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The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms 600–900 and the beginnings of the Old English state


Der fruhmittelalterliche Staat, ed. W. Pohl and V. Wieser (Vienna 2008), 73-88

There has, of course, been much debate about the validity and desirability of using the term ‘state’ in a medieval context. Measurements of medieval statehood against definitions of the modern ‘nationstate’ inevitably fail – even classical ‘states’ fail to measure up to such modern definitions. Earlier states have to be defined within their own terms. However, how to define what is meant by ‘state’ in an early medieval context? There are almost as many definitions as there are historians who have written on the topic. However, Walter Pohl has provided well-reasoned and clear guidelines as to what features can be said to have characterised early medieval ‘Staatlichkeit’, and these are taken as guidelines for the following discussion of the example of Anglo-Saxon England. His criteria include such features as stability, centrality of royal power, centralised control of economic production, identity as a gens and regnum, and a Christian vocabulary of community combined with that of the Roman imperial world. Although the subject of this chapter is the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, before it is possible to examine how concepts of medieval statehood might relate to them, one needs to establish to what form of statehood the early kingdoms were progressing, and so to address briefly the issue of the nature of the late Saxon state of the period 900–1066. Great claims have been made for the sophistication of the late Saxon state, particularly by the historians James Campbell and the late Patrick Wormald, both of whom have argued eloquently for the sophistication of the late Saxon statehood and the continuation of many of its features into the later Middle Ages and beyond. Reservations have been expressed, particularly about whether England was really in advance of, and more effectively organisedthan, other areas of tenth- and eleventh-century Europe, but it seems undeniable that late Anglo-SaxonEngland can fulfil many of the criteria that Walter Pohl has suggested for early medieval ‘Staatlichkeit’.

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