Mentalite and Writing About Early Modern Britain

I have just discovered a fascinating book: Social Identity in Early Modern Britain, (William O. Frazer and Andrew Tyrrell, eds, Leicester University Press, 2000). This is a collection of essays by some of my favourite scholars in the field (including Alex Woolf) and it has helped to bump my thinking out of a rut. I had come to the conclusion that getting inside the mentalites of the period was impossible – but maybe something can be achieved.

The first chapter is an essay by John Moreland which addresses the hoary old problem of ethnic identity (or lack thereof) in the context of the aftermath of the adventus Saxonum. His conclusion (and here I oversimplify), is that ethnic identity was socially constructed in Britain over the next couple of hundred years, rather than imported from NW Europe, and that further, the concepts were really only applied to elites.

For example, identifiers such as Saxon, Anglian or even Mercian, Deiran, were only ever applied to kings or other members of the elite, and then generally only in the context of battles. The rest of the population – well, did they care? Bede, for instance, hardly mentions them. They were literally beneath notice. Subsequent historians, archaeologists and, indeed, politicians, may have asked questions about the ethnic identity of the general population, but did anybody care at the time?

So, I am changing my own view, always the sign of a good article. Specifically, I am moving away from the belief that fifth and sixth century Britain was subjected to some version of ethnic cleansing/ mass outmigration to Brittany and Wales/ death from plague. I am not quite sure what my thinking has moved to, yet, but as always, I come to the great stumbling block of language. For instance: why am I not writing this in Welsh and why have so few British words found their way into English? (cf Viking words).

Anyway, notes on chapter 2 tomorrow. Oh, the delights of intellectual excitement!

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