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).