The Song of the Past


Bede was the true begetter of English history, precisely because of his innate antiquarianism and his obsession with past times. In his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum he “likes to speak of relics of the past, of British defences, of Roman earthworks and walls, of ruined churches, of Horsa’s tomb, and so forth.”Like Stukeley and Aubrey, almost a thousand years later, he was already possessed by a vision of English antiquity among old stones and broken monuments; like other Anglo-Saxons before him he wondered at the spectacle of dilapidated temples or ruined towns. Antiquarianism, in England, has always been compounded by a vision of Englishness itself; it is not a question of nationalism, which is often mistakenly introduced as an explanation or an easy device, but rather of the sentiment that in the relics of the past there is some inkling of what England is “really like.” Antiquarians are in this respect often political radicals appealing, for example, to Saxon liberties as opposed to a corrupt Hanoverian polity.

Bede also possessed this indigenous fervour; his introduction of Old English place-names is one example, but he also elucidates the figures of English myth and folklore. He gives the names of the months according to “antiqui Anglorum populi,” and gives English annotations of Latin terms. His national instincts—one might almost describe them as an unacknowledged atavism—resemble those of the church builders and scribes who persisted with a recognisably insular tradition despite the presence and influence of continental models. So Bede charted the movements of the English sea and of the English seasons; he prepared an English translation of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer; he sang native songs. And yet his greatest contribution to national historiography was undoubtedly the History which he composed in Latin; he has been described as “the first Englishman who understood the past and could view it as a whole.” 2 In similar spirit he was the first Englishman to render the past intelligible and accessible, not only to his contemporaries but to all the generations of historians who have succeeded him. Some of those historians, like Gibbon and Trevelyan, have paid tribute to his powers, principally because he lent English history the coherence and consistency of art. His sources included calendars and chronicles, hagiographies and commentaries, annals and compilations, histories and even oral testimony, all of them purified and elevated by his rigorous style.

Bede’s History is in five books, commencing with the topography of Britain and its earliest inhabitants but ending with a brief prayer to Jesus after its conclusion in 731. The “matter of Britain” is seen within the context of the Roman Empire and of European history, but this does not distract Bede’s attention from the manifold details of his own country; he alludes to Orosius and Pliny and Solinus but then mentions the defensive stakes along the Thames, “which can still be seen” seven hundred years after Caesar’s invasion, or interjects: “I heard this from a man still living.” He narrates the life and death of Alban, and relates them to the town of St. Albans where miraculous healings occur “to this day”; he refers to the “cities, forts, bridges and paved roads” of England and to the violent dynastic struggles of its rulers. There are dreams and battles, invasions and miracles, all manifested within the history of the salvation of a barbaric people.

Like the monastic illuminators of his period he was always glimpsing the numinous background of human events; he seems obsessed with the precise date of Easter, the subject of one of the most perplexing debates of the period, but only because that day prefigures the resurrection and final judgement. In his narrative the human figures are seen in outline or in rhetorical attitudes, and the events are often couched in the form of allegory; the purpose of his book is moral and eschatological, for the English are the race chosen by God. This was one of Bede’s most enduring themes, and one of his most persuasive legacies. John Milton declared that England was the “Elect Nation,” a prophecy that William Blake endorsed in Jerusalem; the oratorios of Handel were celebrated in part because the history of the Hebrews was seen as a template of English history; in the psalm settings of William Byrd’s “Jerusalem” is also a synonym of England, while the dedication to the King James Bible refers to “our Sion.”

The legacy of Bede, therefore, was a long one; a religious view of history prevailed until the end of the seventeenth century, while nineteenth-century historians such as Acton and Macaulay employed the secular religion of Whiggism to fashion their narratives. Bede promulgated the important lesson that only a defining vision can properly order an historical narrative, and that good histories can be formulated only by good writers. History is an art, in other words, and cannot be finally distinguished from drama or from fiction.

Bede in part took his account of early Britain from the narratives of an earlier historian, Gildas, whose writing is suffused with biblical imagery and Christian lamentation. The works of Bede and Gildas may not be “true” histories, any more than Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution are “true” histories, but the power of their writing commanded assent for many years.

Gildas was a Briton whose sixth-century De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae(a history of England from the Roman conquest to his own time, with a lament on the evils of his day) was composed in Latin for a European audience, but it has its touches of native poetry. England is an island “stiff with icy cold,” whose faithlessness may cause it to be “totally enveloped in thick darkness of black night.” The nation, invaded by Picts and Scots, lies like a fallen warrior “stunned and groaning” in the very mouths of enemies who resemble “wolves rabid with deepest hunger.” The defeated Britons flee “to mountainous regions, overhanging hills, fortified crags, and to most dense forests and marine rocks.” 3 As in Saxon poetry, the landscape is always bleak. Gildas employs a deliberately plangent and embellished style, with exclamations and rhetorical questions, designed as much to edify and admonish as to inform. He was not above invention either, since he saw no point in spoiling a good story or ruining an interesting moral. But he was so powerful a writer that many of his more notable misrepresentations were accepted until recent times. It was Gildas who promulgated the myth that the Romans and the British Celts were thoroughly at odds with each other, distinct and separate races, whereas the archaeological evidence suggests prolonged intermingling. And yet Gildas’s spiritual fervour was so great that he was revered as a saint and prophet as well as an historian, while at the same time he created an historical myth or model which survived for five hundred years.

Certainly it was maintained by the ninth-century historian Nennius, who borrowed from both Bede and Gildas, thus continuing the tradition of religio-historical writing which dominated English historiography at least until the publication in 1670 of Milton’s History of England.

Nennius collected “The Matter of Britain” from many sources, but not the least of his virtues lies in his account of King Arthur. The Arthurian legends came to dominate the concept of Englishness, but Nennius obtains the prize as the first “historian” to describe this notorious if ultimately elusive king. He also lists a number of “marvels” to be seen in England—among them a hot pool in Bath which changes its temperature according to the wishes of the bather, and wells of salt near Droitwich. The love of the marvellous may again be a national trait.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which recorded events in England from the beginning of the Christian era to 1154, is filled with wonders—the sign of the cross is seen upon the face of the moon, dragons fly through the air, fiery flashes light up the landscape—while its unadorned transcript of events is interlaced with cadences and images that might have been taken out of contemporaneous epic poetry. Its narrative of the Mercian or Northumbrian poet Cynewulf and his rivalry with Cyneheard, dated 757, “has often been called the first story in English” and is closely related “to a completely lost oral-prose tradition” in the manner of “Icelandic saga,”which suggests that the island was once full of sounds and sweet airs. The first story in English may have seemed like a song.

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