‘The past lies in fragments… one might just as well try to reconstruct the idea of a tree from its leaves, or an ocean wave from a dripping tap.’ So writes Max Adams, author of The First Kingdom, a wide-ranging new overview of the emergence of early medieval Britain from the aftermath of Roman occupation. This might seem like a pessimistic perspective, particularly when considering a period stereotyped as ‘the Dark Ages’ – but, in fact, the prospects for future understanding are exciting, Adams insists: ‘The accumulated pile of these fragments [pertaining to the early medieval period], gathered together over the last decades of research, is now mountainous’.
What follows is an engagingly written exploration of these ‘fragments’, synthesising archaeological and historical research from the last four decades, and applying a critical eye to traditional narratives passed down by medieval chroniclers and later accounts.
Adams’ overview is deeply immersed in the landscape of early medieval Britain, drawing on placenames and field boundaries, as well as delving into written sources and analysing excavated artefacts and burials. The whole presents a very useful reference, and an enjoyable read.
The First Kingdom: Britain in the Age of Arthur, Max Adams, Head of Zeus, £30, ISBN 978-1788543477.