Thursday, November 25, 2010

So I Caught An Anglo-Saxon, and He Was This Long. Me on Fleming, Britain After Rome

So I've been reading Robin Fleming's Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070 (London: Allen Lane, 2010).

This isn't a review. If I finish a book these days, it's either because I think it's awesome on its merits, or because  I'm reviewing it, so if I think that a book is awesome, I'm not reviewing it. Unless "awesome" counts as a review. So I'm two for two on the Penguin History of Britain series. Fleming is great, and David Mattingly's An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire is great. I am very much reminded how the Oxford History of the United States is now going one for three for me right now. (Yes to this, BTW.) Pick up your socks, Oxford! As the reading suggests, the end of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Anglo-Saxon Britain bulk (disproportionately) large in my world history project.

Why? Because of that old story about how invading Anglo-Saxons turned Britain into England. I don't believe it, and don't think that you should, either. Much more importantly, I don't think that you should believe the story that is being told with it.

Besides Fleming (and Mattingly), I am going to wave at some other reading: Pryor's Britain AD;  Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages and Inheritance of Rome; and, provoking all this, Loseby, here. So there are some links to some fascinating books and a very helpfully posted pdf, which you should have a boo at, although we can still be friends if you don't ..Okay, maybe Wickham....

So why shouldn't we believe the Anglo-Saxon story? After all, the c. 550AD monk Gildas famously told us that Saxon mercenaries, brought in to protect their  British employers against assorted barbarians, revolted and established themselves in what we are now pleased to call "sub-Roman" Britain. King Arthur fought them, and everything! About 735, the Venerable Bede fleshed out the details in his Ecclesiastical History of the English, and later we get more details from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that claim to be contemporary but were probably composed starting around 800. This is a pretty coherent story in which, about 500 or so, a bunch of axe-wielding dudes came over from the Continent. The Jutes, from Jutland, got Kent. The Saxons, from around Hamburg, came ashore at Southampton and spread north basically in a semicircle stretching up to just about take up London. Finally, the people of the little district of Angeln, between Jutland and Saxony, came ashore literally everywhere else, and most especially including the Venerable Bede's own Northumbria.

So the virtuous people from the virtuous middle got all the best bits. And also, what's this about Northumbria?  Looking at where Bede was writing, it's a long way north of the Humber, which is that notch just where Britain gets all thin way down south. Of course, we call Bede's province "Northumberland" now, but Bede started it. Also, how does he know this story? Britain was a Roman colonial possession for 350 years, and that is the same amount of time as separated Bede from the Invasion! He's not even clear on the details of how things went down when his Kingdom of Bernicia converted to Christianity a century before his time. Bernicia, the kingdom that overlaps modern Northumbria, was supposedly set up by a fellow named Ida is about as mythical as Arthur, and a bit more real than Brutus.

And, while we're at it, why is Northumberland even there? I was told that Roman Britain was walled off from the savage Scots by Hadrian's Wall, but the whole county squirts north of the Wall! A quick check of Wikipedia on the subject tells me that we don't even know when the Anglo-Scottish border was surveyed, although, to be fair, there are theories. What happened between Hadrian's Wall and the "modern" border? It looks like ...something. All the early Scottish kings made a fuss about inheriting the rights of the old Earls of Northumbria, and it really doesn't seem like they're saying, "yes, we're kings of Scotland, but also earls of this bit that's in England." Actually, it looks like they're claiming to be the heirs of the Kings of Bernicia! The story (that we get from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) is that the Kingdom of Bernicia turned into the earldom of  Northumberland after the Earls, who just up and appeared one day, decided that they really, really, wanted to be subjects of the kings of Wessex-who-became-kings-of-England. Yet the earls seem to be descended from Bede's "kings of Bernicia," and the kings of Scotland of the House of Dunkeld are certainly descended from the earls on the female side at least. Why the heck did they sit still for this bit of English historiographic imperialism when the North was revolting every second Sunday down to 1715?

And since when did medieval nobles get so humble and self-effacing about their claims and their ancestors that all of this has to be extracted from sketchy old genealogies, as opposed to the loud-assed claims of the Scottish kings? In fact, I don't see any particular reason why the kings of the Scots couldn't have claimed to be descended from Ida on the male line. He's famous, he's a hero, he ruled lands that the Scots coveted. Why the heck wouldn't they, back in medieval times?

As far as I'm concerned, that's actually what happened, and we're just not getting all the facts. (That is, the  facts about the claims. Who either knows or cares whether the House of Dunkeld descends from Ida?) The hegemonic powers that consolidated the English and Scottish states had no interest in preserving them --which we know anyway. The first histories of Scotland are post-Dunkeld. By extension, Bede is, in my humble opinion, not giving us all the facts. Specifically, and bizarrely enough for who he was and where he was writing, he is prying the geographic specificity of the Bernician dynasty away from this chunk far in the north of okay, England, I guess, and using cute naming tricks to push it south, so that the subject of his narrative becomes, in a way, its periphery. Why? Because (wild speculation alert!) he is writing a history of the English church, and one of the key objectives of his stagecraft is to downplay the role of the archbishops of York as the actual paramount ruler of the North.  (Not my theory, and reliably taken further by such as like to take things further in the form of a theory that Bede's whole book is basically a hit job on Wilfrid of York.)

What's all that mean for us? That the narrative of the founding of Angle, Jute and Saxon states by invading king-hero-generals is just historical myth told for a specific reason that includes a very tricky bit of post-Roman history. Perhaps we even have Gildas because he is so useful for Bede's purpose --a great many of Gildas' contemporaries disappeared without a trace because no early medieval monks recopied their manuscripts, after all! See, back when Constantine became Roman emperor at the city of York, there was a Christian bishop there --he's mentioned in the proceedings of the church councils of the era, along with the bishop of London. That's why Pope Gregory told St. Augustine to aim at installing two archbishops in England, one at London, one at York. Unlike Gildas, who was in Bede's power, these are facts that he cannot edit, as they are in Gregory's letters. He has to write around them. Somehow, Canterbury in the Kingdom of Kent ended up with one archbishop, and while York eventually got its own, it was not without a major tussle with the monastic see of Lindisfarne, just north of Bamburgh. The Pope seems to have been more respected than obeyed.

Oh boy. Now I have to wrestle this ramble back to the subject! Well, two problems: first, Bede's narrative gives us a smooth and orderly narrative of the transition from Roman to Anglo-Saxon. It pushes the legitimacy of the Bernician state back to invasion times (very much on the model of the story of the Franks across the sea). On the other insists on the (almost) complete dechristianisation of (eastern) England. If the speculation about Bede's purposes is correct, he is wrong footing any claim from York that the bishop there represents true continuity from Roman times versus the kingdom of "Northumbria."

Not that I know that any bishop of York ever made any such claim. (As opposed to the Welsh bishops, who did it all the time.) Now, you may object that it is truly wild speculation that there might have been a succession of bishops at York and/or London  from 410 to 635, all erased from history at the behest of the triumphant Anglo-Saxon kings. That said, it's the kind of thing that medieval kings and bishops did all the time, and, come to that, it is an interesting maximalist claim. This is exactly what happened in France. It comes down to whether the old Roman towns survived in some fashion. Some archaeological readings of the way that the foundations of York cathedral were built directly on an earlier building (church?), itself built directly on the Roman-era basilica have slyly crept in the direction of implying exactly this, that York was a sub-Roman relict town at some point in say, 600, presumably ruled by a bishop. That's pretty strong medicine for the written record at  hand, and is no longer supported by the archaeology at York, but it is still hinted very strongly by the excavators of Wroxeter. Fleming retreats from such claims for York, while embracing Wroxeter. It is, after all, towards the western side of the island, where Christianity (and bishops) certainly did survive the end of Rome. (And she has an overarching theory, as I'll discuss.) The thing is, we now have Lincoln, even further east than York, crawling back into contention! (And if Bede implies issues with the diocese of York in his history, he has real problems with Lincoln.)

But, to come back to the point, how do enough Germans crossed the North Sea in a short enough time to exterminate, absorb, displace, or otherwise supplant a previously homogenously British society just as soon as the legions cleared the way without the top down organisation implied by some kind of state? Also, we're assuming ravenous barbarians "leaning in" on Britain, which requires us to start believing Roman propaganda about their frontier armies being angels who only ever (or mostly) fought in self-defence. On the contrary, wherever we can check,  it's the legions leaning out! I have no problem with raiders landing to steal and rustle. But organised barbarians with the bureaucratic wherewithal to systematically seize land, establish farms, and build a genocidal slave state? That's another matter. Are we saying that the historic roots of such an organisation survived the legions' acting out?

This is where I get back to the readings. Rome's armies left Britain, perhaps all at a go in 410, perhaps more gradually in after years. What happened then? Pryor argues for "archaeological continuity," which to him means people continuing to live on the same (rural) sites, farming the same way, and gradually coming to adopt "Anglo-Saxon" ways. Loseby at one point comes close to suggesting that it comes down to learning how to build a proper basement. This vision of the rural Briton is one who has never been particularly Roman, and Mattingly's survey of rural sites suggests that this vision has deep standing. The superstructure of the Roman state may have had relatively little to do with many Britons. Loseby inveighs against "continuity," by which he means any survival of top-down Roman life --no relict cities! Fleming, Loseby and Prior all come round to the idea that when the Roman superstructure vanishes, it takes with it all superstructure. There is nothing to organise and impose any kind of state, genocidal or otherwise, either present or incoming. No kings, no bishops, no captains.

For Loseby, the Romans means the abandonment of Roman towns were abandoned along with all Roman ways. Chris Wickham even suggests a mechanism. When the Roman state's taxation system broke down, average Britons gratefully withdrew from the exchange economy. Instead of producing surplus for markets that no longer existed to pay taxes there were no troops to support with, they turned from laborious work to other activies. Oppressive colonial state (Mattingly) was replaced by anarcho-primitivist commune (Monty Python) and even population declined, as the peasants no longer needed children to work for the taxman.

Fleming balances between extremes, seeing arguments for localised continuities while stopping short of labelling them the nucleii from which new states can emerge. If there were a bishop at Wroxeter, the organising effort was checked at a low level, and probably has more to do with the need to organise salt exports than with a felt need to manage the countryside at large. Rollason is more comfortable with the idea that Bede's "Bernicia" originates at a "sub-Roman" site along Hadrian's Wall, where a frontier militia presumably evolved into a kingly retinue, and King Ida of Bernicia, if he existed at all ,was the grandson of an Anglian Roman general, but that's a vision of a "heroic" sub-Roman age that Walter Goffart has always vigorously opposed. To him, heroism is a royal ideology, imposed on the past. At least we can agree that a radical social simplification took place in the half century after the end of Roman hegemony.

If this story is right, I would tentatively point to the question of coinage and ask whether the fall of the Roman colonial state meant, above all, the  collapse of credit and thus a collapse in "consumer demand": if the fall of Rome was a really bad depression! Hmm. And the Roman Empire was, by extension, a very shallowly-rooted plant, at least in Britain. Why? We should like to know  more.

As to the meta-historical problem, I'll be blunt. How did we ever get to imagining an invading army of Germanics organising a protacted, island-wide genocide before disorganising themselves for three centuries? At one level, the answer is obvious. It was a good way to talk about important matters in British Nineteenth Century politics. It was a way of deploying the emergent idea of race in arguments over Disestablishment and Home Rule. At another, the question is, why do we do this to history? Why do we accept such grandiose and poorly-found hypotheses just so that we can talk about politics in terms of analogies to things that didn't happen!?

(Edit: significantly rewritten, because the first draft was crap. I've tried to leave my point about Hadrian's Wall intact, so that ColinC's challenge makes sense and is still a challenge!)


  1. Hi, the idea of Hadrian's Wall marking the boundary with the picts to the north has always been a fallacy.The Antonine Wall in Scotland is a better bet here.

    Hadrians Wall was as much an economic barrier as a military one. There are sections of the Wall where you can see the vallum on the south side!

  2. I personally go with the idea that the frontier limes were about levying some kind of excise. That doesn't make the Anglo-Scottish border any the less mysterious, but admittedly it's reduced to being mysterious in a low-key medieval way.