Anglo-Saxon Aptitudes

John Gillingham

  • The Anglo-Saxons edited by James Campbell
    Phaidon, 272 pp, £16.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 7148 2149 7
  • Anglo-Saxon Art: A New Perspective by C.R. Dodwell
    Manchester, 353 pp, £35.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 7190 0861 1
  • Anglo-Saxon Poetry edited by S.A.J. Bradley
    Dent, 559 pp, £10.95, August 1982, ISBN 0 460 10794 1
  • The Anglo-Saxon World edited by Kevin Crossley-Holland
    Boydell and Brewer, 275 pp, £9.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 85115 169 8
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: The Authentic Voices of England, from the Times of Julius Caesar to the Coronation of Henry II by Anne Savage
    Heinemann, 288 pp, £14.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 434 98210 5

As a unified, organised state England has a very long history indeed – more than a thousand years of continuous existence, so far. This, writes James Campbell, is the defining contrast between England and the other great European states. Despite some redrawing of county boundaries in 1974, most of the administrative geography of England remains today much as it was in the tenth and 11th centuries. No other European country can point to anything like this. Though the country was conquered by Duke William of Normandy in 1066 the structures of the English state survived – and if the main point of governmental institutions is to perpetuate themselves, then those which the Anglo-Saxons founded have been remarkably successful. The six centuries of Anglo-Saxon rule witnessed more than just the emergence of a stable political system, however. This long period saw the English language firmly established, so firmly indeed that the centuries of dominance by a French-speaking élite after 1066 proved, in the end, to be insufficient to root it out. It also saw the establishment of Christianity in England. This made little difference to men’s moral values: but in other ways it involved a radical cultural transformation. It meant, for example, the coming of the book and of building in stone. As Patrick Wormald suggests, these are changes the significance of which should be understood by an age which has itself seen the advent of the microchip and pre-stressed concrete. In government, in art and in literature the Anglo-Saxons showed astonishingly creative aptitudes. For anyone who wishes to understand the broad sweep of English history, Anglo-Saxon society is an important and fascinating subject. And Campbell’s is an important and fascinating book. It is also a finely produced and, at times, a very beautiful book.

Under James Campbell’s guidance the publishers have brought together a formidable trio of scholars, Campbell himself, Patrick Wormald and Eric John, to carve up the Anglo-Saxon age between them. Campbell has tackled the period from c. 350 AD to c. 660; Wormald from c. 660 to c. 900; and John from c. 900 to 1066. Other experts, several archaeologists and a numismatist, have been roped in to make further contributions in the shape of double-page ‘picture essays’ devoted to particular topics – though it should be said that Campbell and Wormald have themselves composed nine out of 19 of these. The main text is aimed at a fairly wide readership, but it also raises far-reaching issues. All three authors are men who have made – and are continuing to make – substantial original contributions to the subject. Indeed, even in this ‘popular’ book, Campbell and Wormald find much to say that is entirely fresh.

In words which James Campbell applies to the 200-year period after the departure of the Romans but which could be used almost equally appositely of the subsequent centuries, to study this period is ‘to venture into a quagmire’. That, of course, is its excitement. The surviving evidence is fragmentary in the extreme, and the firm patches are so few and far between that to get from one to the other, we are forced to make bold, speculative leaps. We cannot simply stay where we are because the ground beneath our feet is constantly shifting as new facts are uncovered – the work of archaeologists is crucial here – and the familiar landmarks, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, turn out not to be the safe guides they once seemed. The old questions receive new answers, and each new answer only raises more questions.

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