Bede, Social Practice, and the Problem with Foreigners

Bede, Social Practice, and the Problem with Foreigners

Harris, Stephen J.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 13 (1996)


The foreigner is not new to Anglo-Saxon studies. The uncertain status of the foreigner, and of its complement, the indigene, has been implicit in the study of Anglo-Saxon society since at least the seventeenth century, when it was examined by scholars such as Richard Verstegen, John Selden, and Sir Henry Spelman. The issue has recently received attention under the neologism “ethnicity” and looms large in current historical and archaeological work, at the same time complicating our understanding of Anglo-Saxon social categories. Over a century after John Mitchell Kemble discu ssed Bede’s tribal division in 1876, any inquiry into Anglo-Saxon ethnogenesis must still confront the ethnic implications of Bede’s passage in Book I Chapter 15 of his Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (HE), which relates the division of Germanic tribes in Britain into Angles, Saxons and Jutes. This passage is a historiographical landmark that demands the fullest attention of anyone passing into the uncertainties of Anglo-Saxon society. Although Bede’s tribal division continues today to be a source of academic contention, Bede offers a set of general qualifications for determining who belonged to which tribe and who did not, in other words, who was indigenous and who was foreign.

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