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The Anglo-Saxon era and the wider world

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There has been much interest lately on the diversity of cultures in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon world, with many academics keen to promote research that highlights the positive interaction between communities, rather than existing as single homogenized societies. The Bibliography of British and Irish History can provide a useful platform for publication analysis, and give a general overview of trends and patterns on hot topics such as this. Taking the Anglo-Saxon period as a starting point, a search on the Bibliography of the period 450-1066 and the search term ‘other countries’ returns 1467 results, and by drilling down into publishing figures from 1970 to the present, it is clear that much more attention is currently being paid to Anglo-Saxon links with the rest of the world. There are only 250 resources published pre-1970, but statistical analysis after that time reveals the following results:

 

 

As the graph shows, there has been a steady increase in research, and an sharp rise in the mid 1990s, until the turn of the millenium when it plateaus at about the 235 mark. This may be due to the Bibliography becoming much more efficient in its indexing from 1992 onwards, and however encouraging these results, they do need to be assessed against the general rise in publications, which gives a more balanced view:

 

 

However, the percentage of resources published does show a steady increase, with figures doubling from the 1970s (at five per cent) to over ten per cent since 2000, showing that it is an area growing in interest. A map of the spread of resources further highlights how far-reaching the interactions were in the Insular world.

 

Click on images for more detail

These data visualizations show publication information, but looking at individual titles on the Bibliography is also vital to establishing the body of research out there.

Although physical geography may separate Britain and Ireland from other countries, it has never been left to develop in splendid isolation. All-important trade-routes and the growth of Christianity ensured that the Insular world had plenty of interaction with the Continent, and much further afield. Bede was keen to align the British Isles with the Roman Church (as opposed to the Insular Church), believing in a universal Catholicism, uniting all four corners of the known world. Despite never leaving Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, a constant stream of religious texts from the continent informed his global view, as Conor O’Brien’s book Bede’s Temple discusses. Never are these influences more apparent than in the Lindisfarne Gospels, the pinnacle of Anglo-Saxon culture. In her book chapter ‘The Cross and the book: the cross-carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels as sacred figurae’, in Cross and Cruciform in the Anglo-Saxon World, Michelle Brown discusses the many influences that fed into the manuscript images, including the resemblance the carpet pages bear to eastern Mediterranean prayer mats, which may have been used in Britain in the early eighth century to pray towards the east, highlighting the blending of eastern and western cultures. She analyses the crosses embedded in the carpet pages, and suggests that each cross represents the concept of a universal church – St Matthew a Latin cross, St Mark a Celtic cross, St Luke a Greek cross, and St John a Greek-style cross that was popular in Coptic Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia.

Carpet page for St John (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero D IV, fol. 210v)

Carpet page for St Matthew (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero D IV, fol. 26v)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Codex Amiatinus, a magnificent copy of the Vulgate bible produced at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow that went missing on its journey to Rome, also indicates just how closely Christian England had aligned itself with Rome – the reason it remained undiscovered for so long was because it was assumed to be Italian, so completely had it emulated the Roman style. In his book chapter ‘Amiatinus in Italy: the afterlife of an Anglo-Saxon book’, in Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent, Marsden explores the extraordinary journey of this manuscript. ‘Who introduced charters into England? The case for Theodore and Hadrian’ in Textus Roffensis: Law, Language, and Libraries in Early Medieval England is also a reminder that Theodore of Tarsus (Archbishop of Canterbury) and his companion Hadrian (Abbot of St Augustine’s, Canterbury) from north Africa were received very favourably as church leaders in England in the seventh century.

Leoba, correspondent of Boniface, was spiritual advisor to Hildegard, Charlemagne’s wife and following Boniface’s example, set up a monastery in Tauberbischofsheim, leading to further intellectual links between England and the Continent, as Lifschitz has discussed in Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia: a Study of Manuscript Transmission and Monastic Culture. ‘Alcuin, Rome, and Charlemagne’s imperial coronation’, a chapter in England and Rome in the Early Middle Ages: Pilgrimage, Art, and Politics further explores the blending of cultural relations. Pilgrimage was popular among Anglo-Saxon Christians, with both men and women travelling to Rome and Jerusalem, as can be witnessed from names carved into the catacombs at Rome (see previous blog post), or from Willibald’s spiritual journey to Jerusalem, written down by his sister Hugeberg in Vita Willibaldi and analysed in ‘Images of Jerusalem: the religious imagination of Willibald of Eichstatt’, also in Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent.

Byzantine solidus coin with bust of Leo I (457-474 AD)                   Image: Wikipedia

Trade was another major source for cultural interaction, and although the tin reserves in the south-west of England were much more heavily mined in the Roman era, there is evidence to suggest that it retained its trade links with the Mediterranean, as discussed in the book chapter ‘Early tin extraction in the south-west of England: a resource for Mediterranean metalworkers of late antiquity’ in Byzantine Trade, 4-12th Centuries. Another book chapter ‘Byzantine coins in early medieval Britain: a Byzantine’s assessment’ in Early Medieval Monetary History provides further links between the two worlds, as does ‘Britain and China at opposite ends of the world?: archaeological methodology and long-distance contacts in the sixth century’ from Incipient Globalization?: Long-Distance Contacts in the Sixth Century, which highlights the coinage found in eastern England in Anglo-Saxon burial mounds, and indicates the range of trade links from Byzantium. ‘Evidence of early medieval trade and migration between Wales and the Mediterranean Sea region’ in the Journal of Archaeological Science also highlights the fact that it wasn’t just material objects, but people, who were relocating to the British Isles. See also the blog posts of Dr Caitlin Green, for excellent visualisations on early medieval trade routes.

Although the close connections between the Vikings and Britain and Ireland have been well-documented, a fascinating book chapter titled ‘Viking-age queens and the formation of identity’ in The Viking Age: Ireland and the West discusses the portrayals of Eadgyth, Gormlaith and Auðr and their regal roles. The ‘marrying-in’ to different cultures may suggest a keenness (or an unwillingness) to be politically allied, and the subsequent portrayals of these women symbolized the links being forged between English, Irish and Scandinavian cultures. Aquitaine and Ireland in the Middle Ages also offers interesting evidence of cultural and commercial links between Ireland and the south-west of France, who could use the Atlantic Ocean to bypass mainland Britain. ‘Innse Gall: culture and environment on a Norse frontier in the Scottish Western Isles’ in The Norwegian Domination and the Norse World, c.1100-c.1400 also highlights the blurred boundaries between the British and Scandinavian world, and how those links persisted well after the Anglo-Saxon era.

 

Anglo-Saxon map of the world (London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, fol. 56v)

 

For resources covering areas beyond Europe and Byzantium, a book chapter called ‘Architecture and epigraphic evidence for Christian Celts in Connecticut, c. 500-700 A.D.’ in Atlantic Visions presents archaeological evidence for a drainage system that may signify occupation by settlers from Ireland or the Hebrides, strengthened by the presence of preserved inscriptions of the Chi-Rho symbol and Ogham script. An article titled ‘The figure of the Ethiopian in Old English texts’ in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, which although it offers both positive and negative aspects, highlights how places as far as eastern Africa were present in the Anglo-Saxon mind.

The Bibliography of the British and Irish History is an extremely useful tool for exploring both qualitive and quantitive results in history publications, in this case to explore the wider boundaries of the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain and Ireland.

 

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