White Rose seminar talk explores English as a tool for Imperialism in the Old English Orosius

Dr Elizabeth Tyler closes the White Rose talks at Leeds by exploring the use of the Old English Orosius for nationalism and imperialism in tenth century England.

On Tuesday 23rd May, Dr Elizabeth Tyler from the University of York gave a paper in Leeds for the third in the series of talks between the White Rose Consortium institutions of Leeds, York, and Durham. Previous contributions to this series, aiming to strengthen relationships between these three institutions, included papers by Dr Alaric Hall (University of Leeds) and Dr Danica Summerlin (University of Durham). Dr Tyler’s paper was entitled ‘Reading Imperial Geographies with the Old English Orosius: Territory and Language’. In the paper, Dr Tyler explored how the Old English Orosius used the English language and geographical imagery as a national and imperial tool.
She began by explaining the political context of England during the ninth and tenth centuries. At this time, England was comprised of several small kingdoms, mostly reduced to Wessex after the Viking invasions. In the time of Alfred the Great, West Saxons forged what remained into a single kingdom, but the picture was far from simple. Much of the north was either part of the Danelaw, or part of the Breton kingdom of Strathclyde which reached down the northwest coast of England and into Wales. As a result, the political and linguistic landscape of England was complex, with English not being the only vernacular language spoken. Language zones from ca. 1000 consisted of Irish, Brittonic, English, Norse and English, Norse and Irish, etc. The focus on the politics of England in this time was important to Dr Tyler as it allowed her think more critically about the context of the English peoples and their languages.
Turning to the Old English Orosius, Dr Tyler took particular interest in the ninth-century translation of the text as this had some influence from Alfred the Great. He was the one, Dr Tyler argues, who saw the potential of written English as well as its ability to bring the disparate peoples of England together. In the preface of this translation, emphasis was placed on the English language as an ethnic marker. But there was also an imperial element to this, as English could be used an expression of power through verbal mapping and excludes the Brittonic and Norse speakers through a forced English representation. Dr Tyler also explained that the chapter on geography followed the same structure as the Latin translation, with some simplifications and two key expansions. However, these expansions did not give more details about the British Isles. Instead, the Old English Orosius expanded on the world of the East Franks. Dr Tyler argued that this discussion of the East Franks and the Old Saxons was implemented into the text to remind the West Saxons of their origins.
Dr Tyler moved on to discuss the later Old English Orosius translation from the eleventh century. She explained how this text had been combined with the Menologium and Maxims II. The combination of these texts with the Orosius, Dr Tyler argues, showed how imperialist ideas expressed in the English language developed in the eleventh century. She explained that, through analogies in the Menologium, English went from being represented as the language of the English peoples to the language of Britain. Also, thanks to Maxims II, English kings could develop their imperial ideas using ancient poetic devices. 

Dr Tyler concluded by clarifying that, despite the efforts of English kings like Alfred the Great, English remained a small local language through to the eleventh century. Latin, and later French, were the more universal languages in the time after the Norman conquest, with writing in English only happening in small pockets. It was only when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the most famous text in English, was translated into Latin that English became more established as a language, which then develop overtime until today. 

If you want to know more about the other talks in the White Rose seminar series, please click the link for Dr Hall’s talk on medieval riddles, and Dr Summerlin’s talk on Antipopes.
For more information on other Institute for Medieval Studies events, click on the What’s on at Leeds page.