By Jonathan Harris
Mediterranean Historical Review, Vol.14:2 (1999)
Abstract: The early mediaeval inhabitants of Britain felt remote from the centres of civilisation, and looked to Rome and also Byzantium as model Christian powers. Previous writers have dismissed Byzantine influence because of the limited contacts. This paper will argue that the very limited nature of English contacts with Byzantium, along with their belief in their own remoteness, acted to enhance their receptivity to influence from that quarter. This openness remained constant, even in periods of no apparent contact, like the eighth and ninth centuries, and even when there was little tangible Byzantine influence of any kind.
This conclusion will be based on two points: first, on an investigation of the psychological response to the Viking invasions, a response conditioned by the English perception of their isolation, and one which contrasted sharply with that of the Byzantines, who believed themselves to be at the centre of the Christian world; and secondly, on a close examination of the question of the authenticity and significance of the correspondence between Alfred the Great and the Patriarch Elias of Jerusalem.
Introduction: During the first half of the ninth century, the British scholar Nennius recorded that the island of Britain had first been settled by Trojans, led by Brutus, a descendent of Aeneas. No one believes the story now, and it is unlikely that many people believed it then, yet it bears witness to an important point. Between the fifth and twelfth centuries, and perhaps afterwards, the inhabitants of the British Isles, whether British or English, regarded themselves as remote from the centres of their religion and culture. They were living on the very edge of the Christian world, or as Saint Wilfrid had expressed it at the Synod of Whitby, on ‘the two uttermost islands of the ocean’. Stories like that of Nennius helped to form a bridge between their remote island and the centres of civilisation in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Christian centre held in greatest respect by the English was, of course, Rome, the seat of the papacy. Yet they also looked to the foremost Christian power of the early Middle Ages, the Byzantine empire, both as an older and more sophisticated civilisation, and as an embodiment of the ideal of the Christian oecumene whose art and ceremonial they were eager to imitate. It was an attitude which they held in common with most of the other Christian peoples of Europe, to judge by the strong Byzantine influence which can be discerned in Italy, in the Merovingian, Carolingian and Ottonian kingdoms, and even in Scandinavia and Spain.