So I promised I’d write some stuff about historical topics I think are relevant to the things I worry about in the modern day! Now, the relevance of these posts might not always be obvious, but I think that’s a good thing. I’m not trying to make political points, necessarily — just put political questions in a (very loose, very broad) historical context.
We are all us
The period that I studied for my MA and PhD was the Anglo-Saxon period, which is usually dated from the late 5th to the 11th centuries. My particular focus was on the later Anglo-Saxon period, which I guess begins around 900 or so, but I paid attention to the whole range, of course.
The interesting thing about the Anglo-Saxon period — well, one of the interesting things — is that it is a period of ethnogenesis in two senses. Ethnogenesis means “birth of a people,” and it often refers to a group’s foundational myth. “The Scots are originally from Scythia,” or whatever. It can also refer to the process of national unification — the means by which, I dunno, Prussians and Swabians and Franconians and what have you all begin to think of those identities as secondary to being Germans.
The Anglo-Saxon period is like that in two ways: first, English writers of the 19th and 20th centuries tended to view the Anglo-Saxon period as the birth of the modern English nation, and to attribute to the Anglo-Saxons the qualities that they perceived in themselves. Charles Kingley said that Anglo-Saxon heritage had given him:
… a calm and steady brain, and a free and loyal heart; the energy which springs from health; the self-respect which comes from self-restraint; and the spirit which shrinks from neither God nor man, and feels it light to die for wife and child, for people, and for Queen.
Now, the idea that being English meant you were super purely Germanic fell out of favour during the 20th century for sooooome reason, but the idea that the English nation was a natural product of what happened in the Anglo-Saxon period was a pretty widespread one.
Authentic historical bullshit
But the interesting thing is — and I’m really summarising here — that something not too crazily dissimilar is happening in the Anglo-Saxon period itself. When you look at the history and archaeology of the period, you can see that an identity of Englishness is being formed out of a bunch of different, disparate identities. We even have the sort of … wreckage of unsuccessful attempts to construct alternative identities. At least that’s one way to look at them: like, the Sutton Hoo burial has been interpreted as an attempt to fuse a bunch of different heritages into a source of legitimacy for pagan kingship. Didn’t work out in the end, of course.
And I tend to think that the weird coins you get from York that have both pagan and Christian symbols on them are attempts to create a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Northumbrian identity. On the one side, the heirs of Alfred the Great saying: “you may be a Northumbrian and I may be a West Saxon, but we’re both English and we’re both Christians, and we’re going to get rid of these pagan Danes,” and on the other side the kings of York saying “you may be English and I may be Danish, but we’re both Northumbrian and we’re going to resist West Saxon rule.” That’s an oversimplification, obviously, but something like that.
Saint Peter on one side, hammer of Thor on the other. Pretty cool.
So the period that later writers invoked to justify English identity was formative in the creation of English identity, all right, but perhaps in a way they didn’t anticipate. It wasn’t the period when the noble, manly English came over from Germany and Denmark and what have you, it was the period (roughly) in which these groups went through the processes that made them the (noble, manly) English.
OK, but so what?
You will hear people say sometimes that things are “just a social construct.” This is often taken to mean that these things aren’t real, appealing to some nebulous definition of real that nobody really understands. They may mean true, which is a different story and one I don’t know if I can address. But social constructs are like other kinds of construct: they get constructed, and then there they are. A treehouse is just a physical construct. It didn’t grow there; the neighbour kids built it. But it’s there now, and they don’t want to let girls in because they’re a gang of little snots.
Like … take race. The division between black people and white people as practiced in the US takes one very diverse group of people and treats them as a homogeneous mass compared to another very diverse group of people who are also treated as a homogeneous mass. It is a super messy mess when it comes to anybody whose heritage is not 100% either, which is lots and lots of people. But it’s real, because people believe in it and behave accordingly. You can’t walk around modern America and act like it isn’t.
Aside: some people who profess to believe that social constructs aren’t real are instead saying they think they shouldn’t be real and exemplifying the point by behaving as if they weren’t. This is fair enough and a pretty good strategy if you can get it to work. I don’t want to
And while some people may feel that social constructs mean nothing, others think they’re destiny. Conservatives often to suggest that different groups can never live together peacefully, and people on all sides of the political spectrum like to act like certain modern trends are just inherent to the groups you find them among, even when the changes have occurred in living memory. Like, I’m only moderately old, and I remember when the big terrorist threat was a socialist national liberation movement.
As you can see, I think that view is obviously false. There are plenty of other examples of constructs that Americans (to return to my previous example) don’t treat like they’re really real, which in other times and places would have been real as hell. The ancestors of many modern Episcopalians and Presbyterians absolutely thought that the difference was worth shooting someone over. But in modern America … eh. Not so much.
I guess what I’m saying is that the Anglo-Saxon period is a fascinating example of a social construct — England — being constructed. And it’s constructed in different ways at the same time, and I doubt that anyone ever sat down and went “OK, guys, we need to forge a national identity here.” I think that if you’re interested in how ingroups and outgroups are formed, it can be interesting to look at the way groups that we just think of as a permanent part of the landscape form.
More thoughts to come in a future post: this is just a bit of an introduction, albeit one that got way out of hand.