Creating a gens Anglorum: Social and Ethnic Identity in Anglo-Saxon England through the Lens of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica
Windy A. McKinney
PhD thesis, University of York, 2011
This thesis examines of the role of Bede in the creation of an English national identity by considering the use, re-use and transmission of the Historia Ecclesiastica across the Anglo-Saxon period. Bede’s exemplary and providential history had created an image of an idealised past to inspire change in the present, and these models resonated with writers throughout this period. This study engages with the legacy of Bede’s text by surveying a wide range of case studies from across Anglo-Saxon England with attention to a broad spectrum of generic, geographical and political contexts from the eighth to the early eleventh centuries, in Latin and vernacular English. Written in Latin as historical prose narrative in early eighth-century Northumbria, we see the work being used later in that century in a very similar context by Alcuin in his York Poem. In the ninth century the use of the text followed the shifting political hegemony of Anglo-Saxon England south through Mercia, where it was probably translated into English, and into Wessex where it was mined as a source for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In both of these texts, we see the Historia being used to respond to viking invasion in distinct ways, as the vernacular narrative emphasises teaching and evangelism while the annals promote the military and political successes of Wessex. In the late tenth century, the Latin history is used as an important source in the vernacular homilies and hagiography of Ælfric. Using and supplementing Bede’s pantheon of saints from across England, Ælfric’s work prescribes a nationalised Christianity, which mirrors the growth of English identity, as the West Saxon cultural and political hegemony expands more deeply into the geographical and conceptual collective of peoples and kingdoms known to him as Engla land. These case studies demonstrate that Bede’s work remained influential throughout the period, with later writers consistently returning to the original text, re-interpreting his work to suit their own contexts and ideological needs.