The Anglo-Saxon Age- Martin Wall

Amberley, September 2015

272 Pages, Hardback and Ebook


26038836The discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard in 2009 has captured the imagination and stimulated renewed interest in the history and culture of the Anglo-Saxons. The discovery poses some interesting questions. Who owned the treasure and how did they acquire it? Was it made locally or did it originate elsewhere? Why was it buried in an obscure field in the Staffordshire countryside?

To answer these questions, Martin Wall takes us on a journey into a period that still remains mysterious, into regions and countries long forgotten, such as Mercia and Northumbria. This is a story of the ‘Dark Ages’ and the people who lived in them, but darkness is in the eye of the beholder. This book challenges our notions of these times as barbaric and backward to reveal a civilization as complex, sophisticated and diverse as our own.

Martin Wall’s nonfiction debut is a great introduction to- well- the Anglo-Saxon age and its leading figures, events and developments. I greatly appreciated the chapter on Ethelfleada of Mercia, the daughter of Alfred. The early chapters were also interesting and useful, even if they stray from the current, fashionable notion of a gradual, small scale invasion. Personally, I could not help agree with the author’s take on Gildas and Bede.
Both appear to have been men of great learning (we know Bede was) who were eyewitnesses, or had access to first-hand accounts and good sources of their own. What reason did they have to lie, or to make up everything? Why, then, should be dismiss their accounts of the Adventus Saxonum out of hand? As for bias, if we admit it, we all biased sometimes, but we don’t reject everything our fellows tell us on this basis.

Not that I agree with everything the author says- like the assumption that Oswald of Northumbria had the last surviving son of Edwin killed. Not much evidence seemed to be given to back up this claim, and it doesn’t fit what I know of Oswald. Nor did I appreciate the assertion that Edward the Confessor must have been homosexual or impotent because he did not have any children. It really gets on my nerves when people automatically jump to such conclusions about historical figures on this basis.
There are, sadly, biological and gynaecological reasons why some people cannot have children today- so why can be not give people in the past the benefit of the doubt? The attempts to link the Robin Hood stories to ancient paganism at the end just struck me as odd, unnecessary and rather tenuous. I understand the author is something of an expert on myth and folklore, but in the last chapter it comes across as- dare I say it- something of a fixation?

Aside from the complaints detailed above, I did enjoy the book and would recommend for it for general readers interested in the period. I would certainly be interested in Mr Wall’s next book The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts that is due for release in a few months.

I received a PDF copy of this book from Amberley Publishers for review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

Ivory Vikings- Nancy Marie Brown

Ivory Vikings: The King, the Walrus, the Artist and the Empire That Created the World’s Most Famous Chessmen

September 2015, 256 Pages, Palgrave MacMillan


In the early 1800’s, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard’s Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects.Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown’s Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games.

In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.

I listened to the audio book of a previous title by this author, and the synopsis and reviews piqued my interest in her new book.

In some ways, I was a little disappointed. There wasn’t a great deal of information about the wider world and Viking relations to it. I also didn’t much appreciate the fashionable revisionist approach of trying to downplay the violent aspects of Viking culture, and making them out to have been peaceful traders.
Its even implied that Charlemagne caused the Viking raids by attacking the Saxons, and the claim that they weren’t so bad because everyone attacked and raided churches at that time seemed like a pretty lame excuse.

Why did the Norsemen attack England if it was all Charlemagne’s fault, and why did Lindisfarne last until that time if everyone attacked churches? There were also some assumptions and historical generalisations. For instance, its claimed (with perhaps a palpable hint of wide-eyed admiration) that Viking women had more freedom than virtually all other European women, as they could inherit land, and were entitled to certain rights in marriage as well as divorce, run households and hold notable positions, and even fight.

Yet this was not so unique. Women in England even under primogeniture could and did I inherit land- and they were alsdo entitled to one third of their husband’s property when he died. In England and many other states, women ran businesses and their households. There are even illustrations apparently showing female stonemasons etc. Furthermore, Alfred the Great’s daughter led armies and defended her kingdom against the Danes, and she was admired. So what was so special about Viking women?

There were some good points. For instance the book made some fascinating points about the sagas which make me want to dig into them, and the parts covering Norwegian history in the 11 th to 13th centuries.
Worth a read, but one to take with a pinch of salt.

I received an eBook edition of this title from Netgalley for review. I was not required to write a positive one, and all opinions expressed are my own.

In The Land of the Giants- Max Adams


Head of Zeus, 416 Pages

10th September 2015, Print, e-book and audiobook

The five centuries between the end of Roman Britain (410) and the death of Alfred the Great (899) have left few voices save a handful of chroniclers, but Britain’s ‘Dark Ages’ can still be explored through their material remnants: buildings, books, metalwork, and, above all, landscapes.

Max Adams explores Britain’s lost early medieval past by walking its paths and exploring its lasting imprint on valley, hill and field. From York to Whitby, from London to Sutton Hoo, from Edinburgh to Anglesey and from Hadrian’s Wall to Loch Tay, each of his ten walk narratives form both free-standing chapters and parts of a wider portrait of a Britain of fort and fyrd, crypt and crannog, church and causeway, holy well and memorial stone.

Part travelogue, part expert reconstruction, In the Land of the the Giants offers a beautifully written insight into the lives of peasants, drengs, ceorls, thanes, monks and kings during an enigmatic but richly exciting period of our island’s history.”

I knew that this was part travelogue part history book when I requested it, and was exited as the theme and subject seemed to relate to that of The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria.

It is certainly a fascinating and lively account, in which the two genres mixed together mostly very well. Almost like Bill Bryson ‘going history’. It certainly gives the reader and appreciation for the heritage and priceless relics from the past that survive to this day- many of right under our proverbial noses- and yet largely ignored.

It certainly made this historian want to visit more of the sites in question and helped me to understand and appreciate some of the social and economic circumstances of the pre-conquest era. (How people might have responded to strangers, social and diplomatic etiquette and acceptable conduct etc- which might help explain certain events).
The purpose of bringing the past to life, and exploring the legacy of the period dubbed the ‘Dark Ages’ (often with unfortunately and unjustly derogatory overtones) was met well with this book. For the general reader, the tone and style was suitably engaging and uncomplicated. Yes, there were some details on archaeological digs- but little of the minute discussion of minor details that might put people off a more academic tome.

My complaints were few. Firstly, the book did seem to be largely focused on the North Country and Scotland. I don’t know if that was because the Kingdoms and tribal divisions of that region were more politically significant at certain times- but I would really have liked to see more on the South. A bit on London and Essex, some Dorset and West Country and Sutton Hoo, and that was about it. Whereas the former Kingdom of Northumbria seemed to get chapter after chapter. Seriously, do places like the ‘Home counties’ or places like Sussex, and Midlands not have any Dark Age history or remains to speak of? I’m sure they do! What about the heartlands of what was once the Kingdom of Mercia. Tamworth etc?

Also, the asides into modern politics (or fairly modern politics) and current affairs might not have been entirely necessary. Nor indeed the designations applied to some persons and groups both historical and modern. Judging the past by the standards of the present is not generally considered good practice, and I suppose some passages just came across as obsessive and judgemental in some parts. Was this a, perhaps slightly self-conscious attempt to be ‘relevant’- or part of the over-arching narrative to make a point about the world not having changed greatly and there being many parallels between ‘then and now’? I suppose the latter, but I don’t think it always worked well.

I received an e-book edition of this title free from Netgalley for the purposes of reviewing. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own

The King in the North- Max Adams

The King in the North: The Life and Time of Oswald of Northumbria

August 29th 2013, Head of Zeus, 448 Pages


18397528Oswald Whiteblade lived one of the most influential and colourful lives in early English history. Before his death in battle against the pagans of Mercia cut short his reign as king of Northumbria (634-42), he remodelled his northeastern English homeland as a Christian kingdom, founded the monastery of Lindisfarne, introduced a culture of learning which influenced all Europe, and became the most powerful ruler in Britain.

Max Adams’s thrilling account rescues Oswald from Dark Age obscurity to reveal an unjustly forgotten English hero – a king whose return from exile to reclaim his birthright was the inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien’s Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. But The King in the North is more than just a biography of the first great English monarch; it is a stunningly researched, wide-ranging, beautifully written and revelatory portrait of early medieval England in all its aspects.

As someone who’s slightly obsessed with the Anglo-Saxon age, and especially the early Kings of Northumbria, even though I don’t live in that region. I blame Bede! I already knew a little about Oswald and his near contemporaries- his Uncle Edwin and brother Oswui from the classic Ecclesiastical History.

In some ways, this book bought the so called ‘Dark Ages’ to life, and shed light on a number of details I was not aware of (who knew that Oswald had Irish relations or an ancestor with the decidedly Gothic sounding name of Theodoric?) In a sense, the book does exactly what it says ‘on the tin’- and provides and wonderful guide to the dynamics of Oswald’s family ‘The Idings’- named after an ancestor in the era before surnames), and their relations to the other tribes and peoples of the region.

However, those looking for a traditional biography of Oswald will be disappointed. The actual account of his reign is short, and although he crops up regularly, many subjects that are not directly related to him are covered. I suppose that is to be expected of any good history book that tries to recreate the ‘world’ of a historical figure.
However, I did feel that the author had a tendency of going off on tangents- devoting many pages- sometimes more- on various subjects that the reader might not care much for- such as buildings and evidence or use of land. Typical for an archaeologist- but not everyone is necessarily interested by such content or will see its relevance. Also, the references to some kind of ancient pagan connection to this or that account in the life of Oswald or some saint may be fascinating initially, but the continual reference to ‘pre-Christian head cults’ etc may become grating in the end.

I also found myself distinctly disagreeing with some of the author’s conclusions. He is very much of the ‘no mass Saxon invasion and replacement of the population’ theory, which I have never been especially convinced by. I don’t mean to disparage Mr Adams in any way, as he clearly knows his stuff very well (and don’t we all have certain ideas and interpreations about historical figures or events?)
Yet what I found the most frustrating was what seemed like an effort to make the evidence fit the theory, even when it seemed to suggest something to the contrary.
Something like- this or that building and burial suggests these people were from the Germanic tribes who came to Britain in the fifth and sixth century- oh but DNA evidence says that most of us are Britons- so it must be wrong, and they must really have been Britons who adopted Germanic culture wholesale. After all people eat MacDonald’s in China, but that doesn’t make them American.

I’m sorry to sound overly sceptical- but as said above- not only am I not convinced about the ‘Germanic enculturation’ theory- I have also heard of other Genetic studies which suggest the populations of various areas of England have a very high percentage of Anglo-Saxon/Germanic DNA. In other words the genetic evidence is not clear cut- and there may have been more of a Saxon influence then some in the historical community would care to admit.

I also dislike this tendency to assume that ancient writers who witnessed, or were closer to events than us must have been wrong or lying , because some ‘smart’ modern technology doesn’t turn up a ‘smoking gun’ as evidence of X, Y and Z. Like ‘oh look- people were farming! That means there was not mass annihilation of the indigenous population like the sources say- oh but there was a plague and a famine- but its effects were gradual and life went on much as before’. Maybe because I’m a historian instead of an archaeologist, I don’t have such a great understanding of these things- but I also tend to think that those who were actually ‘there’ knew more about what happened then we do. Not a fashionable notion, but one I still hold to.

Nevertheless, The King in the North is a useful and fascinating book, with a lot of helpful resources for those who might otherwise get lost and confused, like maps, family trees and a handy pronunciation guide. For those like me already interested in this period, and those who want to learn more it’s an indispensable guide, even if you don’t agree with every point.

The Lost World of Byzantium- Jonathan Harris

Yale University Press, August 15th 2015, 280 Pages


For more than a millennium, the Byzantine Empire presided over the juncture between East and West, as well as the transition from the classical to the modern world. Jonathan Harris, a leading scholar of Byzantium, eschews the usual run-through of emperors and battles and instead recounts the empire’s extraordinary history by focusing each chronological chapter on an archetypal figure, family, place, or event.

Harris’s action-packed introduction presents a civilization rich in contrasts, combining orthodox Christianity with paganism, and classical Greek learning with Roman power. Frequently assailed by numerous armies—including those of Islam—Byzantium nonetheless survived and even flourished by dint of its somewhat unorthodox foreign policy and its sumptuous art and architecture, which helped to embed a deep sense of Byzantine identity in its people.

Enormously engaging and utilizing a wealth of sources to cover all major aspects of the empire’s social, political, military, religious, cultural, and artistic history, Harris’s study illuminates the very heart of Byzantine civilization and explores its remarkable and lasting influence on its neighbors and on the modern world.

This book proved to be a good scholarly introduction to Byzantine History. It did will in questioning some popular (Western) perceptions of the period and region, such as the notion that Byzantine Emperors were ‘untrammelled despots’ who could do what they wanted. Rather the very same people and institutions who gave him his power- most notably the church, could place limits upon it.

Furthermore, it is argued, the Byzantine Empire was not an unmitigated failure- rather it left behind a strong cultural legacy, in which many areas and peoples of Europe were Christianized (including Russia), preserved precious works from the classical age. Ultimately, it is concluded, that the ‘real strength’ of the Byzantines was to create a long-lasting society which was able adapt to circumstances as well as incorporate disparate peoples.

That said, as another reviewer pointed out that aspects of the book may not appeal people of Greek and Greek Orthodox background today, who tend to be the group most interested in the Byzantines (for obvious reasons). I did feel there was an element of modern judgement, especially applied to the early period of the study, and even some failure to question popular myths, for instance the political circumstances that may have resulted in the death of the famous scholar Hypatia. I don’t believe this was all about religion at all.

Yet later on, we are told that the Turks, and especially the Ottomans, supposedly the oldest and most implacable enemies of Byzantium were not really religiously motivated (yet supposedly those who killed Hypatia, and attacked pagans in the sixth and seventh century usually were). This apparent dichotomy- to consider the political or pragmatic reasoning that may have motivated the actions of one group, but fail to do so for another, is something which some readers may find troubling.

Overall, although this was an interesting work, I would not read it alone. I have another couple of books on the Byzantines, and would consider reading them to get the bigger picture. Readers may wish to be warned, it very much represents the traditional ‘top down’ approach to history, focusing on leaders and battles. So do not be deceived by the title- it is not a social history of the Byzantine world.

I received an E-book version of this title free from the Publisher via Netgalley for the purposes of review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are entirely my own.