In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Contact and Colonization

  • Introduction
  • Celtic and British Studies
  • Danes and the Danelaw
  • Old English Colonial Contexts
  • The Norman Conquest
  • Colonization in/and the Law
  • Postcolonial, Decolonial, and Critical Race Approaches to Medieval British and Irish Literature
  • Resources for Teaching and Learning Medieval Studies Now

British and Irish Literature Contact and Colonization
Tarren Andrews
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0203


The many human populations that inhabited the medieval North Atlantic—Britons, Picts, Celts, Romans, the Germanic groups who would become the early English, Danes, and Normans—practiced and endured a spectrum of contact, conflict, and exchange now recognizable as colonization, from resource or extractive colonization to the more long-term process of settler colonization. Records of contact zones across Britain and Ireland exist in a wide array of texts and materials, from chronicles and annals, to histories and biographies, to material objects like the Ruthwell Cross, ogham stones, and the Bayeux Embroidery. Given the dearth of sources for and about conflict in the medieval North Atlantic, references to conquest and colonization have perennially been features of insular (the common descriptor for texts and materials produced in Ireland and Britain) medieval scholarship, though a close consideration of these terms and their implications in the context of postcolonial and Indigenous studies is a rather recent and significant shift in medieval British and Irish studies, as discussed by Bitterroot Salish scholar Tarren Andrews in “Indigenous Futures and Medieval Pasts: An Introduction” (cited under Postcolonial, Decolonial, and Critical Race Approaches to Medieval British and Irish Literature). Reassessments of colonization in the medieval North Atlantic and how we talk about it have been shaped since the late 1980s and early 1990s by postcolonial theory, first articulated by Edward Said’s Orientalism (under Postcolonial Studies and Non-Western Political Theory). Since the late 2010s and early 2020s, however, scholars are increasingly turning to Indigenous theorists and settler-colonial studies to understand the complexities of contact, conflict, and colonization in the North Atlantic from the early medieval period (c. 600–1100), to its impacts on the later medieval world (c. 1200–1500), and its role in shaping the global Anglophone empire. It is crucial to note that this turn toward Indigenous thought and settler-colonial theory is not an effort to ascribe any form of Indigenous (the capital “I” marking the political and cultural import of modern Indigenous peoples and distinguishing from the simple adjective “indigenous” with the lowercase “i”) identity to medieval peoples. The complex structures of relationality and epistemic relationships to land common to modern Indigenous nations cannot be equivocated in the medieval world. Indeed, as Andrews discusses, settler colonialism makes visible the coloniality of the period, especially in regard to the early English. The inclusion of Indigenous thought and settler-colonial theory, rather, serves as a novel methodological approach that enables us to see intertwining structures of power as they are produced and reproduced in and through moments of contact. Given the relative novelty of studies of colonialism in British and Irish literature, general overviews do not exist, as such, though edited collections like Conversion and Colonization in Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Catherine Karkov and Nicholas Howe, and Lindy Brady’s 2016 article “Colonial Desire or Political Disengagement? The Contested Landscape of Guthlac A” (both under Old English Colonial Contexts) gesture toward serious future studies. Reflecting this, the following bibliography substitutes the more common “General Overview” with a “General Overview of Colonial and Political Theory.” Readers will notice that the texts in that section are not “medieval,” as such, but they do provide necessary theoretical and rhetorical background for studying contact and colonization in medieval British and Irish literature.

General Overview of Colonial and Political Theory

Medieval British and Irish contact and colonization, a subject still in its early stages of study, requires a nuanced understanding of critical Indigenous and settler-colonial studies to properly situate and qualify the discursive weight of naming “colonization” in the medieval world. Additionally, these texts encourage for a careful consideration of the differences between autochthony (originating from somewhere) and Indigeneity (the characteristics of the modern Indigenous self-determination movement). The following subsections provide a general overview of the critical Indigenous, postcolonial, and political theory that informs thoughtful studies of contact and colonial literature in medieval Britain and Ireland.

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