In chapter 3 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was interpreted as one secular textual instantiation, among others, of a dominant discourse archive that stretched from the time of Alfred at the end of the ninth century to the end of the tenth century. As we saw in chapters 1 to 3, the statements of a dominant discourse archive represent “the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events” (Foucault 1972: 129). In the ASC they exercise a form of control over social structure and, within the social structure of early medieval England, acted as an important instrument in the exercise of secular sociopolitical control. Other types of text, such as ecclesiastical laws, homilies, hagiographies and sermons exercised control over the spiritual practices of the population. Through the discourse archive, the “state”, if we can call it such, exercised spiritual, ecclesiastical and secular political power over its subjects. However, the dual nature of secular and ecclesiastical political control over territory[1] tends to mask the fact that secular power was nominally subordinate to the ecclesiastical power wielded by Roman Catholic Church, at least in western and later in northern Europe. Local rulers were the guardians of the power of the church.

Anderson ([1983] 2006) makes a distinction between “sacred” and “dynastic” languages before the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Throughout the Christian world Latin was the sacred language. Anderson refers to dynastic languages, some of them deriving from Latin, as those of the ruling royal houses across Europe. Till the seventeenth century they were referred to as mere “vernaculars”. The codification and functional extension of dynastic languages such as Italian, French, Spanish, English, Portuguese, German and Russian developed only after the invention of printing and the subsequent spread of the availability of texts throughout the population. So it is all the more remarkable that Anglo-Saxon was widely used for the dissemination of texts from the archive before the Conquest.

After the Conquest, however, varieties of Anglo-Saxon were superseded[2] by Anglo-Norman French and Latin in the textual manifestations of laws, charters, land grants, and so on and almost entirely by Latin in ecclesiastical texts. Since, in the immediate post-Conquest period, religious houses were still the seats of learning and the repositories of written documents, it is hardly surprising that there was also a firm tradition of chronicle writing in Latin. After the Conquest, a veritable flood of Latin chronicles appeared, some reporting on the deeds of the kings of England (Britain), fictional or real, some on ecclesiastical dignitaries (archbishops, bishops, abbots, etc.), and some on the deeds of selected individuals (including but not restricted to royal persons or church figures) (cf. Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium [Courtiers’ trifles], written sometime during the last 30 years of the twelfth century).

Chronicles whose aim was to trace the “history” of Britain back to its mythological sources are generally referred to as Brut chronicles (see the discussion in chap. 3). Brut chronicles presented the progress of time as a cyclic succession of good and bad rule and consequent states of order and disorder that exerted positive and negative influence over the static feudal structure of society. Perhaps the most well-known of these chronicles was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannia (History of the kings of Britain, completed around 1136), described by its translator for the Penguin edition, Lewis Thorpe, as a “strange, uneven and yet extraordinarily influential book . . . which may be said to bear the same relationship to the story of the early British inhabitants of our own island as do the seventeen historical books in the Old Testament . . . to the early history of the Israelites in Palestine” (1966: 9).

Some of the Brut chronicles, like that by Geoffrey of Monmouth, are predominantly narrative, whereas others plot out the history of England within a larger history of the known world. Others not only chronicle events but also give geographical descriptions of significant regions, particularly Britain, part of which consists of describing the climate, the inhabitants and their languages. These last two factors are significant in that they sometimes contain evaluative comments on the perceived degree of civilisation of those peoples and the languages they speak, and it is here that we discover a nexus of language myths that are still with us today.

To locate that nexus of myths and unravel the different mythical strands that go to make up the linguistic homogeneity myth, I shall begin by looking at Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, which was completed by the middle of the fourteenth century.

  • [1] It would be inaccurate to refer to the term “state” here, and for this reason I shall avoid using thatlexeme. However, it is indisputable that stretches of territory were under the nominal or actual political controlof potentates of various status from kings to dukes to counts, and it is also indisputable that the territories overwhich they ruled were frequently challenged by others and used as bargaining power in arranged marriages toextend territorial power.
  • [2] Although not necessarily on a local level.
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