This is Part XIII of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Eric Weiskott.
Go back to the beginning of the series here.
A lot of the excellent new work that has been done on race and racism in the Middle Ages—both in this series and also within academia—focuses either on telling the stories of people of color in the Middle Ages, or understanding how the racial categorizations of people of color came to be. But whiteness, as a racial category, was also under construction during this period. In medieval Britain, there was a centuries-long dispute over who had the right to feel British.
Over the course of the Middle Ages, ‘Britishness’—the right to claim British identity—became racial property. I call this racial identity a ‘property’ (an idea I’m taking from Cheryl I. Harris) to emphasize its status as an object of political power. Like real estate, Britishness in the Middle Ages became a thing to be owned. And it had value. By appropriating the anti-imperialist ideas of the very peoples they had subjugated, English writers represented themselves as the heroes of their political history.
One way to see how this worked is to notice who claimed the identity, and who was barred from claiming it. Celtic-language speakers on the island (i.e., the pre-Roman peoples of the island, including the Scots and Welsh) were the original target of the label ‘British,’ but these people were pushed aside as the English took it for themselves. Britishness didn’t include Jews, who lived as a religious and ethnic minority in medieval England until their expulsion by royal decree in 1290. It didn’t include Africans, either, whose presence in England in small numbers is attested from Roman times and especially toward the end of the Middle Ages as the trade routes connecting Europe and Africa grew more numerous and more heavily trafficked. Feeling British was not an experience available to everyone.
Perhaps paradoxically, for all of its recorded history, the island of Great Britain has been a postcolonial space. The Romans invaded in the first century CE. The Angles, Saxons, and other continental West-Germanic-speaking peoples did in the fifth century, the Vikings in the ninth through eleventh centuries, and the Normans in 1066. Over this time, the terms Briton and British acquired two different meanings. These terms could refer to:
- indigenous Celtic-speaking peoples as opposed to the descendants of continental invaders, or
- all the (white) inhabitants of the island.
The difference mattered politically, in terms of governance and land ownership. As a result, the word British became an ideological battleground in medieval genres of writing as disparate as historiography, prophecy, and romance. Writing in medieval Britain spanned multiple languages, including Latin, Norman French, Old and Middle English, Welsh, and Old Norse. This essay emphasizes the Middle English language, in which the concept of Britishness realized its full force as a political weapon.
For modern people, the very term British conceals the multiethnic and postcolonial reality of life in Britain, both medieval and contemporary. It implies that the people who inhabit, and inhabited, Great Britain are one monolithic people—or that the identity can be claimed by one group.
For centuries after their arrival, the Anglo-Saxons and the native Celtic speakers lived interspersed among several relatively independent kingdoms. (The precise number of kingdoms is debatable and changed over time.) Speakers of different languages intermingled, though many Celtic speakers retreated westward, to present-day Wales, in response to the Anglo-Saxon settlements. Later, multiple kingdoms merged into a new polity known as England (Old English Englaland ‘land of the English’), centered in the south. At that time, the term English (OE englisc) could be contrasted with British (OE bryttisc). The word British, derived from Latin, referred exclusively to Celtic speakers on the island and in Brittany in present-day France.
Remembering the Britons
The publication of a new history would soon change that. In the 1120s or 1130s, half a century after the Norman Conquest of England and Wales, a Welsh cleric named Geoffrey (now commonly known as Geoffrey of Monmouth) published a chronicle in Latin called History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Brittaniae). Geoffrey’s work narrates some of the major episodes in British history, from the arrival of the legendary Brutus of Troy (allegedly after the destruction of Troy in around 1200 BCE) to the reign of the seventh-century CE Welsh king Cadwallader. It is also the first work to connect King Arthur and Merlin, who had previously been characters in their own, separate, stories. History of the Kings of Britain concerns British history before and after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, and it adopts the political perspective of the indigenous peoples. Its core message is that the English have dispossessed the Britons, and the Britons must await the return of Arthur to regain political control of the island. Arthur is king of the Britons, not the English.
Yet the political situation in Geoffrey’s Britain was far more fluid than ‘British vs. English.’ A covert purpose of Geoffrey’s book was to empower the Norman aristocracy in Britain to speak with authority about politics on the island. Geoffrey chose to write in Latin, the most prestigious language known to him, rather than in English, French, or Welsh.
But to use Geoffrey’s book as political ammunition, one had to ‘become’ British. So, this is exactly what both the English- and French-speaking elites began to do. In this way, Geoffrey gave later writers a vocabulary for negotiating the relationship between ethnicity and authority.
Seeing and Making the Future
Geoffrey didn’t just engage in history, he also engaged in prophecy. Book seven of the History of the Kings of Britain includes The Prophecies of Merlin (Prophetiae Merlini). In this book, Merlin tells the future of the Saxon (i.e., English) and British (i.e., Celtic-speaking) peoples at the request of King Vortigern. The juxtaposition of history and prophecy—since an apparently historical figure is, in this case, telling the future—may seem strange, but it was widespread in the Middle Ages. History and prophecy were often two sides of the same coin.
Subsequent English political prophecies—yes, this was a fairly common genre—drew heavily on Geoffrey’s History in order to define Britishness and to position the English as victims. For example, an anonymous fifteenth-century genealogical scroll now held at the British Library ends with a prose passage. In it, an angel prophetically admonishes Cadwallader, the last ‘British’ king. The passage derives from the conclusion of Geoffrey’s History. In Middle English, it reads, in part:
Thow ner non of thyn herys of thy blode shal not inherete this lande ageyn vnto the tyme that tho pepyl. that inhabyde it be funde in the same synnys. that thou and thyne ar drewyn out for at this tyme. […] And than shal be a fynal distructione of the Saxonnes and Normans and of al other strangeres of this lande.
(Neither you nor any of the heirs of your blood shall inherit this land again until the time that the people who inhabit it are caught in the same sins for which you and yours are driven out at this time. […] And then there shall be a final destruction of the Saxons and Normans and of all other strangers in this country.)
As you might expect, prophecy is never really about the future. It is about what happened in the past and what should be done in the present. Behind the address to an ancient British king is an Englishman speaking to other Englishmen. The rest of the manuscript is in Latin, the language of history, law, and the church. This more intimate and literary passage appears in English. In a turn toward the extreme—at least from a modern perspective—the text looks forward to the genocide (“fynal distructione”) “of the Saxonnes and Normans.”
In the British Library scroll one can see how history writing was used to reinterpret a racial/ethnic category for a specific political purpose. The scroll was created in the 1460s, during the civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses, and is a work of propaganda meant to bolster the claim to the throne of the Yorkist Edward IV. The English writer casts himself, and his English audience, as spiritual descendants of Cadwallader and the Britons; he equates an anti-Saxon stance with a pro-Yorkist one. Such an equation is a flat contradiction in modern ethnic terms, but it made sense in the context of fifteenth-century politics and history writing.
Once it had been translated from Latin and Welsh into English, political prophecy served new political ends. For English readers, prophecy relocated strife between actually existing British peoples onto the distant past. Though they were relative newcomers, the English used prophecy to imagine themselves as natives rather than “strangeres of this lande.” To make room for the English, the actual indigenous (Celtic-speaking) peoples had to recede to the background of politics.
Britishness and Romance
Romance was the most popular literary genre in medieval England, so it was a natural place for English writers to explore what it meant to be British. The Brut, written in the late twelfth century, is arguably the earliest known romance in English. It is a translation of a translation: an English adaptation of a French version of Geoffrey’s Latin History. The Brut reimagines British history as an adventure story, complete with glittering battle scenes and epic speeches. Under the guidance of the author (known in the text only as “Lawman”), King Arthur comes into his own as a legendary hero—no longer a pseudo-historical figure, but the adventurous leader we know today.
Lawman sometimes uses the term Briton (Early Middle English Brutte) in the older sense, to mean ‘speaker of a Celtic language.’ At other times he uses the word in the newer sense, to mean ‘(white) inhabitant of Britain.’ An example of the newer sense is a moment in the King Arthur section when Lawman equates the Bruttes who hope for the return of Arthur and the Anglen (‘English’) whom Arthur will lead in a rebellion against Norman oppressors. In this text, both the word British and the word English have become something like racial designations, over and above linguistic difference in Lawman’s Britain.
British vs. English
In historiography, prophecy, and romance, Britishness became a cudgel for enforcing a new sense of (racial) belonging. That sense of belonging, of feeling British, was linked with the claims that England and the English made over the entire island of Britain (and, in fact, beyond it—to Ireland and France).
In claiming Britishness, the English set the stage for the modern nationalism that enabled the British Empire, and created ambiguity between the Modern English terms English and British. Welsh people today are unlikely to say British when they mean English, or vice versa, but English-speaking residents of England are prone to this political/semantic slippage.
In the twenty-first century, conflict over whether British continues to mean ‘white’ has surged in the news and in national politics. Far-right nationalists, such as members of Britain First, oppose a racially diverse UK and seek to recover a precolonial, monocultural imaginary status quo. As we have seen, in the recorded history of Britain, no such status quo ever existed. Since the time of the earliest written texts, Britain has always been multicultural. The racialized difference between medieval and modern immigrants—say, Vikings vs. Pakistanis—is due, in part, to medieval battles over Britishness.
Eric Weiskott teaches English at Boston College. His writing appears in the Atlantic, TLS, and many scholarly journals. His first book was English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History (Cambridge University Press, 2016). He is at work on a second book, about English poetry and the division of history into medieval and modern periods. With Alastair Bennett and Katharine Breen, Eric edits the Yearbook of Langland Studies. He tweets @ericweiskott.