Neither anthropology nor philology is an exact science and few today would follow the nationalistic scholars of the nineteenth century who equated race and language when seeking the origin of a country. But new techniques can revive familiar speculation while mellowing past prejudice. In the early 1980s the Finnish historian Matti Klinge argued that research into hereditary blood groups showed that three-quarters of the Finnish population were of western descent and only a third of eastern origin. He pointed out, however, that the linguistic structure of the Finnish language has remained more markedly eastern in character than western. Is this perhaps because the Finns and their kinsfolk south of the Gulf in Estonia are peoples with traditions of folk epic handed down orally? Their languages were shaped before the coming of written words. Finland’s Kalevala and Estonia’s Kalevipoeg survived as tales of patriot derring-do in taming both the forces of Nature and the evil spirits conjured up in a primeval wilderness of lake and forest.
By the end of the Scandinavian Bronze Age (circa 500 BC) other migrants felt drawn towards the setting sun, like the Finno-Ugrian before them. They came mainly from the south-east, to form compact units along the Baltic’s southern shores, with their communities set apart by forests, bogs and rivers. Among them were Prussian tribes astride the Vistula, the Polame on the Warta (farther inland, around modern Poznan) and a group of Lithuanian tribes around the river Niemen (Nemanus) and its tributaries. Over the following centuries tribal chiefs, seeking effective means to defend their homesteads, created what were in effect embryonic nations across these marchlands. Some tribes, like the Salic Franks and the Burgundians, provided a nucleus for historic kingdoms established after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Others bore names that recur in successive periods of northern Europe’s history. Thus the Cours (or Curonians), a tribe who lived in the peninsula between the central Baltic and the Gulf of Riga, survived as a separate people until the late thirteenth century and gave their name to the Duchy of Courland (Kurzeme, or in German Kurland) which between 1561 and 1795 enjoyed semi-independence within the Polish Commonwealth. The Cours’ neighbours, the Zemgal tribe (Semigallians), also maintained a distinctive corporate existence until 1290, farming the low-lying region west of the Daugava river that later formed the eastern part of the Courland Duchy.
Both Kurzeme and Zemgale are back on the map in today’s atlases: they form administrative divisions in modern Latvia. Three of the Western Slav peoples survive as member states of the European Union: Poland; the Czech Republic; Slovakia. Other tribes, once famed and feared for their fighting qualities, have sunk without trace. Among them were most of the Wends, the Western Slavs who settled between Kiel Bay and the Vistula Spit and may themselves be subdivided into Wagrians, Abotrites, Polabians and Rugians. But two of the ‘lost’ Wendish peoples are still extant, though few in number: some 50,000 Sorbs of Lusatia now live between the Oder and the Elbe and there is an even smaller community of Kashubs, Pomerania’s original ‘dwellers by the shore’. Like the people of Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Provence, the Sorbs and Kashubs owe their linguistic survival to academics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who defied the exclusiveness of master nations to fire the embers of a dying culture. By contrast, the Setus, a Finno-Ugrian people who settled around Lake Peipsi, were too isolated to find scholarly champions in the West. No more than 7,000 Setu survive, their communities separated today by the geographically ill-defined border that provides a frontier between Estonia and Russia.
I find two of Palmer’s linguistic explanations almost laughable.
(1) Are Finns and Estonians the only “peoples with traditions of folk epic handed down orally,” the only peoples whose “languages were shaped before the coming of written words”? Does he doubt that Norse sagas were orally transmitted long before they were written down? Does he realize that legions of illiterates have done far more over the millennia to influence the structures of the languages they speak than literates have?
(2) Were academics the saviors of Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Occitan, Sorbian, and Kashubian? Are those languages only spoken in classrooms? If so, then they are not yet saved. Academics may have documented those languages and first reduced them to writing, but they haven’t saved them until people pass them on to their children in a wider variety of settings.
As a historian, Palmer depends crucially on written records to construct his view of the world, but his imagination also seems hemmed in a bit too much by that literacy, as if nothing noteworthy exists until it exists in writing.