Tag: History

Ecclesiastical History of the English People

The Venerable Bede

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Latin: Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum), written by the Venerable Bede in about AD 731, is a history of the Christian Churches in England, and of England generally; its main focus is on the conflict between the pre-Schism Roman Rite and Celtic Christianity.

It was originally composed in Latin, is considered to be one of the most important original references on Anglo-Saxon history and has played a key role in the development of an English national identity. It is believed to have been completed in 731 when Bede was approximately 59 years old.

Folio 3v from the St Petersburg Bede

The Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or An Ecclesiastical History of the English People is Bede’s best-known work, completed in about 731. The first of the five books begins with some geographical background and then sketches the history of England, beginning with Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC. A brief account of Christianity in Roman Britain, including the martyrdom of St Alban, is followed by the story of Augustine’s mission to England in 597, which brought Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons.

The second book begins with the death of Gregory the Great in 604, and follows the further progress of Christianity in Kent and the first attempts to evangelise Northumbria. These encountered a setback when Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, killed the newly Christian Edwin of Northumbria at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in about 632. The setback was temporary, and the third book recounts the growth of Christianity in Northumbria under kings Oswald and Oswy.

The climax of the third book is the account of the Council of Whitby, traditionally seen as a major turning point in English history. The fourth book begins with the consecration of Theodore as Archbishop of Canterbury, and recounts Wilfrid‘s efforts to bring Christianity to the kingdom of Sussex.

The fifth book brings the story up to Bede’s day, and includes an account of missionary work in Frisia, and of the conflict with the British church over the correct dating of Easter. Bede wrote a preface for the work, in which he dedicates it to Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria. The preface mentions that Ceolwulf received an earlier draft of the book; presumably Ceolwulf knew enough Latin to understand it, and he may even have been able to read it.

Frisia in present day Holland and west Denmark

The preface makes it clear that Ceolwulf had requested the earlier copy, and Bede had asked for Ceolwulf’s approval; this correspondence with the king indicates that Bede’s monastery had excellent connections among the Northumbrian nobility.

Divided into five books (about 400 pages), the Historia covers the history of England, ecclesiastical and political, from the time of Julius Caesar to the date of its completion (731). The first twenty-one chapters, covering the period before the mission of Augustine, are compiled from earlier writers such as Orosius, Gildas, Prosper of Aquitaine, the letters of Pope Gregory I, and others, with the insertion of legends and traditions.

Pope Saint Gregory I

After AD 596, documentary sources that Bede took pains to obtain throughout England and from Rome are used, as well as oral testimony, which he employed along with critical consideration of its authenticity. This is impressive; nevertheless, the Historia, like other historical writing from this period has a lower degree of objectivity than modern historical writings.

It seems to be a mixture of fact, legend and literature. For example, Bede quotes at length some speeches by people who were not his contemporaries and whose speeches do not appear in any other surviving source; it is doubtful whether oral traditional history supported these ostensible quotations.

The monastery at Jarrow had an excellent library. Both Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith had acquired books from the Continent, and in Bede’s day the monastery was a renowned centre of learning.

For the period prior to Augustine’s arrival in 597, Bede drew on earlier writers, including Orosius, Eutropius, Pliny, and Solinus. He used Constantius‘s Life of Germanus as a source for Germanus‘s visits to Britain. Bede’s account of the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons is drawn largely from Gildas‘s De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. Bede would also have been familiar with more recent accounts such as Eddius Stephanus‘s Life of Wilfrid, and anonymous Lives of Gregory the Great and Cuthbert. He also drew on Josephus‘s Antiquities, and the works of Cassiodorus, and there was a copy of the Liber Pontificalis in Bede’s monastery.

Saint Germanus of Auxerre

Bede also had correspondents who supplied him with material. Albinus, the abbot of the monastery in Canterbury, provided much information about the church in Kent, and with the assistance of Nothhelm, at that time a priest in London, obtained copies of Gregory the Great‘s correspondence from Rome relating to Augustine’s mission.

Almost all of Bede’s information regarding Augustine is taken from these letters, which includes the Libellus responsionum, as chapter 27 of book 1 is often known. Bede acknowledged his correspondents in the preface to the Historia Ecclesiastica; he was in contact with Daniel, the Bishop of Winchester, for information about the history of the church in Wessex, and also wrote to the monastery at Lastingham for information about Cedd and Chad. Bede also mentions an Abbot Esi as a source for the affairs of the East Anglian church, and Bishop Cynibert for information about Lindsey.

The historian Walter Goffart argues that Bede based the structure of the Historia on three works, using them as the framework around which the three main sections of the work were structured. For the early part of the work, up until the Gregorian mission, Goffart asserts that Bede used Gildas‘s De excidio. The second section, detailing the Gregorian mission of Augustine of Canterbury was framed on the anonymous Life of Gregory the Great written at Whitby.

The last section, detailing events after the Gregorian mission, Goffart asserts were modelled on Stephen of Ripon‘s Life of Wilfrid. Most of Bede’s informants for information after Augustine’s mission came from the eastern part of Britain, leaving significant gaps in the knowledge of the western areas, which were those areas likely to have a native Briton presence.

Saint Gildas

The History of the English Church and People has a clear polemical and didactic purpose. Bede sets out not just to tell the story of the English, but to advance his views on politics and religion. In political terms he is a partisan of his native Northumbria, amplifying its role in English history over and above that of Mercia, its great southern rival. He takes greater pains in describing events of the seventh century, when Northumbria was the dominant Anglo-Saxon power, than the eighth, when it was not. The only criticism he ventures of his native Northumbria comes in writing about the death of King Ecgfrith in fighting the Picts at Nechtansmere in 685.

Bede attributes this defeat to God’s vengeance for the Northumbrian attack on the Irish in the previous year. For while Bede is loyal to Northumbria he shows an even greater attachment to the Irish and their missionaries, whom he considers to be far more effective and dedicated than their rather complacent English counterparts.

His final preoccupation is over the precise date of Easter, which he writes about at length. It is here, and only here, that he ventures some criticism of St Cuthbert and the Irish missionaries, who celebrated the event, according to Bede, at the wrong time. In the end he is pleased to note that the Irish Church was saved from error by accepting the correct date for Easter.

Bede’s stylistic models included some of the same authors from whom he drew the material for the earlier parts of his history. His introduction imitates the work of Orosius, and his title is an echo of Eusebius’s Historia Ecclesiastica. Bede also followed Eusebius in taking the Acts of the Apostles as the model for the overall work: where Eusebius used the Acts as the theme for his description of the development of the church, Bede made it the model for his history of the Anglo-Saxon church.

Bede quoted his sources at length in his narrative, as Eusebius had done. Bede also appears to have taken quotes directly from his correspondents at times. For example, he almost always uses the terms “Australes” and “Occidentales” for the South and West Saxons respectively, but in a passage in the first book he uses “Meridiani” and “Occidui” instead, as perhaps his informant had done. At the end of the work, Bede added a brief autobiographical note; this was an idea taken from Gregory of Tours‘ earlier History of the Franks.

Bede’s work as hagiographer, and his detailed attention to dating, were both useful preparations for the task of writing the Historia Ecclesiastica. His interest in computus, the science of calculating the date of Easter, was also useful in the account he gives of the controversy between the British and Anglo-Saxon church over the correct method of obtaining the Easter date.

The Venerable Bede

One of the important themes of the Historia Ecclesiastica is that the conversion of the British Isles to Christianity had all been the work of Irish and Italian missionaries, with no efforts made by the native Britons. This theme was developed from Gildas’ work, which denounced the sins of the native rulers during the invasions, with the elaboration by Bede that the invasion and settlement of the British Isles by the Angles and Saxons was God’s punishment for the lack of missionary effort and the refusal to accept the Roman date for celebrating Easter.

Although Bede discusses the history of Christianity in Roman Britain, it is significant that he utterly ignores the missionary work of Saint Patrick. He writes approvingly of Aidan and Columba, who came from Ireland as missionaries to the Picts and Northumbrians, but disapproved of the failure of the Welsh to evangelize the invading Anglo-Saxons. Bede was a partisan of Rome, regarding Gregory the Great, rather than Augustine, as the true apostle of the English.

Likewise, in his treatment of the conversion of the invaders, any native involvement is minimized, such as when discussing Chad of Mercia‘s first consecration, when Bede mentions that two British bishops took part in the consecration, thus invalidating it. No information is presented on who these two bishops were or where they came from. Also important is Bede’s view of the conversion process as an upper-class phenomenon, with little discussion of any missionary efforts among the non-noble or royal population.

Another view, taken by historian D. H. Farmer, is that the theme of the work is “the progression from diversity to unity”. According to Farmer, Bede took this idea from Gregory the Great, and illustrates it in his work by showing how Christianity brought together the native and invading races into one church. Farmer cites Bede’s intense interest in the schism over the correct date for Easter as support for this argument, and also cites the lengthy description of the Synod of Whitby, which Farmer regards as “the dramatic centre-piece of the whole work.”

The historian Alan Thacker wrote in 1983 that Bede’s works should be seen as advocating a monastic rather than secular ministry, and Thacker argues that Bede’s treatment of St Cuthbert is meant to make Cuthbert a role-model for the role of the clergy advocated by Gregory the Great.

The historian Walter Goffart says of the Historia that many modern historians find it a “tale of origins framed dynamically as the Providence-guided advance of a people from heathendom to Christianity; a cast of saints rather than rude warriors; a mastery of historical technique incomparable for its time; beauty of form and diction; and, not least, an author whose qualities of life and spirit set a model of dedicated scholarship.”

Goffart also feels that a major theme of the Historia is local, Northumbrian concerns, and that Bede treated matters outside Northumbria as secondary to his main concern with northern history. Goffart sees the writing of the Historia as motivated by a political struggle in Northumbria between a party devoted to Wilfrid, and those opposed to Wilfrid’s policies.

Much of the “current” history in the Historia is concerned with Wilfrid, who was a bishop in Northumbria and whose stormy career is documented not only in Bede’s works, but in a Life of Wilfrid. A theme in Bede’s treatment of Wilfrid is the need to minimize the conflict between Wilfrid and Theodore of Tarsus, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was involved in many of Wilfrid’s difficulties.

Theodore of Tarsus.

The Historia Ecclesiastica includes many accounts of miracles and visions. These were de rigueur in medieval religious narrative, but Bede appears to have avoided relating the more extraordinary tales; and, remarkably, he makes almost no claims for miraculous events at his own monastery.

There is no doubt that Bede did believe in miracles, but the ones he does include are often stories of healing, or of events that could plausibly be explained naturally. The miracles served the purpose of setting an example to the reader, and Bede explicitly states that his goal is to teach morality through history, saying “If history records good things of good men, the thoughtful reader is encouraged to imitate what is good; if it records evil of wicked men, the devout reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse.”

Bede apparently had no informant at any of the main Mercian religious houses. His information about Mercia came from Lastingham, in Northumbria, and from Lindsey, a province on the borders of Northumbria and Mercia. As a result, there are noticeable gaps in his coverage of Mercian church history, such as his omission of the division of the huge Mercian diocese by Theodore in the late 7th century. Bede’s regional bias is apparent.

There were clearly gaps in Bede’s knowledge, but Bede also says little on some topics that he must have been familiar with. For example, although Bede recounts Wilfrid’s missionary activities, he does not give a full account of his conflict with Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, or his ambition and aristocratic lifestyle.

Only the existence of other sources such as the Life of Wilfrid make it clear what Bede discreetly avoids saying. The omissions are not restricted to Wilfrid; Bede makes no mention at all of Boniface, though it is unlikely he knew little of him; and the final book contains less information about the church in his own day than could be expected.

A possible explanation for Bede’s discretion may be found in his comment that one should not make public accusations against church figures, no matter what their sins; Bede may have found little good to say about the church in his day and hence preferred to keep silent. It is clear that he did have fault to find; his letter to Ecgberht contains several criticisms of the church.

The Historia Ecclesiastica has more to say about episcopal events than it does about the monasteries of England. Bede does shed some light on monastic affairs; in particular he comments in book V that many Northumbrians are laying aside their arms and entering monasteries “rather than study the arts of war. What the result of this will be the future will show.” This veiled comment, another example of Bede’s discretion in commenting on current affairs, could be interpreted as ominous given Bede’s more specific criticism of quasi-monasteries in his letter to Ecgberht, written three years later.

Bede’s account of life at the court of the Anglo-Saxon kings includes little of the violence that Gregory of Tours mentions as a frequent occurrence at the Frankish court. It is possible that the courts were as different as their descriptions makes them appear but it is more likely that Bede omitted some of the violent reality. Bede states that he wrote the work as an instruction for rulers, in order that “the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good”. It also was no part of Bede’s purpose to describe the kings who did not convert to Christianity in the Historia.

Saint Gregory of Tours

In 725 Bede wrote The Reckoning of Time (De Temporum Ratione), using something similar to the anno Domini era (BC/AD dating system) created by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in 525, continuing to use it throughout Historia Ecclesiastica (731), becoming very influential in causing that era to be adopted thereafter in Western Europe.

Specifically, he used anno ab incarnatione Domini (in the year from the incarnation of the Lord) or anno incarnationis dominicae (in the year of the incarnation of the Lord). He never abbreviated the term like the modern AD.

Bede counted anno Domini from Christ’s birth, not from Christ’s conception. Within this work, he was also the first writer to use a term similar to the English before Christ. In book I chapter 2 he used ante incarnationis dominicae tempus (before the time of the incarnation of the Lord). However, the latter was not very influential—only this isolated use was repeated by other writers during the rest of the Middle Ages. The first extensive use of “BC” (hundreds of times) occurred in Fasciculus Temporum by Werner Rolevinck in 1474, alongside years of the world (anno mundi).

An example of Werner Rolevinck’s work; a Roman timeline. Complicated layout in an illuminated manuscript.

Some early manuscripts contain additional annalistic entries that extend past the date of completion of the Historia Ecclesiastica, with the latest entry dated 766. No manuscripts earlier than the twelfth century contain these entries, except for the entries for 731 through 734, which do occur in earlier manuscripts. Much of the material replicates what is found in Simeon of Durham‘s chronicle; the remaining material is thought to derive from northern chronicles from the eighth century.

The Historia was translated into Old English sometime between the end of the ninth century and about 930; although the surviving manuscripts are predominantly in the West Saxon dialect, it is clear that the original contained Anglian features and so was presumably by a scholar from or trained in Mercia. The translation was once held to have been done by King Alfred of England, but this attribution is no longer accepted, and debate centres on how far it owes its origins to the patronage of Alfred and/or his associates.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the earliest tranche of which was composed/compiled around the same time as the translation was may, drew heavily on the Historia, which formed the chronological framework of the early parts of the Chronicle.

Excerpt from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, created late in the 9th century.

The Historia Ecclesiastica was copied often in the Middle Ages, and about 160 manuscripts containing it survive. About half of those are located on the European continent, rather than on the British Isles. Most of the 8th- and 9th-century texts of Bede’s Historia come from the northern parts of the Carolingian Empire.

This total does not include manuscripts with only a part of the work, of which another 100 or so survive. It was printed for the first time between 1474 and 1482, probably at Strasbourg, France. Modern historians have studied the Historia extensively, and a number of editions have been produced. For many years, early Anglo-Saxon history was essentially a retelling of the Historia, but recent scholarship has focused as much on what Bede did not write as what he did. The belief that the Historia was the culmination of Bede’s works, the aim of all his scholarship, a belief common among historians in the past, is no longer accepted by most scholars.

The Historia Ecclesiastica has given Bede a high reputation, but his concerns were different from those of a modern writer of history. His focus on the history of the organization of the English church, and on heresies and the efforts made to root them out, led him to exclude the secular history of kings and kingdoms except where a moral lesson could be drawn or where they illuminated events in the church.

In the early Middle Ages, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Historia Brittonum, and Alcuin’s Versus de patribus, regibus et sanctis Eboracensis ecclesiae all drew heavily on the text. Likewise, the later medieval writers William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, and Geoffrey of Monmouth used his works as sources and inspirations.

Early modern writers, such as Polydore Virgil and Matthew Parker, the Elizabethan Archbishop of Canterbury, also utilized the Historia, and his works were used by both Protestant and Catholic sides in the Wars of Religion.

Some historians have questioned the reliability of some of Bede’s accounts. One historian, Charlotte Behr, asserts that the Historia’s account of the arrival of the Germanic invaders in Kent should be considered as current myth, not history.

Manuscripts of the Historia Ecclesiastica fall generally into two groups, known to historians as the “c-type” and the “m-type”. Charles Plummer, in his 1896 edition of Bede, identified six characteristic differences between the two manuscript types.

For example, the c-type manuscripts omit one of the miracles attributed to St Oswald in book IV, chapter 14, and the c-type also includes the years 733 and 734 in the chronological summary at the end of the work, whereas the m-type manuscripts stop with the year 731.

Plummer thought that this meant the m-type was definitely earlier than the c-type, but this has been disputed by Bertram Colgrave in his 1969 edition of the text. Colgrave points out that the addition of a couple of annals is a simple alteration for a copyist to make at any point in the manuscript history; he also notes that the omission of one of Oswald’s miracles is not the mistake of a copyist, and strongly implies that the m-type is a later revision.

Some genealogical relationships can be discerned among the numerous manuscripts that have survived. The earliest manuscripts used to establish the c-text and m-text are as follows. The letters under the “Version” column are identifying letters used by historians to refer to these manuscripts.

Version Type Location Manuscript
K c-text Kassel, Landesbibliothek 4° MS. theol. 2
C c-text London, British Museum Cotton Tiberius C. II
O c-text Oxford, Bodleian Library Hatton 43 (4106)
n/a c-text Zürich, Zentralbibliothek Rh. 95
M m-text Cambridge, University Library Kk. 5. 16
L m-text Saint Petersburg, National Library of Russia Lat. Q. v. I. 18
U m-text Wolfenbüttel, Herzog-August Bibliothek Weissenburg 34
E m-text Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek M. p. th. f. 118
N m-text Namur, Public Library Fonds de la ville 11

With few exceptions, Continental copies of the Historia Ecclesiastica are of the m-type, while English copies are of the c-type. Among the c-texts, manuscript K includes only books IV and V, but C and O are complete. O is a later text than C but is independent of it and so the two are a valuable check on correctness. They are thought to have both derived from an earlier manuscript, marked “c2” in the diagram, which does not survive.

A comparison of K and c2 yields an accurate understanding of the original c-text, but for the first three books, which are not in K, it is sometimes impossible to know if a variant reading in C and O represents the original state of the c-text, or is a variation only found in c2. One long chapter, book I chapter 27, is also found in another manuscript, Rh. 95 at the Zürich Zentralbibliothek; this is another witness to the c-text and appears to be independent of c2, and so is useful as a further cross-check on the c-text.

The m-text depends largely on manuscripts M and L, which are very early copies, made not long after Bede’s death. Both seem likely to have been taken from the original, though this is not certain. Three further manuscripts, U, E and N, are all apparently the descendants of a Northumbrian manuscript that does not survive but which went to the continent in the late-8th century. These three are all early manuscripts, but are less useful than might be thought, since L and M are themselves so close to the original.

The text of both the m-type and c-type seems to have been extremely accurately copied. Taking a consensus text from the earliest manuscripts, Bertram Colgrave counted 32 places where there was an apparent error of some kind. However, 26 of these are to be found within a transcription from an earlier source, and it is apparent by checking independent copies of those sources that in such cases Bede copied the mistake faithfully into his own text.

The relationships between some of the early manuscripts of the Historia Ecclesiastica

History of the Manuscripts

  • K appears to have been written in Northumbria in the late 8th century. Only books IV and V survive; the others were probably lost during the Middle Ages. The manuscript bears a 15th-century pressmark of the Abbey of Fulda.
  • C, also known as the Tiberius Bede, was written in the south of England in the second half of the 8th century. Plummer argued that it was from Durham, but this is dismissed by Colgrave. The manuscript contains glosses in Old English that were added in the south during the 9th century.
  • O dates to the early 11th century, and has subsequent corrections many of which are from the 12th century.
  • L, also known as the St Petersburg Bede, was copied by four scribes no later than 747. The scribes were probably at either Wearmouth or Jarrow Abbey.
  • M, also known as the Moore Bede, was written in Northumbria in 737 or shortly thereafter. The manuscript was owned at one time by John Moore, the Bishop of Ely, and as a result it is known as the Moore MS. Moore’s collection was purchased by King George I and given to Cambridge University in 1715, where it still resides.
  • U dates to the late 8th century, and is thought to be a copy, made on the continent, of an earlier Northumbrian manuscript (“c2” in the diagram above). It has been at Weissenburg since the end of the Middle Ages.
  • E dates from the middle third of the 9th century. In 800, a list was made of books at Würzburg cathedral; the list includes one Historia Anglorum and E may be a copy of that manuscript. Subsequently E is known to have been in the possession of Ebrach Abbey.
  • N was copied in the 9th century by several scribes; at one point it was owned by St Hubert in the Ardennes.

Manuscripts written before AD 900 include:

  • Corbie MS, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
  • St. Gall Monastery Library

Copies are sparse throughout the 10th century and for much of the 11th century. The greatest number of copies of Bede’s work was made in the 12th century, but there was a significant revival of interest in the 14th and 15th centuries. Many of the copies are of English provenance, but also surprisingly many are Continental.

The first printed copy of the Historia Ecclesiastica appeared from the press of Heinrich Eggestein in Strasbourg, probably between 1475 and 1480. A defect in the text allows the identification of the manuscript Eggestein used; it subsequently appeared in a catalogue of the Vienna Dominicans of 1513. Eggestein had also printed an edition of Rufinus‘s translation of Eusebius‘s Ecclesiastical History, and the two works were reprinted, bound as a single volume, on 14 March 1500 by Georg Husner, also of Strasbourg. Another reprint appeared on 7 December 1506, from Heinrich Gran and S. Ryman at Haguenau.

A Paris edition appeared in 1544, and in 1550 John de Grave produced an edition at Antwerp. Two reprints of this edition appeared, in 1566 and 1601. In 1563, Johann Herwagen included it in volume III of his eight-volume Opera Omnia, and this was in turn reprinted in 1612 and 1688. Michael Sonnius produced an edition in Paris in 1587, including the Historia Ecclesiastica in a collection of other historical works; and in 1587 Johann Commelin included it in a similar compilation, printed at Heidelberg. In 1643, Abraham Whelock produced at Cambridge an edition with the Old English text and the Latin text in parallel columns, the first in England.

All of the above editions were based on the C-text. The first edition to use the m-type manuscripts was printed by Pierre Chifflet in 1681, using a descendant of the Moore MS. For the 1722 edition, John Smith obtained the Moore MS., and also having access to two copies in the Cotton Library was able to print a very high quality edition. Smith undertook his edition under the influence of Thomas Gale, encouraged by Ralph Thoresby, and with assistance of Humfrey Wanley on Old English.

He spent the majority of his time residing in Cambridge, and working on it, but did not live to complete the preparation. His son George brought out in 1722 the Historiæ Ecclesiasticæ Gentis Anglorum Libri Quinque, auctore Venerabili Bæda … cura et studio Johannis Smith, S. T. P., Cambridge University Press. It contains also the preface to The Reckoning of Time, and a world-chronicle. It also had the Old English version of the Historia ecclesiastica. Smith’s edition is described by David C. Douglas as “an enormous advance” on previous ones, adding that textual criticism of Bede hardly then changed until 1896, when the Plummer edition appeared.

Subsequently the most notable edition was that of Charles Plummer, whose 1896 Venerabilis Bedae Opera Historica, with a full commentary, has been a foundation-stone for all subsequent scholarship.

Editions

  • 1475: Heinrich Eggestein, Strasbourg
  • 1550: John de Grave, Antwerp
  • 1587: Michael Sonnius, Paris
  • 1643: Abraham Whelock, Cambridge
  • 1722: John Smith, Cambridge
  • 1861: Migne, Patrologia Latina (vol. 95), reprint of Smith’s edition
  • 1896 Charles Plummer (ed.), Venerabilis Baedae Historiam ecclesiasticam gentis Anglorum, Historiam abbatum, Epistolam ad Ecgberctum una cum Historia abbatum auctore anonymo, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896).
  • 1969: Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (eds), Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969 [corr. repr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991])
  • 2005: Michael Lapidge (ed), Pierre Monat and Philippe Robin (trans.), Bède le Vénérable, Histoire ecclésiastique du peuple anglais = Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Sources chrétiennes, 489–91, 3 vols (Paris: Cerf, 2005).

Translations

  • Late ninth century: an anonymous, abbreviated translation into Old English by an anonymous scholar, possibly at the suggestion of Alfred the Great.[67][68]
  • 1565: Thomas Stapleton, Antwerp (Imprinted at Antwerp: By Iohn Laet, at the signe of the Rape)
  • 1849, John Allen Giles, London.
  • 1866: (in German) M. M. Wilden, Schaffhausen.
  • 1903: L. C. Jane, Temple Classics.
  • 1907: A. M. Sellar, London, George Bell & Sons.
  • 1955: Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, reprinted with revisions 1965, revised 1968, revised 1990.
  • 1969: Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Oxford, Clarendon Press, reprint with corrections 1992.
  • 1982: (in German) Günter Spitzbart, Darmstadt.
  • 1989: (in Chinese) Chen Wei-zhen & Zhou Qing-min, The Commercial Press, Beijing. 1st ed 1991
  • 1994: McClure, Judith and Collins, Roger, Oxford, Oxford University Press
  • 2003: (in Russian) Церковная история народа англов, notes and trans. by Vadim Erlikhman (Saint-Petersburg: Алетейя)
  • 2005: (in French) Histoire ecclésiastique du peuple anglais, notes by André Crépin, ed. Michael Lapidge, trans. Pierre Monat and Philippe Robin (Paris: Cerf).
  • 2008: (in Japanese) Hirosi Takahashi (Tokyo: Kodansha).
  • 2008: (Czech) Beda Ctihodný, Církevní dějiny národa Anglů, trans. by Kincl, Jaromír and Moravová, Magdaléna (Prague: Argo).
  • 2009: (in Italian) Beda il Venerabile, Storia degli Inglesi, ed. M. Lapidge, trans. Paolo Chiesa (Milan: Fondazione Valla-Arnoldo Mondadori).
  • 2015: (in Slovene) Beda Častitljivi, Cerkvena zgodovina ljudstva Anglov, notes and trans. by Bogdan Kolar and Miran Sajovic (Celje: Mohorjeva družba).

Literature

  • ones, Putnam Fennell, A Concordance to the Historia ecclesiastica of Bede, Cambridge, 1929.
  • Wallace-Hadrill, J. M., Bede’s Ecclesiastical history of the English people: a historical commentary, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

References

 

 

 

‘Agricultural revolution’ in Anglo-Saxon England sheds new light on medieval land use

Researchers from the University of Leicester are shedding new light on how an ‘agricultural revolution’ in Anglo-Saxon England fueled the growth of towns and markets as part of a new project investigating medieval farming habits.

The project, titled ‘Feeding Anglo-Saxon England (FeedSax): The Bioarchaeology of an Agricultural Revolution’, which is funded by the European Research Council, is led by the University of Oxford working with colleagues from the University of Leicester.

The period between c 800 – 1200 AD saw dramatic changes in farming practices across large parts of Europe, enabling an increase in cereal production so great that it has been described as an ‘agricultural revolution’.

This ‘cerealisation’ allowed post-Roman populations not only to recover, but to boom, fueling the growth of towns and markets.

In England, this meant that many regions became more densely populated than ever before.

To operate a more productive but costly system of farming, peasants had to share expensive resources such as teams of oxen and mouldboard ploughs see header image), and cultivate extensive and unenclosed ‘open fields’ communally.

The project aims to understand when, where and how this ‘mouldboard plough package’ originated and spread, by generating the first direct evidence of medieval land use and cultivation regimes from excavated plant remains and animal bones, using a range of scientific methods.

Dr Richard Thomas, Reader and Chair of the Association for Environmental Archaeology from the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History said: “We are delighted to be working with the University of Oxford on this exciting project. By using different kinds of archaeological evidence we will try and establish how a revolution in agriculture in Anglo-Saxon England led to a surge in population and fueled the growth of towns and markets.

Artist’s impression of an Anglo Saxon settlement in Hampshire.

“Here at the University of Leicester, we will be studying the stresses and strains on cattle bones from archaeological sites to establish when and where the heavy-plough was introduced. This was a major technological innovation which enabled more land to be brought into cultivation and increased the production of cereal grains.”

Helena Hamerow, Professor of Early Medieval Archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the project’s Principal Investigator, said: “This project will help us understand how farmers in medieval England were able to grow more food to feed an expanding population sustainably at a time of climatic warming. The spread of the heavy, mouldboard plough – a technology that English farmers adopted from their European neighbours – was a key factor and analysing cattle bones will enable us to trace its spread.”

Three key innovations made the increase in yields during the period possible:

  • widespread adoption of the mouldboard plough, which enabled farmers to cultivate heavier, more fertile soils;
  • crop rotation, e.g. planting with winter wheat followed by spring barley;
  • extensification of cultivation, whereby fertility was maintained by short fallow periods during which sheep grazed on the stubble, rather than by intensive manuring

In order to improve efficiency and share resources, people had to live in close proximity, leading to the formation of the nucleated villages, set amid extensive arrays of strip fields that can still be seen in many parts of the countryside today.

The Medieval mouldboard plough.

In this way, innovations in farming transformed large parts of the England’s landscape and with it, its social geography.

As part of the project, a suite of over 400 radiocarbon dates on charred cereals, bones and pollen cores will make it possible to locate the origins and spread of open fields in time and space.

Patterns emerging from these bioarchaeological data will then be compared with the evidence from excavated farms to explore the inter-relationship between arable production, stock management and settlement forms.

Analysis of crop stable isotopes in preserved cereal grains will enable the team to assess the degree to which productivity was boosted by manuring.

Weed flora will also reveal the extent to which fields were manured and tilled, as well as providing evidence of sowing times and crop rotation.

The lower limb bones of cattle will be examined for pathologies caused by pulling a heavy plough. Pollen data will reveal the changing impact of cereal farming on the medieval landscape and will be used to produce the first national model of early medieval land use.

The project number for the research is: AdG741751.

Hengist and Horsa and the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England

Anglo-Saxon Invasion of England.
The brothers in Edward Parrott’s Pageant of British History (1909).

According to early sources, Hengist and Horsa arrived in England at Ebbsfleet on the Isle of Thanet. For a time, they served as mercenaries for Vortigern, King of the Britons, but later they turned against him (English accounts have them betraying him in the Night of the Long Knives). Horsa was killed fighting the Britons, but Hengist successfully conquered Kent, becoming the forefather of its kings.

A figure named Hengest, who may be identifiable with the leader of British legend, appears in the Finnsburg Fragment and in Beowulf.

Legends of horse-associated founding brothers are attested among other Germanic peoples and appear in other Indo-European cultures. As a result, scholars have theorized a pan-Germanic mythological origin for Hengist and Horsa, stemming originally from divine twins found in Proto-Indo-European religion. Other scholars, including J. R. R. Tolkien, have argued for a historical basis for Hengist and Horsa.

The Old English names Hengest [hendʒest] and Horsa [horsɑ] mean “stallion” and “horse” respectively.

The original Old English word for a horse was eoh. Eoh derives from the Proto-Indo-European base *ekwo, hence Latin equus which gave rise to the modern English words equine and equestrian. Hors is derived from the Proto-Indo-European base *kurs, to run, which also gave rise to hurry, carry and current (the last two as borrowings from French).

Hors eventually replaced eoh, fitting a pattern elsewhere in Germanic languages where the original names of sacred animals are abandoned in favour of adjectives; for example, the word bear. While the Ecclesiastical History and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refer to the brother as Horsa, in the History of the Britons his name is simply Hors. It has been suggested that Horsa may be a pet form of a compound name with the first element “horse”.

Alternatively, it has also been suggested that these may have been given names or status titles within their tribe. It is possible that the tribe had horses as a totem animal, perhaps even sailing with ships emblazoned with horse figureheads. By tradition the brothers arrived with a banner of a white horse, which is preserved to this day as the emblem of Kent.

Banner of the County of Kent, England.

Ecclesiastical History of the English People

In his 8th century Ecclesiastical History, Bede records that the first chieftains among the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in England were said to have been Hengist and Horsa. He relates that Horsa was killed in battle against the Britons and was thereafter buried in East Kent, where at the time of writing a monument still stood to him. According to Bede, Hengist and Horsa were the sons of Wictgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in the year 449 Hengist and Horsa were invited to Britain by Vortigern to assist his forces in fighting the Picts. They landed at Eopwinesfleot (Ebbsfleet), and went on to defeat the Picts wherever they fought them. Hengist and Horsa sent word home to Germany describing “the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land” and asked for assistance.

Their request was granted and support arrived. Afterward, more people arrived in Britain from “the three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes”. The Saxons populated Essex, Sussex, and Wessex; the Jutes Kent, the Isle of Wight, and part of Hampshire; and the Angles East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria (leaving their original homeland, Angeln, deserted). These forces were led by the brothers Hengist and Horsa, sons of Wihtgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden.

A Mosaic of Vortigern in battle.

In the entry for the year 455 the Chronicle details that Hengist and Horsa fought with Vortigern at Aylesford and that Horsa died there. Hengist took control of the kingdom with his son Esc. In 457, Hengist and Esc fought against British forces in Crayford “and there slew four thousand men”. The Britons left the land of Kent and fled to London. In 465, Hengest and Esc fought again at the Battle of Wippedesfleot, probably near Ebbsfleet, and slew twelve British leaders. In the year 473, the final entry in the Chronicle mentioning Hengist or Horsa, Hengist and Esc are recorded as having taken “immense booty” and the Britons having “fled from the English like fire”.

History of the Britons

The 9th century History of the Britons, attributed to the Briton Nennius, records that, during the reign of Vortigern in Britain, three vessels that had been exiled from Germany arrived in Britain, commanded by Hengist and Horsa. The narrative then gives a genealogy of the two: Hengist and Horsa were sons of Guictglis, son of Guicta, son of Guechta, son of Vouden, son of Frealof, son of Fredulf, son of Finn, son of Foleguald, son of Geta. Geta was said to be the son of a god, yet “not of the omnipotent God and our Lord Jesus Christ,” but rather “the offspring of one of their idols, and whom, blinded by some demon, they worshipped according to the custom of the heathen.” In 447 AD, Vortigern received Hengist and Horsa “as friends” and gave to the brothers the Isle of Thanet.

Computer generated image of the Anglo-Saxon ship found at Sutton Hoo.

After the Saxons had lived on Thanet for “some time” Vortigern promised them supplies of clothing and other provisions on condition that they assist him in fighting the enemies of his country. As the Saxons increased in number the Britons became unable to keep their agreement, and so told them their assistance was no longer needed and they should go home.

Vortigern allowed Hengist to send for more of his countrymen to come over to fight for him. Messengers were sent to “Scythia“, where “a number” of warriors were selected, and, with sixteen ships, the messengers returned. With the men came Hengist’s beautiful daughter. Hengist prepared a feast, inviting Vortigern, Vortigern’s officers, and Ceretic, his translator. Prior to the feast, Hengist enjoined his daughter to serve the guests plenty of wine and ale so that they would become drunk. At the feast Vortigern became enamored with her and promised Hengist whatever he liked in exchange for her betrothal. Hengist, having “consulted with the Elders who attended him of the Angle race,” demanded Kent. Without the knowledge of the then-ruler of Kent, Vortigern agreed.

Hengist’s daughter was given to Vortigern, who slept with her and deeply loved her. Hengist told him that he would now be both his father and adviser and that he would know no defeat with his counsel, “for the people of my country are strong, warlike, and robust.” With Vortigern’s approval, Hengist would send for his son and his brother to fight against the Scots and those who dwelt near the wall. Vortigern agreed and Ochta and Ebissa arrived with 40 ships, sailed around the land of the Picts, conquered “many regions,” and assaulted the Orkney Islands. Hengist continued to send for more ships from his country, so that some islands where his people had previously dwelt are now free of inhabitants.

Anglo-Saxons in battle with the Picts.

Vortigern had meanwhile incurred the wrath of Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre (by taking his own daughter for a wife and having a son by her) and had gone into hiding at the advice of his counsel. But at length his son Vortimer engaged Hengist and Horsa and their men in battle, drove them back to Thanet and there enclosed them and beset them on the western flank. The war waxed and waned; the Saxons repeatedly gained ground and were repeatedly driven back. Vortimer attacked the Saxons four times: first enclosing the Saxons in Thanet, secondly fighting at the river Derwent, the third time at Epsford, where both Horsa and Vortigern’s son Catigern died, and lastly “near the stone on the shore of the Gallic sea,” where the Saxons were defeated and fled to their ships.

After a “short interval” Vortimer died and the Saxons became established, “assisted by foreign pagans.” Hengist convened his forces and sent to Vortigern an offer of peace. Vortigern accepted, and Hengist prepared a feast to bring together the British and Saxon leaders. However, he instructed his men to conceal knives beneath their feet. At the right moment, Hengist shouted nima der sexa (get your knives) and his men massacred the unsuspecting Britons. However, they spared Vortigern, who ransomed himself by giving the Saxons Essex, Sussex, Middlesex, and other unnamed districts.

Germanus of Auxerre was acclaimed as commander of the British forces. By praying, singing hallelujah and crying to God, the Saxons were driven to the sea. Germanus then prayed for three days and nights at Vortigern’s castle and fire fell from heaven and engulfed the castle. Vortigern, Hengist’s daughter, Vortigern’s other wives, and all other inhabitants burned to death. Potential alternate fates for Vortigern are provided. However, the Saxons continued to increase in numbers, and after Hengist died his son Ochta succeeded him.

300s B.C. Celts in Britain. A.D 449 the Anglo-Saxon Invasion of England. 55 B.C–A.D.409. Roman Occupation. A.D.878. King Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings.

History of the Kings of Britain

Vortigern and Rowena, by William Hamilton (1793).

In his pseudo-historical twelfth century work The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth adapted and greatly expanded the account in the History of the Britons. Hengist and Horsa appear in books 6 and 8:

Book 6

Geoffrey records that three brigantines or long galleys arrived in Kent, full of armed men and commanded by two brothers, Hengist and Horsa. Vortigern was then staying at Dorobernia (Canterbury), and ordered that the “tall strangers” be received peacefully and brought to him. When Vortigern saw the company, he immediately observed that the brothers “excelled all the rest both in nobility and in gracefulness of person.” He asked what country they had come from and why they had come to his kingdom. Hengist (“whose years and wisdom entitled him to precedence”) replied that they had left their homeland of Saxony to offer their services to Vortigern or some other prince, as part of a Saxon custom in which, when the country became overpopulated, able young men were chosen by lot to seek their fortunes in other lands. Hengist and Horsa were made generals over the exiles, as befitted their noble birth.

Vortigern was aggrieved when he learned that the strangers were pagans, but nonetheless rejoiced at their arrival, since he was surrounded by enemies. He asked Hengist and Horsa if they would help him in his wars, offering them land and “other possessions.” They accepted the offer, settled on an agreement, and stayed with Vortigern at his court. Soon after, the Picts came from Alba with an immense army and attacked the northern parts of Vortigern’s kingdom. In the ensuing battle “there was little occasion for the Britons to exert themselves, for the Saxons fought so bravely, that the enemy, formerly victorious, were speedily put to flight.”

In gratitude Vortigern increased the rewards he has promised to the brothers. Hengist was given “large possessions of lands in Lindsey for the subsistence of himself and his fellow-soldiers.” A “man of experience and subtilty,” Hengist told Vortigern that his enemies assailed him from every quarter, and that his subjects wished to depose him and make Aurelius Ambrosius king. He asked the king to allow him to send word to Saxony for more soldiers. Vortigern agreed, adding that Hengist could invite over whom he pleases and that “you shall have no refusal from me in whatever you shall desire.”

Ambrosius Aurelianus was a war leader of the Romano-British who won an important battle against the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century, according to Gildas. He also appeared independently in the legends of the Britons, beginning with the 9th-century Historia Brittonum.

Hengist bowed low in thanks, and made a further request, that he be made a consul or prince, as befitted his birth. Vortigern responded that it was not in his power to do this, reasoning that Hengist was a foreign pagan and would not be accepted by the British lords. Hengist asked instead for leave to build a fortress on a piece of land small enough that it could be encircled by a leather thong. Vortigern granted this and ordered Hengist to invite more Saxons.

After executing Vortigern’s orders, Hengist took a bull’s hide and made it into a single thong, which he used to encircle a carefully-chosen rocky place (perhaps at Caistor in Lindsey). Here he built the castle of Kaercorrei, or in Saxon Thancastre: “thong castle.”

The messengers returned from Germany with eighteen ships full of the best soldiers they could get, as well as Hengist’s beautiful daughter Rowena. Hengist invited Vortigern to see his new castle and the newly arrived soldiers. A banquet was held in Thancastre, at which Vortigern drunkenly asked Hengist to let him marry Rowena. Horsa and the men all agreed that Hengist should allow the marriage, on the condition that Vortigern gave him Kent.

Vortigern and Rowena were immediately married and Hengist was given Kent. The king was delighted with his new wife, but he incurred the hatred of his nobles and of his three sons.

Rowena as depicted in popular mythology.

As his new father-in-law, Hengist made further demands of Vortigern:

As I am your father, I claim the right of being your counsellor: do not therefore slight my advice, since it is to my countrymen you must owe the conquest of all your enemies. Let us invite over my son Octa, and his brother Ebissa, who are brave soldiers, and give them the countries that are in the northern parts of Britain, by the wall, between Deira and Alba. For they will hinder the inroads of the barbarians, and so you shall enjoy peace on the other side of the Humber.

Vortigern agreed. Upon receiving the invitation, Octa, Ebissa, and another lord, Cherdich, immediately left for Britain with three hundred ships. Vortigern received them kindly, and gave them ample gifts. With their assistance, Vortigern defeated his enemies in every engagement.

All the while Hengist continued inviting over yet more ships, adding to his numbers daily. Witnessing this, the Britons tried to get Vortigern to banish the Saxons, but on account of his wife he would not. Consequently, his subjects turned against him and took his son Vortimer for their king.

The Saxons and the Britons, led by Vortimer, met in four battles. In the second, Horsa and Vortimer’s brother, Catigern, slew one another. By the fourth battle, the Saxons had fled to Thanet, where Vortimer besieged them. When the Saxons could no longer bear the British onslaughts, they sent out Vortigern to ask his son to allow them safe passage back to Germany. While discussions were taking place, the Saxons boarded their ships and left, leaving their wives and children behind.

Angles Saxona Warriors in Battle.

The victorious Vortimer was poisoned by Rowena, and Vortigern returned to the throne. At his wife’s request he invited Hengist back to Britain, but instructed him to bring only a small retinue. Hengist, knowing Vortimer to be dead, instead raised an army of 300,000 men. When Vortigern caught word of the imminent arrival of the vast Saxon fleet, he resolved to fight them. Rowena alerted her father of this, who, after considering various strategies, resolved to make a show of peace and sent ambassadors to Vortigern.

The ambassadors informed Vortigern that Hengist had only brought so many men because he did not know of Vortimer’s death and feared further attacks from him. Now that there was no threat, Vortigern could choose from among the men the ones he wished to return to Germany. Vortigern was greatly pleased by these tidings, and arranged to meet Hengist on the first of May at the monastery of Ambrius.

Before the meeting, Hengist ordered his soldiers to carry long daggers beneath their clothing. At the signal Nemet oure Saxas (get your knives), the Saxons fell upon the unsuspecting Britons and massacred them, while Hengist held Vortigern by his cloak. 460 British barons and consuls were killed, as well as some Saxons whom the Britons beat to death with club and stones. Vortigern was held captive and threatened with death until he resigned control of Britain’s chief cities to Hengist. Once free, he fled to Cambria.

Book 8

In Cambria, Merlin prophesied to Vortigern that the brothers Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, who had fled to Armorica as children after Vortigern killed their brother and father, would return to have their revenge and defeat the Saxons. They arrived the next day, and, after rallying the dispersed Britons, Aurelius was proclaimed king. Aurelius marched into Cambria and burned Vortigern alive in his tower, before setting his sights upon the Saxons.

Merlin, the mythological sorcerer of Avalon.

Hengist was struck by terror at the news of Vortigern’s death and fled with his army beyond the Humber. He took courage at the approach of Aurelius and selected the bravest among his men to defend. Hengist told these chosen men not to be afraid of Aurelius, for he had brought less than 10,000 Armorican Britons (the native Britons were hardly worth taking into account), while there were 200,000 Saxons. Hengist and his men advanced towards Aurelius in a field called Maisbeli (probably Ballifield, near Sheffield), intending to take the Britons by surprise, but Aurelius anticipated them.

As they marched to meet the Saxons, Eldol, Duke of Gloucester told Aurelius that he greatly wished to meet Hengist in combat, noting that “one of the two of us should die before we parted.” He explained that he had been at the Treachery of the Long Knives, but had escaped when God threw him a stake to defend himself with, making him the only Briton present to survive. Meanwhile, Hengist was placing his troops into formation, giving directions, and walking through the lines of troops, “the more to spirit them up.”

With the armies in formation, battle began between the Britons and Saxons, both sides shedding “no small loss of blood.” Eldol focused on attempting to find Hengist, but had no opportunity to fight him. “By the especial favour of God,” the Britons took the upper hand, and the Saxons withdrew and made for Kaerconan (Conisbrough). Aurelius pursued them, killing or enslaving any Saxon he met on the way. Realizing Kaerconan would not hold against Aurelius, Hengist stopped outside the town and ordered his men to make a stand, “for he knew that his whole security now lay in his sword.”

Celtic Warriors.

Aurelius reached Hengist, and a “most furious” fight ensued, with the Saxons maintaining their ground despite heavy losses. They came close to winning before a detachment of horses from the Armorican Britons arrived. When Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall arrived, Eldol knew the day was won and grabbed Hengist’s helmet, dragging him into the British ranks. The Saxons fled. Hengist’s son Octa retreated to York and his kinsman Eosa to Alclud (Dumbarton).

Three days after the battle, Aurelius called together a council of principal officers to decide what would be done with Hengist. Eldol’s brother Eldad, Bishop of Gloucester, said:

Though all should be unanimous for setting him at liberty, yet would I cut him to pieces. The prophet Samuel is my warrant, who, when he had Agag, king of Amalek, in his power, hewed him in pieces, saying, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. Do therefore the same to Hengist, who is a second Agag.

Consequently, Eldol drew Hengist out of the city and cut off his head. Aurelius, “who showed moderation in all his conduct,” arranged for him to be buried and for a mound to be raised over his corpse, according to the custom of pagans. Octa and Eosa surrendered to Aurelius, who granted them the country bordering Scotland and made a firm covenant with them.

Prose Edda

Hengist is briefly mentioned in Prologue, the first book of the Prose Edda, written by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. In Prologue, a euhemerized account of Germanic history is given, including that Woden put three of his sons in charge of Saxony. The ruler of eastern Saxony was Veggdegg, one of whose sons was Vitrgils, the father of Vitta, the father of Hengist.

Horse-head gables

On farmhouses in Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, horse-head gables were referred to as “Hengst und Hors” as late as around 1875. Rudolf Simek notes that these horse heads gables can still be seen today, and says that the horse-head gables confirm that Hengist and Horsa were originally considered mythological, horse-shaped beings. Martin Litchfield West comments that the horse heads may have been remnants of pagan religious practices in the area.

A gable in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
Coat of arms of Spornitz, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Theories

Finnsburg Fragment and Beowulf

A Hengest appears in line 34 of the Finnsburg Fragment, which describes the legendary Battle of Finnsburg. In Beowulf, a scop recites a composition summarizing the Finnsburg events, including information not provided in the fragment. Hengest is mentioned in lines 1082 and 1091.

Some scholars have proposed that the figure mentioned in both of these references is one and the same as the Hengist of the Hengist and Horsa accounts, though Horsa is not mentioned in either source. In his work Finn and Hengest, Tolkien argued that Hengist was a historical figure, and that Hengist came to Britain after the events recorded in the Finnsburg Fragment and Beowulf. Patrick Sims-Williams is more skeptical of the account, suggesting that Bede’s Canterbury source, which he relied on for his account of Hengist and Horsa in the Ecclesiastical History, had confused two separate traditions.

Germanic twin brothers and divine Indo-European horse twins

Several sources attest that the Germanic peoples venerated a divine pair of twin brothers. The earliest reference to this practice derives from Timaeus (c. 345 – c. 250 BC). Timeaus records that the Germanic peoples (whom he refers to as “Celts”) of the North Sea were especially devoted to what he describes as Castor and Pollux. In his work Germania, Tacitus records the veneration of the Alcis, whom he identifies with Castor and Pollux. Germanic legends mention various brothers as founding figures. The 1st or 2nd century historian Cassius Dio cites the brothers Raos and Raptos as the leaders of the Astings. According to Paul the Deacon‘s 8th century History of the Lombards, the Lombards migrated southward from Scandinavia led by Ibur and Aio, while Saxo Grammaticus records in his 12th century Deeds of the Danes that this migration was prompted by Aggi and Ebbi. In related Indo-European cultures, similar traditions are attested, such as the Dioscuri. Scholars have theorized that these divine twins in Indo-European cultures stem from divine twins in prehistoric Proto-Indo-European culture.

Tacitus, in full Publius Cornelius Tacitus, or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (born ad 56—died c. 120), Roman orator and public official, probably the greatest historian and one of the greatest prose stylists who wrote in the Latin language.

J. P. Mallory comments on the great importance of the horse in Indo-European religion, as exemplified “most obviously” by various mythical brothers appearing in Indo-European legend, including Hengist and Horsa:

Some would maintain that the premier animal of the Indo-European sacrifice and ritual was probably the horse. We have already seen how its embedment in Proto-Indo-European society lies not just in its lexical reconstruction but also in the proliferation of personal names which contain “horse” as an element among the various Indo-European peoples. Furthermore, we witness the importance of the horse in Indo-European rituals and mythology. One of the most obvious examples is the recurrent depiction of twins such as the Indic Asvins “horsemen,” the Greek horsemen Castor and Pollux, the legendary Anglo-Saxon settlers Horsa and Hengist […] or the Irish twins of Macha, born after she had completed a horse race. All of these attest the existence of Indo-European divine twins associated with or represented by horses.

Uffington White Horse

Aerial view of the White Horse Uffington Oxfordshire.

In his 17th century work Monumenta Britannica, John Aubrey ascribes the Uffington White Horse hill figure to Hengist and Horsa, stating that “the White Horse was their Standard at the Conquest of Britain”. However, elsewhere he ascribes the origins of the horse to the pre-Roman Britons, reasoning that the horse resembles certain Iron Age British coins. As a result, advocates of a Saxon origin of the figure debated with those favoring an ancient British origin for three centuries after Aubrey’s findings. In 1995, using optically stimulated luminescence dating, David Miles and Simon Palmer of the Oxford Archaeological Unit assigned the Uffington White Horse to the late Bronze Age.

Aschanes

The Brothers Grimm identified Hengist with Aschanes, mythical first King of the Saxons, in their notes for legend number 413 of their German Legends. Editor and translator Donald Ward, in his commentary on the tale, regards the identification as untenable on linguistic grounds.

References

  • Chickering, Howell D., Jr. (2006). Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. Anchor Books. ISBN 1-4000-9622-7.
  • Everill, George (1845). A Translation of Walhalla’s Inmates described by Lewis the First, King of Bavaria. Munich: George Franz.
  • Faulkes, Anthony (1995). Edda. Everyman. ISBN 0-460-87616-3.
  • Frédriksen, John C. (2001). International Warbirds: an Illustrated Guide to World Military Aircraft, 1914–2000. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-57607-364-5.
  • Gunn, William (1819). Historia Brittonum. London: Printed for John and Arthur Arch, Cornhill.
  • Hunt, Tim, ed. (1991). The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: 1938–1962. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-1847-4.
  • Ingram, James Henry (1823). The Saxon chronicle, with an English Translation and Notes, Critical and Explanatory. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, Paternoster-Row.
  • Lyon, Bryce. “From Hengist and Horsa to Edward of Caernarvon: Recent writing on English history” in Elizabeth Chapin Furber, ed. Changing views on British history: essays on historical writing since 1939 (Harvard University Press, 1966), pp 1–57; historiography
  • Lyon, Bryce. ” Change or Continuity: Writing since 1965 on English History before Edward of Caernarvon,” in Richard Schlatter, ed., Recent Views on British History: Essays on Historical Writing since 1966 (Rutgers UP, 1984), pp 1–34, historiography
  • Mallory, J. P. (2005). In Search of the Indo-Europeans. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-27616-1.
  • Michael-Hadrill, John Michael (1993). Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-822174-6.
  • Nigl, Alfred J. (2007). Silent Wings, Silent Death. Graphic Publishing. ISBN 1-882824-31-8.
  • Peterson, Merill D. (1970). Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography. Sourcebooks. ISBN 0-19-501909-1.
  • Schwyzer, Philip (1999). “The Scouring of the White Horse: Archaeology, Identity, and ‘Heritage'”. Representations. Special Issue: New Perspectives in British Studies (Winter, 1999). University of California Press. pp. 42–62.
  • Sherley-Price, Leo (1990). Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
  • Simek, Rudolf (2007). Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. D.S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-513-1.
  • Taylor, Gary; Lavagnino, John, eds. (2007). Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-922588-5.
  • Thompson, Aaron (1842). The British History of Geoffrey of Monmouth: In Twelve Books. London: James Bohn.
  • Thorpe, Benjamin (1855). The Anglo-Saxon Poems of Beowulf, the Scôp or Gleeman’s Tale, and The Fight at Finnesburg. Oxford University Press.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. (2006). Bliss, Alan, ed. Finn and Hengest. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-261-10355-5.
  • West, Martin Litchfield (2007). Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-928075-4.