Gens Anglorum and the myth of Angeln
During the reign of King Ælla of Deira (559/560-588 AD), the future pope Gregory the Great visited a slave market and met two boys for sale: “their bodies white, their countenances beautiful, and their hair very fine.” About 150 years later the Venerable Bede (672/673–735) tells the story in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum: Gregory the Great (Pope 590-604) created a naming precedence in the christian world that resulted in the prevalence of “Angles” in the clerical nomenclature for addressing the blessed and soon to be converted pagans of Britain. Ever since, according to modern historical insights, the “gens Anglorum” evolved into a unified English nation rather than the representation of a single Germanic tribe.
“Having viewed them, [Gregory] asked, as is said, from what country or nation they were brought? and was told, from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants were of such personal appearance. He again inquired whether those islanders were Christians, or still involved in the errors of paganism? and was informed that they were pagans. […]He therefore again asked, what was the name of that nation? and was answered, that they were called Angles. “Right,” said he, “for they have an angelic face, and it becomes such to be coheirs with the angels in heaven. What is the name,” proceeded he, “of the province from which they are brought?” It was replied, that the natives of that province were called Deiri. “Truly are they De iri,” said he, “withdrawn from wrath, and called to the mercy of Christ. How is the king of that province called?” They told him his name was Ælla; and he, alluding to the name, said, “Hallelujah, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts.”
However, a supratribal Anglian identity, a “gens Anglorum” that comprises all invading tribes, is an anachronism at the time of Bede. The all inclusive term “Anglo-Saxon” seems to appear in surviving native sources only from the late ninth century on. Anglian and Saxon cultures remained relatively distinct until at least the tenth century. Harris states that “any inquiry into Anglo-Saxon ethnogenesis must still confront the ethnic implications of Bede’s passage which relates the division of Germanic tribes in Britain into Angles, Saxons and Jutes.” According to him the composition of the gens Anglorum should be evaluated in the light of Bede’s “rhetorical strategy” to extend to his audience “a sense of identity” that could be in agreement to Gregory the Great’s nomenclature.
Bede’s purported aim was to spread the Christian faith, and consequently the tribal division in his writings is considered meaningful only within a theological and teleological context. Harris: “Bede’s evidence is best approached not in terms of how it reflects either the actual facts or common opinion, but in how it actively contributes to mythographic or ideological formations.”
The vast majority of Bede’s sentences are not about the Angles as a specific tribe, but as a nation (gens) that “shares constituative ethnic or socially binding characteristics connoted in the name ‘Angle’.” Evidence suggests that Bede was implying “the ultimate uncertainty of his sources” on this ethnical preposition. Describing the pagan advent Bede tells us that either the Angles or the Saxons were invited by a king, “Tunc Anglorum sive Saxonum gens.” The self-inflicted confusion now even seems to extend to the Germanic homelands, where every sense of community is now in doubt and also dismissed by historians as an anachronism.
This “ultimate uncertainty” is remarkable, since the Roman sources are quite favorable to a full identification of continental Angli with the Angrivari, the Saxon core population. Why Bede didn’t exploit this to give the concept of a united “gens Anglorum” more credibility? In his Geography, Ptolomy collected tribal information from primary sources that apparently used different naming traditions, where Angli and Angrivari were synonyms.
Ptolemy’s Geographia, version 1:
Of the people of the interior and those who live inland the most important are the Suevi Angili, who are to the east of the Langobardi extending towards the north and up to the central part of the Albis [~Elbe] river
Ex gentibus introrsum et in media terra habitantibus maximae sunt gentes Suevorum Angilorum, qui ad orientem sunt a Langobardis septentriones versus extenti usque ad mediam Albis fluvii partem
Ptolemy’s Geographia, version 2:
Minores vero etiam interiacent gentes et quidem inter Cauchos minores et Suevos Bructeri maiores, infra quos Chaemae; inter Cauchos maiores et Suevos Angrivarii, deinde Laccobardi, infra quos Dulgubnii; inter Saxones et Suevos Teutonoari atque Viruni; inter Pharodinos et Suevos Teutones atque Avarni.
The identity of Angili as Angrivari and of Laccobardi as Longobardi is hard to miss. Likewise, comparing the location of tribes according to Ptolemy with similar information supplied by Tacitus, we could propose the Chaemae to be identical to the Chamavi and hence identify the Lesser Chauci with the Chasuarians that purportedly dwelled along the Hase river in Germany, what would be a reasonable location.
“The Angrivarians and Chamavians are enclosed behind, by the Dulgibinians and Chasuarians”
More importantly, Tacitus considers the Angli to be among the mighty tribes that surrounds the Longobards and that are all defended by rivers or forests:
“What on the contrary ennobles the Langobards is the smallness of their number, for that they, who are surrounded with very many and very powerful nations, derive their security from no obsequiousness or plying; but from the dint of battle and adventurous deeds. There follow in order the Reudignians, and Aviones, and Angles, and Varinians, and Eudoses, and Suardones and Nuithones; all defended by rivers or forests.”
Bede shared Tacitus’ view on the Angles as a powerful nation: “Those who came over were of the three most powerful nations of Germany Saxons, Angles, and Jutes.” A doubtful claim for the Angles, that remain virtually invisible in Roman sources – unless they could be identified as the Saxon Angrivari. However, the location of a Saxon Anglia between rivers or mountains doesn’t correspond to the shores implied by Bede’s “the country which is called Anglia […] between the provinces of the Jutes and the Saxons“. In other words, Bede’s information about the Anglian homelands doesn’t appear to derive from Roman sources nor does his knowledge confirm a Saxon tradition that unequivocally counted the Angles as an important Saxon grouping. That the pagan king of Deira is a namesake of the first king of the South Saxons Ælle is now reduced to mere coincidence. Thus while Angles once may have been a ruling race among Saxons, Bede passed their name to the potential christian “gens Anglorum” of Britain instead, in such a way that the Anglian denomination and rule became all but specifically linked to Saxons.
Bede’s “ultimate uncertainty” taken to the ultimate consequence should even make us wonder why the people he indicated as “Anglian” were so different and spoke a language that was not identical to the Saxonica lingua. He is careful to make the distinction when he defines “From the Angles […] are descended the East Angles, the Midland Angles, Mercians, all the race of the Northumbrians, that is, of those nations that dwell on the north side of the river Humber, and the other nations of the English.” Not his clerical ideology but his contemporary observations were at odds with the sources that defined the Angles rather as an important Saxon grouping. Archeology confirms different burial customs between Angles (inhumantion) and Saxons (cremation). For sure such a different ethnicity deserved a homeland of its own, that was clearly separated from the Old Saxony territories.
The contemporary logic is all too obvious, though the sources are at odds with Bede’s preposition and this must have caused uncertainty. Suddenly the continental orgin of Angles becomes obscure. Harris: “Whereas the tribes of the Jutes and the Saxons (and the Picts and the British Irish, for that matter) are divided between those Jutes and Saxons who make their homes in Britain and those who make their homes elsewhere, Bede notes that Angulus “ab eo tempore usque hodie manere desertus” (“from that time and to this day remains deserted”) and that the Angles are whole, united, and integral.”
Probably Bede referred to the same stretch of land mentioned in Alfred the Great’s 9th century addition to Orosius’ Historiae on Ottar’s voyage:
“And from Sciringesheal, he said that he sailed in five days to the trading-town which they call Hedeby; this stands between the Wends and the Saxons and the Angles, and belongs to the Danes. When he sailed there from Sciringesheal, then Denmark was to the port and open sea to the starboard for three days; and then for two days before he came to Hedeby there lay to his starboard, Jutland, and Zealand and many islands. The Angles dwelt in those lands before they came here to this country. And for those two days there lay to his port those islands which belong to Denmark.”
This region has been identified as Angeln, north of the defensive wall called “Danevirke” in the neighbourhood of Hedeby. According to carbon-14 dating Danish ramparts were build here as early as 650 AD, on the isthmus between the Treene and the Schlei. Thus Angeln was contested borderland between Saxony and Danmark, and as such indeed very likely to be deserted at the time of Bede. Actually, the name “Angeln” may very well reflect the Saxon history of this land before it fell into the possession of the Danes.
The Saxon hegemony in the north finally ended in the Saxon Wars (772 – 804), when Charlemagne subdued them. Most likely this event accelerated a period of dwindling influence in the north, marked by the advance of Danes in the north and Slavic people in the east. The relation of the Saxons with the Danes was ambiguous, though it is likely there were periods of strife and commercial relations that finally resulted in a fixation of the Danish expansion to Schleswig, the subsequent Saxon retreat from Angeln, and the onset of the Daneworks. The Danes could have named their piece of conquered land Angeln for the same reason why Saxon regions in the Netherlands are still littered by placenames like “Engeland“.
The people that Bede indicated as “Anglian” were different from the Saxons of his time. Hines: “In Bede, Saxons usually turn up for military victories, whereas the Angles are often mentioned in matters of religion. The Saxons rather than the Angles are connected with the migrations to Britain.” All the contrary according to Procopius, that didn’t register Saxons at all and “mentions that the king of the Franks had recently sent an embassy to Justinian bringing a few Angles that had emigrated to the Frankish kingdom ‘to estabilish his claim that this island was ruled by him’” (Hines, 1997). Their language was definitely unlike the “lingua Brittaniae” Bede mentions, and to a lesser extend distinct from the language of the Saxons as well. These differences for sure supplied another reason underpinning Bede’s “ultimate uncertainty” that prevented his full understanding or acceptance of the sources. His identification of Saxons as a kind of Angles remained tentative in his first book. Bede, of course, wouldn’t admit the status of “ruling race” to be exclusive for the heathen Saxons through their possible identity with Angles, although taking the sources literally it would have been easy to do so. His agreement on a lost Anglian homeland, exempt from Saxon rule, rather appears to be a concession to the contemporary status quo and “truths” than driven by his religious desire to design a worthy mythology for all. Apparently the Anglian denomination was already “usurped” by the “gens Anglorum” before Bede made his religious efforts. This “gens Anglorum” did not identify themselves with the Saxon invaders at all and their collective memory of a homeland oversea did not agree with the Saxons, that through Alfred even did some efforts of their own to locate the Anglian homeland.
In the Celtic world the Anglo-Saxons usually figure as Saxones or Saeson. Only the Book of Ulster knew Offa, king of Mercia, as “a good king of the Angles”, what could have referred to the treatment of his subjects. However, the Book referred to Bede’s “Anglian” north as Northern Saxonland (“918. The men of Scotland, moreover, moved against them and they met on the bank of the Tyne in northern Saxonland.”). The title Rex Anglorum is used by the East Anglian kings of Rædwald, Aethelstan and Eadmund in their coinage. The East Anglian rulers are normally styled rulers of the East Angle people (Angli Orientales), not of East Anglia (Anglia Orientalis). According to Ranulf, about 800 the West Saxon King Egbert commanded that all the men of the land be called “English”. King Alfred, a West Saxon, issued coins using the title “Rex Anglorum”, king of the English.
To our best knowledge a person’s ethnicity was defined according to his or her birthplace and city of residence, and so are the English. No other examples exist in history of an ethnicity that actually changed its historical name because of the conversion to christianity, neither there is a clear indication they actually did: Procopius already proclaimed in the 6th century – ie. before Gregory! – that Britain was divided between Angili, Phrissones and Britons. The alternative explanation but religion is that “gens Anglorum” was already employed to refer to the pre-invasion population, though they can’t be the Britons. The only ethnicity we know of that abundantly populated the British province in Roman times were the Belgae. If so, their claims for being “Anglians” were semi-native and not derived from or competitive to the invaders, but merely coincided with the Saxon polyethnic constitution.
Several etymologies for the Angles coexist, as well as for the Saxon Angri. Their apparent similarity could easily be understood as coincidental, even in the case of a similar etymological origin. How likely it would be that such etymological similarity wouldn’t necessarily reflect any ethnic unity? According to Julius Pokorny the stem Angri- in Angrivarii and Angl– in Anglii all come from the same root meaning “bend“. However, a geographic explanation that e.g. refers to the Northsea coast bending north at Holstein would be exclusively valid for the Angrivarii, but rendered useless for “gens Anglorum” that are now proposed to be native to Britain. Would there be another possible etymology that may involve a deeper relationship or reminiscent constitution that equally survived on both sides of the Northsea in the institution of a ruling race by the name Angli/Angri?
Maybe the origin of Gens Anglorum is more native to England than any Angrivarii-related immigrants from the continent would ever be. This would lead us to Celts or Belgae. Since Celts can be safely excluded from a significant role in Anglo-Saxon history, we could take a closer look at the Belgae. These people remain largely unknown, except for the fact that their people were either Celtic or Germanic, and that their immigration to England in Roman times has been convincingly attested by archeology. But what British Belgae could have in common with the Saxons that they were acquainted with an honorific title like Angle, synonymous to Angri? The answer may be very simple once the Germanic identity of Belgae is accepted. Like other Germanic people around the Northsea they are likely to have shared the Inguaeonic religion that was current before the Migration Period. Ing- toponyms are quite numerous in Belgic territory. Then Angri as well as Angli are more likely to be both reminiscent of the ancient Ingwaz cult. As a matter of common pre-Migration Period origin, the ruling races of Anglians and Angrivari alike once just happened to represent the god Ingwaz in his earthly realm.
- Bede, Social Practice, and the Problem with Foreigners – Stephen J. Harris, Essays in Medieval Studies 13 (1998), 97-107, link
- Bede – Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (HE), link
- The making of English national identity – Krishan Kumar, 2003, link
- Tacitus – Germania, link
- Ptolemy – Geographia, Book II Chapter 1o, link
- Sharon Turner – The history of the Anglo-Saxons (on Alfred’s additions in his translation of Osorius), link
- The Voyage of Ottar, link
- John Hines – The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective, 1997, link