Archaeology, Economy, and Society: England from the fifth to the fifteenth century (2nd edition)

Review by John Blair

On the whole, classics are better left unrevised. New material unbalances a familiar format, and the less it feels like the same book the less one sees the point. But there are exceptions, of which this is certainly one. David Hinton’s memorable overview of English medieval archaeology was published in 1990. Here, he has rewritten it totally, in a way that is up-to-date (to 2021!), immensely thorough, yet keeps the structure and strengths of the original.

I first met David Hinton in 1973, when I was a new undergraduate. He seemed dauntingly learned then, and he has spent the last half-century expanding his learning. The depth and thoroughness of his reading on such a range of topics is extraordinary, and indeed it has made this book a miniature encyclopaedia, where you can be confident of finding reference to significant work; it almost constitutes an index to relevant material in the standard journals.

The book’s format is very straightforward, with a chapter for each century running through the archaeology of: socio-economic relations; rural and urban settlement; religion; buildings; industry; and material culture. The chronological scope – 11 centuries from AD 400 to 1500 – is unusual nowadays. It certainly has the great merit of avoiding an artificial break at the Norman Conquest, and of allowing long-term developments to be followed through. That applies especially to some major themes: for instance, domestic buildings, on which this book is notably strong. There are wise comments on the hiatus in perceptible vernacular houses during the 12th century (pp.159-160): solid-construction walls that leave little trace (beyond occasional stake-holes for reinforcements, often misinterpreted as flimsy shacks) can be both tall and sturdy. In fact, that point potentially applies across the whole period and to other parts of Britain: we could be over-privileging the forms of construction that happen to be visible archaeologically.

Of course, with a book of this scope, everyone will have quibbles here and there. One quirk that surprised me is acceptance of the long-disproved assumption that the 7th-century Church objected to grave-goods (pp.49, 63). ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (or, in this book, ‘anglo-saxon’) may currently be controversial in some quarters (p.2), but the description of King Alfred as Angul Saxonum rex by his contemporary biographer makes it an authentic Anglo-Saxon term. Tenth-century origins for row-plan villages (which is a different issue from grid-planning) are restated in the face of current fashion (p.121) – but then, fashion is a changeable thing. As regards Cheddar (p.106, note 27), my suggestion was that the (extremely few) pre-Viking finds, like the Roman ones, come from the periphery of the adjoining villa and minster rather than being ‘brought from elsewhere’, and the 10th-century strap-end in the same context as the supposedly diagnostic coins remains unexplained.

As the author says, ‘a chronological outline is a useful prelude both to in-depth and to broadening studies,’ even if, ‘some people will think that I have not paid enough attention to a topic of particular interest to them.’ If one wants information chronologically and lucidly structured, it is currently impossible to do better than this, and it would be a grumpy reader who complained about lack of scope. It is truly a remarkable achievement.

Personally, my only structural reservation concerns treating ‘England’ as an entity for broad-brush analysis. That assumption can be self-fulfilling, and can mask both the huge differences between English regions and their outward-facing links with surrounding ones. That apart, the only opportunity missed was to find a new publisher. The illustrations were fine when they started out, but the quality of reproduction is dreadful: Routledge has done a great disservice to the author and his readers. But the text shows how, just once in a while, new wine in an old bottle can be extremely palatable.

Archaeology, Economy, and Society: England from the fifth to the fifteenth century (2nd edition)
David A Hinton
Routledge, £130 (hbk), £35.99 (pbk), £25.19 (eBook)
ISBN 978-0367440824