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Book Review: "Anglo Saxon Britain" by Sally Crawford

anglo saxon britainMy high school history teacher was a Classicist. His infatuation with the Greco-Roman societies had taken him on travels throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. He had learned Greek and Latin and had read Homer in the original. He was an inspiration.
If you were to ask him about Medieval Europe and places like Anglo Saxon Britain and he would force a dismissive snort, hunched his back, loosen his knees and scrape his underarm while grunting. “Apes,” he said. “They were no better than apes.”
He described a dirty, lice-ridden half-human race that lived in filthy dark holes. They were draped in rags, knew no literature, smacked rocks for music and barely understood how to fix a leaky roof. They had no idea how to make wine and drank half-fermented gloppy beer for breakfast. On occasion they entertained themselves by bashing one another over the head with dull metal blades.
Needless to say, I gravitated toward the classical world in my studies.
In reality though, the cultures of medieval Europe were often quite complex and sophisticated. Granted, this depended on the “when” and “where” (Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror adequately describes the stark insanity that gripped Europe of the Fourteen Century) but the idea that post-Roman and pre-Renaissance Europe was a “dead zone” has gone by the way-side over the past twenty years.
Professor Sally Crawford of Oxford University takes a valiant stab at cleaning out a portion of this historical prejudice in her 2011 book Anglo-Saxon England, a part of Shire Publications Living History Series (detailing the history of Britain). This is a small book. At seventy-two pages – including notes and index – this high-quality and heavily illustrated little work dispels the idea of the “lost centuries” and of the “Dark Ages” in post-Roman Anglo Saxon Britain. Instead, she paints a picture of literary, artistic and economic achievement that continues to be left out of our history books. Crawford systematically breaks down and describes Anglo Saxon Britain family life, town and neighborhood life, social mobility, work, food and drink, shopping and style, travel, international trade routes, entertainment, schools and social services and health, offering up a well-rounded view of the time period. The photographs, maps, illustrations and index are all well done. The “Places to Visit” list towards the back is very valuable for the archaeological curious who are often on the road.
Archaeological excavations, new DNA and biochemical techniques and a fresh look at later literary resources have recently opened up the world of Anglo Saxon Britain (approx 400-800AD).
As Roman Britain collapsed a completely new people with an entirely different culture moved into England from the Continent. They were accomplished craftspeople who constructed brightly painted carved monuments, incredible jewelry and amazing works of literary and visual art (think…the Beowulf Epic, the Lindisfarne Gospels and Bede’s The ecclesiastical History of the English People). Thanks to a milder climate than exists today and a fairly peaceful couple of centuries, Crawford points out that England of this period was a “relatively rich, prosperous society, with schools, taxes, trading centers, mints, laws and ecclesiastical centers.”
This was a vital time in the development of Britain as urbanization began, trading centers and connections were established and the English language began to form.
In general, the Anglo-Saxon people Crawford describes lived in ornate (if simple) houses, grew surplus food and traded items with the Continent and beyond (the famed burial at Sutton Hoo held items from as far afield as India!). They wore brightly colored clothing and were known internationally for the quality of their embroideries and cloth as well for scholarly works. There was leisure time for long fables, epic stories, riddles, music and board games. While far from Classical Greece and later Renaissance societies, this wasn’t a society of craven, filthy heathens living in muddy holes.
Without a doubt, Crawford knows her subject inside and out. However much of the text about Anglo Saxon Britain comes across as a little dry and boring – a great deal of it reads like a text book with sentence after sentence of just facts. Finding a balance between the delivery of complex information and making it accessible to the general public is not an easy task so view this as a little science-heavy introductory ‘brochure’ type of book that remains worth picking up.


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