Seminary LIII: brain-stretching new take on late Anglo-Saxon England

Sometimes, not as often as one wants but perhaps as often as one can deal with, one gets as an academic to see research presented that you know is going to be really important. It’s like being at the first gig of a truly incredible new band, except with a rather better chance that the scholar will get a deal for his album (though neither will get paid anything for it, I have to point out). You try and soak it all up, but actually it’s stuff that will change the way you think and you can’t understand it straight away; only once you’ve been able to work out what of what you understood before remains and how much you have to re-envision will you know what you have learned. Now, I was pretty tired and spaced-out—the summer is really messing with my usual Circadian polyrhythms—but this is the state in which I left the Institute of Historical Research on 10th June after Chris Lewis had presented a paper called “The Ideology and Culture of Anglo-Saxon Government” to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar. It was too rich to summarise; I feel like the only way I could get its points over to you is to type up my notes, but there are lots. So I’ll just try and explain the set-up and then say that if you see Chris, and he appears in many places, urge him to get this written up. It could be a book, it could be an important book, and it might get us through some increasingly stagnant debate about how powerful the Anglo-Saxon royal government was and out into new thought about how to understand what it did and why.

The Shires of England in the Tenth Century, hosted at the University of Wisconsin

The Shires of England in the Tenth Century, hosted at the University of Wisconsin

Chris expressed this stagnation when he said that he thought that, for Anglo-Saxon England, there just isn’t the evidence to give a sustained political narrative: we’ll never do it, and all work on such things only advances us halfway there, like Zeno’s paradox. What we can do is explore our evidence in a modern way, looking at ritual, language and organisation, exploiting the sources (coins, documents, art, material all alike) for ethos rather than dates, and in general attempting to compile an ideological understanding of the enterprise of English government, what it was doing, why and how rather than the tiny details of when and where. He thus wound up with an approach that could be called instititutional history, political thought or social history, but was really many things at once. So, for example, there is a debate on when England was divided into shires, and who had this big idea. It has died down, mainly because it can’t be given a single answer. Chris instead described what we can know about shires: that they were linked to the centre in a uniform way, that they were not universal (Rutland is its current tiny anomaly because it was never allotted to a shire, for example) or always fully manned, they don’t match bishoprics perfectly, that they were done in stages without a big plan but apparently with a consistent ideology, that they stay more or less fixed, and that the actual borders are dictated by (and therefore a source for) local politics to an astonishing degree. Lists like this were a big feature of the paper, and kept demonstrating that really, when we step back from the detail questions it’s possible to group quite a lot of evidence together to describe these large themes (if you’ll forgive the Byzantinist pun) and we do in fact know a lot, or at least can.

Modern stained-glass depiction of the monastic founder and reformer Archbishop Oswald of York

Modern stained-glass depiction of the monastic founder and reformer Archbishop Oswald of York

Chris has another paper under work on the political unity of Anglo-Saxon England, which is an essential prerequisite to any attempt to answer what the effects, abilities and intentions of its government were, so here he confined himself to questions about that government’s ideology. The argument was thick, well-sourced and full of meat (as a Northerner, Chris will probably not mind the almost inevitable comparison to gravy I seem to be drawing). I won’t try and repeat the act, but will say that by the end we had come to a series of interesting conclusions, among which were that the ideology of late Anglo-Saxon royal government was essentially a Benedictine project (which raises questions that we’ve asked here before, apropos indeed of something to which Chris contributed, about why their project is pro-royal and not pro-papal); that this means it was restricted to areas where Benedictinism itself was powerful, and that these left short many parts of England, most obviously the North but also Kent, Essex and East Anglia; that this project was most active only over the short period 970 to 1010; that with Cnut and Edward the Confessor, first kings for a long time to have succeeded as adults and both with experience of the German Imperial court, a much more regalian and less monastic ideology was begun; and that over many other parts of England and times of its history a quite alternative royal and Christian ideology may be propagated through the minster churches that disseminated ideology where the monasteries were fewer and unreformed. He also pointed out that the Normans were able to partially adopt both of these ideological systems.

Silver `Pointed Helmet type penny of King Cnut, 1026

Silver `Pointed Helmet' type penny of King Cnut, 1026

Points of discussion arose over much of this, of course (not least the coins: Stephen Baxter and I had to agree to differ amicably over the initiative of moneyers with the royal portrait on English money, I seeing it as essentially a stereotype whose regulation was unimportant and Stephen seeing it as a vital propaganda tool that must have been controlled). One of these I raised, which was that Chris himself admitted that Cnut first continued to use the old Benedictine scheme of royal power, until the death of Archbishop Wulfstan (whereafter, as Chris pointed out, lawmaking stops; no more laws till William the Conqueror!), and that this looked a lot like the importance of Benedict of Aniane to Emperor Louis the Pious’s earlier and not dissimilar reform project, a man without whom the project simply couldn’t continue. This raises questions about why, in either case, the Benedictine project hadn’t managed to reproduce itself in a new generation of similarly able firebrands. The fact that Wulfstan didn’t, as far as we know, teach, is very interesting here. Did they not think anyone could replace them either?

Page of the only manuscript of Beowulf

Page of the only manuscript of Beowulf

Another point that is likely to interest some of my readers here is that Chris thought that though there is very little evidence which could be used to do a similar project for the `minster ideology’ of Englishness, royalty and Providence’s place for the Anglo-Saxon state, there is probably some. He noted that the Exeter Book, for example, was given to its cathedral home by a bishop who had been a canon, not a monk, and that much of its content is theologically quite irregular, and it may well tell us some of what such a person thought of in these ways. Other contenders might be the Vercelli Manuscript, and also British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A.XV, that is, the Beowulf manuscript. Chris was prompted to imagine someone reacting to the Benedictine preaching in his locality by saying to his colleagues at the minster, “look, this isn’t what I think of when I think of as the important things that make us us, this is all Roman liturgy and law. We should write something properly English” and coming up with a story harking to a distant past but full of contemporary resonance that then wound up bound with a very strange set of other things that they were interested in. It gave us pause for thought. But then, so did all the rest of the paper. The small conclusions I’ve given are only the top of the iceberg. We could really get somewhere with this kind of all-inclusive questioning that lets the sources illuminate each other. I’ve seen a manifesto like this before, in fact:

Since Aristotle, man has organized his knowledge vertically in separate and unrelated groups – Science, Religion, Sex, Relaxation, Work etc. The main emphasis in his language, his system of storing knowledge, has been on the identification of objects rather than on the relationships between objects. He is now forced to use his tools of reasoning separately and for one situation at a time. Had man been able to see past this hypnotic way of thinking, to distrust it (as did Einstein), and to resystematize his knowledge so that it would all be related horizontally, he would now enjoy the perfect sanity which comes from being able to deal with his life in its entirety.

Well, apparently, we don’t need drugs to upset Aristotle, we just need people being really clever and this was what we got. It is part of the continuing shame of the discipline that people like this can’t find jobs; what hope is there for the rest of us? But the cynic may say, the discipline can save its money here because Chris is clearly going to do it anyway, and for that we can all be thankful.

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3 responses to “Seminary LIII: brain-stretching new take on late Anglo-Saxon England

  1. That research sounds fascinating – thanks for sharing it. I really like the idea of looking at the relationships *between* things to open up new perspectives.

  2. Pingback: Seminar XCII: ritualised kingship in later Anglo-Saxon England « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: Seminar CXV: making a state in tenth-century England | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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