Review: The Private Lives of the Saints, Janina Ramirez

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

It is my innate liking of Anglo-Saxon Britain which makes me rate this at 3.5/5 rather than any particular strength of the book. Indeed, I think that while it is an illuminating look into many people who otherwise do not get a deserved mention in more secular histories, the look into every individual here is quite shallow and generally based on a well-known story or feature. Rarely do we encounter even a conjecture of what their “private” life was like, and even where the author’s mention of “interesting results” is common, these results are communicated down to the reader in a very poor manner. Continue reading “Review: The Private Lives of the Saints, Janina Ramirez”

Review: ‘In the Land of Giants’, Max Adams

In the Land of Giants: Journeys Through the Dark AgesIn the Land of Giants: Journeys Through the Dark Ages by Max Adams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

High 2.5.

I think this work is too complicated to follow easily — it is not only a travelogue and narrative history but also stretches a bit into modern politics but more into archaeological descriptions. While individually all of these may be very enjoyable, the book was missing structure. Continue reading “Review: ‘In the Land of Giants’, Max Adams”

Pevensey Castle (Norman)

The Norman keep, located within a larger Roman-era settlement, is another one of the places which I managed to visit at a very poor time. Namely, as I described in the article that dealt with the outlying Roman structures here, English Heritage had kindly closed the castle for exactly when I was visiting. Oh well, for me this meant that I did some off-roading. Firstly, the only good photo I got of the towers in by the gatehouse:

Pevensey Castle

So, I got to walk around the two flanks of the castle shown on the photo here, go up the drawbridge to the closed gate, snap a quick photo through there, and then wander around the fort for the rest of my time in this place. What I noted, however, was that a track led through to the left of the drawbridge (exiting the castle) and I followed it down and through the ditch.

This carefully executed manoeuvre allowed me to observe some of the areas restricted for normal access although the view didn’t really expand on what can be found inside this place. Yet, the seaward wall in itself, in that state of disrepair it finds itself, was quite an interesting sight.

Seaward wall

And literally none of that interest comes through here, nor does the sense of height from the bottom of the ditch around the motte. Yet, perhaps, this did instil in me the sense which I did not have thus far for most motte and bailey type castles where I had not always considered necessary to circumambulate the structure in question. It is pretty obvious that walking around a place should expand one’s understanding of it, but this was definitely helpful here where so much of what was actually present was out of my range.

Anderitum, Litus Saxonicum

I’ll start with an admission that I spent far less time here than one could have. Not only was the English Heritage owned and operated central Norman keep (to the right of the view here) closed due to winter (or mid-week winter?), but my attempts to think about this place were mostly confined to crossing this expanse and then investigating the aforementioned keep in more detail.

Why? Because I hadn’t done my research! If I had known that Anderitum had a glorious history as, to begin with, one of the Saxon Shore forts, and only later ended up as the centre of the (Anglo-)Norman culture, I might have paid more attention to things I (probably) missed or, at least, didn’t explore as fully as I should have.

An inside view to Anderitum

As it was, the few things I noted inside this building was that one of the gates was called ‘the Roman West Gate’ and that there was a cannon emplacement from the Civil War period. Both of these I explored in some detail, but perhaps without the historical context which makes these places all the more visit-worthy.

And, yet, the sense from this place was very similar immediately to another Saxon Shore fort I have visited in the past — Gariannorum — which I have mentioned plentifully in the past. The walls looked similar and something about the general structure here made me immediately think of that place (also, above other Roman places such as Venta Icenorum though it would seem that Anderitum had a trading presence and indeed was more than a fort).

Overall, well worth a visit though I guess that as the millennia have left their marks, one must know which bit interests them or take the time to explore the Roman, Norman and Civil War periods in similar detail.

Caister-on-the-Sea, Litus Saxonicum

Caister-on-the-Sea is regrettably one of those places which has not survived very well — though one can scarcely say that after fifteen centuries or more have passed since it fell into disrepair. Indeed, it is miraculous that scholars have managed to unearth as much as they have: summarised by about three or four buildings, the foundations of which are visible. And, also visible, is a road, or what could have been an important street.

I find this road more important, more poetic, more relevant than the rest of the locations at the site. An image below, before I continue:

The extant road from remains at the Caister-on-the-Sea Roman fort.

Somehow, that its beginning and end are so clearly delineated while in reality it could have led to Rome or Jerusalem or Alexandria (after a short sea voyage), makes this place so much more relevant to me. Yes, somehow indeed this very small site is a place I would recommend visiting, but, truly, if only, that leap of imagination: that a person who stood here seventeen centuries ago could have used this road and not stepped off it to go anywhere in the known civilisation.

Or, perhaps, it’s that the people who lived here and built this place, of what these people did, this is the only bit that retains its functionality? I am uncertain, but I did enjoy it immensely.

Nevertheless, if one has limited time and scope, Gariannorum, is a more worthwhile visit if only because the strength and scope of Rome is more clearly visible there. Yet, none of the Roman roads remain and infrastructure was such an important part of their success. Make your pick, it’s grand either way!

NB! I know that there is some debate as to whether Gariannorum refers to what we now know as Burgh Castle or indeed this fort here. I have chosen the former option for no scholarly reason.

Gariannorum, Litus Saxonicum

The system known today as the Saxon shore forts was a Roman defensive system for the coast of what later became East Anglia. Not much is known about the full extent of the fortifications, and even less remains. However, one of the few remaining stations is what is known as Burgh Castle, possibly identified as Gariannorum.

Firstly, one must keep in mind that the East Anglian shoreline has changed considerably in the last few thousand years. Great river deltas have disappeared, to be replaced by new ones further south or north. This has happened both in present North Norfolk as well as at the River Yare. The Burgh Castle area is one of the affected zones, with a former site of a very good port having been replaced by an intertidal zone less suitable for marine traffic.

Indeed, it is possible that the present Caister-on-Sea was located on an island, connected to other local stations (Burgh Castle and Reedham) by the water. Venta Icenorum (Caister St Edmund) was a great port by the same influence, with the river there being considerably deeper and wider than it is now. The site at Caister St Edmund is similarly interesting, though the Burgh Castle one is perhaps more reminiscent of the past glory with the ruins being considerably better preserved.

The fact that approaching the site, all that one sees are the walls, still standing strong after 1600 years, is enough to create a impression. Of course, later fortifications have also been positioned there, with the Normans building a castle of their one as well as monastic efforts by the early Christians. The Norman ruins, however, have not sailed through the time as well as the Roman stonework.

Overall, then, what a place: the sheer accessibility and scale of these ruins makes one want to visit, even if the site itself is relatively empty of plaques and explanations. The missing information, however, allows for imagination. What was here before? Who was here before? Can your mind’s eye picture the ships about to dock at the wall that is no longer there? Is a turma riding out for a patrol of neighbouring region?

Any of these things could have happened, any of these will have happened at some point in the past. And it is up to us to imagine life here as it was then.

Gariannorum

Review: Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian’s Wall

Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian's Wall
Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian’s Wall by Nic Fields
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A comprehensive review of the Roman fortifications of the first two centuries in the area to the north of Hadrian’s wall. I was impressed by the plentiful tables, totalling not only the benefits and drawbacks of the wall but also it’s construction plan, manhours spent, garrison sizes, etc. Overall, this review stands out as a very brief but strong introduction to Rome in Scotland.

What I found missing was the political context. Though the Severian re-expansion into the north is mentioned, barely half a sentence touches on it. The Antonine and Flavian periods are covered in far greater detail, and I think if the book had restricted itself to the pre-Severian period in what it covered, it would have achieved it’s goals superbly.

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