Thursday, August 2, 2007

"Devil Possessions" Swept England After Invasion, Study Suggests

A rare Anglo-Saxon gold coin went on display at the British Museum in February. A new study suggests that an apartheid-like system gave Anglo-Saxon newcomers to ancient Britain both economic and social superiority over native Britons, which led to the near eradication of the Britons' gene pool. AP Photo/Sang Tan

"Devil Possessions" Swept England After Invasion, Study Suggests
James Owen
for National Geographic News
July 27, 2007

The Norman Invasion of A.D. 1066 may have brought more to England than just a new dynasty of kings.
The watershed year in English history was followed by ever increasing reports of people being possessed by the devil, according to one U.S. expert.
The two developments were closely linked, says Peter Dendle, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University.
Furthermore, understanding how medieval England came to be "bedeviled" after the Anglo-Saxons were conquered may help explain a resurging belief in demon possession in modern Western countries, the researcher suggests.
Basing his theory on medieval texts and records, Dendle says that the concept of people being demonically possessed only really caught on in England after new religious beliefs and customs were imported from overseas.
Researchers had previously assumed that different parts of Christian Western Europe believed equally in demon possession in medieval times.
But while demon possession involving ritual display carried out by a priest or exorcist was well documented in mainland Europe, the phenomenon was either rare or absent in Anglo-Saxon England, the researcher found.
This changed after William of Normandy invaded from France, defeating the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings and replacing King Harold as England's monarch. (Related: "Ancient Britain Had Apartheid-Like Society, Study Suggests" [July 21, 2006].)
"As an imported and learned series of behaviors, demon possession did not seem to 'take' in England, for the most part, prior to the Norman Conquest," Dendle said.
Demonic Upsurge
Only one area bucked this trend.
"The major exception is late seventh to early eighth century Northumbria [in northeast England], in which there does seem to be a window of active and dynamic possession behavior," Dendle said.
Dendle links this to the fact that while Christianity was already established in most of England, the northeastern region had only recently been converted (England map).
Lasting no more than 50 years, the outbreak may reflect the tension between Christianity and lingering pagan beliefs, Dendle pointed out. Or the spate could have resulted from differences in the way converts understood their new religion.
Afterward, though, "there is no reference to a contemporary Anglo-Saxon case of possession for 300 years," Dendle said.
Anglo-Saxon sources indicate that the English were both puzzled and surprised by cases of possession mentioned both in the Scriptures and European texts from regions such as modern-day France and Germany.
But after the Norman Conquest, possession stories and exorcisms quickly appear in England, Dendle found.
These reports coincided with growing use of healing shrines and pilgrimage routes by people in search of miracle cures, the researcher suggests.
Christina Lee of the University of Nottingham in England says saintly relics that supposedly had healing properties were increasingly advertised by monasteries and churches as cures for the possessed or the mad.
"There were churches vying to have the most powerful saint, while monasteries had hospitals attached to them," Lee said. "They saw themselves as doctors of the soul."
One argument is that demon possession as a religious concept was good for business.
If cures appeared to work, "people would be very grateful and leave donations—which the churches and monasteries were dependent on," Lee pointed out.
Evil Business
In a forthcoming book, Demon Possession in Anglo-Saxon England, English professor Dendle draws parallels between the phenomenon in medieval England and its resurgence in the West in recent decades.
The author notes, for instance, that a widespread increase in possessions and exorcisms in America were sparked in part by the 1973 horror movie The Exorcist.
This shows how culture can affect such practices and how "attitudes toward the demonic can radically shift in a very short period of time," he said.
"Demon possession as a living social phenomenon has made a 'miraculous' comeback over the last 30 years," Dendle added. "It's currently a growth industry in America and England as well as throughout the developing world."
Such a trend is seen today mainly among Evangelical Christians, such as those belonging to the Pentecostal movement.
Rather than an abstract idea, evil is seen by believers as an actual force that can be manifest when the devil "possesses" someone.
"There is little out there more spectacular than demon possession, and it brings with it an intoxicating aura of mystery and primordial danger—of cosmic forces locked in epic combat," Dendle said.
"I believe this trend will continue to gain momentum for some time."

Ancient Britain Had Apartheid-Like Society, Study Suggests
Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
July 21, 2006

When Anglo-Saxons first arrived in Britain 1,600 years ago, they created
an apartheid-like society that oppressed the native Britons and wiped
out almost all of the British gene pool, according to a new study.
By treating Britons like slaves and imposing strict rules, the small band of Anglo-Saxons—who had come from what is now Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands—quickly dominated the country, leaving a legacy of Germanic genes and the English language, both of which still dominate Britain today.
The new theory helps explain historical, archaeological, and genetic evidence that until now had seemed contradictory, including the high number of Germanic genes found in modern-day England.
"An apartheid-like social structure could explain the big genetic and language replacements that we see," said Mark Thomas, a genetic anthropologist at University College London, who lead the study.
His team's findings appear in the current issue of The Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Racist Laws?
Historical and archaeological data suggest that no more than 200,000 Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain around the middle of the fourth century A.D.
This is less than half of the 500,000 newcomers that genetic models suggest would be needed to swamp the gene pool of the native Britons, who are believed to have numbered around two million.
And yet Germanic genes are abundant in the English population today. Genetic studies have shown that more than 50 percent of England's gene pool contains Germanic Y chromosomes.
Y chromosomes are genetic markers that are passed down from fathers to sons.
But the researchers say 200,000 Anglo-Saxons could have dominated the English gene pool in less than 15 generations if the newcomers held a higher social standing.
Historian Alex Woolf of Scotland's University of St. Andrews, who is not an author of the study, first suggested that early Britain may have had an apartheid-like society, Thomas says.
Woolf pointed out that ancient texts such as the laws of Ine—written 200 years after the Anglo-Saxons arrived—demonstrate that the Anglo-Saxons had the upper hand.
The laws reveal that the life of an Anglo-Saxon was worth far more than that of a native Briton, who was known as a "Welshman" by the Anglo-Saxons at the time.
If an Anglo-Saxon was killed, for example, the "blood money" payable to the victim's family was two to five times more than that of a "Welshman."
To test Woolf's theory, Thomas devised a computer population model to study how such an apartheid-like structure would affect genetics.
By testing different combinations of ethnic intermarriage rates and levels of Anglo-Saxon social dominance, Thomas and his colleagues found that a small immigrant population could easily gain genetic supremacy.
When intermarriage rates were kept to less than 15 percent and Anglo-Saxons had a reasonably high social standing, then Germanic genes flourished.
"The surprising thing was that it didn't take much at all," Thomas said.
Servant and Master
The scientists say native Britons and Anglo-Saxons may have lived in a segregated, servant-and-master relationship.
Such a system would give the Anglo-Saxons a strong reproductive advantage, the researchers say.
"People with German ancestry had a higher social and legal status, and they tended to have more children," said Michael Stumpf, a genomics professor at Imperial College London and a co-author of the study.
But not everyone agrees with the team's theory. Alex Burghart, an Anglo-Saxon historian at Kings College London, thinks that "apartheid" is far too strong a word.
"It is nonsense. There would be no need to legislate against interbreeding. All you need is a society with huge economic and social divides," he said.
Sarah Foot, a medieval historian at England's University of Sheffield, also thinks the word "apartheid" is unwarranted. But she believes the research has merit.
"What is interesting is that there was seemingly no intermarriage between Britons and Anglo-Saxon settlers," she said.
"That isn't what one might have anticipated, and [it] also of course reinforces the fact that this was a migration of a people, not an invasion of a male military force," she said.
Chris Tyler-Smith, a geneticist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England, also thinks Thomas' team has arrived at an interesting idea, but he has some reservations.
"I think they have come up with a reasonable deduction, but it rests on a complex series of pieces of evidence," he said.
"It is not necessarily the only possible interpretation," Tyler-Smith added.
Buried Weapons
Another question posed by the new study is why the native Britons ended up accommodating the Anglo-Saxons and their culture instead of rebelling.
"The natives realized they were the underdogs and realized that the only way to assimilate upwards was to adopt the new culture," said Heinrich Härke, study co-author and archaeologist at England's University of Reading.
"They tried to improve their status by learning English, which is why English was adopted," he added.
He notes that Anglo-Saxon cemeteries provide further evidence of a segregated society.
Archaeological surveys have shown that 47 percent of adult males were buried with their weapons, while the rest were buried without them, he says.
"We looked at [physical] stature and found that the men who were buried with their weapons were taller," Härke said.
Anglo-Saxon men are believed that have been one or two inches (about two and a half to five centimeters) taller than native British men.
This suggests that the men buried with their weapons were of Germanic origin and had a higher social status, while the men buried without their weapons were native Britons with lower social status.
Historical evidence shows that these kinds of differences continued until the early seventh century, after which the apartheid-like structure appears to have broken down, Härke adds.
Just 300 years of Anglo-Saxon dominance was enough to almost obliterate native Britons' gene pool and culture, he concludes.
"In England today there is no ancient British identity left except for a few place- and river names," Härke said.

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