Crucible of Nations: Scotland from Viking Age to medieval kingdom

Review by Russell Ó Ríagáin.

This book is the third in a series associated with the Glenmorangie Company Research Project at National Museums Scotland, treating various aspects of Iron Age and medieval northern Britain. Arguably, it has been the most anticipated of the series, not least due to the author’s extensive outreach activities in the ‘Zoom Age’.

Crucible of Nations focuses on the period c.AD 700-1200, and consists of eight chapters and a short envoi on bells and towers by the author, in addition to introductory words by the sponsor and the museum. The chapters cover identity, politics, and their relation to material culture (Chapter 1), political developments in northern Britain (Chapter 2), burials (Chapter 3), plundered, repurposed, and/or traded material culture (Chapter 4), brooches and pins (Chapter 5), silver in relation to trade, politics, and display (Chapter 6), sculpture and jewellery (Chapter 7), and the material culture of the often under-considered 11th and 12th centuries (Chapter 8).

The book brims with good ideas, many of them the author’s own. The literature cited is not exhaustive, nor could it be expected to be, considering the breadth of the book. There is no chapter devoted to settlement, but this does not detract from a publication built around an unrivalled knowledge of the material culture of medieval northern Britain. The strongest chapters are those relating to burials and material culture (Chapters 3-7), each of which is of a very high standard. As with all transdisciplinary research, though, there are weaknesses: in this instance in relation to language and the documentary record. For example, unlike when stable-isotopic approaches are introduced, there is no discussion of the nature of the surviving textual sources and the issues with them. There are also few references to primary documentary material, with a decision seemingly having been made to rely on secondary sources, often without caveats to accompany assertions and propositions made in those accounts. Old Irish, Old Norse, Old English, and Latin terms are often mistranslated and/or quoted in declined forms, especially in Chapter 1. These may seem to be minor points, but the high quality of Maldonado’s book will result in it being on reading lists for decades to come, drawing many new people to the field of study.

I can think of no other work on this period that can match the excellence of the 280 photographs and images, nor the skill with which they were selected and worked into the analysis across the book’s 256 pages. Now that printed museum catalogues have largely been rendered redundant by their online equivalent, this book signposts the interesting ways in which museum publications can develop by employing text and image to produce a series of essays discussing a topic from multiple angles. Interested amateurs will find the book an absolute delight, and the author’s informative, engaging, and dramatic writing style will help such readers share his obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter. Specialists, meanwhile, will be stimulated by seeing or even reading about many items for the first time, while also being treated to new interpretations and/or a reframing of familiar material and approaches relating to the ‘Viking Age’. Perhaps the highest praise I can give the author is in relation to those readers falling between these poles: I am sure that the book will launch a hundred – if not several hundred – Bachelor’s, Master’s, and doctoral projects, in addition to further establishing the author as a leader in the field.

For these reasons, it was a very good decision to bring these Glenmorangie-sponsored books out in affordable paperbacks, even if their size is a little unwieldy and the system of referencing even more so, with readers required to move from main text to chapter endnotes in author-date format, and then to the bibliography at the rear of the book to find a title (additionally, several items cited in endnotes do not appear in the bibliography). Perhaps this system will be rethought for any future publications in the series.

Crucible of Nations: Scotland from Viking Age to medieval kingdom, Adrián Maldonado, NMSE Publishing, £25, ISBN 978-1910682432.