Me vs You: The Medieval Roots of English Imperialism

Luke Daly

Typically when we think about English imperialism it is within an Early Modern or Modern scope

Typically when we think about English imperialism it is within an Early Modern or Modern scope through topics of slavery, colonialism, globalisation, and so forth. Yet, through the work of the incredible John Gillingham, the concept of imperialism can actually be traced to the Middle Ages through the guise of Social Darwinism within the British Isles. If there were to be an CE/BCE for English imperialism then the Year 0 would be 1066 with the introduction of the Normans to our southern shores. Prior to this, England was almost indistinguishable from its Celtic neighbours in religion, culture, customs, economy, and law. That was until 1066 when William the Conqueror dominates England and imposes a new Norman culture through the introduction of the French noble class. As these values settled in the aftermath of conquest and take hold, England became increasingly more distinct. By the 12th century, however, there was a notable distinction between the culture of England and the culture of the Celtic Nations that previously had not been seen. It is here that the bacteria of imperialism began to fester. We see, for example, in the Gesta Regis Stephani a description of England as such; “England is the seat of Justice, the abode of Peace, the aspect of piety” whilst Wales, on the other hand, is described as “the country of mere woodland and pasture”. Already there is a perceived disparity between the two kingdoms in the 12th century but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Turning to the infamous William of Malmesbury, he also touches upon this idea that England was above its neighbours through his use of ‘nationalibus barbarous’ - nations of the barbarians. The concept of the barbarian in history typically echoes the classical age when Romans traversed the valleys and mountains of Britannia in search of tribes defined by their so-called primitive nature. In the Middle Ages, this had to be developed as kingdoms in Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and interesting Denmark (which Malmesbury also scorns) had been Christianised for some time. As such, contemporaries built upon the classical use of the term and developed it by focusing on three main themes. The first of which was economics. When understanding English imperialism, Gerald of Wales is key in exploring the perceived disparities within the British Isles. He describes that the Celtic nations were relaxed and slothful barbarians without an industrialised economy. Such a notion was inherited from the classical world where barbarians were seen to be primarily agricultural and thus could not uphold civilization. To Gerald, therefore, compares this to the arable agriculture of Wales and Ireland which was inferior to the new international industries of England. Equally, Gerald also notes that whilst England had villages and towns, coin production, Jewish settlement, and a bustling centralised economy, his neighbours were still squabbling in clan families with no foreseeable centralisation. These concepts almost appear to be out of Outlander with the Red Coat British being a stark contrast to the Highlander culture. Nevertheless, such notions were clearly perceived centuries before that. Gerald further adds that their barbarity can also be found in their attitude to slavery. Slavery was pretty much dead by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period in England but endured in the Celtic Nations long after. Gerald thus scorns the Welsh, Scots, and Irish for their inhumane institutions that meant they could never be God’s chosen people.
Me vs You: The Medieval Roots of English Imperialism
English Imperialism

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What underpinned this theme of disparity was the technological advancements of England that were brought about through the investment of Norman wealth

Nevertheless, what underpinned this theme of disparity was the technological advancements of England that were brought about through the investment of Norman wealth. From this, Gerald moves on to the second distinguishable difference that put England ahead - its military. With the introduction of the Normans came a revolution in military warfare. From castles to knights, there was a rapid evolution in England's military following the conquest which did not occur in Wales, Scotland, or Ireland for some time. As such, whilst England was forming standing armies equipped with advanced metallurgy who were housed in forts and castles across the English landscape, the Celtic nations stuck with guerilla skirmishing tactics. Once again we can turn to Outlander to see the practical implications of this as the definitive battle of Culloden saw the Scottish Highlanders using charging guerilla tactics against the strictly formatted Red Coat British who were more equipped for pitch-battle scenarios. Gerald thus points out a militaristic superiority within the Isles whereby he says “the French ransom, the Irish butcher”. This was commented in relation to practices of chivalry as whilst England and France practised codes whereby, for example, nobles were not to be killed, the Celtic nations did not and would thus kill whomever the enemy may be. And so we have an economic and militaristic disparity within the Isles, but the final difference may be a surprising one. Many contemporaries, such as Gerald of Wales, were preoccupied with discussing the differences in marriage customs between England and Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. This was to highlight differences in cultural practices but nevertheless, there is an onslaught of commentary on marital practices. In 12th century England, marriage was a consecration made under the Church and thus you were only permitted to marry once. Equally, you could not marry within six degrees of kinship to avoid any notions of incest. The Celtic nations, however, did not have such laws nor protections of the Church. Rather, marriage was based on ancient and traditional laws which meant that people were entitled to multiple marriages and even multiple wives. The reason why Gerald focuses so much on marital custom is because inheritance was so closely linked. In England, primogeniture meant that the eldest son inherited primary lands and titles with the rest being distributed to second and third sons. This largely avoided inheritance issues and, by extension, brothers waging war against each other over land. In Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, however, this was not the case and partible inheritance meant it was essentially a free-for-all, especially when sons of multiple wives were concerned. Succession disputes were therefore frequent. What topped it all off for Gerald, however, was that these nations did not have the six degrees of kinship law and thus, he comments, incest was rampant. As such, there was little distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children which, once again, complicates succession further. According to Richard of Hexham, the Scots were bestial men who think nothing of committing incest adultery and other abominations. Gerald of Wales in his text on Ireland equally discusses this idea of bestiality and incest which the Celtic nations indulged in. Removing the marginalised tone of the above evidence shows that there was a distinction between England and their surrounding neighbours following the introduction of Norman culture. Nevertheless, whilst their economy, military practices, and marriage customs did evolve, so too did these toxic sentiments of imperialism whereby England saw themselves above their Celtic kinsmen. These sentiments would echo through the coming centuries as England grew in strength and power. Yet, what this also shows is that English imperialism and strength owes itself somewhat to the French, a notion many may find difficult to swallow.
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Me vs You: The Medieval Roots of English Imperialism

Luke Daly

I am Luke Daly, a Medieval Historian who specialises in religion and saints of the 1000-1300s. I am due to start my PhD in October but in the meantime am writing a book with Pen and Sword Publishing called ‘Sainthood: A New History of the Middle Ages through Saints and their Stories.’ I am also host of The Daly Medieval Podcast.
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