Reconsidering early medieval and modern Englishness

This is a rather belated write-up and discussion of a very interesting talk by Bruce O’Brien at the Institute of Historical Research on ‘Early Medieval Englishness Reconsidered’. His starting point was that ‘Englishness’ was a relatively recent term in studies of early medieval England. It only really took off in 1983 with the publication of Michael Clanchy’s England and its rulers 1066-1272 and Patrick Wormald’s article on ‘Bede, the Bretwaldas and the origins of the Gens Anglorum‘ (in the Festschrift for Michael Wallace-Hadrill). Michael was arguing that the development of a strong English nationalism in the thirteenth century suggested a largely hidden pre-Norman continuity. Meanwhile Patrick was looking much earlier, to see Bede’s work as already defining a sense of the English as a community, but as religious one rather than a political one. (There are also links to the work being done in the 1960s in Germany on ethnogenesis by Wenskus and others).

Bruce, argued, however, that the real take-off of the concept was linked to a third academic work published in 1983, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. As he pointed out, this is very badly-informed and hence dismissive of national feeling before ‘modern’ print culture, but it does link the strong state with the development of national consciousness. As a result, the Anglo-Saxon maximalists (James Campbell et al), wanted to use Anderson’s concepts rather than his conclusions. If the Anglo-Saxon state was so strong then it must have created/fostered a strong sense of Englishness and vice versa. The concept was therefore incorporated into the view of the Anglo-Saxon state and actively looked for. The result has been some recent works in which Englishness is a recurrent theme.

Bruce, having worked with the concept himself, however, is becoming increasingly uncertain about its usefulness, and wondering whether we should stop using the term at all. Firstly, because the term itself inevitably imports ideas of continuity and content from other periods. Englishness has a political and emotional content that ‘Norman-ness’ no longer possesses. (Similarly, I think most scholars are quite happy to see many ideas of ‘Frankishness’ as being political manipulations by the Carolingian elite). Perhaps even more importantly, there has been too much attempt to push the Anglo-Saxon evidence into the mould of ‘Englishness’. Any differences mentioned between ethnic groups are assumed to be a sign of Englishness. (To emphasise this, someone in the audience at question time was arguing that references to ‘Danish customs’ in a source indicated a sense of Englishness, whereas Bruce’s point was that you had to be far more cautious in interpretations such as these).

As well as being challenging for our thinking about early medieval England, the talk also got me thinking harder about the concept of Englishness (or Britishness) in the modern world and realising how sloppy some of my previous thinking about it had been. It wasn’t a distinction that Bruce explicitly made in the paper, but it did get me thinking about the difference between Englishness in terms of customs, identity and community

Firstly, just because the customs of a country are noted as being different, doesn’t necessarily say anything about national sentiment. Leave aside the question of whether the views of an outsider are correct/typical and assume they’re accurate. For example, I might correctly say that the Netherlands seemed different to me from England because they have double-decker trains. However, the Dutch do not, as far as I know, define themselves by their trains, and equally, nor do the British define themselves as the sort of people who don’t have double-decker trains. In other words, distinctive customs don’t necessarily translate into identity and if they do, they do so in complex ways. (Think of the complexities of how nations define themselves by what they do or don’t eat. The Japanese government are still defining them nation as whale meat eaters, even though they have problems in finding any Japanese willing to eat whales).

Secondly there is the problem of how Englishness relates to both identity and community. Recent attempts to encourage ‘Britishness’ have seen a simple equation in which a shared identity produces community and harmony and prevents violence. But as I think about it, I realise that my English identity does not necessarily increase my feelings of community. My English identity (which is strongly affected both by my work as a historian, but also my middle class upbringing in the rural south of England) is real, but it may have very little in common with the equally real English identity of a working class man from inner city Bradford, and I’m not sure how much sense of community we’d automatically feel. Even the promotion of a common identity/set of symbols may not be enough to promote this sense of community. The USA, for example, has a very strong sense of common identity, around symbols such as the flag and the constitution. Yet while a patriotic black American and a member of the Klu Klux Klan might attach the same importance to many of these symbols, there is no community between them, because of the single additional tenet of white supremacism: that non-whites cannot properly be American. (There was an interesting comment in an article by Gary Younge of the Guardian discussing anti-Hispanic immigrant views in the US: even the more racist there do not want immigration stopped, they just want the ‘right sort’ of immigrants). The experience of violence from right-wing racist organisations in the US and the UK suggest that a feeling of identity towards a country doesn’t stop them attacking other members of the country. Similarly, however worthy it may be to make British Muslims feel more British, it isn’t necessarily going to stop home-grown terrorism.


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