Tracing the narrative back: Countisbury = Cynuit

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 16.21.55Having now consulted the’ oracle’ of Gover et al., PNDevon, pp 62 -63, it’s difficult to know how to approach this. Scholarly publications such as  Alfred the Great, Keynes and Lapidge, 1983; The Defence of Wessex, Hill and Rumble, 1996; and A Dictionary of British Place Names, AD Mills, 2003, rev 2011, raise no doubts over the identification of arx Cynuit with Countisbury, and reference Gover et al. as evidence.

First, it is to be noted that Gover et al., PNDevon was published in 1931-32, which doesn’t automatically make it unreliable. I just mention it: the English Place Name Society’s publications are considered to be ‘definitive’, but this is now more than 80 years old.

But second, the Countisbury article opens with the sentence:  “Plummer was probably right [ … ] in identifying this with the arx Cynuit of Asser … ” Only ‘probably’? So Gover was more equivocal than recent works would imply?

On phonology: Gover quotes Ekwall’s River Names (1928) where as an example Cound Brook, Shropshire, derives from Domesday Cuneet, with several attested 13th-c. forms (Cunet, Cunette, Cunethe, Cunede &c). Ekwall thinks them very likely [sic] to be from Old Welsh Cunēt from British Cunētiō. The vowel change [to –ou-] ‘seems to be late’, he says.

Cound brook

Cound Brook, Shropshire

But the Domesday form of Countisbury is Contesberie. There is no similar early form with –unet-, ante- or post- Domesday. And since we’re not considering orthography but phonology/phonetics, it may be relevant that Cound (Brook) is pronounced Coond.

What the evidence so far shows is that Cynuit/Cunetus could, phonologically, give a form such as Count[isbury]. That is, if (but only if) Countisbury is derived from Cynuit,  the phonology could be matched by this example; but we don’t know that it’s derived from Cynuit: it’s what we’re trying to prove. And because Cuneete gives Cound, that doesn’t mean that, of necessity, Countisbury must derive from Cuneet[sberie], or some such form. It suggests that it could.

So – if A, then B is a possibility. But A is exactly what we don’t know and can’t assume.

Ekwall is discussing British river names – Cound having the same derivation as  (the river) Kennet. East Kennett,  a village close to the Kennet (and to Roman Cunetio), was (æt) Cynetan in the 10th c. and Chenete in Domesday – neither form resembling Contesberie. And as Stevenson had pointed out, there is no sign of a river or stream near Countisbury with a similar name (the Lyn seems the only nearby watercourse, Lynton being Lintone in Domesday).

Gover deals with this snag by deciding that ‘the name Cunet here must denote a hill’. Because there’s certainly a hill at Countisbury (in fact there are two: Butter Hill, to the north, is slightly higher and marginally closer to the settlement of Countisbury than Wind Hill). It would then, says Gover, be related to Welsh cwn, ‘height’; the final -et remains unaccounted for. So arx Cynuit would have meant no more than ‘the stronghold on the hill’?

Verdict: Gover et al may be right, but the tantalising bit of the jigsaw is missing: a Saxon or Domesday or medieval version of Countisbury resembling Cynetan, Cuneetsberie, Cunedesberie – which one might have expected, given the early forms of Cound and Kennet(t).

Plummers EarleOne further point, on which Gover is mistaken: he says ‘Plummer was probably right’. This was Charles Plummer, the historian, who revised an edition of Two Saxon Chronicles (the Parker and Laud versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), published in 1892. But the original editor was the Anglo-Saxon scholar John Earle, who had published his Two Saxon Chronicles in 1865; and it was he who had first suggested Countisbury – as a possibility.

Earle was considering William Camden’s  musing on whether arx Cynuit might have been Chulmleigh, near Bideford (‘An verò Chimleigh illa sit Kinuith castrum cuius meminit Asserius, non facilè dixerim, Britannia, first ed. 1586).

Earle (a South Devon man) commented: ‘A far more probable spot appears to me to be ‘Countesbury’ near Linton; and possibly if an elder form of the name could be found, it might approach nearer to ‘Cynuit’.’

Emphatically yes, on both points here: Countisbury seems more probable than Chulmleigh (Domesday Calmonleuga); and an ‘elder form of the name’ would be good evidence – but that elder form has not yet come to light. Has it?


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