Song Tan

The Representation of Imperial Rule and the Classical World in Early Medieval England

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As the Danielic prophecy in the Bible goes, God “transfert regna atque constituit” [transfers the kingdoms and sets them up]. Likewise, a verse in the Ecclesiastes reads “regnum a gente in gentem transfertur propter iniustitias et iniurias et contumelias et diversos dolos” [a kingdom is translated from one people to another, because of injustices, and wrongs, and injuries, and diverse deceits]. These lines describe the transference of power and invite focus on the idea of translatio imperii, the transference of empire, which reverberates in Europe from Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages onwards.

After the parcellation or transformation of the Western Roman Empire, the term translatio imperii has been the topic of much scholarly discussion pertinent to medieval European history. When it comes to translatio imperii in early medieval England, the dominant vision in the 20th century – typical of German medievalists – remained wedded to the non-existence of an Anglo-Saxon imperial pretension. Such Germanophone academic viewpoints notwithstanding, some English-speaking scholars have recently argued for a strong presence of translatio imperii in early medieval England from the 10th century onwards, most notably in the Old English translation of Orosius’s Historiarum adversum paganos Libri VII, where the idea of translatio imperii is shown in the transference of “þa feower onwealdas þara feower heafedrica þisses middangeardes” (‘the four powers of the four chief kingdoms/empires of this world’).

However, there are still several questions regarding the imperial idea in early medieval England that remain unanswered and call for further research. My project queries above all how imperial ideas and the classical world were represented in early medieval England; how Classical, Biblical, Germanic and perhaps Celtic rhetoric and traditions might govern Anglo-Saxon ideas. Did Anglo-Saxons use imperial conceptions as an anchoring device to forge a new identity and as an instrument of placing themselves in universal history? Next, this project will investigate which imperial elements were adopted by Anglo-Saxon monarchs and why they refrained from adopting other elements. For example, why did Anglo-Saxon kings still claim such titles as imperator or basileus, in disregard of the contemporaneous emperors in the Deutsch-Römisches Reich and the Byzantine Empire, in the 10th century? Lastly, my project will consider how the Anglo-Danish kings in the 11th century related themselves to inheritors of ancient Rome and set themselves as parallels to the continental Salian dynasty newly founded by Conrad II.