The reception of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking Peoples is an important subject. Amongst the greatest and definitely the oldest history of England, Bede's history did several things: he created the 'English' as a category of gens, he identified them with Christianity and he attempted to write a providential history of the coming of Christianity within the Isles of Britain. RHS Davies, one of the more notable historians of that period writing in English in the 20th Century, completed a brief piece in the 1980s on Bede's history and its reception. What he found was both interesting and has some fascinating implications.
The first thing he found was that Bede's history was definitely read after 1066- there seems to have been an upswell in manuscripts of the history found in England and in Normandy after the conquest. Many of them were associated with the Bishopric of Worcester under Wulfstan (bishop 1062-95) and the Abbey of Evesham. Wulfstan had a Northern background- having been involved in the Archbishopric of York in the 1050s, he was appointed by Ealdred of York in 1062 and was the lone Bishop kept on by the Conqueror after he took England in 1066. More importantly though for our purposes was that Wulfstan was interested in the North: and so were many of his clergy. Monks set out from the bishopric of Worcester to attempt to found new monastic houses across Northern England: first at Jarrow, then at Durham and lastly at Lindisfarne itself. The places where they founded such monasteries were the places remembered in Bede's history as sites of monastic settlements in earlier centuries: it should come as no surprise that the men that Wulfstan originally sent to the north ended their lives as monastic guardians of the tomb of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral.
In that sense the Bede that they took away was a monastic and religious Bede, not the nationalistic Bede that inspired later. It was the Ecclesiastical History rather than the History of the English People that the monks took north with them. Interestingly Davies argues that the person who understood most the nationalist side of Bede was a Norman author: Orderic Vitalis who sought to write an ecclesiastical history of the Normans. What is fascinating about this is that Davies offers reasons for the neglect of Bede's nationalistic message- he argues that Bede's nationalism was based around Northumbria. It little became the Wessex dominated Anglo-Saxon kingdom that emerged after Alfred, or the Norman dynasty that claimed descent from that Wessex kingdom, to argue that the centre of English history lay in York not Winchester or London. Furthermore this movement in the centre of gravity, Davies argues, was reflected in a reluctance further north to recall the lost and perhaps perpetually lost days of Northumbrian dominance. What the reception of Bede's history teaches us is the way that the concept of England geographically has moved- the heartland indeed the story of England has moved from where its first historian put it in the north of the country, around the house of Oswy and Oswald, to the south. This left for the Norman interpreters of Bede a text which they interpreted primarily as a monastic one.
Davies's work allows two important conclusions: firstly it suggests that the history of how a text has been read can reveal a huge variety of responses. Bede's history became an ecclesiastical history rather than being the national ecclesiastic history. Furthermore and perhaps even more interestingly what the reception of Bede's history represents is an ideological shift in the centre of gravity from Northern to Southern England. In a sense the reception of Bede is part of a process where the nationalist history of England turned into a history of the core of southern England, particularly London with its royal houses, coronations and conquests: this reflected a political change whereby the line of Northumbrian Kings was no longer a central part of the story of the emergance of the ruling dynasty.