Animation showing where Saxons, Angles and Iutis would have settled themselves in Britain according to Bede’s “Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum” (I,15). Image elaborated from Google Earth.

Therefore, Bede connects some of the groups of people inhabiting Britain during his time to the Saxones, Angli, and Iuti arrived from overseas. In particular, he states that the Cantuarii and Uictuarii descend from the Iuti, the Orientales Saxones, Meridiani Saxones, and Occidui Saxones from the Saxones, and the Orientales Angli, Mediterranei Angli, Merci, and Nordanhymbrorum progenies from the Angli. Only as far as the Angli are concerned, Bede traces the lineage of the duces who first would have entered Britain, connecting them to Woden.

Written sources and archaeological data reveal that identity representations between groups of people inhabiting Britain during the 5th – 7th century CE were more complex and less linear than described by Bede. While sunken-floored buildings strictly connected to Continental construction techniques are present in Britain already in the 5th century, archaeology shows increasing large-scale political hierarchisation only from the late 6th century. At the same time, the document known as “The Tribal Hidage” indicates that at least thirty-four political units existed in early medieval Britain south of the river Humber.

The information at disposal suggests that Bede’s writings offer insights into changeable hegemonic narratives elaborated over several decades, when fluid identities that coexisted in a multilingual and multicultural asset were slowly coalescing into larger but still unstable political realities.

The past in the present

Discussions about past people require in-depth reflections on the present. The fact that histories necessarily result from selections, re-ordering, interpretations, and expositions of events implies that no history can ever be a mere description of objective truths. They always convey messages or narratives that try to make sense of the past. This does not mean that historical truths do not exist and cannot be reconstructed, but that the ways they are presented always depend on subjective points of view.

Efforts in tracing direct lineages between past and present people to legitimise privileges is anachronistic and dangerous. Tragic examples are the historical manipulations around Romans, Germans, Aryans, Lombards, Anglo-Saxons, Gauls, etc. that served nationalist and racist propagandas in 19th – 20th century Europe. These mechanisms were based on the false assumption that genetics and what is perceived as the “character” of a population are somehow interrelated.

Such essentialist views overlook the complexity of historical events over centuries of mobility, migrations, trades, wars, and social, economic and political changes. Awareness of unavoidable bias is essential. Bede’s authorship of the “Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum” is an historical truth. However, to say that he wrote a history of the English people, of the English nation, of the Church of England, of the Anglo-Saxon or Anglian Church, etc. depends on subjective choices.