The Isles and Europe

On connections between nations

In the wake of EU referendum result, Wilhelm Levison’s England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (1946) keeps coming to mind. In the preface to that work, he wrote: ‘May these pages, in their small way, contribute to join again broken links.’

The challenges for Europe then – in 1943 when he delivered the Ford Lectures in Oxford, in 1945 when he wrote the preface to their published text – were hopefully greater than they are now. Levison’s hopes for what he could achieve by talking about England and the continent were certainly modest. He did not invoke a golden age of interactions between the Anglo-Saxon and Frankish worlds as an unrealistic utopian counter to war. What he showed was how mundane trade networks, the migration of ideas and intellectuals, and diplomatic relations between political centres, all played crucial roles in redefining Western Europe in its Late Antiquity. He saw the early flow of ideas from the continent to the English, not least with Pope Gregory the Great’s missionaries to Kent late in the sixth century, paving the way generations later for the great missionaries from England (St Willibrord [d. 739], St Boniface [d. 754]) whose activities laid the foundations for Christian culture in the Netherlands and Germany. Cross-Channel interactions were highly productive in the long term. Levison concluded, amongst other things, by quoting Jacob Burkhardt: ‘A truly rich nation becomes rich by accepting much from others and developing it’.1

For Levison, this sense of co-operation was important, as he found himself in England because he had been forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1939. He died in 1947 shortly after the publication of England and the Continent when only the first seeds of renewed peace had been sown. In early medieval studies, the idea of seeing networks and occasional connections cutting productively across national boundaries remained strong. And not just for understanding the Anglo-Saxons, as the publication of The Irish in Early Medieval Europe a few weeks ago reminds us. Behind any story told about nations and peoples are stories about people who cross boundaries to achieve things. And maybe, again in future, histories about connections will be able to contribute to joining links seemingly broken in recent times.

Further Reading

Matthias Becher & Yitzhak Hen (eds.), Wilhelm Levison (1876-1947) (Siegburg, 2010).

Roy Flechner & Sven Meeder (eds.), The Irish in Early Medieval Europe: Identity, Culture and Religion (London, 2016).

Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (Oxford, 1946).

James Palmer, Anglo-Saxons in a Frankish World 690-900 (Turnhout, 2009).

Joanna Story, Carolingian Connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia, c. 750-870 (Aldershot, 2003).

1 ‘Ein wahrhaft reiches Volk wird dadurch reich, daß es von anderen vieles übernimmt und weiterbildet’.

Header image: Patrick Marioné, ‘Marty, stop to play with that animal ! Come eat your snack’, St Boniface, Bruxelles. Creative commons license.

About James Palmer

James Palmer is an early medievalist at St Andrews, and author of The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages and Anglo-Saxons in a Frankish World 690-900.


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