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The exceptional English?

There is nothing new about the notion that the English, and their history, are exceptional. This idea has, however, recently attracted renewed attention, since certain EU-sceptics have tried to advance their cause by asserting the United Kingdom’s historic distinctiveness from the Continent. In political terms, this argument is dubious – even if the UK were exceptional in various past epochs, this would have little logical bearing on the desirability or otherwise of its participation in future European integration. The fundamental problem with the exceptionalist line is not, however, political illogicality, but historical naivety.

Many of the exceptionalists’ fallacies and bizarre generalisations have already been pointed out. There are, however, two points which deserve greater emphasis. The first is that those who propound the supposedly exceptional character of the UK frequently conflate it with England, or the island of Britain, or both. Thus, for example, a distinguished professor recently declared that the United Kingdom has had a “largely uninterrupted history since the Middle Ages.” Even if we set aside the question of what might constitute an interruption to ‘history’, this proposition is manifestly risible, since the UK did not even exist before 1707 (and was then initially confined to Britain). Rather, the statement appears to be invoking the longevity of the English kingdom, which would tally with the preceding observation that ‘Britain’ has not (with minor exceptions) been invaded since 1066. This comment is technically accurate, but the point is largely irrelevant save from an English standpoint – the Welsh and Scots have suffered many more recent invasions from within Britain itself. Thus, despite his frequent references to the UK, the professor’s underlying perspective is myopically English.

The second point is that such flaws in exceptionalists’ conceptualisations of the UK are often mirrored in their approaches to the rest of Europe. The notion of exceptionalism implies not just that England (or the UK) is unique, but also that it stands in contrast to some otherwise general norm. Yet exceptionalists frequently assume, rather than demonstrate, the existence of the norms from which they purport to identify difference. This is particularly evident in the work of those who base their claims to exceptionalism on the antiquity of the English kingdom, which was formed in the tenth century. Such writers often highlight contrasts with West Frankia, which covered an area roughly similar to modern France: at the same time as English kings were intensifying their domination, and the English kingdom was becoming a recognisable political unit, royal power was fragmenting on the other side of the Channel. That English political developments were different from those of West Frankia does not, however, make them an exception to some pan-Continental norm.

 The fundamental problem with the exceptionalist line is not, however, political illogicality, but historical naivety.

Indeed, if we broaden our perspective beyond West Frankia, it soon becomes apparent that there was no single generally-applicable pattern of change in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Many parts of Italy and (slightly later) Catalonia followed trajectories analogous to that of West Frankia, but other regions did not. East Frankia (i.e. Germany) saw no thoroughgoing collapse of kingly power, and its rulers greatly extended the geographical range of their hegemony; they do not, however, appear to have effected an intensification of royal administration akin to that undertaken by their English contemporaries. Similar points could be made about the northern Spanish kingdom of Asturias-León-Castile, which had, like England, – but unlike the other territories just discussed – been outwith the ninth-century Carolingian Empire. Yet another pattern of change, again on the periphery of the former Carolingian lands, is seen in the Hungarian kingdom. In the mid-tenth century, it did not exist as a settled territorial entity. By the eleventh century, however, its kings were issuing ordinances which imply the existence of administrative structures at least loosely similar to those which had been established by their English counterparts.

I do not claim that the early English kingdom closely resembled Hungary, or anywhere else in medieval Europe. Nor do I pretend to have proved that there has never been a time when the English represented an exception to a phenomenon prevailing across all or much of the Continent. Rather, my point is that different parts of tenth- and eleventh-century Europe saw a variety of political trajectories. Such heterogeneity is hardly surprising, and ought to serve as a warning to those tempted to make exceptionalist claims about other periods – before asserting that England (or the UK, or anywhere else) stood apart, one should first establish that there was indeed a norm. There is otherwise a real danger of treating the Continent as an indeterminate mass of foreigners, rendered homogeneous only by their foreign-ness.

In fairness to those who have characterised the English kingdom’s formation in exceptionalist terms, it is understandable that they should have assumed that all or much of the Continent followed a common trajectory in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Many of the most prominent works purporting to offer overviews of Europe in this period have been written by French academics. Such scholars – in contrast to English exceptionalists – frequently take the history of their own country (in the guise of West Frankia) as a paradigm for that of the whole Continent. English historians are right to react against this. If, however, one infers that the different pattern of change north of the Channel made the English kingdom exceptional, one implicitly accepts the claim that France’s path was the norm. Propositions about French typicality and English exceptionalism are thus complementary, indeed mutually reinforcing, but both are flawed, at least with respect to the political trends of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Perhaps claims about the supposedly exceptional nature of English historical development might hold less appeal if it were appreciated that they help to perpetuate a paradigm from – of all places – France.

Headline image credit: Map of Europe c. 900 A.D. by Ramsey Muir. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Curtis in Calgary

    From our vantage point across the pond here in Canada, one might suggest that what is exceptional about England is the dramatic effect wrought upon the Anglo Saxons by the French in terms of culture, language, grammar, political institutions, literature, trade and commerce, law, governance et cetera. I can think of no other country on the Continent that was so heavily influenced by the French.

  2. Ralph Lloyd-Jones

    All nations consider themselves exceptional and most people automatically think that their particular culture’s way of doing things is ‘right’. The British Isles are a very, very good place to live on the planet, as illustrated by the large numbers of desperate people who would dearly like to join us. Anglo-Saxons prefer to discuss problems, rather than resorting immediately to violence, which may be best historical/national trait of that most fortunate race. Language is also important with English having evolved as a brilliant combination of over-emotive Latin languages and unduly cold German! The English language may just save the planet if enough people get good enough at speaking & thinking with it.

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