Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Great Britain and Her Inhabitants
By Philemon Holland (15521637) and the Classical Translators
From the Life of Julius Agricola, written by Cornelius Tacitus
THE SITE of Britannie and dwellers, described by sundry writers, I purpose here to declare, not to compare in fineness or wit, but because it was then first thoroughly subdued: so that such things, as our elders without perfect discovery have polished with pen, shall now be set faithfully down upon knowledge. Britannie, of all islands known to the Romans the greatest, coasteth by east upon Germanie, by west toward Spain, and hath France on the south: northward no land lying against it, but only a vast and broad sea beating about it. The figure and fashion of whole Britannie, by Livy of the ancient, and Fabius Rusticus of the modern, the most eloquent authors, is likened to a long dish or two-edged axe: and so is the part shapen indeed of this side Caledonia, whereupon the fame went of the whole as it seemeth: but there is beside a huge and enorme track of ground, which runneth beyond unto the furthermost point, growing narrow and sharp like a wedge. This point of the utmost sea the Roman fleet then first of all doubling discovered Britannie to be an island, and withal found out and subdued the isles of Orkney before that time never known. Thyle1 also was looked at aloof, which snow hitherto and winter had covered. The sea thereabout they affirm to be dull and heavy for the oar and not to be raised as others with winds: belike because land and mountains are rare, which minister cause and matter of tempests, and because a deep mass of continual sea is slower stirred to rage. To examine the nature of the ocean and tides pertaineth not to this work, and many have done it before: one thing I will add, and may safely avouch, that the sea no where in the world rangeth and ruleth more freely, carrying by violence so much river water hither and thither, and is not content to flow and to ebb so far as the banks, but inserteth and windeth itself into the land, shooting into the mountains and cliffs as to his own channel. Now what manner of men the first inhabitants of Britannie were, foreign brought in, or born in the land, as among a barbarous people, it is not certainly known. Their complexions are different and thence may some conjectures be taken: for the red hair of the dwellers in Caledonia, and mighty limbs import a German descent. The coloured countenances of the Silures, and hair most commonly curled, and site against Spain, seem to induce, that the old Spaniards passed the sea and possessed those places. The nearest to France likewise resemble the French, either because they retain of the race from which they descended, or that in countries butting together the same aspects of the heavens do yield the same complexions of bodies. But generally it is most likely the French, being nearest, did people the land. In their ceremonies and superstitious persuasions, there is to be seen an apparent conformity: the language differeth not much: like boldness to challenge and set into dangers; when dangers are come, like fear in refusing: saving the Britons make show of more courage, as being not mollified yet by long peace, for the French also were once, as we read, redoubted in war, till such time as, giving themselves over to peace and idleness, cowardice crept in, and shipwrack was made both of manhood and liberty together. And so it is also befallen to those of the Britons which were subdued of old; the rest remain such as the French were before. Their strength in the field consisteth in footmen; some countries make war in wagons also: the greater personage guideth the wagon, his wayters2 and followers fight out of3 the same. Heretofore they were governed by kings, now they are drawn by petty princes into partialities and factions: and that is the greatest help we have against those puissant nations, that they have no common council together: seldom it chanceth that two or three states meet and concur to repulse the common danger: so whilst one by one fighteth, all are subdued. The sky very cloudy and much given to rain without extremity of cold. The length of the days much above the measure of our climate. The nights light, and in the furthermost part of the island so short, that between the going out and coming in of the day the space is hardly perceived, and when clouds do not hinder they affirm that the sunshine is seen in the night and that it neither setteth nor riseth but passeth along: because belike the extreme and plain parts of the earth project a low shadow and raise not the darkness on height; so the night falleth under the sky and the stars. The soil, setting aside olive and vine and the rest, which are proper to warmer countries, taketh all kind of grain and beareth it in abundance: it shooteth up quickly and ripeneth slowly; the cause of them both is the same, the overmuch moisture of the soil and the air. Britannie beareth gold and silver, and other metals to enrich the conqueror. The ocean bringeth forth pearl also, not orient, but duskish and wan, which proceedeth, as some do suppose, of lack of skill in the gatherers, for in the Red Sea they are pulled panting alive from the rocks; in Britannie cast out by the sea and so taken up. For my part I do rather believe the nature of the pearl not to yield it, than that our covetousness could not find out the way to gather aright. The Britons endure levies of men and money and all other burdens imposed by the Empire patiently and willingly if insolencies be forborne: indignities they cannot abide, being already subdued as to be subjects, but not to be slaves.
Note 2. wayters. Those who travelled with him. Clientes is the word in Tacitus translated by wayters and followers. [back]
Note 3. fight out of = fight in front of. The whole sentence, in Tacitus, is Honestior auriga: clientes propugnant. The translator turns the four words into fifteen, but he brings out the meaning clearly. [back]