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Monasteries and the Geography Of Power in the Age of Bede

Ian Wood

Northern History, Volume 45, Number 1 (2008)

Northumbria is usually thought to have been divided into two geographical regions, Deira and Bernicia. This article questions whether the division was really territorial or whether it was connected rather with the memorialisation of members of the ruling dynasties, which can be detected in monastic foundations, above all in the Vale of Pickering and on the Lower Tyne. These foundations both suggest that there was some distinction between northern and southern Northumbria, and at the same time illustrate the blurring of those distinctions in the course of the seventh and eighth centuries, with Deirans being remembered on the Tyne, and Bernicians in Ryedale.

Introduction: Pre-Viking Northumbria is usually divided into two geographical units: Deira and Bernicia, the former with its capital at York, the latter at Bamburgh, with its related religious site of Lindisfarne. The place-names Deira and Bernicia have been interpreted as the Land of the Waters and the Land of the High Passes. The exact borders of the two provinces have been a matter of debate, with the Tyne and the Tees both being suggested. Peter Hunter-Blair, following evidence relating to the medieval diocese of Hexham, argued in favour of the Tees, and this has come to be the most widely accepted opinion.

Yet this geographical description has always been problematic. Northumbria itself was a changing entity. As Hunter-Blair himself also pointed out, Bede’s terminology for the northern kingdom was not constant. The monk of Jarrow used the phrase gens Northanhymbrorum on a number of occasions, especially in his Ecclesiastical History, but he also referred to the gens Transhumbrana and to the Hymbronenses, while the anonymous author of the Life of Gregory the Great talked of the Humbrenses, and Stephanus in the Vita Wilfridi of the Ultrahumbrenses. The growing shift towards terms which concentrated on the north of the Humber no doubt reflected political reality, as the northern kingdom lost out to Mercia.

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