We caught up with historian Max Adams to find out what we can expect from his talk, Ælfred’s Britain: War and Peace in the Viking Age, at our York History Weekend 2018…
Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?
A: It’ll be a lively trip through the landscapes of the Viking period. I want to show how an understanding of the way people thought about and moved through landscapes allows us to build a much more realistic picture of Viking Age war and peace than if we follow the traditional Ælfredan narrative of the English Hero fighting alone against the ‘pesky foreigner’. I will, I hope, reveal a Britain of cultural complexities and age-old political rivalries. I’ll be showing some stunning images, reinventing the map of Viking Age Britain and generally overturning a few historical apple carts.
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Q: Why are you so interested in this area of history?
A: The period between the end of the Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest tells us how the British Isles evolved into its nations and regions. It tells us how political power works, and how its rules were forged. It also tells us how humans behave in a world dominated by the cycles of human life and of the seasons; by earth and water, forest and plain. And it gives us access to deep and forgotten layers in the landscapes that we inhabit today. The period’s exuberant art and culture still give me a sense of the magical.
Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this period of history…
A: We know the names of about a hundred tribes, small kingdoms and ‘peoples’ of the early Anglo-Saxon period. In Ælfred’s day we are supposed to start talking about ‘England’ – but actually Britain was a patchwork of regional identities. No-one would have called themselves ‘English’ or ‘Scottish’. And I’m still amazed by the idea that the Scandinavian raiders and settlers who arrived in Britain in the 9th and 10th centuries seemed to have known their way around the British Isles better than the natives.
Q: What is your favourite ‘little-known fact’ from history?
A: Most of the so-called ‘facts’ that we receive about history fall to pieces under scrutiny. I remember looking up the statistics on deaths in coal mines after the introduction of the Davy Lamp in about 1816 – researching my biography of John Martin and his family, The Prometheans. I was absolutely stunned to find that the numbers of deaths rose after the lamp was introduced. And it set me on a trail of discovery.
Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party and why?
A: This is tricky: how would King Ælfred’s table manners go down with Admiral Collingwood? On the whole I would be interested to meet the Venerable Bede (673-735), our greatest historian; and I’d be fascinated to talk to Béatrice de Planisoles (c1274-1322), the Cathar heretic who becomes the heroic protagonist of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s historical masterpiece Montaillou. She is one of the 50 or so women whose stories make up my new book, Unquiet Women: Stories from the Dusk of the Roman Empire to the dawn of the Enlightenment. And I would have to invite one of my biographical subjects, Admiral Collingwood (1748–1810), to ask him what it was like to command the first ship into battle on the day of Trafalgar in October 1805.
Bede, also called the Venerable Bede, was an Anglo-Saxon scholar, theologian and historian. (Photo by Culture Club via Getty Images)
Q: If you had to live in any historical time period, which would you choose and why?
A: For most of history one’s life would be determined and constrained by the time and place of one’s birth. So it has to be the late 18th century for me, when men and women were ideologically and socially emancipating themselves from the chains of mental and social slavery. It was a time when artists, musicians, philosophers and scientists mixed together socially and intellectually; a time of revolutionary thought. And there’s always the chance that you might get to meet Jane Austen.
Q: Which history books would you recommend?
A: I must admit that I’m more attracted to good writing than to a specific subject, given that I have to read so much for work. My highlight of this year was to discover The Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland (1998) by Lisa M Bitel. It’s brilliantly written, insightful and witty: a real eye-opener. And then, there’s the original work of English history that still stands as a monument to its times: Bede’s magnificent Ecclesiastical History of the English People. And I would also recommend Terry Coleman’s The Railway Navvies (2015) – a wonderfully written account of the heroic and tragic lives of the men who built our railways.
Max Adams will be speaking about the King Ælfred’s Britain at our York History Weekend on Saturday 20 October. To find out more about his talk and to book tickets, click here.