These centuries saw the growth of new forms of social, religious and cultural organisation after the collapse of Roman Britain, and the forging of the ethnic and political identities that would eventually be England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. During the last twenty years the period has seen some remarkably lively debates and re-evaluation, which enable you to engage both with new ideas and – perhaps more surprisingly – with new evidence. The central written sources (for instance Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and Beowulf, which may be read in translation) are limited enough to allow the subject to be approached directly through them, while the new emphasis on archaeology, landscape and art makes students confront challenging methodological problems. Those who study this period will quickly develop a sense of how diverse fragments make the foundation for a coherent picture.
During c.400-550, Germanic settlements in eastern Britain established the communities who would eventually think themselves ‘English’. The west and north still comprised Celtic states which remained Christian, literate and in contact with the Mediterranean world, while the Irish were developing a remarkable literary, artistic and religious culture. Their overseas impact included the colonisation of western Scotland, and missionary activity in Europe. Some long-accepted orthodoxies, such as the scale and ethnic homogeneity of the Germanic settlements, or the distinctive character of the ‘Celtic Church’, have recently come under attack, and students can re-examine these issues in the light of new perspectives.
The seventh-century conversions of the English to Christianity were part of an extraordinary series of cultural and political developments, involving increased contacts between the various inhabitants of the British Isles and of Europe, in which the sequence of cause and effect leaves much room for debate. Outstanding works of art were produced, such as the Sutton Hoo treasures and the Lindisfarne Gospels; with the growth of continental trade, ports were established and coinage reintroduced. Prosperity financed a rich monastic culture. During c.680-750, north-east England became one of the intellectual centres of Europe, and the English launched missions to their still-pagan relatives abroad.
Kingship and government operated on an ever-widening scale, though tempered by the enduring realities of warrior societies: marriage-alliances, gift-giving, plunder and the blood-feud. In 850 Britain was still divided between British and English states, while in Ireland provincial kingships were forming. Students can debate the size and ferocity of the late ninth-century Viking attacks, and the extent to which they altered the political map (by destroying some states, allowing others to expand) and the economic map (by linking Britain and Ireland to Scandinavian trade networks).
Alfred of Wessex (871-99) and his heirs built a unified, ideologically coherent English state, with systematic local government and tight control of the coinage. Meanwhile, the countryside and its inhabitants were being organised into more self-contained farming and parish communities; the network of manors, villages and market towns crystallized. All this makes late Anglo-Saxon England look much more developed than it seemed thirty years ago. The Norman Conquest, conventionally taken as a starting-point, is the epilogue to this paper: by the time you reach it, you will be well-placed to make up your own mind about how much it really changed.