Comparing Conquests: The Life of St. Birinus and the Norman Invasion of England

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The Vita Sancti Birini is an Anglo-Latin text written in the eleventh century and is the sole vita for Birinus, a Roman bishop and missionary who came to Britain in the mid-seventh century. In this narrative, the author explicitly treats Birinus's conversion of the West Saxons as a conquest, thus making this text-written after the Norman Conquest-a work at least in part about the proper (and improper) way to conquer the people of Britain, and the West Saxons in particular. In the vita, the point is stressed that in conquest, it is important for the losers not to feel humiliated but rather that both sides should believe they are the victors. This and the sentiment expressed elsewhere in the text that domination diminishes rule while servitude increases it should be seen as a criticism of the recent Norman arrival and the strategies of governance they employed. Further, by looking closely at the example of how to undertake a proper conquest as detailed in the text and comparing it to a variety of conquests that occurred in Britain throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, we can more clearly theorize the operation of composite identity formation and the crucial roles of rationalization and accommodation in the creation of sociopolitical identity in the early Middle Ages, underscoring exactly how drastic an event the Norman Conquest and its attendant political and social changes were in Britain.