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.