Early Medieval Britain c.500-1000

Is there room for another general history of early medieval Britain? The answer is ‘yes, of course’ when it is as fresh and interesting as this one. Its USP is that it examines the history of the different peoples of early medieval Britain alongside one another in both thematic and chronological chapters, often with illuminating results. Differential survival of evidence inevitably means that some areas feature more than others, but there is a real attempt to compare and contrast the different provinces.

Archaeology is one of the sources of evidence that is drawn on. Significant sites like Sutton Hoo, Prittlewell, and Portmahomack are name-checked, and there is more general discussion of conclusions that can be drawn from such material as burial practices, defensive sites, and settlement evidence, but it is the penetrating analysis of the textual evidence that is the dominant feature of the book. Text boxes contain quotations from a range of written sources with expert commentary. For example, these include comparisons of the 7th-century King Cadwallon of Gwynedd as presented by Bede and in Welsh poetry, and of the boundary clauses of Welsh and Anglo-Saxon charters. St Findan’s experiences as a Viking slave are recounted in a translation made by the author himself.

There are also plenty of in-text illustrations that, among other things, help to fill the gaps for peoples like the Picts for whom relatively few written references survive. The Dupplin Cross (Perth and Kinross) has a rare inscription to King Constantine, son of Wrguist (fl. 789-820). What is probably a depiction of the king shows him as a warrior like his counterparts elsewhere in Britain, and the Gaelic form of the names is part of the evidence for the replacement of the Pictish language by Gaelic – a complicated topic that is clearly explained and discussed. The illustrations help to demonstrate the range of sources available for the period, though disappointingly they are only in black-and-white and, it has to be said, some of them are pretty murky. Only the magnificent sword-pommel from Beckley (Oxfordshire) in colour on the cover does justice to the wonders of early medieval art.

Particularly valuable are the overviews the author provides of current debates. The controversy over the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is carefully rehearsed, and its different trajectories in the USA and Britain are explained. The conclusion is that there really is no viable alternative to its use in a book like this, which needs to distinguish between the different peoples of Britain who, although they had much in common, nevertheless saw themselves as different cultural or political groups and spoke different languages. The modern boundaries of England and Scotland are of limited relevance for the early medieval period, and so it is important not to use anachronistic terminology such as ‘English’ or ‘Scottish’. Wales may have taken on the bounds with which we are familiar by the period’s end, but for much of the time it was only one part of territory that might be designated as ‘British’ in its early medieval cultural sense. The Vikings are a further complicating factor, and should not be viewed as a homogenous group, even though collectively they seem to have been a catalyst for change that saw the emergence of the core of the later English and Scottish kingdoms. The traveller to this period of the country’s history needs to learn a new political geography, and in this book there are plenty of maps and informative discussions to help them make that journey.

Certain features such as the ‘points for discussion’ at the end of each chapter suggest the publisher’s hope that the book will become a prescribed university text. No doubt it will, but it is also an overview that anybody with an interest in the early Middle Ages can read with both pleasure and profit.

Review by Barbara Yorke.
Early Medieval Britain c.500-1000, Rory Naismith, Cambridge University Press, £22.99, ISBN 978-1108440257.