Monday, August 10, 2009

Bede's Brits: Part the Second

Well, another post that took about two weeks. Last week was not my most productive I have to say, but I'm back in the saddle so to speak and so offer this meditation...probably cutting off my nose to spite my face by doing so.

Way back when there was a discussion about The Man of Law's Tale on In the Middle that generated a bit of discussion. One of the things that I suggested in the comments garnered a response from J. J. Cohen that I wrote about before. In his response Cohen also cited his own Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity and I wanted to return to the issue after some 3 months now and respond to a few of the statements in the quote.

Let me say at the outset of these comments again that I agree with Cohen in many respects. Bede does have a point of view and he isn't reporting straight, unbiased history. So I like the direction overall. I think some things need a bit of reconsideration though.

Jeffrey says: By the time Bede set pen to vellum the inhabitants of Britain had long spoken a variety of languages in an abundance of dialects. No doubt rapidly changing patois enabled trade and other less ephemeral forms of exchange. Many islanders would have been multilingual, indeed multiracial. The peoples of Britain were for much of this period more alike than different: possessing cultures and speaking tongues that lacked internal uniformity; prone to forming princely, kingly, and familial factions of variable scope and duration; mixing pastoral and pillage economies with less mobile religious and agrarian pursuits; willing to ally themselves militarily and matrimonially with those outside their linguistic and cultural circles. The British archipelago was, in short, as unsettled as it was compound, a dynamic expanse engendering what contemporary theorists of the postcolonial label creolization, métissage, doubleness, mestizaje, hybridity. No surprise, then, that "Anglo-Saxon England" is famous for its syncretism, its ability to embrace diverse and even contradictory traditions simultaneously.

Yet Bede stresses throughout his Ecclesiastical History the separateness and the supersession of insular peoples, a point emphasized even in his opening observation that Britain was "formerly known as Albion" (1.1; by whom he never says).

This is an interesting take. But source critic that I am, I can't quite let it alone. He doesn't say who called the island Albion because he doesn't know. The source for the statement is Pliny in his Natural History, and Pliny is getting from geography writers earlier than he going back I'm told to about the sixth century BCE. I've not done a detailed study on the name/word Albion, but from what I understand and know, the whole, entire tradition of the island of Great Britain being called "Albion" stems entirely from Greco-Roman tradition: writer after writer repeating what authorities in old books told them all the way down to Bede.

So far as I know there is no evidence that the indigenous peoples of Great Britain ever called the island Albion, or its Celtic equivalent, much less evidence that they were yet doing so 13 centuries after it was first reported in Greek tradition. I may of course be wrong on that, so I'm sure someone will correct me.

So Bede doesn't say who calls it Albion because he doesn't know, he's simply invoking auctoritas, but it is Greco-Roman auctoritas. His source doesn't know who calls it Albion either, btw.

He therefore acknowledges hybridity only obliquely.

True, but that's expected. Was hybridity ever openly acknowledged and received? Even now, in many places in the world, hybridity is grounds for discrimination, hatred, being an outcast....while we can not excuse Bede and his world for much the same, neither can we condemn for what our world still does. I don't think Jeffrey would disagree with this.

But Bede does acknowledge hybridity of many types. A perusal of his works reveals a synthesis of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Roman, and to a lesser degree Hebrew. His is a hybrid culture. In the HE for example he not only tells us about the background of Wessex, with its former name the Gewisse, a Celtic name, but tells us of Caedmon the cowherd, a Celtic name, serving in a royal double monastery of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom with a Celtic name, who becomes the teacher of his teachers with his poetry: the Celt (ok, possibly. A Celtic name does not a Celt make.), the lower class, the illiterate, the songless becomes a great singer, the lower class becomes the highest class, the man with the Celtic name wins great honor among Anglo-Saxons. Bede's treatment of Cuthbert is truly hybrid presenting a saint who combines what we now know are "Celtic" or at least Irish practices with "Roman" practices modeled on the best of the saints from Ireland and Gaul and Britain. The list could go on, but Bede preserves for us images of a hybrid culture.

No, he doesn't explicitly say that his culture is a hybrid, including genetic, cultural, and linguistic Brittonic elements. But then the question is whether he could, was he even aware of the various roots of his culture? But he does preserve for us that hybridity, and often praises elements of it from all sources.

Another example of apparent unawareness of roots of the hybridity that we moderns see in Northumbrian culture stems from the Life of Wilfrid. Wilfrid is famous for his stands against "Irish heresy" on the Easter and tonsure questions. Bede is one source for this, the life of Wilfrid another, and there are other mentions in later literature. Throughout the life, Wilfrid is presented as a heresy fighter pointing out more than once that he it was who rooted out the Irish heresy. Yet Wilfrid is very much the Irish churchmen. I use the term loosely there, Wilfrid was very probably connected to the royal house and so at least saw himself and was seen as an Angle. But Wilfrid's sphere of influence, his itinerancy, all look like Irish bishops/abbots, esp. Columba. Episodes in his life look very much like episodes in the lives of Columba and Bridget. Within his sphere there were hermits, a Celtic practice of Christianity seen elsewhere in Northumbria, and other trappings of "Celtic" Christianity. Wilfrid himself then, and his familia, the most anti-Celtic, anti-Irish of the bunch it would seem nonetheless has a hybrid culture, but seems completely unaware of it.

Jeffrey continues:
Bishop Aidan oversees monasteries that conjoin his native country to the Picts and the Angles. He lives on an island, Iona, which straddles the space between Britain and Ireland. His monastic community (if Adomnán of Iona is to be believed) amalgamates the Irish, Picts, English, and Britons. Through Aidan's friendship with Oswald, English Britain is transformed by Irish learning into a composite space (3.3).

Right, and in this paragraph talking about various levels of hybridity, we have to remember that it is Bede who preserves this for us. He is concerned to address two issues: paganism which is bad, so a kind of hybridity that on the surface he rejects, and his indictment of British Christianity, though he doesn't seem to have a particular problem with British culture. Re: paganism while Bede rejects that, undoubtedly Bede is somewhat aware of "pagan" elements that survive in his culture. Caedmon's hymns for example are born out of a pagan, or at least pre-Christian custom that Bede approves of since it can be utilized in Christian efforts. He preserves the letter of Gregory the Great who advocates the "baptism" of pagan religious sites (and even practices) into service of Christianity even Bede's "indictment" of paganism becomes a bit problematic if seen as simple "rejection" of paganism. It isn't that simple under the surface.

Now to the paragraph I cited, this one of those places where Bede comes closest to acknowledging hybridity under the umbrella of a single church. He willingly defends the Irish against the more severe charges and acknowledges the Northumbrian church's debt to the Irish, as well as the kings with Irish connections. He acknowledges the familia of Lindisfarne as being Irish, Angle and having influence among the Picts and so on. And though Bede doesn't mention the British here, Admonan does as Jeffrey points out. So especially for Northumbria, Bede is perfectly willing to trumpet certain kinds of hybridity and even proclaim them as the apex, the achievement of the English church: it is after all the Northumbrian hybrid Christian community that spread Christianity to some other corners of the island and even began successful missions to the continent in Bede's tale. And this church eventually brought their old teachers the Irish into the fully orthodox fold and sent back the oldest and most beautiful Vulgate, so well done in fact that for centuries after its origins were forgotten people thought it was a Roman production.

Jeffrey continues:
Despite these multicultural vectors, however, most interminglings unfold only to be condemned. Rædwald's East Anglia is the location of the famous Sutton Hoo burial, an archeological discovery that – like the corpus of Old English poetry itself – suggests that the Rædwald's syncretism is far more indicative of the practice of Christianity in England than Bede's absolutist vision of pagan/Christian separation. Because Rædwald stations Christ alongside native gods and privileges neither, because his desire is to combine rather than to sort, the monarch must in Bede's account be deplored.

I disagree. Most interminglings are accepted as a matter of course or praised. Certainly there are those Bede rejects, but most of the hybrid elements of multiple cultures in Bede's works are woven into the tapestry of the so-called Northumbrian Renaissance. Raedwald's unusual action is a case in point. Becoming Christian or not becoming Christian was a matter of political allegiance as much as religious allegiance. And that fact is attested beyond Bede and his accounts. But if a king in the Germanic world became Christian (and we see this in Ireland too), then everyone in his kingdom became Christian if they had allegiance to him. Thus, when hedging their bets on this Christian thing, these kings often sent their elder sons and heirs who were to remain pagan into exile, who thus could bring back the old religion should the new one not work out. But then the king would be a Christian and the rest of the kingdom with him, at least in name. Thus, Raedwald's decision to maintain a temple with both an altar to Christ and to the native, Anglo-Saxon gods was an unusual step rather than how Christianity was normally practiced. And the criticism then goes far beyond simply a Christian monk excoriating a king for not fully converting to the Christian faith. But the criticism is also cultural, not simply one of "Christian" or not. Naturally Bede doesn't winnow these separate elements, for him they are all one just as he doesn't winnow hybrid elements and label them: for him they are all his culture. But it is doubtful that Raedwald's solution was a typical one in Anglo-Saxon England, and certainly not one that either his son or his stepson embraced. Nor is Raedwald "combining": he isn't being syncretistic. He is doing both, but each has its own separate sphere and locale of worship. So he does sort, just according to Bede he sorts wrong.

The next remark, The Mercians are allowed their alliance with the Britons only because they are pagans, and therefore as detestable as the confederates they treat as equals I think misses something. The Britons in this case, under Caedwalla, rebel against their "rightful" Lord, Edwin and to add to their rebellion ally themselves with Edwin's enemy Penda, who had already attacked Northumbria more than once. In anyone's book that's deplorable, unless of course you're one of those who is rebelling and you win. In American mytho-history there is Benedict Arnold: he betrays his cause and abets the enemy; such a act on his part has given American English a whole new logism for being a traitor: to be a Benedict Arnold. In ancient Jewish history, nationalistic Jews have a big problem with Josephus, who sold out to the Romans. And the list could be expanded exponentially. The point is that Bede can not simply be reduced to lumping Caedwalla and his Britons in with Penda in a big "not our kind of Christian" lump, that simply isn't what Bede is saying. Caedwalla gets mixed reviews in Bede. A little later after Edwin's death, Bede says that Caedwalla executed just judgment against Osric and Eanfrith, though with unrighteous violence. Osric and Eanfrith Bede characterizes as apostates, Caedwalla as a tyrant. And there is nothing to think Caedwalla wasn't once he got hold of Northumbria: Northumbria had after all subjugated him and his people, and tried to retake him, and then Osric attacked him and besieged in one of his cities. Christian or not, Northumbria as a kingdom had not been his friend or a firm supporter. Bede, being Northumbrian and possibly related to the royal house, can hardly be expected to be on Caedwalla's side, though he preserves for us how and why Caedwalla would have been a tyrant during the year or so he ruled Northumbria. Its an interesting conjunction that while Bede criticizes and promotes his own point of view, he yet lets us read under the surface to see more than he immediately tells us.

I think Jeffrey a little unfair when he comments Oswald is allowed his Irish tongue and his subjects their Irish instruction because this source of Christianity does not come from a people, like the Britons, vying against Bede's Angles for possession of the island. There is simply no evidence of such "instruction" coming from the British, and given the last post on this linked above, there isn't any reason to think that there was any such instruction that simply isn't in Bede. Instructive and parallel to this is Patrick's criticism of Coroticus in his letter for being a "Christian" king capturing fellow Christians and there is no evidence that the British Christians under Coroticus attempted to evangelize the Irish much less the Anglo-Saxons.

Onto Britain's primal and enduring heterogeneity Bede projects a reductive separateness. Well, yes, but its not along the lines that one might think. For too long in Bedan studies it has been assumed that what we're dealing with is an ethnic divide. Or even a linguistic or religious one. While there are religious divisions that separate, there are also divisions that are overcome. The divisions that divide are along political lines rather than ethnic, genetic, or even cultural. There are those kingdoms that are Christian under kings and recognize Rome, and there is everyone else. Bede records battles between the "good guys" without comment or censure, while some battles, such as those spoken of above, are outlined in terms that let us know what Bede thinks. And those lines are generally based on Bede's view of proper authority: rightful kings and in religion, Rome and its representatives.

Finally Jeffrey says, his is a long way of saying that Karl identifies in his post a preoccupation that unites Chaucer to Bede. Both authors lived with a past as well as a present where cultural borders were indistinct. Both nonetheless refused to see this messiness, describing instead an island where boundaries and segregations held impossibly firm.

Hmmm....I disagree. Leaving Chaucer aside for another post, Bede unites that "messiness" into a homogeneous, albeit messy, whole based on those elements of recognition of proper king and recognition of Christianity in Roman form and Rome's representatives. Bede isn't particularly preoccupied in putting down Brits or in competing with Brits for control of the island. He is interested in uniting the island under the banner of orthodox Roman Christianity.

On the other hand, one could argue that Bede and his use of certain sources is imposing on the English and Brits alike a foreign "power": Romanitas. It is after all chiefly Roman authors Bede relies on, and esp. Roman Christian authors. Gildas is one exception, but he too is believed to have written his sermon about the time he took a trip to Rome. It is this new element to the "hybridity" that Bede wants all English (and that means for Bede everyone in an English kingdom, not necessarily concerned with ethnicity, genetics, race, or language) to adopt an identity: Roman Christian in England, and if not, then he certainly leans toward describing them in monstrous terms. I think that could make an interesting chapter in a book: race doesn't matter, culture doesn't matter, but a particular kind of religious alignment does.