Susannah Morrison and Miranda Wilcox, Department of English
This project examined the development of English nationalism in the ninth and tenth centuries. Prior to this moment in the island’s history, England had been divided into a series of independent and self-governing kingdoms, including Mercia in the Midlands, Wessex in the West Country, Northumbria, stretching from the Humber River north into southeastern Scotland, and East Anglia in modern-day Norfolk and Suffolk. However, under the pressure of violent Viking expansion, these ancient kingdoms were largely dissolved. Only Wessex, under the leadership of the legendary Alfred the Great, survived essentially intact, and able to exert its cultural and political hegemony over the remnants of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Alfred identified a unique opportunity for the political unification of England, seeking to consolidate the various factions of Anglo-Saxon sovereignty into a single polity under the aegis of Wessex. From the time of the first Christian missions to the Anglo-Saxons, great cultural currency had been attached to the identification of the Anglo-Saxon people—the gens Anglorum—with the Israelites of the Old Testament: a chosen people, led by divine providence to a promised land, destined to be ruled by a messianic warrior-king. Alfred politicized the gens Anglorum, turning this religious marker into the foundation of a pan-English national identity. Much scholarly attention has been given to the origins of the gens Anglorum identity, as well as to Alfred’s invocation of ‘chosen people’ rhetoric. However, these two subjects have historically been treated in isolation from one another. I wanted to research the development of the gens Anglorum identity in Alfred’s court, and deconstruct how Alfredian propaganda used this religious label in pursuit of a targeted political platform.
My research began with a thorough survey of Old English and Alfredian literature. During the winter semester of 2016, I benefitted immensely from an advanced Old English seminar under the direction of Dr. Don Chapman, who kindly directed our course readings towards my research interests. Although my original plans for this project had included spending the summer conducting research in the United Kingdom, a family crisis necessitated a change in plans. Over the course of summer 2016, I continued my research, familiarizing myself with the extensive body of scholarly work on this topic, and beginning the writing process in close collaboration with my faculty mentor, Dr. Miranda Wilcox. My research continued as I spent the fall semester of 2016 at the BYU Jerusalem Centre for Near Eastern Studies, further developing my understanding of the precise mechanics of a ‘chosen people’ identity, particularly as it interacts with nationalist sentiment.
My research ultimately focused on a deconstruction of Alfredian propaganda. I identified three major elements prevalent in either texts produced at Alfred’s court, or in other influential works of the Old English corpus, which all either directly or indirectly link back to the biblical definition of a chosen people: the centrality of a sacred national language; the role, responsibilities, and presence of a divinely anointed king; and the importance of a promised land, possession of which was vital as evidence of the continuation of the covenant between God and His chosen people.
A large part of Alfred’s nation-building project hinged on the elevation of the Old English vernacular to the status of a new holy language. Alfred’s court sponsored a wide-scale promotion of Old English literary culture, including the translation of many significant Latin texts into the vernacular. Although the promotion of Old English literacy was, in part, a simple matter of necessity due to declining Latin literacy, this movement led to the enshrinement of Old English as both a literary and scriptural language. Unlike Latin, which was the lingua franca of European Christendom and, therefore, universally applicable, Old English was distinct, relevant only to the Anglo-Saxons. By promoting Old English literary culture, Alfred reasserted one of the most persuasive commonalities among the disparate Anglo-Saxon peoples—and transformed the common vernacular into an exclusively national successor to Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
The personality cult of King Alfred himself was also enshrined at the very heart of his nation-building project. Alfredian literature modeled their portrayals of the king after that of the biblical King David—the ideal model of kingship, perfectly uniting the dichotomy between Alfred’s historically concrete role as a violent warrior-king, and his public persona as a sensitive patron of the arts. This is particularly prevalent in the biographical Life of Alfred, produced during the king’s lifetime by the Welsh historian Asser, which situates Alfred’s life in narrative alignment with the biblical record of David. This identification between Alfred and David is significant, as it demonstrates the way in which Alfred perceived himself to be the David of the Anglo-Saxons: called to bring God’s word to His covenant people at a specific time and place in history, chosen to defend the faith and defeat his pagan enemies, and ordained to act as a prophet of the Solomonic golden age to come.
The final crucial element of Alfredian propaganda lay in the sanctification of the land of England itself. Alfred’s writings provided a strong link between the morality and religiosity of his people, and the security and preservation of their land. As for the Israelites of the Old Testament, the Anglo-Saxons’ continued right to occupy England served as an indication of the continuation of their divine covenant. The Viking conquests of the time, and the associated loss of life and land, were understood to be a marker of divine disfavour due to a lack of religious orthodoxy. Only by returning to their God, and by once again embracing and fully occupying their role as a chosen people, could the English expect a lasting peace in their own promised land.
It would, of course, be anachronistic to claim that Alfred’s idea of the English nation ever bore tangible fruit during his own reign. This notion was essentially intellectual; indeed, it would not be until the tenth-century rule of Alfred’s grandson Æthelstan that England could be said to be politically united—and even then, only temporarily. But as tangentially as Alfred’s Christian mythology ever intersected with reality, strands of his intellectual DNA remain present throughout the rest of the Anglo-Saxon period, and indeed, stretching forward into today’s modern English identity—a testament to the force of Alfred’s intellect, and the far-ranging implications of his intellectual gift to the English nation.