Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England: Essays in Cultural Geography

Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England: Essays in Cultural Geography

by Nicholas Howe

Eminent Anglo-Saxonist Nicholas Howe explores how the English, in the centuries before the Norman Conquest, located themselves both literally and imaginatively in the world. His elegantly written study focuses on Anglo-Saxon representations of  place as revealed in a wide variety of texts in Latin and Old English, as well as in diagrams of holy sites and a


Eminent Anglo-Saxonist Nicholas Howe explores how the English, in the centuries before the Norman Conquest, located themselves both literally and imaginatively in the world. His elegantly written study focuses on Anglo-Saxon representations of  place as revealed in a wide variety of texts in Latin and Old English, as well as in diagrams of holy sites and a single map of the known world found in British Library, Cotton Tiberius B v.  The scholar’s investigations are supplemented and aided by insights gleaned from his many trips to physical sites.  

The Anglo-Saxons possessed a remarkable body of geographical knowledge in written rather than cartographic form, Howe demonstrates. To understand fully their cultural geography, he considers Anglo-Saxon writings about the places they actually inhabited and those they imagined. He finds in Anglo-Saxon geographic images a persistent sense of being far from the center of the world, and he discusses how these migratory peoples narrowed that distance and developed ways to define themselves.


Editorial Reviews

Seth Lerer

"Nick Howe was the Anglo-Saxonist of my generation. This book, with its inquiries from Beowulf and Bede to post-Conquest England, eloquently testifies to his legacy and maps a future for our scholarship."—Seth Lerer, Stanford University

Roy Liuzza

"Howe's broad and humane perspective makes this not just a landmark work in Anglo-Saxon studies, but a powerfully evocative meditation on land and culture, homeland and exile, conquest and colony, landscape and life, and the human condition of being 'at home' in the world."—Roy Liuzza, University of Tennessee

Speculuma Journal of Medieval Studies - Jacqueline Stodnick

"[Howe's] passion for his subject matter is evident in these rich and allusive readings, which combine textual analysis, personal observation, theory, philology, manuscript study, and archaeology in a way that will be sure to invigorate (or reinvigorate) the reader's interest in the field of Anglo-Saxon studies more generally. Like Migration and Mythmaking before it, Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England is scholarship that is learned and elegant while also being exciting and heartfelt."—Jacqueline Stodnick, Speculuma Journal of Medieval Studies

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Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England

Yale University Press
Copyright © 2008 Nicholas Howe
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ISBN: 978-0-300-11933-6

Chapter One
Writing the Boundaries

Scholars interested in medieval senses of place have typically begun with the large scale: the Christian map of the world with Jerusalem at its center; the transmission through Christian encyclopedists of ancient geographical lore from Pliny, Strabo, and others; the travels of pilgrims and merchants across the known world and beyond its edges. These are all necessary variations on the theme of place, but each examines the subject from above, and each neglects senses of place that were more immediately present, that is, more local or more ingrained as a setting for daily experience. This scholarly emphasis on the global or, at least, the continental scale has as much to do with disciplinary habits as with the availability of sources. While there are various Anglo-Saxon sources that speak directly to the large scale, as will become evident later in this book, there are fewer that provide local descriptions and virtually none that can be said to offer personal accounts of places.

Such generic categories as local description and personal account may well be ill-suited to interpreting the available evidence from Anglo-Saxon England. Certainly one cannot, as is often the case with later periods, cite writers from the period that use local description as a medium for personal accounts, as do Gilbert White in Selborne and Henry David Thoreau at Walden in later centuries. Yet before rejecting these categories altogether, one might ask if some trace of their qualities and effects cannot also be detected in Anglo-Saxon texts. Doing so requires one to read obliquely, or across the grain, a technique that risks anachronistic over-interpretation but can also yield unexpected results. These results are unexpected, one hastens to add, within the terms of long-held disciplinary habits that have settled what our sources contain and thus what they can tell us about a given subject. These habits will require some reexamination in response to various types of evidence presented in this book, but first one might ask how it is that a place can be described as being local or as ingrained with lived experience.

The need to recognize the local is all the more pressing in a traditional society where movement, while not impossible, is often restricted by terms of labor service, customs of land use, and a general uncertainty about the nature and dimensions of the outside world. The Anglo-Saxons, or at least some of their elites, could be great travelers, but even they were familiar with the circumstances and obligations of the local. Some of them may have been pilgrims to Rome or Jerusalem, others may have been missionaries or traders to ancestral regions of Germania, while others attended closely to the bounds of the estates that sustained their economic life and to the range of the episcopal sees that organized their religious practice. Trying to comprehend the relation between the local and the distant is, as I have suggested, the point to be drawn from visiting Athelney and thinking about Alfred's time there. The local, as distinct from the more general or universal, contains information about the names and locations of places, the people who live there currently or did so in the past, and the topography that shapes communities over the turn of generations.

The local is also by its very nature closed off or only partially accessible to outsiders. Most place-names, then as now, are not known beyond a restricted orbit, as likewise are facts about the past such as who lived in this hamlet or who built that dyke or path. To those on the ground, such knowledge is largely transparent; it has been known and shared in that community for generations without reference to a wider world or outside audience. Such local knowledge can be placed within the terms and practices of religious and legal systems, as when Anglo-Saxon charters record a grant of land. Yet the relation between such systems and local facts is often difficult to define beyond such generalities as observing that a grant of land was often made for the good of the donor's soul and often carried penalties for anyone interfering with it. Those who drafted boundary clauses for charters did not invoke the deeply learned Christian traditions of law and geography, nor did they require their audience to know them. Such traditions were the source for other writings about place in Anglo-Saxon England, especially those by learned clerics such as Bede. His ideas about place are notable for never being completely circumscribed by the local, even though he is unusual for an Anglo-Saxon writer in noting the sites where he was born and lived as a monk in Northumbria.

Local senses of place also have about them a strong element of lived experience. Those who formulated boundary clauses in charters knew the necessary landmarks because they had walked the landscape. By contrast, one suspects that many of the scribes who inserted such clauses into charters-especially those who set English clauses into Latin charters-would be as hard-pressed to retrace those boundaries as we are today. Such scribes probably worked in a central office for writing charters and had no personal knowledge of the property being transferred. Under this interpretation, such scribes would write all of the charter except for the boundary clause, which would then be inserted by a local figure who knew the territory. This practice of writing the legal sections of a charter in a central registry and then recording the local facts on site may well also explain the presence of two distinct scribal hands in many of the charters. Historians such as Nicholas Brooks and Simon Keynes have drawn fruitfully on charters for a variety of purposes: to understand the intricate workings of the Anglo-Saxon legal system, to track the dates and movements of kings and nobles, to determine the revenue sources of monasteries and other ecclesiastical bodies. Landscape historians such as W. G. Hoskins, Oliver Rackham, and Della Hooke have concentrated on the boundary clauses of charters-the verbal descriptions that demarcate the grant of land-to trace the topography of Anglo-Saxon England and to inventory the relevant Old English terminology. When read at a slant, however, these boundary clauses still have much to say about the ways Anglo-Saxons thought about place, and not just as it was construed as property. As Jacques LeGoff has observed more generally, "In form as well as content even the most prosaic of charters may yield traces of the imagination." To understand these traces, one needs some working familiarity with the intended purposes and generic conventions of charters.

Charters have not been much considered by literary scholars, though they make up a substantial proportion of the extant documents from Anglo-Saxon England. The standard handlist by Peter Sawyer inventories over 1,800 examples of the genre. At the most basic level, charters record the transaction by which a grant of land was made; their legal status is as a written record of the oral ceremony that effected the transfer and made it binding. The charter is not itself the primary means of transfer, as is a deed in later property law. Charters exist, to quote the opening of one early example from 781, because "Tempora temporibus subeunt et vicissitudinum spatiis evenit ut prisca jam dicta inrita fiant nisi scriptis confirmemur" (Seasons follow seasons, and it happens in periods of change that things said in former times may be made void unless we confirm them with writings). As Dorothy Whitelock puts it, charters were "evidentiary" and served as "a precautionary record of an act performed before witnesses, an act valid and complete whether a charter was made or not." The majority of extant examples record grants to ecclesiastical foundations rather than to secular individuals, though that may well have less to do with actual patterns of transfer than with the survival of vellum texts. Individual Anglo-Saxons, unlike monasteries, rarely had secure means of preserving legal documents inherited from earlier generations.

If one moves carefully and very tentatively through these charters one can learn something about those who lived on the land and worked it, who did not travel far, and whose horizons were shaped less by written texts than by the landscape where they were born, labored, worshipped, and died. In the absence of firsthand accounts by those who were tied to the land, or eyewitness reports by outside observers, charters provide some evidence of how Anglo-Saxons attuned to local circumstances thought of the landscape in which they lived. To quote W. G. Hoskins in a similar vein, "We catch a sight of an earlier world in the bare words of this charter." The point to remember is that charters give only a partial glimpse and never the complete picture. As a genre, Anglo-Saxon charters tend to fall into four sections: first, an opening statement of several sentences or more that evokes God or Jesus Christ or both as the authority by which the person in question (such as a king or lord) grants the property in perpetuity; second, a clause demarcating the bounds of the property in question so that there will be no confusion about the extent of the transaction; third, a certain amount of legal boilerplate concerning what will happen (none of it good) to anyone who dares to interfere with the transaction; and fourth, a list of those who witnessed the transaction complete with their titles and signatures.

The choice of available languages-Latin or English or both-must always be considered when reading Anglo-Saxon charters. Many early charters are entirely in Latin, but it became increasingly common by the tenth century or so to draft bilingual charters according to a reasonably predictable pattern: the boundary clauses are in English and the other three sections are in Latin. That some charters are in Latin from start to finish, especially in the earlier period, weakens the appealing argument that those who drafted charters had to write about the landscape of England in English, as a kind of geo-linguistic essentialism. Those who drafted charters may well have found it easier to use English, especially when relying on types of flora to designate boundaries; vernacular names for trees and hedges may have been more available to them than Latin ones. Certainly, the practice of writing boundary clauses in the vernacular becomes more common later in the period. But when necessary, charters could be drafted without recourse to the vernacular. So why then was English used to write the map in these charters?

The answer, I would argue, lies less in the problem of composition, which was a formulaic matter because of the relatively finite set of features for denoting boundary points, and more in the problem of reception. The vernacular was used to present information that was of immediate importance to those who could not comprehend Latin by eye or by ear: the actual bounds of the territory. Those who lived in the area and worked the land would not have needed to know all the names and titles of those who witnessed the transfer; they probably assumed that it was given forever. And they certainly knew it was to be fooled with at their own risk. What touched their lives, what altered the map of their world, was who owned that parcel of land as a result of the transfer. For that could mean changes in patterns of labor and potential loss of traditional rights of use and would certainly mean a new landlord to whom rents or service might be owed. The choice of language for a boundary clause has further implications that will become clear after an analysis of specific examples.

In an early charter from A.D. 679 we find the most rudimentary possible statement about the boundaries of a grant and thus the one least useful for the historical record:

In nomine domini nostri salvatoris Jhesu Christi. Ego Hlotharius rex Cantuariorum pro remedium animæ meæ dono terram . in tenid . quæ appellatur . Uuestan.ae tibi Bercuald . tuoque monasterio cum omnibus ad se pertinentibus campis pascuis meriscis . siluis modicis . fonnis piscaris omnibus ut dictum est ad eandem terram pertinentia . sicuti nunc usque possessa est . juxta notissimos terminos a me demonstratus [sic] et proacuratoribus meis . eodem modo tibi tuoque monasterio conferimus.

In the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. I, Hlothhere, king of the people of Kent, grant for the relief of my soul land in Thanet which is called Westan ae [i.e., "west of the river"] to you, Brihtwold and to your monastery, with everything belonging to it, fields, pastures, marshes, small woods, springs, fisheries, with everything as has been said, belonging to that same land. As it has been owned hitherto, by the well-known boundaries indicated by me and my reeves, we confer it in the same way to you and your monastery.

The enumeration of topographical features on this property-its fields, pastures, marshes, small woods, springs, fisheries-becomes all the more interesting as one observes that the charter makes no attempt to delineate its boundaries. It says simply that they are very well known ("notissimos terminos") to the possessor of the property and his reeves and have been so in the past. The knowledge of place here is at once local, because it is limited to those who know the property from personal experience, and immediate, because it could not be re-created or retraced by someone from outside the community in future years. The location of this parcel on the small island of Thanet-itself a very defined territory-may perhaps explain this reliance on local knowledge. Yet one also comprehends, on reading this text, why charters are more likely to make some attempt, no matter how vague and impossible to retrace today, at demarcating the property so as to avoid misunderstanding when they might be read in a more distant location or generation. Writing may preserve the memory of the grant over these distances, but without some demarcation of its bounds, all that will survive in memory is the act rather than the dimensions of the transaction.

Achieving greater specificity in delineating boundaries is not necessarily a consequence of the genre developing over time. An example from a charter drafted within a decade of Hlothhere's grant to Brihtwold makes some attempt at least to name the properties in question. This grant from OEthelræd to the Abbess AÆthelburh refers to "terram quae appellatur . Ricingahaam . Budinhaam . Deccanhaam . Angenlabeshaam . et campo in silua quae dicitur Uuidmundesfelt" (the land which is called Ricingahaam, Budinhaam, Deccanhaam [Dagenham], Angenlabeshaam, and the field in the wood which is called Widmund's field). Naming in a society like that of Anglo-Saxon England is, of course, another form of local knowledge because it reflects conventions that are shared by those who live in the place and thus allows for greater precision than does the phrasing of Hlothhere's charter. (By contrast, one suspects that only the most notable places in England would be known by those who lived at a distance.) At the very least, those living near Ricingahaam, Budinhaam, Deccanhaam, and Angenlabeshaam could have had some sense of their locations and boundaries without necessarily holding an official position like that of reeve. That all four of these place-names combine what appears to be a tribal or personal name with either -haam or -ham, meaning "estate," "homestead," or "dwelling," is further demonstration of the local nature of this information. These are the places of neighbors who can be identified, whether they are the current residents of the site or those who founded them and lived there in the past. If one believes that all of this charter is contemporary to Œthelræd, probably from the years 686-688, then it is also notable for offering an explicit avowal of its purpose and a brief boundary clause:

Et ut firma et inconcussum sit donum . Termini sunt autem isti huius terre cum quibus accingitur . ab oriente Writola burna . ab aquilone Centinces triow . et hanc Hemstede . ab australe flumen Tamisa.

And that the gift may be firm and unshaken, the boundaries of this land with which it is surrounded are these: on the east Writolaburna [perhaps the river Bean], on the north Centing's tree and Hanchemstede, on the south the river Thames.


Excerpted from Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England by NICHOLAS HOWE Copyright © 2008 by Nicholas Howe. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

The late Nicholas Howe was professor of English, University of California at Berkeley, and the author of several books, including Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England, published by Yale University Press.

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