Saturday, January 12, 2013

Thoughts on national identity

Last week Katy Meyers over at Bones Don't Lie posted an entry I found thought-provoking.  It was excellent.  Go read it.  In her article she discussed the difficulties involved in identifying the ethnicity of an excavated skeleton. Archaeologists can examine ethnicity by studying cranial features, isotope ratios, and grave goods.  However, these are all imprecise.  Katy concluded by writing, "Perhaps the more important question isn't trying to identify barbarian groups, but rather to look at the integral change in cemeteries and how individuals expressed identity on a more local scale."
An English child celebrates St. George's Day 2010.
From Wikimedia Commons.

Katy's post interested me because I have been thinking lately about something similar.  I have been wondering about how individual early medieval people formed their national identities.  I originally got to thinking about national identity while watching the Olympic Games in London.  What makes an athlete or a spectator identify themselves as, for example, British?  I then started thinking about people who lived in England during the medieval period.  When did these people start seeing themselves as primarily English instead of as primarily members of their Germanic or Celtic tribe, and why did this happen?  Further, when medieval people established a consistent national identity from Scotland to Wales and Cornwall, why did they see themselves as "English" instead of "Saxon" or "Mercian" or even "Viking?"

The Olympics were several months ago, and I haven't yet found an answer to these questions that I find satisfying.  I begin to suspect that my lack of good answers is partially because there aren't any good answers to be had.  This may be one of those instances where our modern ways of thinking are sufficiently different from how people thought 1000 years ago; that we're not going to be able to understand exactly what was going through their minds unless we can borrow the TARDIS and ask them.

That said, I have found a couple of hints.

I've learned that the Anglo-Saxon legal system sometimes favored people of an English nationality.  For example, Ine's law established a higher weregild and lower burden of proof for Anglo-Saxons then for Britons (see Ward-Perkins).  People who lived under a tiered legal system that favored the English would have had an incentive to label themselves as English.

I've also come to the conclusion that religion played a role.  An obvious difference between the English and the Norse was their different religions.  There must have been something about Christianity that medieval people found compelling:  the pagan Vikings converted to Christianity within one or two generations of settling in Northumbria (see citation).  If Northumbrians saw the term "English" as being synonymous with "Christian" than calling themselves English would have followed conversion.

A person's national identity is influenced by a number of things.  This is true today, and I guess I shouldn't be surprised that it is equally difficult to understand the national identity of medieval people.  I will continue to learn about and think about this, but I will probably stop looking for an easy, direct answer.

Works cited:
Ward-Perkins, Bryan.  Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become more British?  English Historical Review (Oxford University Press), June 2000.