Saturday 8 August 2020

Granddaddy Stenton

I often remark to my students, or at least I did when I could see them, that in any given subject there is one, or possibly a few, works that anyone in the field has to read. As subjects develop, someone writes the definitive study of the field up to that point, and everyone else moves from there to new stuff.

In the field of Anglo-Saxon studies, and indeed the early Norman era, the granddaddy of all studies is this one:

Stenton, F., Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971).

The above is the third edition of the volume in the Oxford History of England, and it does what it says on the tin. In over 700 pages we move from the vague ideas of whatever was going on after the end of Roman rule in England to the consolidation of Norman rule after Hastings.

Of course, Stenton (or ‘Sir Frank’) only takes the story so far. There has been a fair bit of development and research in the period since he died in 1967. The book was, in fact, finished off by his wife Doris, who was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon England in her own right. Nevertheless, if you read the footnotes and bibliographies of other scholarly works you will find Stenton there: he is unavoidable.

In that case, of course, he should have been the first author whom I read, instead of coming towards the middle of the pack. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, he was not the first to be delivered. The book being out of print meant that delivery was subject to the vagaries of Royal Mail which, in our neck of the woods, is a little hit and miss on the timing. Secondly, I admit that I was rather put off by the idea of reading seven hundred pages of a work, not all of which was necessarily relevant to my actual interest, the consequences of the Harrying of the North.

Once I set out to read the tome, I discovered how useful it was, and why it has stood the test of time so well. As with many scholars whose positions were not dependent on multiple publications in high impact journals, but who were just left to get on with producing high-quality scholarship, Stenton is comprehensive and judicious. He does not make particularly wild claims about things, and he does try very hard not to go beyond the evidence as he knew it. When he speculates, he does so explicitly, not as some wild claim in a publication to jack up his score for the looming Research Evaluation Exercise, or whatever it is to be called next time.

Stenton is comprehensive. If you want to know what sake and soke is, then the explanation is in here. If you want to know why Kent is different from the rest of the country, the basis of it is here as well. Stenton, according to modern scholarship, perhaps does err a bit. He does seem to think that William the Conqueror’s route to London can be tracked by the waste manors in the south in Domesday Book. That is quite probably not correct, but it was the weight of opinion at the time he wrote.

There is a huge amount of stuff in these pages. The expansion of the English Church and its European role in the middle of the period was something I was only vaguely aware of. The Anglo-Saxon church produced scholars of European states, such as Bede and Alcuin (who was headhunted by Charlemagne, by the way, an early form of the brain drain) as well as a large number of evangelists such as Boniface (who converted the Germans and seems, by popular acclaim anyway, to have invented the Christmas tree). The impact of the Anglo-Saxon church on European churches and monasteries should not be underestimated, although the traffic was, of course, two-way. Several bits of England, after all, needed re-Christianisation after assorted invasions. In fact, it seems that the Norse in Scandinavia and those in England were converted at roughly the same time.

As background to what I am interested in, Stenton is essential, I think. As to the Harrying of the North, he is not particularly original, reckoning on a great deal of destruction meted out by the Bastard’s army in the winter of 1069-70. More usefully, he does place this activity in a wider context of the revolts going on at the time. Given the restive nature of the English nobility to the conquerors, William strikes me here as a man in a hurry. By the time he arrived in York, his attention was going to be required elsewhere. The rebels had already been forgiven for previous misdeeds (from his perspective, at least) and he could not, according to the lights of the day, really afford to be nice about things any more. Medieval warfare included destruction and so destruction was used as a weapon of war.

One of the interesting themes that emerge is that England was conquered quickly because of a lack of castles. The Normans did not make that mistake, of course. There is hardly a part of England one can go to without bumping one’s nose into a large lump of Norman masonry. I actually have something to say about the locating of Norman castles, which is more interesting and complex than might be thought, but I need to do a bit more digging around and reading before going to press on the subject.

Anyhow, for the off-piste project (and a non-wargaming subject) Stenton is very interesting, especially as I got my second hand out of print hardback copy for £5. In terms of wargaming (which is not the focus here, but once a wargamer, always a wargamer) there is actually a great deal about military activity, particularly as it relates to state activities. There are also, especially in the bit between 1066 and 1086 a large number of possible campaign and battle scenarios, based around potential Viking invasions and rebellions within England, not exclusively by the newly oppressed English.

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