The late Anglo-Saxon state: a maximum propaganda view

Jon Jarrett has already blogged about Chris Lewis’s IHR paper on ‘The ideology and culture of government in Anglo-Saxon England’, but I think it’s a rich enough paper to get blogged on twice. While Jon gives a good overview of the paper, I want in this post to try and put Chris’ paper into two different historiographical contexts: among the Anglo-Saxonists and among the Carolingianists.

Some of Chris’ comments only really begin to gain their full import when I went back and re-read my seminar notes alongside James Campbell’s ‘The late Anglo-Saxon state: a maximum view’ (in The Anglo-Saxon state, London, Hambledon, 2000, 1-30. In particular, there is a resonant passage in Campbell’s article:

Late Anglo-Saxon England was a nation state. It was an entity with an effective central authority, uniformly organised institutions, a national language, a national church, defined frontiers (admittedly with considerable fluidity in the north), and above all, a strong sense of national identity.

Chris seems to me to be reacting to that view in two important ways. In one sense, he was challenging it. The institutions weren’t entirely uniform: not all of England was shired, for example. Regional identities were still significant: although Campbell talks about the existence of national saints, most cults were very local. At the level of the thane, most men were only local landholders, not trans-regional. The Benedictine reforms did not cover the whole of the England, but were concentrated in a particular zone. The unity stressed by rulers was of the English people, not that of a state.

But Chris wasn’t being purely negative about this vision of late Anglo-Saxon England. He was also indirectly raising the question: to the extent that Campbell’s ideas are true of the Anglo-Saxon state, how did they get to be true? How did this state get to be this way? Campbell’s picture is implicitly about Engelond at the people’s command arising from out the azure main (or at least the mists of the seventh century), and Chris was arguing that nowadays Englsih unity was taken for granted. Instead, he was trying to show how late Anglo-Saxon political culture got actively built. Because building political cultures is an important part of politics: persuasive images are vital, even if they don’t match reality. There might not have been uniformity in institutions, for example, but it was thought that there should be (and indeed imagined that there was).

So much of Chris’ paper was looking at the many ways that rulers and those associated with them created this political culture, because it does look to have been created in many ways. Some of these are relatively well-known, such as the cultural role of coinage, and the use of titles such as ‘king of the English’. Chris also argued that there were probably mechanisms developed for allowing the temporary partition of the kingdom (as in 957-959 between Eadwig and Edgar) to avoid conflicts between the elite.

He was also bringing in intellectual developments which connected to this development of political culture. For example, Mechthild Gretsch has argued for the deliberate attempt by men such as Aethelwold of Winchester and Dunstan to create and spread an academic vernacular culture, a ‘Winchester vocabulary’ that enables discussion of politics and theology in Old English. Chris added that such promotion of the vernacular was most stressed in times of external threat, such as under Alfred and Aethelred the Unready. The reform ideology was deeply influenced by clerics and monks, but one of its key ideas, uniformity, was also implicitly a political idea: uniformity went inextricably together with one king leading one people. Chris was also stressing how reform ideology was closely linked to practical government throughout the period. For example, he saw the penitential kingship of Aethelred the Unready, as expressed in some of his later charters, as reflecting a partisan coup at court. Despite what Athelred may have expressed about wishing to undo wrongs to the church, only some Benedictine houses got favoured.

Chris was also looking hard at the timing of the reform project and how it was reproduced socially. He was arguing that the tendency to uniformity was greatest in the 970s and that after 1000 the impetus of the project wasn’t continuing (although some of the individual ideas continued on even after the conquest, such as standard Old English). He saw social reproduction as important in embedding some of the practices (for example the training of moneyers), but thought that the continuity of Benedictine teaching was broken. He saw the key moment here as the stresses of Aethelred the Unready’s reign, when intellectuals either had to enter politics fully or retreat to the schoolroom. After the death of Wulfstan, there was a further break as Cnut then took political culture in a different direction, drawing more on Ottonian models. The full-blown project, as Chris saw it, lasted only around fifty years, from the 970s to the 1020s (he saw Cnut and Edward the Confessor’s kingdoms as having different cultures). Even at the time, other ideologies co-existed: Chris thought that distinctive local minster cultures outside the Benedictine Zone existed, for example, although it’s very difficult to recreate their details.

As the blog posts show, Chris’ ideas were wide-ranging and innovative, and yet a lot of them were also strangely familiar to me as a Carolingianist. After all, historians have been discussing Carolingian political culture for getting on for eighty years (really ever since the time of the German ‘new constitutional historians’ of the 1930s), and there are a lot of parallels: when Chris was talking about the handful of men with national landholdings, for example, I was thinking Anglo-Saxon Reichsadel.

But my point here isn’t to do a typical Carolingianist manoeuvre and dismiss the late Anglo-Saxon state as just a very late Carolingian one. It’s to suggest that we can start doing comparisons on how political cultures are created (and possibly even three-way ones, adding in David Pratt’s ideas of Alfredian political culture). How long are such cultures sustainable? The central impetus for the Carolingian reforms looks a bit longer than fifty years, but not much: it’s really only three generations (Charlemagne, Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald). Did the Anglo-Saxon concept of renovation, which Chris mention differ from the Carolingian concept? What other different aspects can we see? I mentioned that the Anglo-Saxon ideology of lordship was noticeably different from the Frankish one. Chris was wondering whether the continuity of Benedictine influence was due to a lot of young kings coming to the throne; the Carolingian experience suggests that adult kings could deliberately choose such an ideology for political reasons. How important was the use of the vernacular to political cultures? (Some of the new studies on Louis the German might be useful here). Chris’ paper is obviously the start of something very interesting in Anglo-Saxon studies; but I think it’s potentially also very useful for those of us working on other early medieval societies.


3 thoughts on “The late Anglo-Saxon state: a maximum propaganda view

  1. I wish I’d been able to see this paper now, but thanks to you and Jon for your blogposts that at least give me a flavour of what I missed!

    Two quick points: first, the idea that Chris has a (partly) ‘negative’ view of the Anglo-Saxon State. That’s true in a strictly etymological sense: he’s denying certain traits that Campbell argues for. But I think it’s incredibly unfortunate that it has such a, so to speak, ‘negative’ value connotation. Campbell obviously thinks not having an ASS is a Bad Thing, in true Sellar and Yeatman style. I’m sure you don’t have that prejudice and I don’t either, and yet neither of us can avoid the word ‘negative’. How would you develop a different language with which to approach the question without the judgmentalism?

    Secondly, your comment, “How long are such cultures sustainable? The central impetus for the Carolingian reforms looks a bit longer than fifty years, but not much: it’s really only three generations (Charlemagne, Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald). Did the Anglo-Saxon concept of renovation, which Chris mention differ from the Carolingian concept?” seems to me more widely applicable. You see the same sort of thing happening with monastic reform before the eleventh century. A certain place (like Gorze) enjoys a period of renown as a reforming centre, but that doesn’t last long and its influence only continues to be felt at increasing removes as each generation of pupils goes by. It’s really only Odilo’s Cluny that seems to me to do something quite new and start to institutionalise monastic reform in a Cluniac ‘order’ or, you could say, ‘state’.


    • Bad choice of words: I should have said Chris was more sceptical about the existence of the Anglo-Saxon State. But your comment did get me thinking that it is very hard to avoid the fetishing of the state and I’m probably guilty of that myself. I do feel that the Carolingians had a state and that is a positive thing to have (and I think a lot of other Carolingianists feel the same).

      Much of this comes down to dealing with other historians: if the Middle Ages didn’t have states, then the cool guys in ancient history and early modern history can look down on our period as primitive, just a load of violent hairy barbarians incapable of reasoned thought. I think more generally, it’s harder to show how studying stateless societies is of interest to anyone except specialists in the period (although maybe those who do so should now be touting their expertise in the analysis of modern ‘failed states’).

      On sustainable reforms/cultures, there are two issues. One is that the hereditary principle is a lousy basis to build anything sustainable on. It’s the same problem with royal programmes as with family firms: you’re unlikely to get more than a generation or two with the ability/enthusiasm to drive the project on, even if you train them from birth.

      The master/disciple method should in theory make programmes sustainable a little longer, but it still requires masters able to find and manage disciples with the same or greater level of ability as them (rather than settle for the second-rate but biddable follower).

      It’s not just institutionalism that can sustain things longer, but a special kind of institutionalism. After all, Louis the Pious tried to institutionalize the Benedictine reforms. I think the problem there was that the Carolingians wanted to make all monasteries Benedictine, and therefore inevitably sucked in a load of the unenthusiastic and uncommitted and watered down the effect. It’s still very hard in the modern world to scale up or replicate a small organization successfully (such as a good school), because so often it requires on a few outstanding people. And as soon as a movement gets popular, paradoxically, it starts to get people wanting to join for the wrong kind of reasons.

      Cluny may have institutionalized, but it didn’t stay at the cutting edge of reform for that long; nor did the Cistercians. In fact, the only monastic order I know of that didn’t get repeatedly reformed was the Carthusians, who managed that only by making their order so austere that it never got really popular.


  2. Something I should have mentioned in my post is that Julia Barrow has shown persuasive reasons to push the main bulge of monastic reform efforts in England back to the 960s, and not concentrated all around 973. I’m not sure that an extra decade does Chris’s theories any real damage, given that it’s the same people involved either way, but as long as we’re discussing length of cultural revolutions, the figures here might also be “a bit longer than fifty years”. Only a bit though, and still only two generations.


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