book-reviews

Anglo-Saxon England

by Peter Hunter Blair

Rating: ★★★★

Before I begin on the content, I should make it clear that I've actually read the volume from the Folio Society's beautiful 'History of England' series, which is titled simply Anglo-Saxon England. The text of the volume, however, comes from An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, the most recent edition, by Peter Hunter Blair, so if you go looking for the book, look for that title -- unless of course you want the lovely Folio edition as well, for which I could hardly blame you.

The book is, as you would expect, a survey of the history of Anglo-Saxon England, spanning from the departure of the Romans in the fifth century all the way up to the Norman Conquest in the eleventh. This is, I must admit, a topic of quite some personal interest, and much of my positive opinion of the book is down to the breadth of knowledge it imparts about its material.

If you're not that interested in the topic, I can't recommend the book -- the writing is sound enough, but uninspiring, and not likely to grip a casual reader. But if you are, Blair presents the evidence about the period quite frankly, clearly labelling any speculation or extrapolation. The book is divided by topics, but chronological within topics. I don't particularly like the topic-based division, but I can understand why it was done.

The 'narrative' or political history of the Anglo-Saxons is perhaps the most interesting piece, and this comes first of all, providing a frame of reference for the other chapters while covering all of the juicer bits. This has the unfortunate effect of giving the rest of the book a somewhat duller aspect, though it's not without good content. Other highlights for me were the chapters on the governance and language of the Anglo-Saxons, particularly the place-name evidence. That last section actually inspired me to learn the Elder Futhark runic system (from Wikipedia). While I can certainly see the need for it, the content regarding the Church failed to interest me, and this becomes a bit of a problem, as much evidence from the period is preserved only by the Church.

As a scholarly introduction to the period, I found the book quite suitable, and I'll no doubt be consulting the list of further reading for the topics I found most tantalising. It's not, however, the sort of book you'd hand to a child -- the evidence-based presentation keeps the reader alert to the limits of historical study, rather than presenting a tale of ancient times. A good book, if one with a rather specific remit.