Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
The answer to the question of where the ‘wider world’ begins is always subjective. People inhabit a variety of overlapping worlds, contoured by status and role as much as by geography. The horizons of a well-travelled English aristocrat, conscious of belonging to an international chivalric culture, of an educated cleric whose physical and mental habitat was western Christendom, or of a London merchant with contacts from Genoa to Reykjavik, were very different from those of lesser people. Yet it would be misleading to imagine that the awareness of any inhabitant of England stopped at the county or parish boundary. As the tens of thousands of mariners and military recruits show, wealth was not a necessary precondition of wider experience, and even the untravelled could absorb perceptions and prejudices. It was within this context that a sense of ‘Englishness’ was formulated.
England was, it is true, an agglomeration of overlapping ‘countries’: counties and broader regions. Contemporary comments convey images of particular areas and their inhabitants. A thirteenth-century satire, ‘A Description of the Norfolk people’, mocked the supposed naivety and crudity of its subjects, provoking a Norfolk man, John of St Omer, to respond with ‘A Refutation of the Description of Norfolk’. In the mid-fourteenth century, John de Grandisson, the bishop of Exeter, reaching for a handy cliché, portrayed Cornwall and Devon as at ‘the end of the world’. Writers frequently commented on the supposed barren wildness of the north.