Today we’re going to talk quite a bit about Northumbria. And actually, Northumbria is going to start to get really important in our story going forward. Now much of what we know of Northumbria during this period is due to the efforts of Bede, and other Northumbrians who maintained his tradition of keeping annals. And actually, it’s been argued that even the term “Northumbria” might have been coined by Bede himself. So clearly this is a very important source for us.
But something to keep in mind with this fact, is that Bede wasn’t writing from personal experience. He wasn’t yet a twinkle in his grandfather’s eye when these events occurred. He wouldn’t be born for another 56 years, and wouldn’t be writing his annals for much longer than that. So where does the information come from? After all, no one alive would have any memory of the events.
Well, a large portion of it comes from oral sources. And we need to keep in mind that oral stories can shift depending on who’s doing the speaking, what is remembered, and how it is remembered. Naturally, simply because something is written down doesn’t make it true. I’m sure you already knew that from being internet savvy. But the fact that Bede is dealing with oral sources does create a bit of uncertainty with these accounts.
Another aspect to keep in mind is that the information regarding Northumbria is coming out of the educated men of society. Learned men. Men who knew how to write. So… men who lived in monasteries. Monasteries (Northumbrian or otherwise) did not have a single unified culture on the island and, as we’ve touched on several times now, not all monasteries were created equal. A Northumbrian Monastery might not behave the same, nor see things the same, as a monastery in Canterbury for example.
We are dealing with cultural differences, both in terms of clergy vs. laymen, but also in northumbrian vs. southern, english vs. welsh, and Monkwearmouth Monastery (which was Bede’s monastery) vs. all the other monasteries. Bede had a very specific point of view and, like everyone who has ever lived, he wasn’t immune to bias.