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Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan

Map of the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the 5th & 6th century, A.D.

Book Review
The Anglo-Saxon World
by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan
Yale University Press
July 30th, 2013

   Calling a book released over a year ago may be stretching the label of, "new release" to the breaking point, but in the world of Medieval History, I'd say a year old still counts as "new."  Certainly it does for the San Diego Public Library, because I found The Anglo-Saxon World in their new non-fiction section.  In the hard-cover edition I read The Anglo-Saxon World is an imposing 3.4 pounds with a 10" x 8" page lay out .  I actually shied away from checking it out for a few months because it looked like either a "coffee table" book or a source book- neither of which seemed particularly interesting.

  Once I actually took it off the shelf to give it a closer look, I quickly saw that The Anglo-Saxon World is neither of those things, rather it is a well illustrated, well mapped work of synthesis that seeks to incorporate recent developments in Anglo-Saxon studies, mostly an up-tick in archaeology within England, the advent of "paleo-genetics" to trace population movements and cross-disciplinary attempts to meld history with studies of the environment.

  The Anglo-Saxon world- which is roughly the story of England from the withdrawal of the Roman Empire to the Norman conquest, has been long maligned by historians.  It is the prototypical "Dark Ages" that struck fear into the hearts of school children and fed generations of popular fiction.  The decline of importance of written sources compared to the Roman Period and the Norman Period put The Anglo-Saxon World at a disadvantage within the discipline of history itself, which for much of the last three centuries has relied on written sources for material.

  The Anglo-Saxon invasion was the product of three tribes of Germanic speaking people: the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes.  They conquered much of what we consider to be modern day England, and some of modern day Scotland, and established a multiplicity of Kingdoms, the most important of which were Wessex, in south-west England, and Mercia, in the are today known as "the mid lands."

   One of the points made abundantly clear by the collation of archaeological findings from the last century is that while the is that settlement by actual Anglo/Saxon types was more intensive in the east.  While the West was controlled by Anglo-Saxon monarchs, the actual population appears to maintain a greater connection to the Roman-British past.  The existing British population was not incorporated wholly into the Anglo-Saxon world, rather they were a sort of sub-strate population, members of whom would integrate or disassociate themselves from the Anglo-Saxons depending on their personal preference.
The Anglo Saxon World on the eve of the Viking invasion

  Anglo-Saxon England "settled down" into five major Kingdoms: Northumbria, East Anglia, Wessex, Kent and Mercia.  The whole idea of statehood was better developed in Wessex and Mercia.  Northumbria was a kind of expansive borderland, and East Anglia and Kent were the Anglo-Saxon heartland, where the polities were weaker.

   The Viking invasions of the next several hundred years did not come out of the blue, rather it was an increase in scope, and more importantly, the choice to stay over the winter, that changed the playing field in England.  The Vikings, who possessed cosmopolitan armies composed of Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Hiberno-Norse (Irish Vikings), overwhelmed the Kingdoms in the East, leaving Wessex and Mercia as the last men standing.  The idea of a pre-Norman English identity was produced by the resistance of Edward, King of Wessex, to the Viking invaders, and his eventual subjugation of them, over multiple generations, and with the help of the Mercians.
The famous helmet found at Sutton Hoo

  Then, of course, you had the Norman invasion, which put an end to the high politics of the Anglo-Saxons and their kingdoms, but left a population that largely spoke English, and a political structure that the Normans simply adopted for their own purposes.  Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, the Norman conquerors did not migrate in any large numbers, leaving the underlying population unchanged.  Eventually, they would expand their domain to include the non-English people of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, forming the "Great Britain" of the present.

  The Anglo-Saxon World is broken up between chronological chapters interspersed with shorter segments called "Sources and Issues" which address problems in historiography, recent archaeological finds and their significance to the larger picture, and important texts.  The combination of these discrete hot topic portions and the ample illustrations and maps makes The Anglo-Saxon World eminently readable, not a coffee-table book at all, and a must for anyone looking for a recent summary of academic developments in this area, without actually having to read those sources.

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