Thursday, 3 May 2012

Return to Anglo-Saxon government?

Dr Levi Roach writes:

Anglo-Saxon government—and specifically assemblies—have received some interesting coverage recently. The self-proclaimed ‘Mercian witan’ in particular has been promoting the idea that modern democracy needs to return to its ‘Anglo-Saxon roots’. Implied in all this, of course, is that all got much worse in 1066 and that the period before was a veritable golden age of democracy.

Unfortunately, however, it quite patently was not so, as Professor Matthew Innes and Dr Ryan Lavelle rightly pointed out when consulted about the matter. Although it would broadly speaking be true to say that the Anglo-Saxon period saw a greater degree of equality than the later Middle Ages, the difference is only one of degrees. Anglo-Saxon society was at no point truly egalitarian and from the first arrival of these peoples in what was to become England we have good evidence for local chieftains and aristocrats; the rich and powerful, just like the poor, have always been with us. Moreover—and perhaps more importantly—all evidence suggests that the inequalities within English society were growing, not shrinking during the Anglo-Saxon period. Thus if the Normans made things worse, they were treading the same path taken by many English aristocrats and noblemen before them.

This is not, however, to say that there was no ‘grass roots’ consultation in the Anglo-Saxon politics. In an era before large-scale taxation and standing armies governance was a matter of ‘self-rule at the king’s command’. Indeed, large-scale royal assemblies (or ‘meetings of the witan’)—which, it should be noted, continued to be held under the Normans—were a regular feature of politics and it is clear that kings and aristocrats sought to work with, rather than against the people whenever possible. Kingship was dependent upon consensus and this gave the people some say, even at times at a local level. Nevertheless, this was not democracy as we know it: local assemblies were run by aristocrats and larger assemblies by the king. At every level those with greater wealth and influence had more say. What we are witnessing is not an ideal system from which modern government might learn, but rather the constraints placed on rulers before bureaucratic means of governance had developed in earnest. Or, put differently, if Anglo-Saxon rulers were less oppressive than their Norman successors, it was certainly not for want of trying!

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