Monday, 12 January 2015

Exploring the Anglo-Saxons

This year, I'll be focusing a lot with my writing on Anglo-Saxon history.

Why? Let me explain.

It's a period that greatly interests me, ever since learning about it at school. Well, (sigh), I say I learned about it at school. If anything, I learned of it at school, and then learned about it in my own time. It was quite curious in a way, as we had done the Romans the year before in quite some depth. When it came to the Anglo-Saxons, the teacher spoke to us of the Dark Ages, the period between the departure of the Romans and 1066, and the times were apparently “dark” for the reason that we didn't know a lot about them. To be honest, all I took away from classes before 1066 was that the Angles, Jutes and Saxons came over because the Romans had left, and a bit about crop rotation. I do not mean to say that crop rotation was unimportant, but there was no mention of Alfred the Great or Aethelstan, or any other major historical events or persons. They focused on a three-field system, instead all the possibilities such as the legend of Alfred burning the cakes, or investigating whether King Canute really sat on the beach, and told the waves "stay out of reach". It was clear the teacher had dumbed down the period to teach a group of 12-year-olds who clearly were not going to need university-level lectures, but it would have been nice to have been given a bit more detail.

And there's the thing about bias with history. We learned a little bit about 1066 in class, thanks to the Bayeux Tapestry. Perhaps our teacher was trying to instil in us a Norman bias for the period. History is all open to interpretation, depending on which source you use, and every source either consciously or unconsciously can often harbour a particular bias, angle or perspective. They say history is written by the victors, and it is often through a Norman lens that we view the period, looking back. Our main source in the class for the events of 1066 was what the Bayeux Tapestry, a Norman source, told us.

King Harold's coronation, 1066
What did we learn? In a nutshell: in 1066 the pious Edward the Confessor died, Harold became King, William invaded from Normandy to claim his crown which he had been promised, and Harold died with an arrow in his eye at the Battle of Hastings. William was rightly crowned on Christmas Day, 1066. And after that we moved on, to find out all about motte and bailey castles, and how great the Normans were in bringing order to England, and they could build a castle in a day. Thanks to the guidance of our teacher in high school, I was left with the impression that Harold was an opportunist usurper who grabbed the English crown that justly belonged to William.

It was about this time that I obtained for myself a copy of  “1066: Year of the Conquest” by David Howarth. It changed my view about things. It told the same events, but from an Anglo-Saxon perspective. It presented things that disagreed with our teacher's seemingly infallible knowledgeof history. I told my teacher that I was reading it, but I was discouraged from reading it, as it would be “too hard” for me to read. Looking back, I suspect the real reason I was discouraged was that I might find out more about the period than the teacher (who was far more interested in the Tudors to be honest). I read it anyway and I highly recommend it even today. I lost that copy years ago, but recently obtained a replacement. Seriously, if you only ever read one book about the events of 1066, make it that one. The book told the events fairly, in my opinion, and made it quite clear when the original sources had a bias one way or the other.

Around this time, during a summer holiday, I visited Hastings and Battle itself. The local newspaper office just down the street from the flat where we stayed had a special 1066 edition evidently aimed at tourists (my copy sadly also now lost), which was a reprint of an edition they had originally printed in 1966. It was curious to wander around the ruined abbey; it was a bright summer's day, green fields and trees nearby, and it was quite solemn and calming to stand at the spot where it was believed Harold had fallen (although this location too has been up for debate recently).

We also studied at this time, completely separately, a modern rendering of “Beowulf” for English class. We were told this was an old English legend. We were not told that the original text was in Anglo-Saxon/Old English. How I would have loved to have learned about the word “Hwæt!” and all the subsequent text. The original Beowulf text is invaluable to Anglo-Saxon linguists, as it contains 10% of all extant Anglo-Saxon text.

So began my love for the Anglo-Saxon period. After being told in school that we didn't know much about it, and being discouraged from finding out more, I naturally sought to do the opposite. Guess what? It turns out that lots can be found out.

That was then. Moving forward more than twenty years, I've just renewed my membership for another year with Ða Engliscan Gesiðas (The English Companions), an academic society I joined last year, dedicated to exploring the history, culture and language of the Anglo-Saxon period. I greatly enjoy their quarterly magazine “Wiþowinde”, and I plan to submit an article for the magazine this year.

I am also happy to announce that I have begun work (after a year of planning) on a series of historical novels set in the period leading up to the events of 1066. After being given such a pro-Norman start on the topic, I am decidedly approaching these from an Anglo-Saxon perspective.

Keep watching this space for more information as my books develop.