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22.08.04 Grossi, Angles on a Kingdom

22.08.04 Grossi, Angles on a Kingdom

Using a series of fine-grained literary and historical case studies, Joseph Grossi builds a portrait of the kingdom of East Anglia as it developed and changed between the sixth and tenth centuries. The book is sensitive to the political biases and agendas of the various texts it relies upon, and Grossi uses these “angles” to offer a glimpse of the East Angles themselves, who are rarely--with the possible exception of Felix, author of the Vita Guthlaci (108)--the ones telling the story. As Grossi himself puts it, “detecting [East Anglia’s self perception] in texts is a bit like identifying a black hole; one discerns it by observing its effects on other matter” (167). The result is a sharp, sympathetic account of the particular regional experience of medieval East Anglians, as their provincia deals with incursions and invasions from Mercians, Scandinavian raiders, Guthrum’s Danes, and the West Saxon kings.

A key premise of Grossi’s work is that East Anglia can be understood, in part, as the inverse of how others seek to define it--a “black hole” bounded by the political and religious ambitions of those who inhabit the region’s edges. Thus, chapter 1 asserts that Rædwald’s religious syncretism, portrayed by Bede in theHistoria ecclesiastica as a sin worse than outright paganism, must be recovered from Bede’s judgment. Recontextualizing that religious syncretism as a pragmatic political position, which endured for decades after the end of the seventh-century king’s reign, Grossi shows that Rædwald’s queen played a key role as his religious advisor. Bede’s harsh criticism of the queen, in what Grossi argues would have been her traditional role, reveals her as a competitor against the new Christian monks and bishops (favored by Bede, for obvious reasons) who sought to influence Rædwald instead.

By positioning Rædwald and his queen as betrayers of the faith, Bede is able to present the figure of the virgin queen Æthelthryth as East Anglia’s eventual redeemer, so that “one woman’s extreme zeal for bodily purity undoes an earlier period of impurity presided over by a misguided syncretic king” (90). Yet as Grossi demonstrates in chapter 2, this refiguring of East Anglia as a place of true Christian orthodoxy, with no room for pagans or politics, rests in no small part an elision of Æthelthryth’s real-world political and dynastic ties. These ties allowed her to claim the fens of Ely as a holy space, dedicated to monastic life, even after her marriage to King Ecgfrith of the Northumbrians was annulled. Yet that claim itself extended the influence of the ruling East Anglian family she belonged to, albeit via spiritual rather than political authority. Bede’s version of Æthelthryth is one in which she completely repudiates her elite status--but at the edges of that version, Grossi shows us an East Anglian princess whose religious life was not unrelated, or unhelpful, to her family’s political ambitions.

In chapters 3 and 4, Grossi moves from these early Bedan “angles” to discuss the complex regional politics at work in two texts which, at first glance, seem relatively dissimilar: Felix’s Vita sancti Guthlaci, and the A-Text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Yet both texts negotiate the problem of having more powerful neighbors. The eighth-century Vita sancti Guthlaci is a tale of a Mercian saint, commissioned by an East Anglian king--and its author Felix, Grossi shows, must navigate the problem of Mercian ownership and Mercian power, paying his respects to his East Anglian patron King Ælfwald without ceding hagiographical ground that properly belongs to the Mercian King Æthelbald. The result is a pro-Mercian text commissioned by an East Anglian king; Grossi argues that Felix not only cautions Ælfwald to recognize the limits of his regional power as a subregulus, but also may encourage him to abandon his kingship entirely, following in the footsteps of other kings-turned-monks such as Sigeberht of East Anglia and Ceolwulf of Northumbria.

Angles on a Kingdom is arranged chronologically, and as a result chapter 4 must trace what it means to be East Anglian after the fall of King Edmund to the Viking army led by Guthrum in the ninth century. To be an eastængle after 869 was, in fact, to be Danish--and Grossi carefully distinguishes between “East Angles” (English inhabitants of the region) and “East Anglians” (Danish inhabitants of the region) throughout his study for this very reason. Yet Guthrum’s invasion provided a foil for the West Saxon kings and their scribes, who define “Angelcynn” in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in opposition not only to the foreign invading armies of the Vikings, but also to the settled Danish farmers those invaders became. In this way, East Anglia becomes a threat around which the English people coalesce, at least theoretically, to defend their common ground. Yet once settled in East Anglia, the Danelaw embraced the cult of Edmund--slain by their own leaders--minting coins with the sainted king’s name, and perhaps elevating the East Anglian king as a symbolic resistance to the encroachment of the West Saxons. In other words, the West Saxon Anglo-Saxon Chronicle defines the kingdom of the Angelcynn against the specter of the foreign, Danish eastængle--but even as it did so, East Anglia was similarly uniting English and Danish inhabitants in their resistance to West Saxon rule.

Grossi argues in chapter 5 that this fine line between the English and the Danish inhabitants of East Anglia was understood by Ælfric, but not by Abbo of Fleury. While both men wrote Vitae of King Edmund, with Ælfric adapting Abbo of Fleury’s Latin vita into Old English, Abbo--who hailed from the European continent--wrote scathingly of the Danes who martyred Edmund, while emphasizing the regional beauty and purity of East Anglia itself, which Edmund preserves by preserving the “wholeness” of his devotion and virginity. Ælfric, however, understood that in the tenth century the Danes and the English were not so different as they had been in the ninth, and instead--without much warning or justification--turns to anti-semitic rhetoric, leading Grossi to argue that “for [Ælfric] the real spiritual war that needed to be fought was one against Jews” (209). Edmund himself becomes, for both authors, an opportunity to assert East Anglia’s place in the heavenly “true home of the English,” while eliding the complex regional politics which threatened to split England apart, even as it grappled with new waves of Viking raiders in the tenth century.

The book’s subtitle foregrounds “identities,” but it is worth noting that the identities discussed are political, abstract, and collective--not the self-definition of East Anglians at an individual or local level, but rather the identity of this kingdom as it was shaped and perceived from afar, over several centuries. This is not a limitation, but a clarification: scholars looking for work on medieval selfhood or theories of individual identity formation will not find that discussion here. That said, the book draws upon the spatial theories of Yi-Fu Tuan for its discussion of chorography, and is well-grounded in field-specific scholarship by Nicholas Howe, Fabienne Michelet, Kathleen Davis, and many others; it takes a learned and well-researched approach throughout. It was published too soon to take advantage of Judith Butler’s relevant new book, The Force of Nonviolence, but readers of both volumes may find the parallel discussions of identity, particularly large-scale political definitions of “self” and “other,” to be mutually enriching.

Grossi writes with style, humor, and great deference to fellow scholars--a deference which, at times, can slightly distract from his own substantial work. As the author himself acknowledges, there can be a heavy burden of proof for literary scholars who wade into historical waters. Grossi rises to the occasion with aplomb, marshaling a dense array of sources to tell the story of the East Anglian people even in the absence of their own words. Yet the book shines brightest when it wears that burden lightly, allowing Grossi’s own readings to lead the way. Historians and literary scholars alike will find this volume useful when considering the political and cultural interplay of religious houses, royal families, and commissioned texts as lenses that refract, and thus collectively reveal, a vision of Pre-Conquest East Anglia.