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.