Reviewed by: Ryan Lavelle
Author: Nicholas J Higham and Martin J Ryan
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £30
While recent years have seen the publication of a range of books covering the 5th to 11th centuries of British history, none has seriously challenged the pole position taken back in 1982 by James Campbell’s The Anglo-Saxons, a work regarded fondly by many (including this reviewer) for whom it was their first taste of this remarkable period. So it is with excitement, tinged with a little sadness, that I will relegate Campbell’s book from the top slot in my university reading list. Higham and Ryan have managed to write a tome that provides a thorough introduction to the complexities of the ‘Anglo-Saxon world’ at a level that will challenge and stimulate informed readers while introducing those new to the subject to what makes it so fascinating.
Of course, it helps that the book weighs in at 477 pages, and that with almost 300 colour illustrations it is a work of beauty: the publishers must be given full credit for investing in the production of such a richly illustrated work on this scale. But this is no mere picture book. Higham and Ryan do not dumb down for their readers. While the need to reach for a dictionary may occasionally be off-putting (“adumbrated by his exegesis…”?) and the habit of opening many chapters with a lengthy quotation can grate, the authors demonstrate that they are writing about a serious subject worthy of serious consideration.
Producing a broad synthesis such as this can be no easy task, after all. The desire to ensure that you’re catering for a range of opinions is balanced by the need to ensure that a broad outlook should not become so broad that any semblance of historical understanding gets lost among banal generalisations. The authors have succeeded admirably.
Chapters are formed in broadly chronological chunks, taking readers from long before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons to well into the Norman period, with 16 additional ‘sources and issues’ essays along the way. While the authors take sensible liberties with the chronological thread of the main chapters where the discussion requires it, these supplementary essays allow them to range more freely into the reception and ‘meta-history’ of particular sources, such as Beowulf or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Answers are offered to mysteries that remain from an absence of evidence, but it is to the authors’ credit that they do not pretend to have the monopoly of opinion, allowing the book to function as a useful guide to the period for interested readers, aided by a very thorough reading list. While a little more cross-referencing of issues between chapters could have helped it to work as more of an integrated text, the book’s real value emerges from its interdisciplinary approach. Many of the archaeological discoveries of recent decades are handled with easy familiarity and are given full attention.
There is one significant exception, however. While the justly famous Staffordshire Hoard, found in 2009, is given its own supplementary essay, it features little in the main text. This is probably an indication of just how much time it takes to prepare such a mammoth book, and it should not reflect badly on the authors if we must wait for a second edition for a sober reflection on the hoard. What is presented right now remains valuable and, indeed, a pleasure to read.
Ryan Lavelle, University of Winchester