Tuesday 22 March 2016

Two Crucifixes and the Norman Conquest

In my column for History Today this month, I've written about a church in Oxfordshire which has two incredible surviving Anglo-Saxon sculptures: two roods, one a life-size carving of Christ with outstretched arms, the other a smaller scene including Mary and John at the foot of the cross. They probably date to the tenth or eleventh century, and are a sign that the church in this quiet village must once have had some wealthy patrons.

I'm fascinated by early medieval life-size figures of Christ, such as this or the one at Romsey Abbey, and have written about them before here. They have a remarkably human presence, and the various records of how people interacted with them as if they were living creatures, and stories in which they actually come to life, make perfect sense when you are standing in front of them. The one at Langford can be seen from the road, before you even enter the churchyard; although now headless and damaged, its open-armed, welcoming embrace is strangely moving.

Also intriguing, particularly this year, is Langford's connection with a man named Ælfsige of Faringdon, who owned lands in the area both before and after the Norman Conquest. In this year, the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the events of 1066 are being commemorated in a variety of ways, including academic conferences, public events, and social media. I'm finding it all interesting to watch and participate in, especially because this year is also the 1000th anniversary of the Danish Conquest of England by Cnut - a bigger anniversary, receiving considerably less commemoration. Unlike 1066, Cnut's conquest doesn't even have a hashtag; and these days, can an event be said to exist at all if it doesn't have a hashtag? (That's a joke. Probably.)

There are many reasons for this disparity, some of which I explored three years ago when I began commemorating the anniversary of the Danish Conquest on this blog. (I'll consider it further later this year.) When it comes to engaging the public with history, anniversaries are very useful; as I've learned through my blogging and tweeting, there's no hook which seems to catch the public's attention more than 'On this day...' I don't entirely understand why this should be, but I think it's something more than idle curiosity; anniversaries have real power to stir the imagination, and I sometimes wonder about the relationship between this fascination, Twitter's daily obsession with new secular feasts in the form of 'National Whatever-it-is Day', and the fact that in the medieval church year almost every single day is an anniversary of something in one way or another. (Most liturgical feasts are to some extent based on the idea of 'on this day', literally or metaphorically.)

So it's interesting to watch the various responses to the anniversary of the Norman Conquest, and it provides a useful challenge to the historian: what's the best way to talk in public about this famous story, which is not just familiar but full of popular half-remembered facts (1066 and all that!) and bound up with some very deep-seated national myths? It stirs up emotions which manifest themselves in unexpected places, and the language we use to talk about this story can be revealing. I'm often taken aback by the tendency of twentieth-century historians to talk about people like Ælfsige of Faringdon in anachronistic language as collaborators, traitors, even 'quislings', as if a generation of historians who had grown up in the years after World War II were consciously or unconsciously applying the language of Nazi occupation to eleventh-century England. (Better historians than me have written about this.) It's bizarrely emotive language - whatever you think of the Norman Conquest, the Normans were not the Nazis! Although now less common in academia, it still has quite a hold on popular history, and it can cause problems if it leads historians to talk about the aftermath of the Conquest as if there was only one right way to respond to it and anything else is a bit morally suspect. It leads to a focus in popular discourse on the oppression/rebellion kinds of narratives (interesting as they are), and an omission of the more complicated ones, perhaps of the people for whom violent anti-Norman rebellion was not an option - women, the young, the old, monks and nuns, and so on. There's lots of great research being done on these kinds of topics, and hopefully the anniversary will allow some of it to filter through to the public.

But the use of an anniversary, a single date, has its problems too. The focus on one watershed moment, even one so undeniably dramatic and important as the Battle of Hastings, threatens to come at the expense of nuance. It's hard to simultaneously commemorate the anniversary of 1066 as a single decisive moment and to tell the longer story of what came before and after, and it can become all too easy to overlook the facts and stories which might get in the way. 'Are you Norman or Saxon?' asks this clever little English Heritage quiz, getting you to decide your allegiance on the day of battle - but of course it's not as simple as that. There are a hundred extra factors to take into account, from the other parties involved in the events of 1066 (the Norwegians, not to mention the Danes, who took an active role in the aftermath), to the fact that those who fought on the defending side at Hastings called themselves 'English', not 'Saxon' - as English as English Heritage itself. The king who led them was half-Danish: English-born, but with a Danish mother and a Scandinavian name, and cousin to the reigning king of the Danes. There's no particular reason to think that heritage made him less English in the eyes of his contemporaries - but then there are many complexities here we don't have the information to reconstruct. The popular use of the term 'Anglo-Saxon', though its widespread familiarity means it has its advantages, does have a tendency to obscure one of the most significant changes of this long span of time: the complex process of the development of an 'English' identity, which didn't exist at the beginning of the period and was firmly established by the end. 'Anglo-Saxon' is immediately understood as a historical term, and certainly has its uses in the early part of the period, but it's less helpful around the time of the Conquest; by 1066 these people generally called themselves, and their language, 'English' (englisc).

The fact that we don't often call them that says nothing about them, but a great deal about the effect the Norman Conquest had and still has on popular perceptions of history in this country, cutting off centuries of history and English literature as if they belonged to some kind of pre-history of a people who are not 'us'. The English Heritage website classifies all of Anglo-Saxon England, right up until 1066 (!), as 'the Dark Ages', which is pretty revealing about where their sympathies lie. (ETA: not any more, hurrah!) How can you hope to tell the story of the Norman Conquest with anything like objectivity when your unquestioned assumption is that the Normans brought 'light' into the 'dark' world of the Anglo-Saxons?

Dividing history into periods is always difficult, of course, though necessary, but there's no reason to use such pejorative language when there are plenty of less loaded alternatives available. No terminology is perfect, but acknowledging that fact openly can lead to useful discussions about how historians make these kinds of decisions. 'English' might work better than 'Anglo-Saxon' in 1066, but it certainly doesn't in 600 or 800 - and that can be the beginning of an interesting conversation about why. When it comes to engaging with the public, I think it can actually be very helpful to remind people that this sort of periodisation is mostly a matter of convenience, and that historical periods don't map easily onto human lives. If 1065 was the 'Dark Ages', and 1067 was 'medieval', how do you talk about the people, like Ælfsige of Faringdon, who lived through the decades before and after? (Or, for instance, St Wulfstan of Worcester, Earl Waltheof, St Margaret of Scotland, ordinary English monks, and so on.) It's not easy to classify the identities and allegiances of these people, or to label the world(s) they lived in; nor perhaps should we wish to.

It's when you get past the labels that the most interesting stories appear. To take one example: I was amused (and pleased!) to see that one of the questions in the English Heritage quiz helps you determine your allegiance by asking you to pick between pre-Conquest and post-Conquest manuscripts. The 'Saxon' images come from the New Minster Liber Vitae and the Bury Gospels, the 'Norman' ones from this Life of St Dunstan and a Passionale from St Augustine's, Canterbury. All four are beautiful manuscripts, and they make good examples of pre- and post-Conquest manuscript art from the early eleventh and early twelfth centuries. But, as it happens, they also nicely illustrate the complexity of the situation. For one thing, none of these manuscripts belong to any period anyone might reasonably call the 'Dark Ages' (just look at them!). All four are texts of Christian learning, produced in monasteries which had far more in common with each other, and with similar institutions across Europe, than with the England of the fifth century or the fifteenth.

On the 'Saxon' side, the New Minster Liber Vitae is the manuscript which contains the famous image of Cnut and Emma presenting a cross to the monastery, and it dates to c.1031, when England was part of Cnut's Scandinavian empire; if there's any such thing as an Anglo-Danish rather than an Anglo-Saxon manuscript, this is surely it. But it kept being used and added to throughout the eleventh century, and for decades after the Conquest; Norman names were added alongside English and Norse ones in the lists of friends of the monastery. The other manuscript, the Bury Gospels, belonged to a monastery which claimed Cnut and the Danish earl Thorkell as its founders, and which was an especially cosmopolitan centre of learning, even by the standards of late Anglo-Saxon England. At the time of the Conquest it had a French abbot, appointed by Edward the Confessor, and he remained in his post for more than thirty years after 1066.

As for the 'Norman' side, one of the images chosen (above) comes from an account of the life of a pre-Conquest English saint, Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury. The text dates to the late eleventh century (c.1090) but is based in large part on written sources from the tenth century. This image is of the text's author, the Canterbury monk and historian Osbern, who grew up in England before the Conquest and lived through its aftermath. Osbern later spent time in Normandy, grew close to St Anselm, dedicated some of his work to Archbishop Lanfranc, and lived in what we call 'Anglo-Norman' Canterbury. But he wrote only, and proudly, about English history, drawing on his memories of the pre-Conquest monastery as well as earlier written texts. So it's an image of an Englishman, writing about an Englishman, in a manuscript made in England at the birthplace, as Osbern describes it, of English Christianity; the very letter he's sitting is in an R for Regnante magnifico Anglorum rege Æthelstano, beginning a sentence which dates the birth of Dunstan, and the reign of 'Æthelstan, glorious king of the English', by reference, in true Bedan tradition, to adventus Anglorum in Britanniam. Is this a symbol of 'Norman' identity? Or of an attempt to preserve one (contested) version of pre-Conquest 'English' identity in the new Anglo-Norman world?


Perhaps this all just seems like pedantic nitpicking, but I'm not actually being critical - whatever image you chose might raise the same issues, and it's the complexity of those questions which makes the situation so fascinating. (And I approach these issues as a historian of literature; an art historian, or a legal historian, or an archaeologist would take a different view of periodisation here). You can tell the story of the Norman Conquest as a tale of goodies and baddies, the triumph of sophisticated Normans over the 'Dark Ages' of the primitive Saxons - but why would you want to, unless you think the public aren't capable of understanding anything more nuanced? There's nothing 'dark' about late Anglo-Saxon England, even in the sense of 'unrecorded' - there are ample surviving sources of all kinds, including an extraordinarily rich and sophisticated literature in both English and Latin. (It's one of my bugbears that because most people haven't heard of any Old English texts except Beowulf, they confidently assert that 'Anglo-Saxon England didn't have much literature'. So I try to redress the balance a little here...) Attempting to understand what did and didn't change at the Norman Conquest isn't helped by promoting the idea that someone just flicked a switch one day in 1066 and turned on the lights.

Anyway, there will be plenty of opportunities to think about these matters in this anniversary year. Though Langford is just a few miles from where I live, I only learned of its existence through a reader of this blog, who contacted me and invited me to go out and visit the church. It was a joy! I'll write a proper post about the church when I get a chance, but in the meantime you can read a bit more about it here.


Mark said...

I am so glad I came across this post and your blog just before Good Friday. You are an amazing and very readable historian.

It turns out that when Good Friday and Annunciation coincide, Easter falls on my birthday. There must be a sign there somehow. ;)

Have a great Easter.

PhilAtt said...

Thank you for your always-interesting blogs about this, my favourite era of history - mostly because of its misrepresentation, or worse, lack of any representation at all, in the popular media. Where are the blockbuster films about the events around 1066? Surely no nation neglects its own spectacular history as much as ours!

Have you seen the Saxon chalk rood at St Mary's church, Walkern (Herts)? It has some style points in common with Langford, but has a head (although no arms!)with a rather natty moustache. It's many years since I visited there, and took pictures on a film camera (still here, but exact whereabouts unknown!). Keep up the good work please!

Neville Grundy said...

Not the Hollywood blockbuster of 1066! If Gallipoli, Braveheart, and The Patriot are anything to go by, we'd have Mel Gibson as William the Conqueror leading a tiny bunch of Normans depicted as honourable mediaeval knights snatching victory against vastly superior numbers of decadent, bloodthirsty Anglo-Saxon warriors. And I've no doubt it would be William (i.e. Mel) who shot the arrow that supposedly ended up in Harold's eye.