Reviewed by: Ryan Lavelle
Author: Peter Sawyer
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £25
Half a century ago, in 1962, Peter Sawyer published a pioneering work, The Age of Vikings. That book, perhaps more than any other, established the agenda for the study of the Vikings and those that they encountered. Among the issues raised was the source of silver in Viking-age Europe. Sawyer suggested there that “at least some” of the silver in England had come from Germany, where new silver mines were discovered in the 960s. It was, of course, such booty that Viking raiders hankered after.
In his latest book, Sawyer develops his ideas on the sources of English wealth. The many coins that have come to light in Britain in recent decades – the fruits of an exemplary partnership between responsible metal detctorists and archaeologists – have helped his case, demonstrating the quality of Anglo-Saxon silver coinage from the 970s until the Norman conquest.
What made England wealthy, Sawyer argues, was its trade in high-quality wool. Small clues are pieced together to form a picture that makes sense. Sawyer begins his portrayal with the evidence of England on the eve of the Norman conquest presented in Domesday book. He then steps back to consider the post-Roman and ‘mid-Saxon’ periods in which an economy gradually, then rapidly, developed, then shrank as Viking raids bit in the ninth century. However, a chapter that takes us from the end of the reign of Alfred the Great to the reign of Edward the Confessor is of greatest value, showing that authoritarian rule imposed by a pushy dynasty of kings from the former kingdom of Wessex allowed economic prosperity. Thre were even attempts, so Sawyer argues, to control the price of wool. These points are fleshed out by vignettes of late Anglo-Saxon life that show an economy where coins were in widespread use.
However, it may be a leap to conclude that newly available German silver can be used as the principal evidence of Anglo-German trade. Sawyer makes a reasoned case, and what is known of late Anglo-Saxon silver is clearly evidence of prosperity (at least for some Anglo-Saxons) but there is no single ‘smoking gun’ to explain it. The evidence cited for the wool trade – Flemish merchants trading English wool in 1113 – could just as easily indicate an indirect source of much of the high-quality silver in England.
Still, this short book presents an important thesis which is more than an extended postscript to earlier work. There are gaps in the bibliography, but the engagement with more recent scholarship by a historian who would be forgiven for resting on his laurels is striking. Sawyer handles the evidence masterfully and his work is as engaging and thought-provoking as ever.
Ryan Lavelle is a senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Winchester