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.