The medieval monk Jocelin of Furness has been little studied by historians – now a project investigating his work and its context is transforming what we know about past cultural identities in England’s north-west.
Jutting out from the edge of the Lake District and home to a proud industrial heritage, the Furness Peninsula seems to weld together many of our contrasting ideas about what Englishness means. To the north lies some of the country’s most outstanding areas of natural beauty; at the southern tip sits a shipyard where nuclear submarines for the Royal Navy are built. The area is defined by working-class values, post-industrial decline and 21st-century regeneration. By uniting these elements, Furness appears to epitomise many of the complex ideas behind a notion of England that is both very modern, and very old.
But this, it turns out, is far from the complete picture. In a recent project, historians have begun to scratch the surface of a much earlier period in Furness’ past – one that not only changes what we know about its history, but also raises questions about these very ideas of Englishness itself.
For hundreds of years, it appears, this corner of the country was influenced as much by Irish, Manx and Scandinavian cultures as it was by the Anglo-Saxon, and then Anglo-Norman, kingdoms that stretched from the Channel to the Scottish border. Variously populated by speakers of English, Norse, Gaelic, Brittonic and French, Furness is unlikely to have always identified itself solely with what we now call England. Politically and culturally, its centre of gravity was quite often a complex network of communities clustered around the edges of the Irish Sea.
This different vision of Furness has the potential to change our view of how social identities and loyalties were formed not just there, but in medieval England as a whole. Why, though, have historians focused specifically on this obscure Cumbrian headland? The answer lies with a monk called Jocelin, who so far as we know was active between 1175 and 1214, and spent most of his life at Furness Abbey. Although now just a ruin outside the town of Barrow, in its heyday, the Abbey was one of the most powerful Cistercian monasteries in England.
Jocelin of Furness was a writer of saints’ lives, and one of the most significant writers to emerge from north-west England during the Middle Ages. His little-studied legacy poses an interesting conundrum: all four of the major Lives that he wrote are linked to the Celtic world, but were written when divisions between Anglo-Norman England and the Celtic realms (Scotland, Ireland and Wales) were supposedly very distinct. Indeed, recent histories of medieval Lancashire and Cumbria stress that this was a time when English royal government began to dominate and define the region.
If so, it is curious that Jocelin was so interested in, and conversant with, the Celtic world beyond. With this in mind, researchers embarked on a project in 2010 that aimed to understand more about Jocelin and the context in which he worked. ‘Hagiography at the Frontiers: Jocelin of Furness and Insular Politics’ was a joint project carried out by Dr Clare Downham and Dr Ingrid Sperber from the University of Liverpool and Dr Fiona Edmonds from the University of Cambridge, and was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
As part of the initiative, Edmonds, based at Cambridge’s Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, carried out a study which pieced together cultural interactions around the Furness Peninsula, using the evidence of place names, personal names, administrative documents from Furness, the history of the Abbey, its offshoot ‘daughter-houses’ and Jocelin’s work itself.
“Typically this is a time when there is supposed to have been a strong distinction between the Anglo-Norman kingdom in which Jocelin lived and the Celtic world,” Edmonds said. “In fact, the history also involves deeper connections with Gaelic-Scandinavian communities in places like Ireland and the Isle of Man. These were still relevant in Jocelin’s own time.”
Her work presents a picture of ongoing cultural fluidity in Furness which pre-dates the Norman invasion by hundreds of years. For example, in the 7th century, when Furness was part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, it is possible that there was an enclave of people speaking Brittonic – the language of the Celtic Britons. Local place names like Leece and Roose have Brittonic origins, and it may be no coincidence that Jocelin himself stressed the Brittonic links of some of the saints whose Lives he wrote.
During the Viking age, archaeological finds such as the Silverdale Hoard (found on Morecambe Bay in 2011) suggest a distinctive ‘Hiberno-Scandinavian’ culture. This fits with the intermittent link that the Scandinavian rulers of York and Dublin attempted to forge between the two cities during the 10th century in particular. Lying in between, England’s northwest would have been of great strategic importance. Coinage, jewellery, grave goods, stone monuments and place names all point to Norse settlements and staging posts in the Furness area. It may even be that the local nobility was, at times, subject to powerful Norse rulers who dominated the Irish Sea from points such as Dublin and the Norse-Gaelic-ruled Kingdom of Man.
This cultural hybridity does not seem to have disappeared with the coming of the Normans. In the Domesday Book of 1086, the entry for the territory between the Ribble and the Esk is noteworthy because, unlike other parts of the country, it has not been divided into hundreds or wapentakes, the standard regional subdivisions used by the royal administration. The implication is that this regime was not fully imposed; certainly, landowners recorded around this time still exhibit a variety of Old English, Old Norse and Gaelic names.
Very strong links with the Isle of Man, in particular, probably remained in place for the next 200 years. In the 12th century, the Abbey established a daughter-house on Man – an unusual event because, by this stage, Furness Abbey was itself the daughter-house of the Norman foundation at Savigny. During the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, the Peninsula fell under the rule of the powerful Scottish king, David I. Meanwhile, Wimund, Bishop of Man and the Isles, launched attacks on the Scottish kingdom, and he was appeased by a grant of the Furness Peninsula.
So by Jocelin’s own time, although Furness was officially part of the county of Lancashire and the kingdom of England, it seems that its cultural make-up was not so straightforward. If its elite was firmly Anglo-Norman by this stage, the identity of other people living there was less clear cut. Documents from the time reveal insular names among the local freemen, such as Gilmichel (Gaelic), Suanus (Old Norse origin), Waltheof (Old Norse) and Ailsi (Old English). At ecclesiastical sites on the Peninsula, like Conishead and Pennington, archaeologists have found Old Norse runic inscriptions. It may be that both Norse and Gaelic were still spoken. Jocelin himself was certainly able to deal confidently with Gaelic place names and personal names in his work.
In the end, Edmonds is careful about the implications of this six-century survey. “The Irish Sea link should not be over-emphasised at the expense of links to the rest of England and the Continent,” she writes. But they are also not mutually exclusive. At a time when historians have traditionally perceived the affirmation of Anglo-Norman England, Furness was a place with international contacts reaching from Scandinavia to Normandy. Beyond those who ruled, ordinary people may never have stopped looking west, where ties with those living on, and across, the Irish Sea survived.
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