The form, aspect, and definition of Anglo-Saxon identity: a study of medieval British words, deeds, and things
In this dissertation I argue that medieval peoples used a different style of identity from those applied to them by later scholarship and question the relevance of applying modern terms for identity groups (e.g., ethnicity or nationality) to the description of medieval social units. I propose we think of identity as a social construct comprised of three articulating facets, which I call: form, aspect, and definition. The form of identity is its manifestation in behavior and symbolic markers; its aspect is the perception of these forms by people; and its definition is the combination of these perceptions into a social category. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, I examine each facet individually before synthesizing the results. I study the form of identity through an analysis of styles in material culture using a consensus analysis to determine how well objects decorated with the same motif do communicating a shared idea to members of a social group. I explore the aspect of identity through a whole-corpus linguistics approach to Old English, in which I study the co-occurrence of words for "a people" and other semantic fields to refine our understanding of Old English perceptions of social identity. Finally, I investigate the definition of identity by comparing narrations of identity in Old English verse and prose in order to see how authors were able to use vocabulary and imagery to describe the identity of their subjects. In my conclusion I demonstrate that the people of Medieval England had a concept of identity based on the metaphor of a village meeting or a feast, in which smaller, innate groups were thought to aggregate into new heterogeneous wholes. The nature and scale of these groups changed over the course of the Anglo-Saxon period but some of the names used to refer to these units remained constant. Thus, I suggest scholars need to apply a culturally relevant concept of identity when describing the people who lived in Medieval Britain, one that might not match contemporary models, and be cognizant of the fact that medieval groups were not the same as their modern descendants.