The Long Seventh Century

There seems to be a new trend to name certain transitional centuries as “long centuries” because the important events that happened tend to wrap over both century marks. Its not surprising that real life doesn’t match our numbering system. I’ve heard of the long 19th century* – from the American Revolution to World War I – a transition from the kingdoms of the European colonial powers to the beginning of the modern era with the development of modren democracies and communism. As pivotal as the 20th century was, its main events really run from World War I to I suppose to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I really wonder when historians will see the current era beginning. And will it be globalism (led by the internet) or terrorism that characterizes this era? Not really a topic for Heavenfield. I saw an call for papers today for Kazoo that evokes “the long 11th century”. I suppose for Anglo-Saxons it has to be the long 11th century because they are no longer in control of their destiny by the 12th century. I wonder though if it should be the long 12th century from Edward the Confessor (1060s) to Magna Carta under John in 1215. This is not really a topic for Heavenfield either.

I would like to consider here that the seventh century is such a transitional century. A long seventh century makes sense even if only because it is the period primarily covered by Bede’s History. It is an important century for many reasons not least of which are that most people in the British Isles were converted to Christianity in this long century and there was a transition from tribal rule to recognizable medieval kingdoms. So how would we define a long 7th century?

570s to c. 720?

If we are bold enough not to strictly use Bede’s History and also look at the others peoples of the British Isles, then I think it starts to take shape around the 560s to 720s. Ironically its not English dates that I would bracket the era with…. c. 570 sees the rise of the partnership between St. Columba and King Aedan mac Gabran (c. 574). Aedan was the dominant power in the northern half of Britain until the battle of Degsastan in 603. Bede was so concerned about the coincidence that Augustine of Canterbury arrived in the same year that St Columba died that he gave Augustine a double entry in 596 and 597 in his chronological summary so he can show that Augustine was sent to Britain in 596 before the death of Columba (but he chickened out and had to be sent again and didn’t arrive until 597). For that matter, the way Bede writes about the battle of Degsastan, multiple dating methods, and “from that time no Irish king in Britain has dared to make war on the English race to his day” shows how powerful the Irish of Aedan’s day were. For Bede the battle of Degsastan was pivotal. Among the English, the royal dynasties begin to become visible in the last quarter of the 6th century so that beginning the “long 7th century” then works for them. Among the Britons, the 570s they are still dominant in almost half of southern Britain (south of Hadrian’s wall) with the ‘Men of the North’ in their prime and in Wales, Powys is strong in the western midlands with kings Cynan Garwen and his son Selyf. In 570, the British still control a contiguous western flank of Britain from Strathclyde to Cornwall. In some ways we could say that in 570 Celtic peoples are dominant overall.

Going to the other end of the spectrum, I would end the long 7th century around 720.  There is no need to end it with Bede’s death since he tells us little about recent history. Ending in c. 720 coincides with the acceptance of Roman rites by Iona, the expulsion of Columban clergy from Pictland, the reign of influential King Necthan mac Derilei in Pictland, the end of the Ætehlfrithings in Northumbria and the rise of Æthelbald in Mercia. The British have been broken. Strathclyde is a small island of Britons in the far north. Wales is a collection of feuding kingdoms obsessed with what went wrong and Dumnonia/Cornwall have been separated off from other Britons (and perhaps interacting with Brittany as much as Wales). Ireland is not as easy to fit into this but the long 7th century still fits for them at least in the evolution of their monastic system and its conversion to Roman rites and eventually organization.

So how would you define the long 7th century?

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*There is an important German history book that looks at the long 19th century that first brought the concept to my attention. For North America and Europe, this definition seems to make sense, but perhaps not for other continents.

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2 comments on “The Long Seventh Century

  1. I very much like this conceptualization, and it gives me the chance to say something I’ve been meaning to write here for a while: thanks for the work you do in putting these posts together. They are always admirably researched and beautifully composed … and one of the things I really appreciate is how you tell the story of the island from multiple cultural viewpoints at once. Your pages are a terrific resource.

  2. nicola says:

    I like the notion, and if we’re going long then I think your dates work. But I’m tempted to go short. I think of ‘the seventh century’ as starting just a little early with the arrival of Augustine and ending with the death of Theodore of Tarsus–or possibly with the conversion of Sussex just a few years later.

    Sometimes, when I’m feeling Northumbrian focused (most of the time) I think of the 7th C as existing between the accession of Æthelfrith to the Deiran as well as Bernician throne, and the death of Ecgfrith (tho’ I suppose we could go long there, too, and run it from Æthelfrith’s accession in Bernicia to Aldfrith’s death).

    It’s fun to ponder.

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