‘Outside the precincts of minsters,’ John Blair writes in the conclusion to his magnificent new monograph, Building Anglo-Saxon England, ‘almost everything that was built before the year 1000 carried with it no expectation that it would last. The Anglo-Saxons conceived their secular building and planning projects as the “Beowulf” poet did Herorot: “The hall towered aloft, high and wide-gabled: it awaited the upheavals of war and malicious fire.”‘ The question that this book confronts is: how can we find out how Anglo-Saxon settlements developed if their timber buildings have long disappeared? As Blair puts it: ‘this was a culture whose sophisticated artisanship and careful structuring of the built environment sat remarkably lightly in the landscape.’ As anyone who had the chance to visit the stunning British Library Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition will know, the Anglo-Saxons left behind much material evidence in the form of what Blair calls ‘small precious objects’ – the treasures of the Sutton Hoo excavations and Staffordshire Hoard, and fantastic illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels – but what did their larger works look like?
Objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, c.600, and an image from the Lindisfarne Gospels, c.715-720
Building Anglo-Saxon England, covering the period 600-1100, takes an innovative methodological approach to this problem (historians please note that I am writing as a general reader here, rather than with my historian hat on; as a modernist, I can’t fully assess how novel these claims are!) Blair explains that the integration of archaeological and historiographical findings allows us to draw a much more detailed picture of the settlements and buildings of Anglo-Saxon England than was possible in the past. Despite the wealth of material evidence discovered by archaeological digs since the 1980s, historians have not been able to access this ‘grey literature’ easily because most of it is unpublished and unprinted. On the other hand, archaeologists of early medieval England have taken a ‘prehistoric’ approach to this period despite the fact that textual evidence (albeit extremely patchy, and limited to certain geographical areas such as Wessex and Northumbria) does exist. Blair also emphasises the importance of drawing on other disciplines such as anthropology, geography and place-name studies in rewriting the history of Anglo-Saxon settlement.
5th century excavations. From the Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog.
Blair’s conclusions are numerous, but some of his most important points are as follows. Firstly, he argues, Anglo-Saxon secular architecture was likely as sophisticated and complex as the smaller material goods that they have left behind. Regional diversity is crucial to understanding settlement patterns, especially in considering the autonomous development of Mercia, and England was influenced equally by the Frankish (Carolingian) and Scandinavian worlds after 650. However, this is not only important for architectural historians or archaeologists; work on ‘rank, lordship and estate management’ needs to take account of how much things varied from place to place, and not assume that the social structures of eastern England and the East Midlands dominated everywhere, especially before 920. This means that many popular assumptions about an homogenous feudal society made up of lords and peasants and the ‘caging of the peasantry’ by feudal law may have to be rethought, even for the later medieval period.
But while this enormous book will surely be of interest to scholars, how accessible is it to the general reader? One obvious barrier is its sheer size; I can barely lift it one-handed, certainly can’t turn pages unless I use both hands, and struggle to rest it comfortably on my lap. However, the reason it’s so big isn’t because it’s overlong but because of the huge number of maps and diagrams that Blair has somehow managed to persuade his publisher to include; far more than is normal for an historical monograph. Given the nature of the subject, these are essential. And while the book may be physically heavy, its contents are less daunting than you might imagine. Starting Building Anglo-Saxon England reminded me of sitting down with someone who knows a lot more than you about a subject you never thought you were interested in; you think the conversation is going to be boring, but actually they win you over with their sheer enthusiasm, knowledge and clarity.
I received a free copy of this book for review from Midas PR as part of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour.
The other titles shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2019 are as follows (just look at this beast sitting on the top!) and the winner will be announced on 11th June.
Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour this week!