Little does it quake as it lies on the plate

Tom Shippey

  • The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe edited by George Holmes
    Oxford, 398 pp, £17.50, March 1988, ISBN 0 19 820073 0
  • A History of 12th-century Western Philosophy edited by Peter Dronke
    Cambridge, 495 pp, £37.50, April 1988, ISBN 0 521 25896 0
  • The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought c.350-c.1450 edited by J.H. Burns
    Cambridge, 808 pp, £60.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 521 24324 6
  • Medieval Popular Culture: Problem of Belief and Perception by Aron Gurevich, translated by Janos Bak and Paul Hollingsworth
    Cambridge, 275 pp, £27.50, May 1988, ISBN 0 521 30369 9
  • A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World edited by George Duby, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
    Harvard, 650 pp, £24.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 674 39976 5

A captious person might mutter that The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe is a little ‘hobbitical’: it reminds one of Professor Tolkien’s hobbits, who ‘liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions’. This would be unfair, in that it is a splendid volume, presenting contemporary scholarship to the general reader with care, grace, much thought and many illustrations; filled with things that most general readers won’t know at all, and that many specialist readers won’t have thought of. Still, it is sometimes possible to imagine the contributors putting down their pens, staring at their charts of ‘The Capetian Kings’ or ‘The Royal House of Jerusalem to 1187’ – ‘BALDWIN I (1100 – 1181) m. (1) Godvere of Tosni (2) daughter of T’oros (3) Adelaide, countess of Sicily’ – and getting up from their desks with a feeling of justified completion and a mutter of ‘well, that’s that!’ Here are the pedigrees; here the accounts of political pressures; here are the maps – possessions of the kings of France, trade routes to Islam, routes of Viking invasions – thus, so, black and white, and not otherwise.

What lies behind it all? History of this kind maximises one’s information, minimises doubt. Its authors are pressed into shorthand statements, which often invite one tacitly to assume that things have not changed very much since the ninth century, or that one can make sense of events by a small exercise of the extrapolating imagination. When the Vikings, under several ‘royal Scandinavian generals’, defeated the kings of Northumbria and Mercia and East Anglia and fell on Wessex over Twelfth Night 878, King Alfred ‘rallied his subjects’ (writes Edward James). ‘Rallied his subjects’ sounds more grown-up, more professional and political, than ‘burnt the cakes’ – though this is exactly the moment when King Alfred is supposed to have burnt the cakes – but on reflection one wonders whether it isn’t equally hagiographical. Were the inhabitants of Somerset and Dorset and Devon ‘subjects’ in the sense that they are now? Surely the Viking armies can simply not have had enough men to ‘occupy’ Wessex as a modern army would, especially with no motorised transport. So what were they trying to do? Were they trying to get the thanes of Wessex to make a deal which would cut King Alfred out? Could Alfred rely on strong anti-foreigner and anti-heathen feeling? Is our tacit model of Nazis, Resistance fighters and Quislings at all apposite? It is not much good looking at the sources. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that Alfred met the men of the local districts at ‘Egbert’s Stone’ – how did he get them all to turn up at once in an occupied country? – and that ‘they were fain of his coming.’ But then, written a dozen years after the successful event, it would, wouldn’t it? One cannot help wondering what the reality was like, as compared with the modern abstracting formulation: and not only in matters of politics.

How did you go about being a Viking, for instance? Edward James is sensibly dubious about the modern ‘dry sherry’ school of apologists for the Vikings; ‘brilliant craftsmen, striking artistic development, peaceful traders for the most part, very bad press from the monasteries, atrocities much exaggerated, isolated cases of boyish high spirits’ – at times it has been like reading the Leeds United programme notes explaining away the latest blighted fixture. No, says James, look at the Repton excavations, with their revelations of careful, organised plundering and, one might add, of violent death and probable post-battle killing of prisoners. Does this not, like Viking poetry, show a cultural taste for violence ‘verging on the psychopathic’? James does not say where he takes this phrase from, but it is another modernism like ‘rallied his subjects’ – where the latter approximates modern conditions to ancient ones, the ‘psychopathic’ label registers modern distaste and distance. Does this make sense? It is true that in the Atlakvitha King Gunnarr, taken prisoner, demands to see his brother’s heart before he will talk, and when it appears – after some comic by-play with people bringing him an easily-detectable, low-class, non-warrior heart – says approvingly:

Now that is the heart of Högni the brave,
Not like the heart of Hjalli the coward.
Little does it quake as it lies on the plate.
It quaked still less when it lay in his breast.

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