European Nationalism, Anglo-saxon period, ecclesiastical history


The development of nationalism in Europe is a contested process, and most historians conclude that nationalist sentiments did not arise in the shattered remnants of the Western Roman Empire until the twelfth century. However, a national consciousness developed in England long before this date. Although it was a fundamentally abstract concept, largely limited to the intellectual domain of the highly educated elite, English national identity in the Anglo-Saxon period was a vibrant and powerful cultural force. Memorably articulated by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century, this proto-national sentiment identified the Angles-the Germanic tribes who had invaded and occupied Britain two centuries previous-as a divinely chosen people, the earthly evidence of a new covenant between God and a new chosen people. Although the geographic entity now known as England was politically fractured along tribal lines, Bede relied on "a degree of sufficient self-awareness of ... over-riding Englishness" in writing a definitive historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum-an ecclesiastical history of the English people. Although the British Isles of Bede's day were far from political or even cultural unification, he sought to establish an intellectual construct of the single gens Anglorum, on the basis that the English-brought across the sea to take ownership of a far-flung island on the edge of the known world-were a chosen people, with a narrative trajectory and ultimate destiny comparable to that of the Israelites of the Old Testament.