The beginnings of English intellectual history

English intellectual history is a long one.  It can reasonably be  said to  begin  in  the early eighth  century   with  Bede’s  Ecclesiastical  History of the English,  which amongst other things firmly  establishes the  English  as  a people before England as  a  kingdom  existed  (“At present  there  are  in Britain…five languages  and  four  nations  – English, British, Irish and Picts…” Book One).  

In the late ninth century comes Alfred the Great,  a  king  whose reign was  one  of  constant struggle against the Danes,   but   who  thought  enough of learning to teach himself to read as an adult and then engage in  translations  into Old English of  devotional works  such  as  Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care,   Bede’s Ecclesiastical History  and Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy.  It is difficult to think of any other monarch anywhere who showed such a practical concern for learning.

From Alfred’s reign  comes the Anglo-Saxon Journal (ASJ),  a work  also written in Old English.  (There are nine  surviving versions written at different  places,  eight of which are in Old English with the odd  man out being in  Old English with a Latin translation).   The journal   is  a  history/myth  of  Britain and a narrative  of   the  settlement   of  Anglo-Saxons  within it  until the time of Alfred and then  a  putative  record of and commentary on the great events  of English life from  the time  of  Alfred until the middle of the 12th century  (like  all  suchmedieval works the veracity of the ASJ is questionable, but at worst it gives a flavour of the mentality of those living at the time). The work is  unique  in  medieval Europe for  its scope  and  longevity  and  is particularly  noteworthy  for  the  fact that it  was  written  in  the vernacular throughout the three centuries or so of its existence,  this at  a time when the normal language for  writing in Western Europe  was Latin. 

The    Norman   Conquest   subordinated   the   English    politically, linguistically  and socially  for the better part of three   centuries,but  it  did  not kill English  intellectual  endeavour.   Those  three centuries  of oppression saw the emergence of  many of the ideas  which were later to produce the modern world.  John of Salisbury   produced a work  on politics (Policraticus 1159)  which was “the first attempt  in the  Middle Ages at an extended and systematic treatment  of  political philosophy”  (G  H Sabine A History of Political Theory p246)  and  one which  argued  for  a form of limited monarchy  and  the  overthrow  of tyrants,  views  given  practical English  expression  in  Magna  Carta (1215). The period was also noteworthy for the strong showing of annals and histories,  most notably those of Eadmer (Historia Novorum  or  The History of Recent Events – it covered the  period 950-1109),  Henry  of Huntingdon (Historia Anglorum or  History of the English 5BC-1129)  an  Matthew  Paris (Chronica Majora).   In addition,   the Common  Law  was formed,   English  became  once  more  a  literary  language  (Chaucer, Langland),   John  Wycliffe  laid  the  intellectual  roots   of    the Reformation and,  perhaps  most impressively, ideas which were later to provide the basis for a true  science emerged.

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