12.10.17, Coz, Rome en Angleterre

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Anna Gannon

The Medieval Review 12.10.17

Coz, Yann. Rome en Angleterre: L'image de la Rome antique dans l'Angleterre anglo-saxonne, du VIIe siècle à 1066. Bibliothèque d'Histoire Médiévale, 5. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2011. Pp. 520. ISBN: 978-2-8124-0306-4.

Reviewed by:
Anna Gannon
St. Edmund's College, Cambridge University

As Yann Coz notes, of all Germanic people, the Anglo-Saxons were particularly fascinated by Rome. This very useful monograph deals with the question of how the idea of Rome and all it stood for developed, and how far it shaped Anglo-Saxon culture from the advent of Christianity to the Norman Conquest.

His research follows two directions. The first considers historical works relating to the Roman past, read, written or translated in England. The second, in order to map unity or diversity, analyzes the image of ancient Rome as it emerges from a number of disparate works.

As for the Roman heritage, the study considers historical and grammatical works of Late Antiquity, which over these centuries shaped the understanding of Rome and its culture and which were at the heart of medieval "schooling." It also briefly considers the Roman past amongst the British, and how it might have influenced the Anglo-Saxons, but the main emphasis is put on works produced, reproduced and manipulated by Anglo-Saxon authors. The view is a traditional one, privileging the point of view of the Roman missionaries sent by Gregory the Great; the pervasive but less tangible Irish connection is mentioned briefly.

After an initial, detailed overview of Rome in Anglo-Saxon teaching, the book is divided in three main parts: "Obsessive romanitas" (concerning the times of Aldhelm, Boniface and Bede), "Antiquity in Old English" (the translations of Alfred), and "Forgetting Rome?" (England in the 9th-11th centuries).

The introduction sets the parameters of the learning of grammar and history in Anglo-Saxon England.

The survey tackles the Anglo-Saxon school curriculum, from the most elementary level, considering grammatical treatises, commentaries and glossaries, and the reading of works by Donatus, Servius, Eusebius, St Augustine of Hippo, Orosius and Isidore of Seville and examining the perennial problem of the handling of pagan versus Christian examples. The cultural background is considered further through an analysis of Gildas, and the British tradition, and also by a discussion of the teaching of Theodore and Hadrian and the bringing of the rich Eastern cultural heritage, testified by an interest in medicine and the natural world, as well as in the lives of eastern martyrs. Glossaries, and in particular the glossae collecatae and their interpretamenta, are examined as evidence of how the Anglo-Saxons approached learning, with their efforts directed to understanding biblical and hagiographic texts and their concern more focused on linguistics than history.

The first part considers the approaches and ambitions of the first generation of Anglo-Saxon scholars concerning classical civilisation. The literary output of this remarkable generation is assessed in great detail, and the generous footnotes provide much useful information. Aldhelm's individuality and the idiosyncrasies of his vast classical knowledge are underlined. His culture is indebted not only to the contribution of the teaching of Theodore and Hadrian, but also to the "Irish connection." Like Aldhelm, Boniface and Tatwine are writers of riddles, but also writers on grammar: a pagan science in the service of Christianity. Rome is at the same time essential for its language, yet marginal, as the mastery of its grammar is only a means to understanding Christian sources. Equally for Bede: the interest in Rome is genuine, but limited to a Christian agenda, hence his reticence towards the pagan past, and his selective and ambiguous interest in Roman history. Indicative of this attitude are the links which Bede presents regarding ancient Roman monuments still standing and between the Romano-British past and his own times regarding the place of martyrdom of the Roman St Alban and the miracles said to be still flourishing locally. However, the romanitas we find in Bede is fruit of his own personal culture rather than a true reflection of the thoughts of the times.

This early period of "obsession with Rome" is summed-up with reference to other works, such as the extremely influential Liber Monstruorum, and brief mention is made of artefacts such as the Ruthwell Cross and the Franks Casket. Indeed, a stated aim was to include in the material taken into consideration not only "literature," but iconography, particularly that offered by the numismatic evidence, but also by charters and other official documents, in order to consider the political dimension of the uses of romanitas. However, it is regrettable that so little use should have been made of the visual responses to Rome as the nub of a multicultural Christianity, which has been explored sensitively in much recent art-historical work. Only one panel of the Franks Casket and five coins (none of Alfred) are illustrated.

The second part deals with the times of King Alfred, his attitude to antiquity and his cultural reform leading to the translations of works in Old English. These works are considered as an affirmation of royal power, setting Alfred, in his great devotion to the Pope, in the tradition of early Anglo-Saxon kings facilitating the work of the Gregorian mission. Ironically, the translations, said to be necessary on account of the widespread ignorance of Latin, contribute to its demise and facilitate the rise of Old English to the status of literary language. In spite of the translation of Boetius and Orose, which can be seen to show an interest in making the classical past accessible to a wide audience, Coz concludes that Alfred does not model himself on ancient Rome: his ideals are the kings of the "golden age" of Anglo-Saxon history--hence the interest not only in the translation of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, but in the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Whilst a consequence of Alfred's apostolic devotion and promotion of Old English to literary status means less of an interest in the Roman heritage, some of his coinage iconography is actually inspired by it. The complex question of the prototype of the coins with London monograms remains open--however, as in so much of the early Anglo-Saxon coinage tradition, the ultimate inspiration for the monogram perhaps need not be sought amongst numismatic precedents, but amongst the expansive papal "signatures" seen in Roman mosaics.

The third subdivision examines the political uses of Roman history in the troubled 10th and 11th centuries, in the context of strong Carolingian influence and monastic reform. The analysis considers how kings used symbols of power, such as the crown, on their coinage (as Æthelstan), and titles, such as that of rex both of England and Britain. It also considers how certain vocabulary derived from classical sources was used and understood by figures such as Æthelweard--and there is a sizable chapter dedicated to the teaching of literature, history, science and questions of bilingualism. It is clear that the period was dominated by a renewed flourishing of hagiographical interest, and that the promotion of the cult of Anglo-Saxons saints was in unison with royal preoccupations about the unity of the kingdom. In spite of the heavy Carolingian influence, the cult of Roman saints had less importance than on the Continent. The general tendency, Coz concludes, was to read ancient history through the lens of the more recent past--so that the vision of Constantine is seen to mirror that of Oswald, rather than vice-versa.

This progressive emancipation from Rome and the diminishing interest in Antiquity as the Anglo-Saxons develop their own individual and independent culture are as unsurprising as they are vigorous--yet they seem to be met with a sense of regret and almost disapproval as this outcome is so different from the Continent.

The book is punctuated by meticulously researched notes and is supported by a rich and very useful bibliography, which spans over 34 pages, plus a list of manuscripts quoted and four maps (from c. 700 to c. 1000). It makes a splendid resource, useful at very many levels, with learned digressions and detailed discussions of specialised topics within the more general framework of the work. The Contents details chapters and main sub-chapters--but unfortunately not their sub-sets: for instance, Ælfric is discussed in two subsets of the introduction to the third part of the work (332-6 and 361-9), as well as 427-8. Moreover, as some of the titles chosen, although humorous, are often opaque, I found myself having to add notes to entries in the Content in order to find my way. More crucially, regrettably there is no Index: a sad lacuna for a book whose richness one may want to tap and revisit again and again.

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Author Biography

Anna Gannon

St. Edmund's College, Cambridge University