Review: The Anglo-Saxons, Marc Morris

Rating: 4 out of 5

Mr Morris’ look into the Anglo-Saxons is interesting, but probably aims to do too much. It’s very good to have a modern, accessible overview, and as such this title does miracles, but the entire time I was reading it, I wanted to know more about each and every principality. Nevertheless, in many cases the information the author provides complements that which other historians have brought to the fore and allows putting together a comprehensive view of the 5th through 11th centuries.

The biggest revisionism, though perhaps that’s the wrong word, seemed to me to concern the careful and apprehensive manner with which the early centuries were treated. In this, recent archaeological finds that Mr Morris was able to rely on seem to have provided needed context, allowing us to step beyond Gildas and Bede. This action, on its own, gives much more variety to the early period from which we have so few written sources, that the entire book becomes worthwhile because of these chapters.

The important question, of course, is how we get from that point to the select number of states which survived in the 9th century, and it’s this process which overall is a bit murky. The author’s attempts to illustrate this with a few rulers of whom we do know some things were welcome, but of course such point data are never anything more. Unfortunately, this is not the fault of the author but rather the evidence that remains.

When we move out of this murkier period into the more well-known times: 10th and 11th century, the tone of the work also changes. Internal politics comes to the fore, mostly by the grace of Wessex being the dominant power, while external enemies, whether Danes, Scots, or other peoples, are reduced in important. These chapters were similarly very enlightening, but I feel that the comparisons which were made with France were not as helpful as they could have been. The topic is, however, complex, and modern understanding of church trivialities is generally poor, so delving more into this might have been very difficult.

Overall, I enjoyed it! Would I have enjoyed more a book that focusses on one principality with the necessary caveats of such an action? Maybe… Would I have enjoyed more a book that focussed on all Anglo-Saxon realms that focussed on a few centuries only? Maybe… But this is good enough to work as a very decent introduction until such titles are ready.

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