The Anglo-Saxon World by N J Higham and Martin J Ryan


Reviewed by Dr Kay Smith

The Anglo-Saxon World is an attractive book at first sight, with a handsome cover and page edges in even stripes of white and cream. The paper is semi-gloss and there are coloured illustrations on almost every page. It is weighty to handle but the content easy to read and full of interesting but not overwhelming detail.

The book is organised chronologically in chapters on white paper. They are interspersed with inserts entitled “Sources and Issues” on cream paper. The story proper of the Anglo-Saxons is contained in eight chapters, while the regularly interspersed “Sources and Issues”, sixteen in all, provide cameo sections on smaller interesting side-issues.

The book reads like a narrative of the birth and development of the English nation. It starts with a resume of conditions in Britain during the Roman occupation, followed by facts and theories on the arrival of the Germanic tribes in about the fifth century. The authors emphasise the difficulty of ascertaining facts in written and physical evidence on a subject from which we are at such a chronological distance and from sources which require a critical eye. They explore the developments which took place in government, agriculture, the church, cultural activities and towns and trade.  The Viking depredations and subsequent settlement in the north-east during the time of Alfred the Great are examined thoughtfully as to their effect on the trajectory of the nation’s development. The story finishes with the return of Viking attacks and the instability that led to the Norman Conquest. The writers manage to put the vast scope of events and the complexities of reading them into a cohesive narrative, without masses of extraneous detail, which can detract from a reader’s ability to keep on track. One can sense the slow growth of the concept of the English nation that we have inherited today.

The subject matter is not confined to reference to written material, but examines archaeological evidence and brings forward new scientific developments, such as paleobotany, archaeogenetics and isotopic investigation of remains of early inhabitants to determine where they spent their formative years. These last investigations tell us something about the proportions of different population groups that made up the inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England.

The smaller sections entitled Sources and Issues explore such subjects as The Venerable Bede, cemeteries and hoards, both Anglo-Saxon and later Viking, and interestingly to this reader whose interest is in the literature of the time, the development of towns and trading places. These sections are placed in such a way that they do not detract from the flow of the narrative.

Particularly useful is the analysis of the time following the death of Aethelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great in the tenth century, and the subsequent disorganisation of the Anglo-Saxon royal lines, which left the nation searching for lines of royal succession. This is a complicated era in English history, and the authors have thoughtfully provided the reader with a family tree chart tracing the families of Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwineson and William the Conqueror, which, although a little hard to follow with its multiple marriages, is helpful in appreciating how distant or close the relationships of the many protagonists in the fight for supremacy in 1066 were.

This is a very enjoyable book, which would appeal to the academic reader as well as one with little knowledge of the subject. The academic reader can appreciate the depth of research and understanding that has gone into the selection of detail and consideration of past and current scholarship. But it is also an interesting and attractive book for the lay reader who could start with the beautiful illustrations and work back to the text.

But there is some terminology which would challenge such a reader. There are terms used throughout which could require explanation. For example this reader had little understanding of the term, Insula XXVII (46), in relation to archaeological digs at Verulamium and would have appreciated a little more explanation of the term, emporia. Also the term “Late Small Cross Issue” (345) referring to coinage, and the “farm of one night” (397) are left unexplained, whereas “bookland” (411) had a short parenthetical explanation. Such explanation would have been helpful in the former cases and would have added to the enjoyment of reading.

 The Anglo-Saxon World concludes with a comprehensive reading list which supplies avenues for further reading on listed subjects that might interest the reader. An index is also supplied for cross-referencing information with other chapters. But this reader personally would have appreciated some footnotes or endnotes with specific titles and references from which to clarify more easily some of the details mentioned.

Such points aside, The Anglo-Saxon World is a most enjoyable read and an informative source of details on this fascinating period in the history of the English.

The Anglo-Saxon World


By Higham, N.J. and Martin J. Ryan
Yale UP
ISBN: 978-0-300-21613-4.
477pp; $US30.00

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