Tag Archives: George Molyneaux

Seminar CLXXIV: debating change around 1066

One of the stranger events I attended while still in Oxford (a category of thing of which I have now told you almost all) was a debate staged at the then-new Ertegun Centre, over the motion: “1066: the most important date in English history?” It was the public-school format, of course, with a speaker for, a speaker against and the option of a reply from each one, but what made it look interesting to attend was that the speaker for was Dr George Garnett, one of my more singular colleagues in the Faculty, and the speaker against was Dr George Molyneaux, repeatedly given first place as lecturer by my pupils on the British History 300-1087 course and also George Garnett’s doctoral pupil. Would the pupil now become the master? and so on.

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

The manuscript of Greater Domesday: the final judgement!

In actual fact, though the debate was not uninteresting, and could probably be said to have been won by George Garnett in as much as he was prepared to throw much more into the rhetoric of the occasion and also had a single point of focus that meant his opponent either had to pick another or be solely negative, the real interest for me and most others there seemed to be the meta-debate of what we as historians would consider significant change and how they could be rated against each other. Both Georges had chosen to rest their cases largely on duration, on changes that endured like cathedrals, language, towns, laws and landholding, and differed primarily on the question of whom these changes affected: in the case for it was everyone, in the case against those changes mentioned in the case for 1066 were dismissed as affecting only the aristocracy. (George Garnett then argued in his reply that if we let Marx set our criteria like that then nothing actually changed in England till the Industrial Revolution anyway.) But many more such arguments arose once the floor was opened. One contention for 1940 was resisted with the idea that only people since 1940 had been affected by it, so that older changes would be more significant by sheer demography of impact. The idea that counter-factuals were a tool for assessing such importance was damned as a trick of Niall Ferguson‘s and defended as being inherent in any historical judgement; and, thankfully, the question was also raised of whether we had enough evidence to make judgements like this anyway and what new evidence could unseat either George’s position. (George Garnett considered his position to be bolstered by so much evidence that evidence of other things couldn’t change it.) Probably this sort of thing could happen nowhere but Oxford, and even its participants questioned its worth as an intellectual exercise, but as a way of provoking conversation about what change actually is it proved unexpectedly stimulating.

Seminar CXV: making a state in tenth-century England

I am sorry about the sporadic nature of posting here in recent months. There was Leeds, and either side of that I had house guests, and through all of this I’ve been processing new charter information, which inevitably takes daily time or it doesn’t get done and which, shall we say, starts more projects than it finishes. These things are now all winding down and I hope to spend August determinedly clearing backlogs, among which the posts I have been intending here, lo these many months. This must, I think, require some fairly tough decisions about what seminars to cover, but one that I don’t want to miss is the one that was already next up, when George Molyneaux spoke to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 23rd January with the title, “The formation of the English kingdom in the tenth century”.

The point at which one can sensibly talk about a single English kingdom in the Middle Ages has been a long debate, and actually quite a lot of that debate has been led from Oxford. Names like James Campbell and Patrick Wormald come up, who were in post here when they published the things on this subject which have been influential, or Michael Wood, who started here before going on to greater things, and Sarah Foot, who was not here when she took her place in this historiography, now is.1 One might expect the next step in the debate to be taken elsewhere, therefore, but in actual fact George, one of the scary Prize Fellows at All Souls College, has led the charge from the inside. In the previous stage of the debate King Alfred tended to loom large; George’s first published step into this started the process of diminishing the responsibility of Alfred’s court (itself another Oxford pursuit) and now he is in the process of turning his doctoral thesis into a book which may even finish the job.2 This paper was, I think, more or less a pitch for that book, and it made it sound extremely necessary; I shall try and do the same.3

Sketch-map of England and its parts in the 10th century by George Molyneaux

The hand(out) of George: sketch-map of England and its parts in the tenth century, with added information

I had a very slight advantage over some of the audience for this paper, in as much as George kindly lectures on a course I convene here so I’d already heard some of what he might say. So, what’s the argument? Well, an elevator pitch of it would be fairly simple: it is that the really big work of setting up and structuring a kingdom of the English should be placed in the later tenth century and not before; before that is only a military unity, periodically fractured by a resurgent Viking York or whatever cause it may be, but by 1000 one has structures like shires (only apparent north of the Thames in the last third of the tenth century or so), hundreds (on sites that had often had a focal role from much longer ago but now doing something new, as George qualified in questions), and the courts at both of those levels, fortified towns (as opposed to just fortresses that would later become towns), mints (with a number of new mints set up by King Edgar (959-975), who then got all active mints striking the same sort of coin at once) and many other things. George stressed that he didn’t want to make Edgar into a new Alfred here, not least because for some of this King Edmund (939-946) may also have to bear some blame and presumably there’s also room to rehabilitate Eadred (946-955) and Eadwig (955-959) at least a little bit too, but the opportunity given Edgar by the temporary cessation of Viking attacks must have counted for a great deal, it seems to me; Eadred deserves more recognition than he gets for defeating every, considerable, military threat that arrived but it can’t have left him a lot of time for civil reform.

Obverse of silver penny of King Edgar of the Stamford mint, 973x5, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.364-R Reverse of silver penny of King Edgar of the Stamford mint, 973x5, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.364-R

A silver penny of the Stamford mint from after Edgar's 973 coinage reform, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.364-R

What George ended up pitching here, by means of a comparison of how he saw royal government before and how he saw it after his identified change, was a shift of emphasis from extensive to intensive government, from a peripatetic court with an essentially military and seigneurial dominion to one that commanded through law and through a devolved and consistent structure of administration, as far as local variation would admit anyway. He put this down to an end to the possibilities of expansion now that all the Viking kingdoms were conquered, to the reform ideology of the period pressuring the king to take control for the good of his people and his own salvation, and to the economic growth that was going on everywhere at the time and the intensification of lordship that it fuels, the first argument not unlike that put forward by Timothy Reuter for the Carolingian Empire of course and the last one that readers here will likely recognise though George was getting it from Rosamond Faith, not from anyone I tend to cite.4

First page of the lawcode IV Edgar, King Edgar's laws issued at Wihtberodestan, Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 265, p. 216

First page of the lawcode IV Edgar, King Edgar’s laws issued at Wihtberodestan, Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 265, p. 216

The result – if George is right about this – was that for the first time the kingdom and the realm of the English were relatively close to being the same thing, as opposed to a people with many kings. It also made England different from its neighbours in a way that was hard to undo: to be under the rule of the English king was a different kind of experience of power, involving a more regimented access to judgement, to markets, to warranty, to protection and (I’m sure John Blair would have added) to the sacred than one found outside its borders, which one might now therefore have been able to define. In England, royalty ruled not just by charisma and self-presentation, but now also by routine. And this, you see, is one of the reasons why the tenth century is where it’s at. It will not be long, I suppose, before the full version of this story as George sees it is available, and I think it’s going to be necessary reading not just for Anglo-Saxonists but for anyone who believes similarly in the importance of the tenth century or wants to know how one goes about forming a state in the early Middle Ages. Because you see, by the end of it that is what we’re talking about and just making that clearer will not be the least of this work’s impact.5

I asked one of my wooliest questions ever after this paper, because at that time I had hundreds on the brain and was still unable to get away from the antiquity of many of the sites where hundred courts were held. By the time I’d stumbled the words out, it all seemed rather obvious and yet it’s not, perhaps, often enough stated: quite a lot of what underlies these processes must, it seems to me, be men (and even women) in power seeing the possibility of turning existing structures to their agenda and converting them into part of the government. I kind of hate this argument because it rings of Foucault, but when you have kings apparently giving the hundred moots, whatever they did beforehand, new jobs and new jurisdictions and limits probably but often on the old sites, or Alfred (yes, I will keep him in this at least this little bit) using the Viking threat to put areas of his kingdoms under obligations to build fortresses and do military service that had maybe before only run in detail in Mercia, I think that these changes have to be seen this way.6 The coinage system must be another thing that can be fitted into that template; Offa of Mercia and indeed Alfred were obviously able, at a push, to call in the whole coinage or at least decree that an old one would cease to be acceptable; Æthelred the Unready, whatever his failings, could do this frequently. (I’m sure George will cover this last in the book, indeed.)

Visible remains of the burh wall at Wallingford, from Wikimedia Commons

Visible remains of the burh wall at Wallingford, from Wikimedia Commons

In each of these cases, a structure or process that had been occasional or reserved for emergencies wound up serving a new, governmental purpose and becoming a routine operation. I don’t mean to say that Edmund and Edgar and their advisors didn’t think of anything new, not at all, but that the things they carried out were in part dictated by the possibilities of what already existed. If I’m right about this – sorry – there are two important implications, one of which is that those who managed to lay down the precursors should be credited with assisting the later creation of that state we’re talking about, but the other of which is that encroachments on liberty by government can be sincerely meant to be one-off but still open up possibilities for successors who don’t see the constraints so clearly. I’ve been worried about this ever since the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was passed in England, and the Terrorism Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act only made those worries worse. It seems unlikely, from here, that people in tenth-century England saw the institution of regular shire and hundred courts as a nosey and potentially dangerous intervention by tyrannical higher-ups that removed their personal liberties, though the attempts of the Anglo-Saxon kings to restrict trade to places where royal reeves could witness it probably seemed more like that sort of thing despite the obviously sensible purpose of limiting the possibility for disputes. And, then as now, if there was opposition, it certainly wasn’t unified, coherent or resourced enough to resist these changes. All the same, there are two ways to see the building of an England in this period, quite apart from the debate over whether it happened thus and then, and I find that contemporary politics make it harder to see the positive side that was perhaps more apparent to those who remembered the Second World War firsthand.7 It may be a thousand years ago and more that George is writing about, but the reasons people may care are very current. It’s not actually necessary, to drive those arguments, that the picture we have of the formation of England be correct, but I take some comfort anyway in thinking that with George’s work we’re a step closer to being correct about it all the same.


1. James Campbell, “Was it Infancy in England? Some questions of comparison” in Michael Jones & Malcolm Vale (edd.), England and Her Neighbours, 1066-1453. Essays in Honour of Pierre Chaplais (London 1989), pp. 1-17; Campbell, “The Late Anglo-Saxon State: a Maximum View” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 87 (London 1995), pp. 39-65, both repr. in his The Anglo-Saxon State (London 2000), pp. 179-199 & 1-30 resp., and several other chapters of that volume; Patrick Wormald, “Engla Lond: the making of an allegiance” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 7 (Oxford 1994), pp. 1-24; Michael Wood, In Search of England (London 1999), pp. 91-106; Sarah Foot, “The making of Angelcynn: English identity before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series Vol. 6 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 25-50, repr. in Roy M. Liuzza (ed.), Old English literature: critical essays (New Haven 2002), pp. 51-78; cf. Susan Reynolds, “What do we mean by ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxons’?” in Journal of British Studies Vol. 24 (Chicago 1985), pp. 395–414 and Pauline Stafford, “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, identity and the making of England” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 19 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 28-50.

2. George Molyneaux, “The Old English Bede: English Ideology or Christian Instruction?” in English Historical Review Vol. 124 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1289-1323; see also Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23 and cf. Janet Bately, “Did King Alfred Actually Translate Anything: the Integrity of the Alfredian Canon Revisited”, ibid. 78 (2009), pp. 189–215.

3. Part of me wishes also for the book that Chris Lewis might write on this, as has been recorded here before, but perhaps the existence of George’s will provoke him!

4. Rosamond Faith, The English peasantry and the growth of lordship (London 1997).

5. Rees Davies, “The Medieval State: the tyranny of a concept?” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 16 (Oxford 2003), pp. 280–300, vs. Susan Reynolds, “There Were States in Medieval Europe – a reply to Rees Davies” ibid. pp. 550-555.

6. What I know about legislation around the hundred, I confess, I get principally from Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents vol. I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 39. On military service, see Nicholas Brooks, “The development of military obligations in eighth and ninth-century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69-84, repr. in David Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings (New York 2000), pp. 83-105 and in Brooks, Communities and Warfare, 700-1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47, but to see this in action (or not!) see Asser, De rebus gestis Ælfredi, transl. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in eidem (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), cap. 91 (ed.); for more recent assessment, David Hill & Alexander Rumble (edd.), The Defence of Wessex: the Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon Fortifications (Manchester 1996).

7. For sharp comparanda for this kind of assessment, see Catherine Hills, Origins of the English (London 2003), pp. 21-39.

Deintellectualising King Alfred

The largest of my responsibilities in this job I have (for which some day there will be institutional web evidence) is coordinating the lecture series that serves the British early medieval survey course, British History I (300-1087). Partly out of wanting to hear what the students were getting, and partly out of wanting to be sure they ran all right, I attended all but one of these lectures in the term just gone, which means that I’ve heard some very notable people lecturing on their best subjects, which is almost always good. And of course, since these are not my best subjects, it’s not just the students who have been learning things…

The Alfred Jewel, believed to be the topper for a wooden bookmark

The Alfred Jewel, believed to be the topper for a wooden bookmark whose inscription proclaims, "Alfred had me made"

King Alfred, as George Molyneaux told ‘my’ students, has been blamed for an awful lot that can’t really be substantiated, single-handedly defeating the Vikings (his son and daughter deserve quite a lot of credit too), building towns all over England and shiring it (again, more credit due to his successors) and founding the royal navy (actually just ordered some new ships that in the end didn’t work out), but one thing for which he does stand out in the scholarship is his interest in matters intellectual, which is supposed to have extended to getting translated a set of ‘certain books that are the most needful for men to know’, which were, as it’s usually counted, the first fifty Psalms, the Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great (where this preface is to be found), the Soliloquies of St Augustine, On the Consolation of Philosophy by Bœthius, Orosius’s Seven Books of Histories against the Pagans and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Asser, Alfred’s biographer, mentions Alfred as having worked with a team of scholars to translate Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, and somewhere out there this court probably produced the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle too; it’s all fairly impressive.1 But, George warned the students, an article by Malcolm Godden has recently called all this into question. “Your tutors probably haven’t read this article yet,” he added, “so if you use it in an essay you’ll need to explain it, not just reference it”, which was a little close to the bone perhaps but, I have to admit for myself, true. George however wins prizes for being conspicuously clever, and is better-informed than almost anyone. So I patched my lack of knowledge in this respect at least, and have now seen what the argument is.2

Basically, Godden puts the evidence that all supposedly relates to this supposed phenomenon together and finds it seriously inconsistent. Asser mentions none of the rest of the works, only the Dialogues, and since Asser stopped writing a scant six years before the king’s death in 899, that really doesn’t leave a lot of time for a man who’d only recently learnt Latin to do all the rest, especially given the Viking army in the country between 892 and 896. Some might say, of course, that Asser is a forgery in which case ‘his’ estimate of the king’s Latinity isn’t to be taken literally, but the years don’t get much longer even then due to other factors. The prefaces to the other works refer to their other versions in ways that show that they are posterior to the translation dates and there is a severe shortage of known scholars writing in the West Saxon dialect in which most of these texts (and the Chronicle) now exist (as opposed to the Mercian one that colours the Dialogues). Several of the works also offer frank criticisms of bad kingship that seem implausible coming out of a court project. It all makes the traditional picture hard to sustain. You’ll have to assess it yourself—the paper seems to be online for free through FindArticles though who knows how long that will last?—but I think at least the Consolation of Philosophy and the Soliloquies probably have to be accepted as later translations identified as Alfred’s to bring them attention. Godden concludes that Alfred didn’t actually translate any of these texts, and it’s possibly easier to agree with him than to say why one shouldn’t.

A heavily-glossed page of the earliest manuscript of the Alfredian English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms Hatton 20

A heavily-glossed page of the earliest manuscript of the Alfredian English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms Hatton 20 but here reproduced from Wikimedia Commons

This is not completely to demolish the idea of Alfred’s court as a centre of intellectual renewal and the headquarters of a battle for the incipient nation’s mind, however: Asser, if we accept him, testifies to the Dialogues (and to Alfred’s own interest in them even if the others in the team did the actual word-work); we can still securely date the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s compilation to 892; and the Pastoral Care is preserved early enough that it too must be from Alfred’s reign.3 So something was going on, even if the king wasn’t himself penning them. Given the which, does this actually matter very much?

The principal reason that it matters to me is that the example of Alfred as historian-king has often been used as a parallel to an almost-contemporary one, King Alfonso III of Asturias, who has been claimed as author of the Chronicle that bears his name.4 Alfonso clearly also had the court full of scholars, and also a far better library, but the same arguments of how busy warrior kings surely were have been raised against the idea.5 What may have made Alfred slightly more plausible is that he was aiming for work in the vernacular, which is at first take easier to imagine for us who have to learn to write Latin specially, but in Alfred’s day of course literacy would have been Latin first and vernacular second, and in any case translating into English from (extremely sophisticated) Latin requires a mastery of both tongues so that doesn’t help.6 For everyone other than the Hispanists, however, the importance is that these works are some of the principal evidence for Alfred as architect of an idea of English political unity, for which some of these texts seem well-suited, most obviously Orosius and Bede. The Pastoral Care seems more like a text for governors, which fits with other things that Asser says about encouraging a literate nobility, and might fit into other views of the court but what I think of as the ‘Angelcynn’ hypothesis is at least partly supported on these texts being part of a bigger Alfredian plan.7 Now we have to consider that, possibly, we can’t show Alfred had any such plan after all. Worried, evidently, that the lid on the coffin of this thesis wasn’t yet firmly fixed in place, George last year added a piece of his own (I now discover) looking specifically at the Old English Bede, and pointing out that much of the one-people-one-country stuff that Bede’s original contains (among other more plural takes on the island’s Anglo-Saxon population) is omitted from the Old English version, which seems instead to concentrate on the stories to encourage good behaviour at the expense of the history and national framework.8 This seems to make it part of the how-to-behave school of texts such as the Dialogues, Pastoral Care and Consolation now seem, as opposed to a bigger project of nationality-building. Fair enough! I don’t mind rethinking Alfred to this extent; he’s still always going to be remarkable in terms of quantity and quality of information (at least as long as we can maintain our faith in Asser).

[Edit: image changed to match caption!]

Page from the Parker ('A') manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Page from the Parker ('A') manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

The only thing that still bugs me, and about which I must ask George when next I see him, is that somewhere out there someone around that court was still building the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and while its agenda may well be more West Saxon (as the most successful and surviving of a number of accepted and equally-old royal dynasties it cheerfully mentions9) than pan-English, it’s definitely a bit more than a self-help text. While we still have someone (and who, for heavens’ sake?) doing that, the size and scope of the political picture at Alfred’s court can’t be too completely underestimated, I think.


1. This is all set out most accessibly in Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), pp. 25-35 where the Pastoral Care, the Consolation of Philosophy, the Soliloquies and the first fifty Psalms are reckoned Alfred’s own work on the basis of stylistic similarities to the Pastoral Care‘s text.

2. Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23, on which all this paragraph is based.

3. Ibid., p. 15.

4. Edited and translated into Castilian in J. Gil Fernández (ed.), J. L. Moralejo (transl.) & J. I. Ruiz de la Peña, Crónicas Asturianas: Crónica de Alfonso III (Rotense y «A Sebastián»), Crónica Albeldense (y «Profética») (Oviedo 1985) and French in Yves Bonnaz (ed./transl.), Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe siècle). Avec édition critique, traduction et commentaire (Paris 1987). There is an English translation, in Kenneth Baxter Wolf (transl.), Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians (Liverpool 1990, 2nd edn. 1999 without visible changes) but I hesitate to recommend it as it freely selects between the two quite different versions of the Chronicle according to an agenda I think belongs to only one of them. The most strident assertion of royal authorship inevitably came from Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, in his “Alfonso III y el particularismo castellano” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 13 (Buenos Aires 1950), pp. 19-100 at pp. 90-100, that section, “Apéndice 2”, repr. with addenda as “Otra vez sobre la crónica de Alfonso III” in idem, Investigaciones sobre Historiografía Hispana Medieval (siglos VIII al XII) (Buenos Aires 1979), pp. 97-108.

5. Compare Bonnaz, Chroniques, pp. LIII-LVII with J. I. Ruiz de la Peña, “La cultura en la corte ovetense del siglo IX” in Gil et al., Crónicas Asturianas, pp. 11-42 at pp. 38-41.

6. For more on this theme see Susan E Kelly, “Anglo-Saxon Lay Society and the Written Word” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 36-62.

7. Named after Sarah Foot, “The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 25-49 but most eminently espoused in Patrick Wormald, “Engla Lond: the making of an allegiance” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 7 (Oxford 1994), pp. 1-24, repr. in idem, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West: law as text, image and experience (Oxford 2003), pp. 359-382.

8. George Molyneaux, “The Old English Bede: English Ideology or Christian Instruction?” in English Historical Review Vol. 124 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1289-1323.

9. The fact that it arguably manages the equally-old bit by bodging the landing of the West Saxon royal ancestors Cerdic and Cynric back about fifty years to me reinforces this idea that the editors were involved in a competition that took in more than just Wessex, though as discussed here before the material they were using may not have served that purpose in its original form. For the fifty-year bump see Barbara Yorke, “The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the Origins of Wessex” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 84-96.