Bede’s use of gens

So I’m reading along in Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, and I’m reading through the Roman period.  Not really my period of interest, so not much has really caught by attention.

Anyway, Fraser points out (p. 47) that Bede uses the term gens Pictorum which has been used for ages to indicate that the Picts were a single, sovereign nation. Fraser correctly cautions that this term should not be used imply homogeneity of the Picts. This brought to mind Bede use of the term gens Anglorum and we certainly know that the English were not a single kingdom or homogeneous in religion or politics.

An important question that as far as I know has rarely been addressed is how Bede uses these three terms: gens Anglorum, gens Pictorum, and gens Scottorum. What did Bede mean by these terms and how did he define them? I think we have to study these three terms together.  As far as I know, he doesn’t use a similar term for the Britons. If that is so, what does that mean as well? Synder notes in the Age of Tyrants (p. 76), that Continental writers used the term gens for the barbarian tribes, but always referred to the inhabitants of the Roman empire as cives (inhabitants of civitas) or as populi. Likewise Patrick always refers to his native countrymen as citizens and otherwise stresses their Roman citizenship. Synder notes that Gildas used the term gens but also used the term cives regularly, though by Gildas’ time it was no longer Roman citizenship that was stressed (or hoped for). Snyder goes on to note that the name Cymry (countrymen) has a similar meaning to cives/citizens. Gens are invaders; cives are rightful owners. So this is the British point of view, but what of the English point of view.

Is Bede following continental convention by not referring to the Britons as a gens or does he have other reasons or biases? As Fraser notes the only difference between the Picts and Britons is the degree of Romanization. The Picts are barbarian-Britons while the Britons are Roman-Britons. Bede would have probably also thought that gens had for lack of a better word, rights, and would he want to admit that for Britons? Note that in his origin story for the Picts he has them as the gens Scottorum in Hibernia/Ireland for the right to settle in northern Britain. Why are the Picts asking the Irish for permission to settle in Britain? It is obvious that he recognized that the Picts were a different people than the Britons, but why doesn’t he have them ask the Britons for permission. If it is because there are Scots in northern Britain in his time, then why does he have them ask the Irish of Ireland (rather than Scotland)? If the gens Pictorum asked the southern Britons for permission to live in northern Britain, then Bede would be acknowledging that they had the right to refuse the settlement of outsiders (like the English).

The one time that Bede refers to the British as a gens is the famous claim that there are four races in Britain that are unified by the fifth language, Latin. Only when the Britons are included with the other three are they referred to indirectly as a gens. Yet, here by claiming that these four gens live in Britain, Bede is equating all of their claim to live there. Stephan Harris has written on Bede’s use of gens vs. natio (nation) and believes that Bede sets the Angles apart as equal to the Britons.

We can observe that Angles speak their own language and have left no portion of their gens waiting on the continent — while the Saxons and Iutae have. This suggests that the Angles have moved as an entire people, as gens, as the Israelites did during the Exodus, not as a group of marauders, exiles, adventurers, or scouts, that is nations. Unlike the Irish, Picts, Jutes, or Saxons, the Angles have a rightful and consistent claim as the ordinary British gens. (Harris, p. 74)

Harris notes that when the Angles first arrive they are there to fight the northerners, the gens Pictorum, the barbarian outsiders. They are protectors of the indigenous Britons, those born in Britain, even though according to Bede, their ancestors came from Armorica/Brittany. So in Bede’s time, there were also indigenous Angles, those born in Britain, and they had an equal right to the land as the Britons. Of course, this is all very convoluted because by the time the Romans leave there are indigenous Britons, Picts (even by Bede’s scenario), and Scots in Britain.

If Bede believes a right to the land is partially built on the claim that the entire gens Anglorum is in Britain, what did he make of the British in Brittany? According to Bede, the Britons came from Armorica/Brittany to Britain. Therefore, the British were always a split people.

What a tangled web we weave…

I don’t know that there are any conclusions to come up with here other than that Bede’s terms gens Pictorum, gens Anglorum, and gens Scottorum must all be considered together. None of them indicate a race unified politically in any way. Language may be the best unifier and, once mostly Christian, then religion though of course there were significant regional differences.

I don’t know how much we can really make out of Bede’s use of Angles rather than Saxons, other than his regional bias. Both the British and Irish continued to refer to all the English as Saxons for centuries and the Welsh word for the English is still based on Saxon. If the whims of politics had gone in another way, Saxon (or Jute) could have easily become the root of their name. It just happens that Northumbria and Mercia both considered themselves Angles and they were dominant in the critical 7th and 8th centuries.


Christopher A Snyder, An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons AD 400-600. Penn State UP, c. 2000.

Stephen J Harris. Race and Ethnicity in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Routledge, 2003.


6 thoughts on “Bede’s use of gens

  1. The Britons,Irish,Scots always group the English race as `Saxons` even to this day
    An English/Welsh dictionary will have them name `Saesneg`upon it, the name `English` in Welsh is `Sais`
    The Scots term is Sassanach etc etc

    Yes there are obvious differences between Saxons and Angles
    Angles practiced Inhumation Saxons didnt
    We have a fair idea that the Angles followed the traditional Germanic gods we are not so sure about the Saxons-for instance was Woden there chief god or Saexnet ?
    Runes are only found in areas we associate with Angles and Jutes,only in a later period do they turn up in areas we associate with the Saxons
    There are quite a few differences

    I do believe Bede makes a valid comment in `Angles or Saxons` when referring to Hengest and Horsa,whilst suprisingly a Brythonic source tells us they are Jutes.Hengest and Horsa as stated elsewhere may have actually been Angles but there warbands may have been Saxon or Jutish and it is possible.
    Certainly I do believe Bede when he mentions the wars against the Angles to have a valid point,meaning the battles as such were not in the areas we associate with the Saxons.Have a look at the furthest English frontier people in the 5th Century (Archaeologically the settlements that are furthest West),traditionally its an Angle territory.

    1. I am talking about Bede’s use of Angles specifically in the term gens Anglorum.

      I think you are making too much of some of the differences you see. Wessex is the furthest west…

  2. Yes but Wessex isnt pushing at frontiers is it ?
    Wessex made no huge advances into Brythonic territory until the second half of the 6th Century
    The areas of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire were inhabited in the late 5th Century and Archaeological findings would point to them being `Angles` not `Saxons`,later its a territory we associate with the Hwicce.Yes later the area was ruled by Wessex and later still Mercia but at this time we are speaking of the foremost frontier people.So if Bede references the wars against `Angles `rather than `Saxons ` ,there ive just stated a reasonable and highly possible answer.

    There`s an interesting essay on the subject of Bede`s Gens Anglorum

  3. I don’t believe that you can distinguish Angles and Saxons in the archaeological record. To do so makes all kinds of unwarranted assumptions.

    Yes, Wessex is pushing a frontier. Northumbria didn’t make big advances into Brythonic territory until the sixth century either. Then again, at one time, it was all Brythonic territory. You are picking an choosing arbitrary frontiers.

  4. So why try and establish if were Angles,Jutes,Frisians or Saxons at all then? we may as well all be Franks or Langobards.
    Of course there is noticeable difference between Saxon and Angle archaeology,which is fact not assumption.Also whilst we have information on the practices of the Angles we often take for granted that the Saxons did the same and vice versa should this always be the case? of course not,only bad Historians dont challenge those often repeated theories.

    My point regarding `the Frontier`,is along the lines of the popular theory of the Britons being `Pushed Westwards`.Yes Wessex is more westerly but they didnt begin really carving wholesale into Brythonic territory until the second half of the sixth century.
    Now If Kent is your place where the `Saxon Revolt` started in earnest,which is in the East of the country,how much land did they conquer during these initial wars? How far `Inland ` were the Germanic tribes settling? I suggested that as we have evidence of settlement as far as Gloucestershire that Bede`s writing of the wars of Ambrosius against the Angles had a touch of probability.
    Why ? because we know from Archaeology that the peoples inhabiting that area in the late 5th/Early 6th century were Angles.

  5. While this subject can be very touchy for most people, my opinion is that there has to be a middle or common ground that we all can find. I do appreciate that youve added relevant and intelligent commentary here though. Thank you! And you know what? He got a refund.

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