Trust some of the experts, some of the time

Partly because I had forgotten pretty much any of what was in it, and therefore how much use the students would find it, and partly because I owned a copy thanks to a patron’s generosity and it was annoying me that being true as well as the former, I was over the summer reading Margaret Gelling’s Signposts to the Past, an attempt to write an accessible account of what we can safely gather from English place-names and to stop people reading them wrong. This often comes close to being, and in the introduction is explicitly, an appeal to people to just take the experts’ word on trust because it’s too complicated for laymen, a stance that I never warm to, being more of the persuasion that if one can’t explain something in ten minutes in a pub one doesn’t understand it.1 However, Dr Gelling did provide one excellent type case that I thought merited recounting, its ethnic essentialism not withstanding:

The Anglo-Saxons had three words derived from the same stem as the verb ‘bury’ which they occasionally used in place-names to designate tumuli. These are byrgen, byrgels, burgæsn…. Either byrgen or burgæsn (probably the former) is found in two minor names in Oxfordshire, Berring’s Wood in Glympton and Berins Hill in Ipsden. There are early spellings for both these names, and the derivation is certain in the first instance and probable in the second. This etymology was put forward for both names in Gelling 1953, superseding a long-standing antiquarian association of Berins Hill in Ipsden with St Birinus, the apostle of the West Saxons, who was the first Bishop of Dorchester on Thames. There was an unexpected sequel to this when, by the sort of ghastly coincidence which place-name students must always look out for, an important pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery recently came to light at a spot now called Berinsfield north of Dorchester OXF. This discovery led to immediate speculation about the derivation of Berinsfield from byrgen, which would have proved continuity of tradition about the cemetery from early pagan times. The caution prompted by the failure of the name Berinsfield to appear in any of the sources consulted for the place-name survey of Oxfordshire proved justified, however, and inquiries revealed that Berinsfield had been invented by a local historian for the benefit of the airfield situated there, and that he intended it to commemorate Bishop Birinus. Although the false derivation from byrgen had a short life, it managed to appear in at least one Ph.D. thesis, and the incident makes a salutary cautionary tale…. It is worth noting the circumstances in which this name, although of quite recent invention by a very well-known local historian, took root and appeared genuine to a team of archaeologists who knew the area initimately. The sequence of events appears to have been: (1) the antiquarian association of Berins Hill near Ipsden with St Birinus of Dorchester; (2) the invention of the name Berinsfield for an airport near Dorchester, presumably on the model of Berins Hill; (3) the alternative derivation of Berins Hill from byrgen in Gelling 1953; (4) the discovery of the cemetery at Berinsfield by archaeologists who knew that Berins- could be from byrgen.2

The archæologists just knew too much! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing! and so on. I think the thing I love most about this story is the way she could describe the discovery of a major new site as ‘ghastly’, but if I’d got implicated in a foul-up like that I might also feel the sting some time afterwards. I assume Dr Gelling was also involved in examining the Ph.D., and I would hate to have been that student, though it was hardly their fault either. But what’s the moral from the point of view of the local historian, whoever they were, that’s what I can’t figure…

1. M. Gelling, Signposts to the Past. Place-names and the history of England (London 1978, repr. 1979), e. g. p. 13: “Because place-name etymology abounds with snares of this kind, it is not possible to invite general participation in the process of suggesting etymologies. The rules have been objectively established: they are not arbitrary, but they are intricate, and few non-specialists master them well enough to be on safe ground in this branch of the study…. It is therefore important at the outset to ask people who have no special competence in the history of the English language to accept specialist guidance about the meaning of place-names…. Etymologies should be accepted from the philologists, or only revised with philological consent.” There’s probably a form you have to fill out.

2. Ibid., pp. 140-141, citing M. Gelling, The Place-Names of Oxfordshire vol. I, English Place-Name Survey XXIII (London 1953).

12 responses to “Trust some of the experts, some of the time

  1. Wow, now that`s a COINCIDENCE!! Just by the laws of statistics, it won`t happen so often that some idle guy invents this placename out of the blue, then it takes roots, then it turns out the name fits perfectly into a wrong etymology, thus fooling a big set of experts for quite a while.
    If you want a lesson, eventually the truth came out, so the system works, doesn`t it?

  2. Allan McKinley

    In the cause of fairness to Margaret’s memory, it is worth noting she was quite happy for amateurs, historians with a tendency to play with place-names if you will, to discuss ideas with her and to contradict established etymologies if there was cause. Just look at the output of John Baker or Duncan Probert for proof of how effective this could be, but I’ve been thankful for advice and guidance which was friendly and not given ex cathedra as well. I suspect her issue was rather the same as a historian’s is with people rolling up and claiming things happened a certain way in 723 AD because a fourteenth-century source said they did. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it is a failure to comprehend the nature of the source material. And in a more niche environment such as place-name studies, there are a lot more people failing to understand sources (me included a lot of the time) so guidance is always useful. So perhaps Margaret was less saying ‘listen to me, I’m the expert’ and more ‘don’t go into the woods without a proper map or guide’.

  3. Pingback: Studies Can’t Show | The Tinfoil Hat

  4. I agree with Allan here, and don’t particularly warm to the stance that ‘that if one can’t explain something in ten minutes in a pub one doesn’t understand it’. There’s a danger that this stance can feed into the worrying tendency out there to assume that academic research, particularly in the humanities, is something that anyone can, and should, do, and a concomitant tendency to devalue the authority that comes with a lifetime of acquiring knowledge and evaluating evidence. Suddenly, everyone is an expert, and open access (which on the whole I support), will persuade a lot more people that they, too, are experts. Yet there is a lot of knowledge which is extremely hard won, and when people make pronouncements on linguistic matters without having studied language and languages they very often go astray. Allan calls place-name studies a ‘niche environment’ – paradoxically, it is a research area that is of enormous interest to the general public, as well as to historians and archaeologists, yet I think it qualifies as ‘niche’ because it does in fact require a lot of that kind of hard-won knowledge.
    I found this post a bit ungenerous. For example, I don’t really see the ‘ethnic essentialism’ that is being complained of in the passage. Yes, the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ had the words ‘byrgen’, etc, because that is what we call the people who had those words in their language. And it is not the ‘discovery of a major new site’ which is described as ‘ghastly’, but the coincidence with the nearby place-name. I don’t see this as a ‘foul-up’ at all. Having known Margaret a little, I would rather read the passage as a slightly self-deprecating account of how her own published research initially caused the archaeologists’ misunderstanding and their attempt to link the site with the place-name. They had no reason to doubt her etymology (which she describes as ‘probable’) of Berins Hill, but they did not have the knowledge (or motivation?) to get to the bottom of Berinsfield. I would much rather admire Margaret’s determination to clear things up for them (after having unwittingly led them astray) than castigate her for academic highhandedness which, as Allan says, was quite foreign to her character.

    • I’m sorry to have caused this kind of reaction with this post, which perhaps I should have written up differently, and presumably if I’d known Dr Gelling I would have done. Certainly, her work remains the only accessible general guide to such matters and presumably will do until someone can persuade David Parsons to write a new one. (Maybe it isn’t needed?) And I absolutely agree with you that expertise is important and worth defending, or else there’s very little point to the Academy at all; this is something I’ve long been intending to blog about, so long that I originally meant to do it on the now-evaporated Cliopatria.

      There is a difference, though, surely, between knowledge that can be taught and knowledge that is guarded, and likewise a difference between writing for a readership that you plan to draw towards a subject and one for whom you intend to close down enquiry. So while I would more or less defer to your reading of the Berinsfield story, and say only that this post represents one reader’s reaction, it does seem to me that Dr Gelling’s introduction, as quoted in the footnote, implies that those who need this book can’t be experts, and that they should not expect to become so. Presumably she did not really think this, or why write the book? And I suppose therefore that both that and the Berinsfield story were born mainly out of frustration. The book’s whole purpose is to inform the relative layman, after all. Yet she starts by telling that layman his knowledge can only be limited.

  5. Well, I think she is telling the layman that certain aspects of his knowledge should come from the specialist, which is rather a different thing. And she makes it quite clear that this ‘closed shop’ (her words) relates only to etymology and identification, as is also clear from your footnote quotation. The purpose of the book is not to make people into ‘experts’ but to make them well-informed, a distinction which I feel is lost nowadays, when anyone with a little knowledge can claim to be an expert (I actually suffer a bit from such an example close to home). Once they have become well-informed, Margaret positively invites engagement from historians, archaeologists and the like in ‘the non-philological aspects of the subject’ (p. 15). She also points out that ‘place-name etymology has become a highly developed science, but work on the historical bearing of the material has not kept pace’ (ibid.). Despite the great historical importance of place-name material, it cannot become an object of historical enquiry until the philological basis is established. It is not in my view exclusive to point out that establishing this philological basis requires training. My daily observations of students’ struggles with old languages are enough to confirm how far most people have to go in order to acquire this kind of expertise. A slightly older generation might have had a slightly stronger starting point, but it is has never been the kind of expertise that is easily acquired, nor widely distributed in the population.
    Far be it from me to imagine how David Parsons might react to any of this, but I would just point out that in ‘Place-names and the history of Scandinavian settlement in England’, in Land, Sea and Home, ed. John Hines et al., (2004), pp. 379-431, co-written with Lesley Abrams, David still feels the need to start with the point that ‘place-name evidence is essentially linguistic’ (p. 392), in a paper originally written for an audience largely composed of archaeologists.
    As someone who actually likes to dabble in different types of evidence in which I have not been fully trained myself, I probably agree more with you than you would realise. And yet, and in spite of my own quite strongly philological training, and in spite of considering myself ‘a sort of philologist’, I am not an onomast, and I still defer to them when it comes to etymology and identification.
    The one thing I will grant you is that Margaret rather skated over the fact that those experts don’t always agree. Most often it is because the evidence is patchy and because there is more than one philologically-defensible interpretation of it. If individual onomasts cling to their own interpretations, then that is just because, like many other academics, they are convinced that only they are right. But if you can become well-enough informed to work out what the defensible range of interpretations is, then tee-hee, that is where the fun starts!

    • We probably do agree more than is obvious, since I certainly don’t want to be thought to be arguing that such knowledge is in fact easily acquired. If I’d ever written that post for Cliopatria it would certainly have made clear that one cannot explain one’s whole knowledge in that ten minutes in the pub, but merely that it seems like a reasonable expectation to be able to explain what one does in one’s research adequately in that setting. If we can’t do that, we risk the reaction of the Athenians who demanded Plato give a public lecture simply to establish that the original Academy wasn’t just a scam to appropriate public funds (and you must have, as I have, met the man in that pub whose starting position is that we waste his taxes). Plato, of course, gave a lecture that was completely incomprehensible, because his position was that his teaching couldn’t be understood without years of training. That was a good defence of his expertise, but it didn’t do much to secure his funding. Neither are these issues of communication confined to relations across the academic frontier; this kind of poor understanding of experts’ work in one field is exactly what dogs interdisciplnary work, and is why I also like to try and get enough of a grip to be able to play a little bit usefully with evidence in which I’m not really expert. As you say, the key is to be able to work out what range of interpretations is defensible! I still feel that `defensible’ is the key word in my reading of that passage of Dr Gelling’s book, but you are right about the others and I suppose that those who can hear Dr Gelling’s voice in the text are better placed to read it as she would have meant!

      • Allan McKinley

        Possibly also worth considering the Margaret of the late seventies/early eighties whose quotes we are dealing with here was dealing with a very different historical (historiographical? Really not sure of the correct adjective) environment than the Margaret I met. The modern orthodoxy of multidisciplinary approaches was not yet in place – Brooks, Keyne and Wormald were all still early career, and despite Frank Stenton’s trail blazing work, Margaret’s audience of historians were presumably much less familiar with linguistics and onomastics than the same audience now. So Margaret’s tone was that of the time, not of more recent years (when she met me I had already worked with Simon Taylor on my undergraduate dissertation for example, something I doubt was likely with a new history PhD student in 1980). The difference may be seen in her later Landscapes of Placenames (with Ann Cole), which sets out the same evidence for the same sort of audience in the main, but is much happier to discuss technical and contentious issues.

        In the end the separate disciplines are becoming closer as we realise the value of different approaches, and the way in which Margaret viewed interaction with historians likely changed as a result. This multidisciplinarian approach may erode some ultimate expertise in particular subjects, but we could question how much expertise in the humanities needs to be practised rather than recorded anyway. What it does do is allow for a better exploration of issues – take the volumes of the Anglo-Saxon Charters series for example, where authors have the confidence to use place-name evidence to improve diplomatic analysis; in all volumes so far since about 1990 (from imperfect memory) if not earlier this has been with Margaret’s guidance where needed – an indication of how things have moved on.

        • All the above granted. I won’t mention the B-word, about which I know Margaret and other onomasts had/have quite strong views, yet a website to which I have been led by JJ answers the question ‘Where was B .’ with reference only to historians: ‘Historians have come up with many suggestions, ranging from Bridgenorth [sic] in Shropshire, to Doncaster in South Yorkshire; from close to the Wyre Estuary in Lancashire, to somewhere in Northamptonshire.’ ( This seems to me to sum up the problem. Certain historians, at any rate, feel able to dismiss the considered etymologies and identifications arrived at by the place-name experts, sometimes rather cavalierly, it has to be said, and without engaging in the philological argument.
          I’m not quite as sanguine as Allan that things have changed that much. But they are moving in the right direction!

          • I suspect that not everyone they’re calling a historian there is someone who would pass the Edgy Historian’s entry test for that august club, but that is also a case where local tourist boards seem to be really quite invested in drowning out opposition views and so one where the argument really hasn’t been as expert as one would wish. (That in its turn would set off a pet rant of mine about the Infinite Tourist Revenue Fallacy, but never mind it right now.) There are probably many more examples, though. But all one can do with things that are ‘Wrong on the Internet’, if they’re not Wikipedia where one has at least the possibility of editing them, is to drown them with things that are less wrong…

            • Allan McKinley

              I think I lost my faith in the article about the point the ‘Earls of Northumbria’ turned out to be Norse…

              But Judith is right about the pressure to localise the Battle of the B-place. Me, I wonder on what basis anyone assumes the name has to exist in a recognisable way (I think historian’s greatest weakness with place-names is failing to understand processes of change, loss and multiplication of names – certainly I don’t pay due attention to this enough – and thus to assume place-names are a historical source, rather than a set of modern sources which can reveal historical facts properly treated, in this way more akin to a grave than a charter). If the name was accurately recorded, it’s pretty certain no plausible modern form of Buranburh definitively exists, as if it did the debate would not be on localisation but rather on whether this was the battle site or not (see Nechtansmere for an example of this). The Wirral candidate is a candidate, but as with any other suggested location, it does not meet the clear rules of phonological proof. And, as a historian, I find the supporting historical arguments (itself an oxymoron for a place-name identification, if fine for identifying a location – judge for yourself what is being done here) very thin. Plus this is all based on a praise-poem, which is never going to be a helpful source for recreating events (unless you want to know the aethling Edmund was good at smiting Scots…).

              But historians will seek to resolve questions (we tend to look a bit pointless otherwise), and I’d suggest we accept the strange uses of evidence to try and locate lost battles as preferable to its historiographical flipside – the strange use of evidence to prove political theories. It hurts a lot less people and is easier to fix…

              • Allan, Bromborough on the Wirral is in fact the place-name that meets the ‘clear rules of phonological proof’ as you call it, and place-name specialists unfortunately have to repeat this ad nauseam (Cf the collected works of my colleague Paul Cavill on this matter, or Michael Livingston’s summary at, though his summary is more of the whole debate than of the specific philological argument, for which you really should read Paul’s article in the Casebook). All the other points you mention are surely part of the larger picture. But I don’t think anyone considering the larger picture can avoid addressing this particular point. And I don’t quite see what you mean about place-names being ‘modern sources’ given that so many of them are recorded in charters or other contemporary documents!

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