This paper began as an introductory section to what once upon a time I had intended to be a longer piece looking more closely and critically at the model of four so-called regiones erected by John Blair in Early Medieval Surrey, with particular reference to the two in the western half of the county, “Woccingas” and “Godhelmingas“. Neither is recorded as such yet both have found their way into subsequent accounts of kingdom formation and territorial control in south-east England in ways which would lead you to believe they were historically attested polities. When I gave a presentation on the subject to the Surrey Archaeological Society’s Medieval Studies Forum back in November 2011, I concentrated more upon the significance of ingas in their names, but subsequent research inspired by the late Dennis Turner took me in another direction, of which the uploaded essay is the culmination (for now at least – I intend to come back to the topics of ingas and early territorial nomenclature in a big way next year…)
My key argument here stems from frustration with the orthodoxy that the polities which preceded the historically-attested Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the seventh century onwards were known as (or can be termed) regiones. Scholars in the 1980s and 90s were keen to advance or else accept a model of kingdom formation whereby competition between smaller, proto-kingdom units – more often than not labelled regiones – resulted in the emergence of a smaller number of much larger kingdoms. This is credible enough (in certain circumstances at least) but has one crucial failing; no-one undertook a “due diligence” exercise to ascertain whether or not the terminology being (re)employed was suitable to define these “building-block” territories in the pre-historical period, circa 550-650. By going back to the source material from which such authors have drawn their justificatory examples – early charters, histories and hagiographies – it becomes clear that it is inappropriate to characterise polities of the late-fifth, sixth and early-seventh centuries using Latin words (regio, provincia, pagus) since there is not a shred of evidence for the survival of any of the terms from Late-Roman practice, and plenty of justification for such terminology having arisen in conjunction with the Church and the (re)establishment of a literate political/administrative culture during and after the conversion process begun by St Augustine’s famous mission to Kent at the very end of the sixth century. It engendered profound changes, especially at elite (royal) levels, and the adoption of a lexicon of Latin terms to describe politico-territorial units looks to be a example of this process.
I hope, however, that the essay does more than shift the currency of the terms forward to their rightful place in the seventh, eighth and (to a lesser extent) ninth centuries. When the evidence is collated, sifted through and assessed, in south-east England at least there are positive signs that provincia and regio were used from the latter half of the seventh century in specific ways to refer to specific types of political unit, up until the early ninth century when such significances began to wane and the terms are found used in an increasingly scattergun way. Mercia in particular emerges as the kingdom which time and again sought to impose such structures on the territories outside its heartlands, in marked contrast to its great southern rival Wessex, from which there is no such evidence. The reasons for such polarity in practice are unclear and would be a topic worth pursuing in the future, as would an extension of the survey to cover the whole of the area covered by the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the seventh to ninth centuries. Any offers?