Racism circa 1000 AD

At times it is useful to reflect on how similar our troubles are to troubles our forebears suffered. When we can’t see our way to the bright future for which we yearn, it can be helpful to see how our forebears brought about their bright future, which we take for granted.

In 1000 AD there was no England.

Instead, the term used was Angelcynn, kin of the Angles, the Germanic peoples who hundreds of years earlier had conquered much of the territory of the island the Romans had called Brittania.

The problem was that by 1000 AD a large swath of the island of Brittania was occupied by Danes or people of Danish descent. 1 They had their own approach to law. They looked like Scandinavians, with blonde hair and fair skin.

King Æthelrede II had ascended to the throne in 978 as a twelve-year-old boy when his brother was murdered. Though the young King’s name meant “well advised,” he became known as a person who was ill-advised, Æthelrede the Unrede.

When the King of the Angelcynn (English) was a mature man, Danes attacked. Ill-prepared to defend his people, King Æthelrede was pressed to pay 10,000 Roman pounds of silver to get the Danes to stop the war. Yet independent Viking bands from the Scandinavian kingdoms still raided. King Æthelrede reportedly attacked Normandy in an attempt to deny the Danish raiders (Vikings) a friendly harbor near the shores of the Angelcynn. Without question, King Æthelrede married the sister of the Duke of Normandy in 1002, demanding that Normandy break off relations with Denmark.

Later that year, King Æthelrede ordered a massacre of leading Danes, apparently having them trapped in a hall in Oxford, stabbed and burned to death. 2 One of these was sister to the King of Denmark. From that time forward, King Æthelrede continued his campaign of suppressing and murdering those he did not consider to be Angelcynn.

In this milieu, an abbot near London was preaching love. Ælfric of Eynsham wrote “The love that loves God is not idle. Instead, it is strong and works great things always. And if love isn’t willing to work, then it isn’t love. God’s love must be seen in the actions of our mouths and minds and bodies. A person must fulfil God’s word with goodness.” It was this Ælfric of Eynsham who first coined the term Angla Londe or Engla Land. 3 This was radical, stating that the King and his people had a responsibility to all who lived in the land, whether or not they were considered kin to the rulers.

The next writer to use the term Engla Land was a Bishop Wulfstan, who knew Ælfric and incorporated many of Ælfric‘s ideas into his own homilies. As the combat between King Æthelrede and Denmark intensified, Wulfstan became Archbishop of York, deep in the heart of the Danelaw. Wulfstan would have seen first-hand the damage inflicted by what we would term a racist leader.

The years from 1013 to 1016 were turbulent, with King Æthelrede forced into exile by the King of Denmark, whose death in 1014 led to a return of King Æthelrede and a subsequent civil war with Prince Edmund, who had married a woman of Danish descent. But Edmund united with his father in the face of attack from Cnut, son of the King of Denmark.

By 1016, Cnut had won, allowing Edmund to rule in Wessex. 4 When Edmund died weeks later (possibly from his wounds), Cnut rounded up the Angelcynn leaders who had betrayed Edmund in battle and had them executed.

Advised by Wulfstan, Cnut used the term Engla Land from the beginning of his reign, uniting all the peoples under his rule as inhabitants of that land, moving away from the inherently racist terms by which the people had previously known themselves. Cnut married King Æthelrede’s widow, uniting Angelcynn and Danes as one people under Christ, as shown in the contemporary illustration at the head of this post.

The wars that gave birth to Engla Land were based on racism between a Germanic ethnic identity and a Scandinavian ethnic identity, or what we would today call white on white. In Rwanda, the racism was black on black.

Whenever we abhor another set of children of God because of race, we err. Our racial divisions do not win the competition for the most violent or most stupid. But they are the racial divisions of our time. Let us work towards the bright future our forebears have found.

Notes:

  1. This area was called the Danelaw and covered much of modern England north of London.
  2. This is known as the St. Brice’s Day massacre.
  3. For a detailed and academic treatise on the emergence of the term Engla Land, see George Beech, “How England Got Its Name,” 2009, online 28 Feb 2021 at https://www.persee.fr/doc/onoma_0755-7752_2009_num_51_1_1506.
  4. By this time, Æthelrede Had died.
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

5 thoughts on “Racism circa 1000 AD

  1. President Hinckley: “Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord.

    Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?”

  2. While I totally sympathize with the tenor and moral of this post, I am not so sure that the Danish/English wars would have been seen by the participants and their contemporaries as a race war. Danes are not all tall blondes. The people you would meet walking down the street in Copenhagen, York, or London don’t look all that different. Their languages are different, but back in the day some, perhaps much of their speech would have been mutually intelligible. The Norman conquest introduced a much different language (French), which then gave birth to modern English. Without the Norman conquest, the English would be much closer to the Scandinavian languages, and English churches would look more like Danish ones than French ones, i.e. not Gothic cathedrals.

    Norwegians and Swedes tend to be blonder than Danes, but Danes don’t consider their fellow Scandinavians to be of a different race. Those Scandinavian peoples warred among themselves, but these were national or tribal wars rather than racial wars. I likewise see the English/Danish conflict as a tribal war with rival kings.

    I sometimes wonder what English history would be like if Harold Godwinson had won the Battle of Hastings against William the Conqueror or if Harold Hardrada (the Norwegian King) had won the battle of Stamford Bridge, a month before the Battle of Hastings. England was bigger and had a better climate and soil than Denmark, so England was destined to dominate any Danish/English union. The Kalmar Union of Scandinavian countries failed to last, showing how hard it is to keep rival nations together. Likewise the original EFTA (the Outer Seven, which included Britain, the Scandinavian countries, and others) failed to last.

  3. Hi Leo,

    Harald Hardrada was not King of Denmark (though he dearly wished to be). Harald was trying to reconstitute King Cnut’s North Sea Kingdom, which consisted of Norway, England, and Denmark (plus other bits and bobs). But Harald was never able to get rid of Sweyn Estridsson, who is considered the King of Denmark following the fall of Magnus I.

    King Æthelrede II certainly treated the Danes like a race he wished to wipe off the face of the English kingdoms. Suggesting there may not have been a big visual difference doesn’t mean there wasn’t racial enmity. After all, urban Jewish peoples didn’t look that different from the Christian Europeans amongst whom they lived. That didn’t stop Hitler (who wasn’t blonde like his yearned for Aryan elite) from ordering Jews and millions of others killed.

    I find it interesting that the royal biography of Queen Emma (Encomium Emmae Reginae) in the generation following King Æthelred doesn’t give him the designation of king (only prince), doesn’t mention his name, and never admits that he was married to Emma of Normandy or that he fathered her two sons who lived in Normandy during the reign of King Cnut. Somebody hated Æthelred.

  4. The Battle of Lund, fought between the Danes and the Swedes in 1676, was one of the bloodiest battles ever fought in Europe in percent of casualties on both sides. Not every conflict or hatred is about race.

  5. Then we have the 25 million Russians who died at the hands of Russian actions and policies during WW II. Obviously that wasn’t classically about race.

    But some conflicts are about race-based us v. them.

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