|Not really a review, so much as a meditation.|
This is the imaginatively named Soccer Park, which is just behind my sister's home.
|The Soccer Park at 100 Mile House. The line of trees marks the course of Bridge Creek, and the scruffier area beyond is a slough/final-treatment stage sewage settling pond.|
Her gefor ælfred Aþulfing, syx nihtum ær ealra haligra mæssan; Se wæs cyning ofer eall Ongelcyn butan ðæm dæle þe under Dena onwalde wæs, 7 he heold þæt rice. oþrum healfum læs þe .xxx. wintra. 7 þa feng Eadweard his sunu to rice. Þa gerad æðelwald his fædran sunu. þone ham æt Winburnan, 7 æt Tweoxneam butan ðæs cyninges leafe 7 his witena. Þa rad se cyning mid firde þæt he gewicode æt Baddanbyrig wið Winburnan, 7 æðelwald sæt binnan þæm ham mid þæm monnum þe him to gebugon, 7 hæfde ealle þa geatu forworht in to him, 7 sæde þæt he wolde oðer oððe þær libban oððe þær licgan. Þa under þæm þa bestæl he hine on niht on weg, 7 gesohte þone here on Norðhymbrum, 7 se cyng het ridan æfter, 7 þa ne mehte hine mon ofridan; Þa berad mon þæt wif þæt he hæfde ær genumen butan cynges leafe 7 ofer þara biscopa gebod, forðon ðe heo wæs ær to nunnan gehalgod. 7 on þys ilcan gere forðferde æþered. wæs on Defenum ealdormon, feower wucum ær ælfred cyning [source]
Atherton notes the opening parataxis. "Alfred died. Edward succeeded. Aethelwold rode to Wimborne and seized it against the will of king and council."
|Wimborne Minster; the point is obscured in all the textual criticism, but Wimborne was a nunnery, so Aethelwold's "seizure" was probably aimed at his wife. By Bellminsterboy - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40748743|
|King Edward, Saint and Martyr, immediately prior to his highly successful job application. If you're wondering why this is here, he was buried at, or rather, translated to, Shaftesbury Abbey from nearby Wareham, burial place of Beohrtric before him.|
This is all Atherton. My interest kicks in immediately following. Having made his escape from Wimborne, way down in the southwesternmost corner of England, Aethelwold went to York, we are told, and was crowned king there "by the Vikings."
Well, actually, and this is as sound a vindication of the Sage's terseness as you can imagine, because I am glossing what historians say about the passage here, not what the passage actually says, which is that ("[S]ought he the army in Northumbria, and they followed him as king afterwards." There are no "Danes,"nor "Vikings" nor even "York" in this passage. The Great Heathen Raiding Army, as it is rendered in the modern literature (rarely with all of those adjectives) is frustratingly acephalous in the Chronicles at the best of time. Quite often, the scribes do not even name the leaders of the Army. In this passage, Scribe II does not make it Danish, although this is a fair extrapolation, given that the Danes show up earlier in the passage. He certainly does not make them "Vikings," a complete anachronism, nor yet "Northmen." York does not enter the discussion at all. This is a good example of the violence to the text that produces a "Viking [Norse] Kingdom of Jorvik." As David Rollason points out, it is much more likely that York was a typical episcopal republic, and hired Danish and "Northmen" mercenaries when they were needed. The Chronicle does not say that, because Archbishops do not rule. It's not a priestly thing to do. When Wulfhere or Aethelbald show up, it is as "advisers" to Danish kings. When that is not the dynamic in play, the "army" has no leaders at all.
Aethelwold's rebellion ended at the Battle of the Holme. Again, Scribe II's description is a masterpiece of oblique and obscure writing (translated this time):
This year Ethelwald enticed the army in East- Anglia to break the peace, so that they ravaged over all the land of Mercia until they came to Cricklade, and there they went over the Thames, and took, as well in Bradon as thereabout, all that they could lay hands on, and then turned homewards again. Then king Edward went after them, as speedily as he could gather his forces, and overran all their land between the dikes and the Ouse, all as far north as the fens. When, after this, he would return thence, then commanded he it to be proclaimed through his whole force, that they should all return together. Then the Kentish-men remained there behind, notwithstanding his orders, and seven messengers whom he had sent to them. Then the army there came up to them, and there fought them : and there Siwulf the ealdorman, and Sigelm the ealdorman, and Eadwold the king's thane, and Kenwulf the abbat, and Sigebright son of Siwulf, and Eadwold son of Acca, were slain, and likewise many with them, though I have named the most distinguished. And on the Danish side were slain Eohric their king, and Ethelwald the etheling, who had enticed him to break the peace, and Byrtsige son of Brith- noth the etheling, and Ysopk the 'hold' [governor?], and Os- kytel the hold, and very many with them, whom we are not able to name. And there was great slaughter made on either hand ; and of the Danish-men there were more slain, though they had possession of the place of carnage. And Elhswitha died that same year. This year a comet appeared on the thirteenth before the Kalends of Novembei.
It's a theory. It's also quite possible that the marriage did not take place for another decade!
That comes to an end with an extraordinary passage for 934. This is the year of the Battle of Brunanburh, Aethelstan's victory over the combined forces of Constantine of Scotland and Amlaib of Dublin(?). The event seems to require some commemoration, and Scribe III is up to it. Except that, instead of a long narrative passage that might explain just what is going on in detail, a short, epic poem in formal verse is written into the Chronicle, the first of several over the next few decades.
The reason for Winchester's deviation from its former line may be that the last of Athelstan's rivals, Edwin, had drowned mysteriously; Atherton argues that the Brunanburh poem isn't even really as much of a departure as it seems. While it praises Athelstan's achievements, the man and the king is strangely absent. That taken care of, Atherton ropes in parallels in the form of Beowulf and the hybrid Old English Boethius. This text makes an explicit case for the idea that lyric poetry is meant to praise the good and blame the bad. Unfortunately, while it is easy enough to characterise Semiramis as a bad person and Attila(!) as a good one, it is much more dangerous to make an explicit case for Athelstan, either way! In any case, Winchester cannot take a purely anti-Athelstan stance, when Athelstan is the first Old English "Emperor," that is, a King of Wessex who positions himself as an old Caesar. (he is emperor in the sense that he rules all of Great Britain, as is illustrated by the fact that Welsh kings, Constantine, and some other rulers pay homage to him. There are also other rhetorical and symbolic flourishes, and the famous, appended story in the English Orosius that tells of some Norse traders who travelled to Lapland to trade for furs and walrus ivory is probably to be interpreted as expressing "empire without end," because they come to Alfred's court to tell the tale.)
To bring it around to the thesis, I am going to have to cut off Atherton's discussion of Saint Dunstan, and end instead with Athelstan's final erect, middle finger at Winchester; his decision to be buried at Malmesbury. This seems a bit weak to me, because Dunstan is also a West Country man, may have been related to Athelstan's mysterious mother, and is associated with the cult of Edward the Martyr, another King of Wessex buried in the far west, instead of at Winchester. That said, the trend, from Beorhtric through Aethelgifu to Athelstan and Edward, is persistent. Wessex's political unity keeps breaking down between Winchester and the west.
If Rollason is right, the same dynamic is lethally present in Northumbrian politics. While there is no king at York, the archbishop does not hesitate to take extreme actions when the Northumbrian king, normally at save remove way up at Bamburgh, comes too close to his city. The apparent, smooth, consistent unity of the Kingdom of Northumbria papers over an ongoing conflict between rival regions.
This is a great deal of straining over the simple point that England has parochial divisions, too. But I think that it is important! One way to further deepen the divisions between ideal and real, is to assert that the key text on the life of Alfred, parallel to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, is a later forgery. That is, that Asser's Life of Alfred was actually written in the late Tenth Century. If this is so, references in Asser that are used to buttress the clear, heathen and Nordic identity of the "Great Heathen Army" can be thrown out, and there are is also some interesting light shed on the east/west division, since Asser is, again, a westerner. (As is the presumed forger, who seems to be building up the prestige of the new see of Exeter.)
|Exeter is in the far west. Who knew? Certainly I didn't for most of my life. It just seems unfair to make historians know as much about geography as truck drivers!|
During the 19th and 20th centuries, several scholars asserted that Asser's biography of King Alfred was not authentic, but a forgery. A prominent claim was made in 1964 by the respected historian V.H. Galbraith in his essay "Who Wrote Asser's Life of Alfred?" Galbraith argued that there were anachronisms in the text that meant it could not have been written during Asser's lifetime. For example, Asser uses "rex Angul Saxonum" ("king of the Anglo-Saxons") to refer to Alfred. Galbraith asserted that this usage does not appear until the late 10th century. Galbraith also identified the use of "parochia" to refer to Exeter as an anachronism, arguing that it should be translated as "diocese" and hence that it referred to the bishopric of Exeter, which was not created until 1050. Galbraith identified the true author as Leofric, who became Bishop of Devon and Cornwall in 1046. Leofric's motive, according to Galbraith, was to justify the re-establishment of his see at Exeter by demonstrating a precedent for the arrangement.
The title "king of the Anglo-Saxons" does, however, in fact occur in royal charters that date to before 892 and "parochia" does not necessarily mean "diocese", but can sometimes refer just to the jurisdiction of a church or monastery. In addition, there are other arguments against Leofric's having been the forger. Aside from the fact that Leofric would have known little about Asser and so would have been unlikely to construct a plausible forgery, there is strong evidence dating the Cotton manuscript to about 1000. The apparent use of Asser's material in other early works that predate Leofric also argues against Galbraith's theory. Galbraith's arguments were refuted to the satisfaction of most historians by Dorothy Whitelock in Genuine Asser, in 1967.
More recently, in 1995, Professor Alfred P. Smyth argued that the Life is a forgery by Byrhtferth (who simply 'adopted' the name of the obscure Asser from the references to him in other records), basing his case primarily on an analysis of Byrhtferth's and Asser's Latin vocabulary. Byrhtferth's motive, according to Smyth, is to lend Alfred's prestige to the Benedictine monastic reform movement of the late 10th century. The strongest arguments for forgery are that a) there is actually no new information in 'Asser' that cannot be found in the surviving Anglo Saxon Chronicles, so that it is not contemporary with Alfred as it claims; b) that the Latin translation is simply lifted from the Chronicles'narrative and interspersed with padding of no importance; c) that writing in Latin a contemporary narrative was anachronistic; d) that much of the alleged illness of Alfred in 'Asser' is lifted from standard hagiographic conventions and similarly so are 'Asser's' claims as to the educational development and attainments of Alfred; and e) that much of the dating in 'Asser' uses the age of Alfred can be shown as incorrect and can be traced to the mis-datings in later recensions of the Chronicles, so that 'Asser' cannot have been a contemporary of Alfred.
Although a few other historians harbour doubts about the authenticity of the work, the majority of other Anglo-Saxon scholars do not find these arguments persuasive. The stiffest opposition to Smyth's work has come from former Cambridge Professor Michael Lapidge and Professor Simon Keynes, still an eminent Cambridge Saxonist, who themselves collaborated on a book about Alfred the Great. Both have argued that Smyth's analysis of the Latin text, which relied heavily on the opinions of other academics who helped with the book, is fatally flawed. Professor Keynes felt strongly enough about the subject to place a copy of Smyth's book in the fire-grate of his chambers in Trinity College, and then photograph it for his personal website. A typed statement from department officials was also placed on the inside cover of a copy of the book kept in the ASNAC (Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic) library at Cambridge, to leave undergraduates in no doubt as to the department's views. The debate caught the imagination of the popular press when Professor Smyth's book was published, fuelled by the former University of Kent historian's claim that the Cambridge ASNAC department knew Asser's life was a fake, but that they were happy to keep the myth going in order to avoid discrediting previous eminent historians from their university such as Frank Stenton and Dorothy Whitelock.
Apparently, this is not a narrative that has much room for an obstreperous Archbishop of York, or for divisions within Wessex. It is history as exemplar. I might even say, history as the proper ordering of ritual vessels.
I promised to pivot to land use. I've a feeling that the pivot is going to be late and strained, unfortunately. Perhaps I can get away with that, having written previously on the subject of anthropogenic soils and whatnot. Here's another way of looking at it, one that should raise the nape of an Americanist's neck. Aethelstan is granting "bookland" in Chalgrave and Tebworth in Bedfordshire to his faithful servant, Ealdred. The text may be less straightforward than is sometimes supposed, since the estate is bounded on one side by Watling Street, and it is not clear that contemporaries were sure just where exactly Watling Street ran. That aside, the text says that Ealdred must buy the land from the pagans, making sure that it is clear of any prior obligations; then pay the king for it. Once this is done, the land is Ealdred's allodial property.
Atherton, who steadily wins my respect as this book goes on, makes a misstep here, finding the arrangement perplexingly unfair. It is not, of course. This is just a typical, Old New-York patent. "Pagans" have land claims that cannot be assimilated into the law of the churchly Anglo-Saxon state. Ealdred is responsible for clearing those claims, at which point the land becomes the king's demesne; the king then sells them to Ealdred. All that is missing is Ealdred turning around and subdividing it into leases, issued on condition that his new tenants vote for min when he stands for the legislature.
It is not, or should not be news that modern scholars will write about how the "construction" of a Danish ethnicity in Anglo-Saxon England. (1, 2, 3). You don't have to buy what we post-modernist, anti-essentialist history-talking people say about ethnicity, however, because changes in land-tenure are at the core of what we already have of Anglo-Saxon history. The rise of Wessex wasn't just about kings being heroic and giving out arm bands and what not. It is concretely based on Alfred's "borough" system: the systemic creation of a landscape of a network of royal towns with dependent farmland. The tendency is to write about the "burhs" as an episode in military history, because these establishments are framed in terms of giving each new borough as many hides of land as are needed to support a garrison for its walls. This is a fascinating exercise that invites the antiquarian to trace early medieval walls, and the military historian to entertain more in the way of cliometrics than the sources normally support.
The thing is that the old Anglo-Saxons had a simpler vision: the issue was one of peopling the land. The burgh, and its hides, are an economic system, the one tied to the other, so that tenants have a motivation to pay their renders. This is fascinating. What happens if we really push on the American analogy? In America, at least as I read it (and this is not crazy revisionism if our attention is confined to the reservation system), the story of a simple arrow of progress leading from heathen "hunter-gatherers" to settled Christians is at war with a reality in which settlements break down, and "Indians" revert to a nomadic and non-Christian life. Settlement isn't a problem, and finding people for them isn't a problem; the problem lies in keeping them there.
In a European national history, on the other hand, there is no apostasy --or, rather, when it does happen, there are very clear villains, who get what is coming for them. What there is not, is an unstable world of people shifting between Christian and pagan identities, between stable settlement and shifting cultivation. I mean, it might make more sense of the evidence; but, again, apostasy is just not something our ancestors did. Period.
Our story might seem to start with army-commanding kings, in the heroic register; and sound tax codes in the administrative one. In reality, it begins with the proper ordering of ritual vessels. I don't think that this is crazily revisionist or anything --with the exception of their conscious othering of the apostasising "heathens," it is the original Anglo-Saxon frame of analysis. It is revisionist in the sense that it is not the preferred narrative of national political history.
There's a reason for that, I think. It's a lot easier to run an economy when you imagine that the poor and disenfranchised have no choice but to play. You don't have to offer them incentives! As fires rage at the gates of Canadian towns that have declined to reproduce themselves for almost fifty years, it is, perhaps, time to acknowledge the political vision of a Confucius or a Winchester Scribe I and II. It's hard to people the land.