March 06, 2009

Bede, Nationalism and Monasticism

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.


James Hamilton said...

Does Davies make any comment about when Wulfstan's northern foundations took place - I'm interested in whether they pre- or post-date the Harrowing.

And I wonder if we can read into Wulfstan's actions an attempt to preserve something of pre-Conquest England within the safety of monastic walls, or mere territory-grabbing opportunism in the wake of William's victory.

edmund said...

very interesting strikes me that Wessex kings owed a lot to the Vikings :)

I wouldn't say the story of england has shited that far to the South since 11th century -obviously the part of Northumbria that became Sctoland is an excepton but it strikes me Yorkshire etc are very much part of the English story- not quite sure what you mean

Gracchi said...

There is something true in that comment about Wulfstan James. I'll have to look at the dates of the foundations.

Edmund I meant that the story of English history- the central story whether of the Reformation or of the Civil War is about firstly events in London and then events in the provinces. In that sense places close to London are closer to the centre of English politics than the northern shires- than say Lancashire or Yorkshire are. Never again after the reign of Oswald was there an evangelisation of the south by the north endorsed by the most powerful authority in the realm. Indeed thing for a moment about accents- the accents of privilege and power are all London or south eastern accents, those of poverty are northern or from the extremities of Britain (Scotland and Wales).