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.

This is particularly true of the most fundamental matters – population size, for example. The discovery of more and more Romano-British settlement sites has led historians of Roman Britain to argue that we should be thinking in terms of a population of four or even six million and not, as was formerly thought, between one and two million. The implications for Anglo-Saxon history are immense. Anglo-Saxonists talk enthusiastically, and often correctly, of a developing economy. The evidence of Domesday Book suggests that England was just as urbanised in the 11th as in the 14th century. Manufacturing flourished – metal goods, leather, fish-processing, mass-produced pottery. Mills, docks, canals and bridges are all being built. There is a substantial export business, particularly in wool, and possibly a favourable balance of trade. A highly-organised system of mints was putting millions of silver pennies into circulation. Town growth went hand in hand with royal control and profit-taking – at its most explicit in the siting of royal castles built after the Conquest. But if growth is a feature of, say, the last two centuries of Anglo-Saxon rule and if Romanist revised population estimates are correct, then what are we to make of a Domesday (1086) population of roughly two million? Clearly the Anglo-Saxon period can no longer be characterised, in general terms, as an age of slow but steady expansion of population and cultivation. The greater the growth at the end of the period, the greater the ‘catastrophe’ in the immediate post-Roman centuries.

All this ties in with an old question which Campbell has posed with new subtlety. When the Anglo-Saxons came, what happened to the Britons? Some fifteen hundred ‘Dark Age’ cemeteries have now been excavated and traces of the new settlers are everywhere plain to see – but where are the Britons? Were they exterminated? Did the fifth and sixth-century exodus to Brittany and north-west Spain take place on a more massive scale than hitherto suspected? Or did the Britons simply ‘vanish’ because they adopted Germanic funerary customs and thus became, to us, indistinguishable? If that was the case, we would still be no nearer to a solution of the population problem.

Perhaps the most likely answer lies in the pandemic of bubonic plague which struck Europe in recurring visitations from the 540s onwards. (Here we have the tragic side of a feature emphasised by all three writers: the close cultural and commercial links between England and the Continent.) Can we imagine the 14th century without the Black Death? Bede tells us of the religious consequences of the plague, but perhaps Campbell might have told us something of its possible economic consequences. Did plague and the removal of the heavy burden of taxation needed to maintain the superstructure of the Roman state combine to leave most of the surviving population significantly better-off? Is that what we misleadingly call a ‘catastrophe’? On the other hand, a situation of relative land plenty and labour shortage may have led to a renewed emphasis on slavery. This may explain why the seventh and eighth-century wars in which so many Anglo-Saxon kings lost their lives bear many of the characteristics of slave hunts.

They were also, of course, cattle-rustling expeditions. As Patrick Wormald reminds us, it would have been necessary to slaughter 1,500 calves to get the vellum for the three Bibles commissioned by Abbot Ceolfrith of Jarrow (670-716). Campbell’s achievement is to write the history of a society from which no books survive: Wormald’s is to write the history of a period dominated by two authors, Bede and King Alfred, and to break free from the patterns created by those two great men without in any sense diminishing them. Bede remains a giant figure: the greatest English historian of all time. For two reasons. Not for 400 years after his death was there another historian to come near to him in intelligence, artistry and capacity for research. Secondly, without Bede, Campbell’s apt description of the period between 400 and 600 AD as the ‘Lost Centuries’ would have to be stretched to cover the seventh century as well. This is not to belittle the learning of some of Bede’s contemporaries, known and unknown – men to whom Wormald does full justice – but the fact remains that their main value to the historian of the seventh and early eighth centuries is the contrasting light they throw on the vast structure erected by Bede. It requires an effort not to see everything through Bede’s eyes – but in the end it is only by making this effort that we can begin to appreciate the immensity of Bede’s creative power.

There is a similar problem with the ninth century and the Viking invasions – the danger of seeing them as King Alfred and the writers of his court would have us see them. One approach here is to cut the Vikings down to size. This is the method associated with the name of Peter Sawyer and it has brought some striking and happily controversial results. An alternative is to exploit hitherto neglected types of evidence, in particular royal charters, in order to look more closely at the work of earlier kings, both in Mercia (after Offa) and Wessex.

This is the approach chosen by Wormald and carried out with characteristic ingenuity. Wormald suggests that even before Alfred’s accession the house of Wessex may have been stronger than its rivals, both because it was richer and because it had solved the problem of dynastic instability. This is all very well, but it is a little misleading to treat dynastic instability as though it were a malady which could be cured, a problem for which there was a long-term solution within the grasp of an early Medieval king. It is surely the case that as early as the eighth (if not the seventh) century rulers already possessed both considerable administrative resources (see Offa’s Dyke) and a sophisticated ideology of kingship; and it is equally the case that if the system was to work there had to be some degree of competition for control of so powerful an office: ergo dynastic instability. It is a fascinating thought that, as Campbell suggests, a seventh-century king of Northumbria, Oswy, may for a time have held wider power in this island than any ruler before James VI and I, but even Oswy had to face the attacks of his nephew and his own son.

The shadow of dynastic insecurity looms large over Eric John’s view of the last period of Anglo-Saxon England. He is clearly right to emphasise the achievement of the tenth-century kings of Wessex – the unification of England – but the contrast between ‘the days of the thrusting, reforming, constantly active kings of the tenth century’ and a subsequent period of permanent crisis is one which can be overdone.

I find it difficult to believe that a ‘strong’ tenth-century political system was first replaced by a ‘weak’ one (975-1066) and then by another ‘strong’ one, the Anglo-Norman state fashioned by William the Conqueror. The tenth-century kings from Edward the Elder to Edgar had to fight their way through succession crises of their own. Nor, when writing of the ‘weak’ period, does it do to envisage an insecure royal dynasty overshadowed by the power of stable earldoms. The great aristocratic families, the Godwinesons above all, were torn by dissensions of their own. And in this area, as in many others, the Norman Conquest made little difference. Though its impact on the lives of individuals was overwhelming, the political structure remained essentially unchanged. Thus not only was there a struggle for power within the Norman dynasty itself, but within a century of 1066 England had been the subject of two more dynastic takeovers, first by the house of Blois, then by the house of Anjou. It is often said that William I restored the position of the monarchy by reducing the power of the great earls, but Odo of Bayeux, Robert of Mortain and Roger of Montgomery, with incomes of more than £2,000 a year from their English lands alone, were all, to borrow Warren Hollister’s term, ‘super-magnates’. True, in William I they faced a king richer in land and cash than Edward the Confessor had been, but that point of royal pre-eminence had already been reached before the Conquest, at the moment when Harold Godwineson took over the old royal estates and united them with his own immense holdings.

C.R. Dodwell’s cogent argument is that surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon art are not representative. Indeed, in his view, those objects which the Anglo-Saxons admired most are precisely those which have not survived – because they were the costliest and therefore the most worth plundering. Thus the Bayeux Tapestry survives because it was a fairly ordinary piece of work – it contained no gold thread. Dodwell emphasises the prestige and the skill of the silver and goldsmiths above all else: but at times he presses his case too hard. Anglo-Saxon buildings may not have been as monumentally impressive as those the Normans were to erect: nonetheless the English had a clear appreciation of the skill of the architect as well as of that of the men who made their buildings ‘all glorious within’. See the praise for architects in the Old English poem, ‘The Gifts of Men’. By carefully combing through the literary sources Dodwell builds up an impressive picture of England as the Eldorado of 11th-century Europe: an irresistible prize.

Very little Anglo-Saxon poetry has survived the centuries. Just four manuscript books contain almost every known OE poem. Suppose that only three had survived? Or that five had? Either way our view of the whole would necessarily be profoundly affected. Can we imagine Anglo-Saxon England without Beo wulf? By so thin a thread does our knowledge hang. In Anglo-Saxon Poetry S.A.J. Bradley presents the most comprehensive and sensibly arranged collection of modern English translations to have appeared to date.

His prose is clear and he sticks close to the original; his introduction to each poem is concise and helpful. Students of both language and history will find this volume indispensable, but for someone looking for an avowedly poetic introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, Crossley-Holland’s book has much to recommend it. Together with a number of poems translated in their entirety (Beowulf among them), it includes extracts from law codes, letters, charters and other documents. Most of the passages he chooses are familiar ones but on the whole they are ones which deserve to be familiar. If Crossley-Holland’s romantic vision of the Anglo-Saxon world can inspire people to go on to read Bradley, Dodwell and Campbell then he will have done more than simply give pleasure. Similar in purpose and equally to be welcomed (despite a rather comic subtitle describing the work as ‘the authentic voices of England’) is Anne Savage’s profusely illustrated translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.