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The English and Norman Identities in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries

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2.2The English and Norman Identities in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries

According to Hugh Thomas, by the eleventh century, the idea of a common and distinct English identity was well established, at least within the elites. Language, culture and geography formed the basis of the distinction. A separate identity was supported by the origin myth and historical tradition (founded by Bede and depicting the English as a chosen people), the royal government (especially via coinage and loyalty oaths) and the English church (both the members of the English church and the cult of the saints fostered the identity). It was connected with the loyalty to the English people, the land, and the king. On the other hand, we cannot draw any definitive conclusions about the ethnic self-identity of the peasants. The sense of Englishness was probably widespread among them but we are not sure how strong it was. Moreover, we have to take into account that other group identities (for instance regional identities) rivalled the English identity (20–26).

The same is true about the Normans. Both before and after 1066, a strong sense of a separate ethnic identity existed in Normandy, at least among the elites. The invaders considered themselves to be the Normans, not the French, though, being of Viking origin, by 1066, they had adopted French language and culture. Their sense of their distinct identity was based on the origin myth and history first recorded by Dudo of Saint-Quentin. One of the things that distinguished the Normans from the French was the Scandinavian heritage. The Normans thus became a chosen people who could trace their ancestry to the Trojan Antenor and who, on the one hand, came to France to punish the vices of its inhabitants and, on the other hand, to receive salvation through them. Norman identity was supported by the Norman government and the church (centred on Rouen). The French played an important role in its shaping, not dissimilar to the role of the Vikings in shaping the English identity (but the Normans developed hostility also towards other peoples such as the Bretons and Irish) (Thomas 35–40).

As Hugh Thomas writes, “hostility dominated the relationship between the ethnic groups” and “the bitterness between the English and Normans lingered well into the twelfth century” (5). Nonetheless, the relations between the two ethnic groups changed radically between the late eleventh and twelfth centuries.

The Norman invasion naturally provoked sentiments of hatred in the English. It was, moreover, strengthened by the ruthless suppression of the English rebellions (Thomas 61). However, the process of integration and assimilation had started already during the reign of William I (Thomas 62). Thomas, who distinguishes between individual and collective identity, recognizes three stages in the development of the shifting identity.

During the first stage, lasting until late in Henry I’s reign, strong distinctions existed between the English and Normans and their identities. On the other hand, some individuals of Continental descent already adopted, at least partially, English identities. Ambiguity was developing about collective identities.

In the second phase, delimited by the reigns of Stephen and Henry II, nobles were increasingly turning to an English identity. Collective identity became even more ambiguous and collective reference appeared only rarely in sources. English identity gradually became the norm for the descendants of earlier immigrants.

In the final period, at around the beginning of the thirteenth century, the process of the merging of the two identities was completed. The English identity was firmly established as the collective identity of the elites (Thomas 77–80). Some historians may see the completion of the assimilation even earlier in the twelfth century (Thomas 57). Still, the outcome remains the same: that the English identity triumphed over the Norman one though it was the identity of the conquered.

For the transitional period from plainly Norman to English identity, we may now speak about the Anglo-Normans. However, this term does not appear in contemporary sources (Thomas 72–73). Still, multiple ethnicity remained a possibility. As Hugh Thomas argues, it was not viewed in terms of hyphenated identities but people were perceived as having more than one identity (Thomas 73). It was not a matter of a transitional group identity but of individual choice (Thomas 71). In fact, “different individuals made different choices” (Thomas 74). We therefore have to approach the authors from this period of shifting identity one by one. To illustrate the process, I will now analyze William of Malmesbury’s Deeds of the Kings of the English.

2.3English Identity and the Anglo-Saxons in William of Malmesbury’s Deeds of the Kings of the English

William of Malmesbury was probably born not far from Malmesbury in Wiltshire between 1085 and 1090. He was of mixed parentage: his father was Norman and his mother English (Thomson 4). In fact, we may draw many parallels between the life and work of William of Malmesbury and that of Bede. From his boyhood until his death, William was monk of Malmesbury abbey in Wiltshire (Thomson 4) which was not a very important institution, except for the first half of the twelfth century (Gransden 141). He studied scriptures, hagiography, theology, the classics, civil and common law (Gransden 141) and became one of the most prolific writers of his time (Jones 11). Similarly to Bede, he became famous due to his historical works (Gransden 141).

In 1126, William of Malmesbury completed the first version of his Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of the English), a chronicle covering the history of England from 449 until 1127. It was the second secular literary history of the English nation to be written in England (Gransden 142). William of Malmesbury’s project was unique in many aspects. His historical method, based on both the Anglo-Saxon and the Anglo-Norman historiography, was innovative. He also transferred sources for the Anglo-Saxon period which are otherwise lost and provided us with (more or less) reliable information for his period (Gransden 142). He was the first historian to revise his writings as his opinions changed (Gransden 142). He revised the Deeds twice (Gransden 168). He also encouraged readers to cooperate on his project. The book appeared in English as The Chronicle of the Kings of England in 1847, and was edited by J. A. Giles.

As Antonia Gransden indicates, for William of Malmesbury, the task of a historian was to “record the truth, as far as it could be discovered, about important people and events, without fear or favour, clothing it in literary form, for the edification and amusement of his audience” (142). He used works of almost all the historians, biographers and hagiographers of the Anglo-Saxon period and many of those of his generation (Gransden 143). Nevertheless, his dedication of the Deeds to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, son of King Henry I and William of Malmesbury’s patron, suggests that he could not be completely impartial. Moreover, as Antonia Gransden argues, “he felt obliged to ‘prove’ the great antiquity of Malmesbury and Glastonbury: to do this he sometimes made uncritical use of legend and he copied forged charters” (168). Still, though he did not always succeed in remaining objective, “he showed a considerable critical acumen” (Gransden 168) and is considered to be the best of the twelfth century chroniclers (Jones 11).

William of Malmesbury begins the preface of his Deeds by praising Bede. He claims that there has not been any English history written in Latin of a quality better than that of Bede. William of Malmesbury’s purpose therefore is “to fill up the chasm, and to season the crude materials with Roman art” (Malmesbury 4). His Deeds are composed in five books. The first book is dedicated to the history of the English since their arrival to Britain until the reign of King Egbert and the author here gradually narrates the history of the individual Germanic peoples. The second book deals with the history of the English up to the Norman Conquest and the three remaining books treat the lives and reigns of three kings: William I, William II and Henry I.

William of Malmesbury begins his narrative with the description of Roman Britain. After the withdrawal of the Roman troops from Britain, when attacked by the Scots, the Britons are left to their fate. As the author writes, at that time, Vortigern was king of Britain. He is depicted as a man “wholly given up to the lusts of the flesh, the slave of every vice: a character of unsatiable avarice, ungovernable pride, and polluted by his lusts” (7; bk. 1, ch. 1). Together with his council, he decides to invite the Angles and Saxons to protect the kingdom. The Britons suppose that these Germanic peoples, being “of a roving life” (7; bk.1, ch. 1), would be so grateful for any piece of land that would enable them to settle down that they would not attempt anything against their hosts. Nevertheless, the Britons are to recognize soon that they underestimated the Germans who are as treacherous as themselves.

The Anglo-Saxons, led by two brothers, Hengist and Horsa, first come in a small number. However, they soon bring more compatriots with them and the beautiful daughter of Hengist. Vortigern, driven by lust, offers Hengist the whole of Kent for her hand and this is how the first Anglo-Saxon kingdom is founded. After that, despite the efforts of the Britons to expulse the invaders, the Anglo-Saxons gradually occupy the whole island “for the counsels of God, in whose hand is every change of empire, did not oppose their career” (11; bk. 1, ch. 1). William of Malmesbury then describes the development of the kingdoms and their mutual feuds. For him, Wessex represents the most magnificent and lasting kingdom that has ever existed in Britain (17; bk. 1, ch. 2).

Of particular interest is the depiction of the Norman invasion and the events which preceded it. Harold, Edward the Confessor’s successor, is portrayed as a plotter who “seized the diadem, and extorted from the nobles their consent” (255; bk. 2, ch. 13). On the other hand, William of Malmesbury opposes those who claim that the English were defeated in the battle of Hastings because, even though they were numerous, they were cowardly. He asserts that “they were few in number and brave in the extreme; and sacrificing every regard to their bodies, poured forth their spirit for their country” (257; bk. 2, ch. 13). However, in the following chapter, the author describes William the Conqueror as a brave man who keeps oaths (contrary to Harold) and whose claims to the English throne are a “just cause” (273; bk. 3, ch. 1), supported by both the Pope and God himself.

The chronicler’s view of the English and the Normans is also revealed by his description of the preparations for the battle of Hastings. The English spend the night before the battle drinking and singing whereas the Normans confess their sins. William of Malemsbury summarises the battle as “a fatal day to England, a melancholy havoc of our dear country, through its change of masters” (278; bk. 3, ch. 1). Because, though the English were warlike heathens when they arrived in Britain, they progressively became extremely religious. However, “in process of time, the desire after religion and literature had decayed, for several years before the arrival of the Normans” (279; bk. 3, ch. 1). Here, we learn why the English had to be defeated and subjected to the Normans: because they had turned away from God. Rather than seek knowledge and God’s will, they indulged in luxury and drunkenness (while the Normans remained frugal). Because of their rashness, they were defeated by the Normans who “revived, by their arrival, the observances of religion, which were everywhere grown lifeless in England” (280; bk. 3, ch. 1). In fact, the Normans are portrayed as generally superior to the English: the English indulge in gluttony whereas the Normans eat with moderacy, the English live in poor houses whereas the Normans dwell in grand mansions.

As for which identity William of Malmesbury considered to be his own, the best conclusion is probably proposed by Nick Webber. He asserts that “William saw himself as neither Norman, like William of Jumièges, nor English, like the Anglo-Saxon chronicler, but as a product of two gentes, two cultures and one country” (Webber 151). Interestingly, William of Malmesbury was able to distinguish between the land and the people. While he considered England to be his patria and English to be his tongue, the people with whom he identified were the inhabitants of England and of the two, he considered the Normans to be superior (Webber 151).

As we have seen, during his history, William of Malmesbury in turn takes opposite sides. It is due to the facts that he used both English and Norman sources and that he was half Norman and half English (Gransden 147). In the preface to Book Three, he claims that “as the blood of either people flows in my veins, I shall steer a middle course” (258; bk. 3, ch. 1). His attempts to reconcile the two sides are well illustrated by a passage at the end of Book Two. While he extols the bravery of the English and their struggle for liberty, he adds that “nor in saying this, do I at all derogate from the valour of the Normans, to whom I am strongly bound, both by my descent, and for the privileges I enjoy” (257; bk. 2, ch. 13). Living in an England ruled by the Normans, it was certainly expected that he glorify them. Nevertheless, he seems to be persuaded about the superiority of the Normans. On the other hand, he does not deny some strong points of the English.

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