Patrick Wormald

Patrick Wormald, the author of Bede and the Conversion of England and many other books, died in 2004.

‘You had your 1917 in 1066,’ a Russian diplomat was once said to have told his British counterpart. The ruling class of England, and much of the rest of Britain, was re-created by the Norman Conquest. Most of the nobly born have at one time or another sought to find progenitors among the Companions of the Conqueror, and the words ‘noble’, ‘gentle’ and...

The West dishes it out

Patrick Wormald, 24 February 1994

With the terminal decay of the Idea of Progress in both Whig and Marxist incarnations comes a growing recognition that much of what once seemed most characteristic of the modern world’s experience is not especially new. Europeans have been behaving in the same way for most of Europe’s existence. Europe’s Middle Ages, the label long attached by a quirk of historiographical circumstance to the era of its youth, are acquiring a ‘relevance’ that architects of the National Curriculum should find it increasingly hard to deny. Ordered governments with at least elements of state consciousness had been formed in parts of the West before 1000 – especially in England, where the proportion, though not of course the numbers, of those living in settlements sufficiently concentrated to warrant the name of ‘town’ was as high in 1086 as it was ever to be before the 18th century. From the 11th century onwards, the West witnessed explosions in its population, in the productivity of its cereal (though not pastoral) farmers, and of its textile (though not heavy) industry, in its literary and academic output, in the scale of its major buildings, and in the documentation generated by its bureaucrats, which were at least as spectacular in relation to preceding patterns as developments in the 16th century. In particular, the onset of the aggressive expansion which is Europe’s most fateful hallmark lies not in 1492 but in that period from 950 to 1350 which is the subject of Robert Bartlett’s remarkable book.’

Warrior Women

Patrick Wormald, 19 June 1986

I was recently quite shocked – though I’m not sure why – when a cherished colleague upheld the study of women’s history on the grounds that it was ‘fashionable’. Most historians respond to contemporary trends in their discipline, though without being so frank about it. Would I have been as disturbed if he had defended his researches on Medieval literacy in similar terms? I suspect myself of reacting not to his reason for endorsing the subject but to the subject itself. Should I therefore be branded with the infamous three initials applied to so many of my sex?’

Joseph Jobson

Patrick Wormald, 18 April 1985

Claude Lévi-Strauss and others have been in the habit of describing the expansion of European civilisation as an unmitigated catastrophe for the rest of mankind. It is arguable that not the least of its casualties has been the West’s sense of its own limitations. From the conquest of Mexico and Peru until 1941 (at the earliest), Europe’s onward march seemed unstoppable, fuelled as it was by a combination of immeasurably superior technology and an ineffable sense of cultural superiority. Even the Turk, who was obliterating a whole European army and hammering at the gates of Vienna just as Pizarro was butchering the Incas, was, by the 18th century, the Sick Man of Europe (the first of many), and could be rolled aside by the gallantry of Lawrence in the 20th. The events of the second half of the 20th century, especially those of the last decade, have been a salutary reminder that Western ascendancy was short as well as nasty and brutish. In particular, the West, with its own established religion in decay, has grossly underestimated Islam. From the death of Muhammad to the decline of the Ottomans, the most formidable military and economic power in the world was usually Islamic, and the Arabs did a much better job of preserving antique civilisation in the lands they conquered than did the German invaders of the Roman Empire: until the 19th century, it is likely that the incidence of literacy was far more widespread in Islamic than in Christian territory, and the standard of medical treatment far higher.

Robin’s Hoods

Patrick Wormald, 5 May 1983

It has been said of the early Christian Irish that they were very interested in their history, but preferred it in the form of fiction. If one English reaction to his observation is likely to be that things have not changed much in the Emerald Isle, another ought to be that their own self-satisfaction is misplaced. Of the ‘facts’ of early English history which Every Schoolboy Knows – Alfred and the Cakes, Canute and the Waves, Harold and the Arrow – only the last has any claim to be in a real sense true (and even that has only recently been rescued from understandable scepticism by painstaking scholarship). The legends discussed in these books concern Robin Hood, the early history of Glastonbury, and the meaning of the megaliths. Such material poses problems for the professional historian or archaeologist: is it worth the trouble to debunk what are, after all, fairly harmless stories? A society’s legends are arguably as much a part of its history as the actual events of its past: too dry-as-dust an approach risks isolating the scholar from the very audience that he or she is trying to convince. And what, to coin a phrase, is Truth? Two of these books are by modern scholars, the other by one of the greatest English Medieval historians. Two, though not unsympathetic to the importance of legends, are critical in their approach; the other, not the Medieval historian’s, seems to want to dispense altogether with the methods of modern scholarship.–


Patrick Wormald, 21 October 1982

Even to speak of Dark Age economics must raise the eyebrows of a general reader who is accustomed (not unreasonably) to think that the age is called dark because we hardly know about its politics, let alone its economics. Yet the nature and extent of trade and industry in the early Medieval West has been a lively subject of debate for a century. Central to this debate has been the stubbornly immortal ‘Pirenne thesis’. Henri Pirenne, one of the great historians of the 20th century, first formulated his thesis in a German prison-camp during the First World War. Pirenne believed that the ancient world was brought to an end, not by the Germanic invasions of the West in the fifth century, but by the Arab invasions of the Mediterranean in the seventh. A Belgian, whose first major work was a history of his native country, Pirenne saw the maritime commerce of the Mediterranean as the key determinant of ancient civilisation. Because, in his view, it survived the Germanic invasions, the barbarian kings of sixth-century Europe were able to maintain the essential style of Roman life and government. When it collapsed, as a result of the Arab conquest of the sea’s eastern, southern and western shores, they could no longer do so. The economy of western Europe was reduced to ‘natural’ levels, its political and cultural centre of gravity shifted northwards into more emphatically ‘barbarian’ areas, and the result was the emergence of an unashamedly Germanic Roman Emperor in Charlemagne.

The New Archaeology

Patrick Wormald, 18 March 1982

Glyn Daniel is the sort of scholar for whom the word ‘doyen’ might have been invented – what could be more archetypally doyenish than to be honoured, as Professor Daniel has lately been, with a festschrift prefaced by the Prince of Wales? A Short History of Archaeology is the 100th volume in the Thames and Hudson ‘Ancient Peoples and Places’ series which he has edited since its inception only 25 years ago – a notable striking-rate by any standards. It is at least his fourth book on the subject, and amounts essentially to a shortened and illustrated version of his A Hundred and Fifty Years of Archaeology, published in 1975. It blends a roll-call of archaeology’s great heroes and great moments with a panoramic survey of what he summarises at the end as its ‘Great Themes’. The familiar great names are there, of course, as well as some that are less familiar, though no less important: Isaac de la Peyrère, whose argument of 1655 that flints were the work of primitive human beings got him into serious trouble with the Inquisition; Michele Mercati, who reached the same correct conclusion in the 16th century, though his case was not published until the 18th; Thomsen Jefferson, famous enough in other contexts, but also the organiser of ‘the first scientific excavation in the history of archaeology’ (in Wheeler’s words); J.J.A. Worssae, who proved Thomsen’s three-age system (stone, bronze, iron) by excavation in the field; Lewis Morgan, whose classification of human development into seven ‘ethnic periods’ from ‘lower savagery’ (up to the discovery of fire) to ‘civilisation’ (from the alphabet onwards) strongly influenced Engels; and, at the other extreme, Giovanni Battista Belzoni, who graduated from being a circus strong man to tomb-robbing in Egypt on a scale which makes Elgin seem respectable; or Augustus Le Plongeon, who pursued his conviction of the link between Near Eastern and Central American civilisations to the point of suggesting that Christ’s last words were Mayan for ‘Now, now, sinking, black ink over my nose.’


Patrick Wormald, 19 November 1981

The history and historiography of Roman Britain abounds in paradoxes. The first and not the least of these is that one of the most obscure and geographically remote Roman provinces has attracted a literature that makes the history of Roman Greece or Syria seem peripheral by comparison. These two books are among five important general histories of Roman Britain to have been published in the last fifty years. No other part of the Roman Empire can claim as much. Yet the quantity and quality of specialist work in the field are such that both authors can claim, with some justice, that a new übersicht is needed.

Everlasting Stone

Patrick Wormald, 21 May 1981

A Mr Jay, of Nettlecombe, near Watchet, Somerset, wrote c. 1670 an essay modestly entitled ‘A Fool’s Bolt soon shott at Stonage’ (i.e. Stonehenge). It begins:

Year of the Viking

Patrick Wormald, 17 July 1980

Few can still be unaware that 1980 in Britain is as much the Year of the Viking as of forest fires, record interest-rates and the SAS. There is, for once, no ostensible centenary reason for this, although, as a matter of fact, the year 980 did see the resumption of the Danish raids that were to culminate in Cnut’s kingship of England.

To read Paul Foot’s Trenchiad within weeks of his piece on Kincora Boys’ Home and MI5 (LRB, 5 September) is a disturbing experience. The tone, the language, the hatred, is much the same for a case of paedophilic sexual abuse condoned and exploited by government agents and that of a schoolmaster who misused his legitimate powers of corporal punishment. These are not the same offences, nor...


Stuart Airlie, 17 November 1983

Confronted with kings called Charles the Bald, Charles the Simple, Charles the Fat and Louis the Blind, and chroniclers like Notker the Stammerer, Benzo of Alba and Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, we...

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