Saturday, August 13, 2005

Dissertation thoughts: Byock, Fentress and Wickham, and Social Memory

Jessie Byock's essay "Social Memory and the Sagas: The Case of Egils saga" (Scandinavian Studies 76.3 (2004): 299-316) understanding of social memory rests almost entirely on James Fentress and Chris Wickham's book Social Memory, which, I must admit, was one of my first introductions to the topic. It's good, and it's nice seeing it used by another medievalist. The essay helped crystallize a few of my own ideas.

First, is a Fentress and Wickham quote. While Byock is interested in the Icelanders as immigrants to Iceland and the creation of Icelandic culture, I'm interested in the Anglo-Saxons as immigrants to England and the eventual unification of at least a few dozen independent kingdoms and tribes into one unified people known as the Englisc (the Tribal Hidage, it's original origin believed to date sometime between the mid-seventh and late ninth centuries, lists 34 different kingdoms and tribal regions):

"Social memory is a source of knowledge. This means that it does more than provide a set of categories through which, in an unselfconscious way, a group experiences its surroundings; it also provides the group with material for conscious reflection. This means that we must situate groups in relation to their own traditions by asking how they interpret their own ghosts, and how they use them as a source of knowledge" (Fentress and Wickham 26).

Just as Byock argues that the Íslendingasögur represent the ghosts of the Icelanders, as their material for conscious reflection about who they are, I've been arguing that Beowulf, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle among other texts worked to create a shared past. As the social, political, and religious institutions unified, the diverse Germanic peoples needed a shared history to help legitimize their social institutions and to help resist internal and external pressures which threatened the social order. By asserting this I don't intend to gloss over the disunifiying factors, just that the overall trend throughout the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond was towards unification politically and religiously.

Of the fluidity of social memory, Byock writes:

"The identity and conceptual integrity of Icelandic society rested on the memory vouchsafed in the sagas. Recounts of the past did not have to be factual to be acceptable since creative story-telling is part and parcel of the process of ongoing social memory. Pools of remembrance were always open to invention, interpretation, and exaggeration. But if the narrative past could be creatively embroidered and changed, there were also self-defining limits to inventiveness" (300).


"In the context of peace yet feud, social memory came to play an especially large role. It combined new, often imported cultural ideas and values thereby allowing the new to mix with real or perceived history. A cognitive process, social memory is not static but adaptive" (301.

Bede's Ecclesiastical History is written not just to tell the story of how the Anglo-Saxons adopted Christianity, but to establish the Anglo-Saxons and the Anglo-Saxon Church as one people and one Church. The accounts Bede provides, the story of Hengest and Horsa (which are far more detailed in Bede than in Gildas), the account of the conversion of King Edwin, various early martyrs, etc.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, even the germanization of the Old Testament (see Howe, Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England), work to combine, as Byock writes, "new, often imported cultural ideas and values thereby allowing the new to mix with real or perceived history."

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