vorpommern and the region south to the Elbe (mainly Holstein), accounting for the implied larger range of the people called Angles in later sources.
The Anglii of Tacitus
Possibly the first instance of the Angles in recorded history is in Tacitus' Germania, chapter 40, in which the Anglii are mentioned in passing in a list of Germanic tribes. He gives no precise indication of their geographical position, but states that, together with six other tribes, they worshipped a goddess named Nerthus, whose sanctuary was situated on "an island in the Ocean."
The other tribes are the Reudigni, Aviones, Varini, Eudoses, Suarini and Nuitones, which are together described as being behind ramparts of rivers and woods; that is, inaccessible to attack. As the Eudoses are the Jutes, these names probably refer to localities in Jutland or the Baltic coast; i.e., they are all Cimbri or Teutones. The coast contains sufficient estuaries, inlets, rivers, islands, swamps and marshes to have been then inaccessible to those not familiar with the terrain, such as the Romans, who labelled it unknown and inaccessible country.
At the present time the majority of scholars believe that the Anglii had lived from the beginning on the coasts of the Baltic, probably in the southern part of the Jutish peninsula. The evidence for this view is derived partly from English and Danish traditions dealing with persons and events of the 4th century (see below), and partly from the fact that striking affinities to the cult of Nerthus as described by Tacitus are to be found in Scandinavian, especially Swedish and Danish, religion.
Investigations in this subject have rendered it very probable that the island of Nerthus was Sjælland (Zealand), and it is further to be observed that the kings of Wessex traced their ancestry ultimately to a certain Scyld, who is clearly to be identified with Skiöldr, the mythical founder of the Danish royal family (Skiöldungar). In English tradition this person is connected with "Scedeland" (pl.), i.e. Scandinavia, while in Scandinavian tradition he is specially associated with the ancient royal residence at Lejre in Sjælland.
The account in Germania is contradictory to that of the silent geographers in at least one major point. Tacitus viewed the Baltic as the Suebian Sea and lists the seven tribes above as being in Suebian territory. The Suebi were among the Herminones of central Germany. And yet Pliny, who is just as creditable, accounts for the Teutones as being Inguaeones, the Ingaevones of Tacitus. In Strabo, the Suebi are to the south of the coast. The Suebian language went on to become Old High German, while the Angles and Jutes were among the speakers of Old Saxon.
An explanation no doubt existed, whether one of the authors misunderstood or the distribution of tribes in the 1st century resulted from an overlay of different historical schemes. At this time there is no verifiable answer to the question and no good reason for forcing an answer by excluding evidence.
The Suevi Angili
Ptolemy in his Geography (2.10), half a century later, presents a somewhat more complex view, as might have been expected. The Saxons are now around the lower Elbe, whereto they could have reached merely by an extension of the Saxon alliance. East of them we find not only the Teutones but a dissimilation of them, the Teutonoari, which has an -oari suffix denoting "men" (wer); i.e., "the Teuton men." These Teutons or Teuton men appear to have been in Angeln and the land around it.
The Angles, as such, are not listed at all. Instead we find some Syeboi Angeilloi , Latinized to Suevi Angili, located south of the middle Elbe. Owing to the uncertainty of this passage, there has been much speculation regarding the original home of the Angli. One theory, which, however, has little to recommend it, is that they dwelt in the basin of the Saale (in the neighbourhood of the canton Engilin), from which region the Lex Angliorum et Werinorum hoc est Thuringorum is believed by many to have come.
A second possible solution is that these Angles of Ptolemy are not those of Schleswig at all. According to Julius Pokorny the Angri- in Angrivarii, the -angr in Hardanger and the Angl- in Anglii all come from the same root meaning "bend", but in different senses; in other words, the similarity of the names is strictly coincidental and does not reflect any ethnic unity beyond Germanic. The Suevi Angeli would have been in Lower Saxony or near it and, like Ptolemy's Suevi Semnones, were among the Suebi at the time.
The Angli of Bede
Bede states that the Angli, before they came to Great Britain, dwelt in a land called Angulus, and similar evidence is given by the Historia Brittonum. King Alfred the Great and the chronicler Æthelweard identified this place with the district that is now called Angeln, in the province of Schleswig (Slesvig), though it may then have been of greater extent, and this identification agrees very well with the indications given by Bede. Full confirmation is afforded by English and Danish traditions relating to two kings named Wermund and Offa, from whom the Mercian royal family were descended, and whose exploits are connected with Angeln, Schleswig and Rendsburg. Danish tradition has preserved record of two governors of Schleswig, father and son, in their service, Frowinus (Freawine) and Wigo (Wig), from whom the royal family of Wessex claimed descent. During the 5th century the Angli invaded Great Britain, after which time their name does not recure on the continent except in the title of the code mentioned above.
The province of Schleswig has proved exceptionally rich in prehistoric antiquities that date apparently from the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. Among the places where these have been found, special mention should be made of the large cremation cemetery at Borgstedterfeld, between Rendsburg and Eckernförde, which has yielded many urns and brooches closely resembling those found in heathen graves in England. Of still greater importance are the great deposits at Thorsberg moor (in Angeln) and Nydam, which contained large quantities of arms, ornaments, articles of clothing, agricultural implements, etc., and in the latter case even ships. By the help of these discoveries, we are able to reconstruct a fairly detailed picture of Angle civilization in the age preceding the invasion of Great Britain.
Angle influence in Great Britain
According to sources such as the Bede, after the invasion of Great Britain, the Angles split up and founded the kingdoms of the Nord Angelnen (Northumbria), Ost Angelnen (East Anglia), and the Mittlere Angelnen (Mercia). Thanks to the major influence of the Saxons, the tribes were collectively called Anglo-Saxons by the Normans. The regions of East Anglia and Northumbria are still known by their original titles to this day.
The centre of the Angle homeland in the north-eastern portion of the modern German bundesland of Schleswig-Holstein, itself on the Jutland Peninsula, is where the rest of that people stayed, a small peninsular form still called Angeln today and is formed as a triangle drawn roughly from modern Flensburg on the Flensburger Fjord to the City of Schleswig and then to Maasholm, on the Schlei inlet.
In any case, this small and relatively easterly geographic localisation of the original Angeln tribal group has led to one of the Anglo-Saxon Invasion's enduring mysteries: how it is possible that the Anglo-Saxons were so frequently mentioned as colonisers of ancient Great Britain in all the ancient and medieval written sources, while evidence of the neighbouring and much more powerful Frisians' concurrent colonising activities in Great Britain has been so limited to discoveries in archeological science, and more often to logical deductions and inferences alone? Of course, ethnic Frisians are known to have inhabited the land directly in the path of any migration route from Angeln to Great Britain (except for the long and difficult route by sea around the northern tip of Denmark), and, in fact, they also inhabited lands between the ancient Saxon domain and Great Britain; yet they are rarely mentioned as having taken part in the vast migration. This same hypothesis has been applied to the Franks, as the Saxons made a short stay in northwestern Gaul (the Bessin in what became Normandy) before ultimately moving to Britain. In the Roman era, much of the southern coast was called the Saxon Shore and attested for their presence in the Channel.
The Angles are the subject of a legend about Pope Gregory I (ca. 540–604 A.D.). As an abbreviated version of the story goes, Gregory happened to see a group of Angle children from Deira for sale as slaves in the Roman market. Struck by the beauty of their fair-skinned complexions and bright blue eyes, Gregory inquired about their background. When told they were Angles, he replied with a Latin pun that translates well into English: “Non Angli, sed angeli” ("Not Angles, but angels"). Supposedly, he thereafter resolved to convert their pagan homeland to Christianity.
- For the rulers of the Angles prior to their migration to Great Britain, see List of kings of the Angles