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Brett, Martin, and David A. Woodman, eds, The Long Twelfth-Century View of the Anglo-Saxon Past.

Brett, Martin, and David A. Woodman, eds, The Long Twelfth-Century View of the Anglo-Saxon Past (Studies in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland), Farnham, Ashgate, 2015; hardback; pp. xiv, 423; 17 b/w illustrations, 6 tables; R.R.P. 85.00 [pounds sterling]; ISBN 9781472428196.

This collection of essays originated in a conference held at Robinson College, Cambridge, in 2011. The contributors are all highly respected scholars. All of them explore particular sources in which they are acknowledged experts. It is, therefore, perhaps inevitable that the essays are chiefly distinguished by the high quality of their technically detailed analyses of texts and concentrated focus on the local and immediate circumstances of their production.

As Martin Brett states in his Introduction: 'Large answers tend to become less convincing in detail the more they seek to explain', and 'There can be no question of a definitive answer to the question implied in our title' (p. 8). The aim of the collection, then, is 'to show how many strands there were to this [Anglo-Norman] identity, each appropriate to different contexts ... The lack of a great answer is itself the best illustration of the richness and variety of the whole period' (p. 9).

The choice of contributors reflects 'a desire to avoid any tendency for subject specialists to treat 1066 as a watershed in scholarship as well as in experience' (p. 1). Strikingly interesting, however, is R. M. Thomson's all too brief contribution on William of Malmesbury. He compares William's account of the Conquest in the Gesta regum Anglorum with a little known diatribe in his Commentary on Lamentations (c. 1135). In it, William expresses his anguish for the state to which 'we' English have been reduced by the Normans. Challenging the conventional view that ethnic hostilities had declined by the mid-twelfth century, Thomson finds reason to conclude that English unhappiness with the Conquest persisted well into William's lifetime.

Catherine Karkov's admirable study of the Eadwine Psalter is illuminated by her argument that the manuscript is 'a self-conscious look back at and appropriation of Anglo-Saxon traditions, and an original translation of those traditions into a new visual language'. It can therefore also be understood as 'symptomatic of the larger multilingual, postcolonial culture in which it was produced' (p. 290).

Elisabeth van Houts, in a briskly informative survey, demonstrates that, of the Norman historians she discusses, 'only the Englishman Orderic Vitalis campaigned for the Anglo-Saxon heritage to be taken seriously' (p. 140). Notable, too, is Bruce O'Brien's summing up of his examination of a late twelfth-century lawbook: 'Contemporary readers of the Colbertine lawbook could not have avoided the conclusion that English held a special place among their written languages of law, a place in no way threatened by the increasing use of Anglo-French' (p. 268).

Like Robert Bartlett, Julia Barrow contrives to give the impression that the destruction of monasteries during the first Viking invasion was a rhetorical topos invented by twelfth-century writers, because monasteries wanting a narrative of continuous tenure that connected them to their saintly founders needed to explain why they had no account of their history in the eighth and ninth centuries. Unlike Bartlett, Barrow omits to mention that the destructiveness of the Vikings--whether there was in fact a monastic holocaust in early Anglo-Saxon England--is the subject of 'a long and still-lively controversy' (p. 23). Historians, one might have thought, have least to gain from promulgating the view that the written record consists of rhetorical fictionalisations of the past, in which nothing can be said to have actually happened. To describe Alfred the Great as making 'a fleeting reference' to the Vikings' destruction of monasteries, their treasures, and their books, misrepresents the devastation his preface to Cura pastoralis is intended to address. Nor does Barrow mention, for instance, the late ninth-century inscription in the Codex Aureus of Christ Church, which records its purchase from Viking raiders by an ealdorman of Surrey.

No alternative explanation for the discontinuity of early Anglo-Saxon monastic history is adequate to explain the extent to which the written record has been lost. Much of what we know about early Anglo-Saxon England derives from manuscripts that survived only on the continent. Many of the sources of Anglo-Saxon writings identified by Fontes Anglo-Saxonici are not extant in copies made in England, and so on. The paucity of eighth- and ninth-century accounts of Viking destruction of monasteries, in other words, is part of the evidence that it actually happened. There is, likewise, a paucity of accounts of the devastation of monasteries by Danes in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and of the depredations of the Normans. All three, however, figure in Goscelin of Saint-Bertins compositions for the nuns of Barking in the 1080s, which might perhaps have suggested a somewhat different argument if Barrow had included them in her study.

STEPHANIE HOLLIS, The University of Auckland
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Author:Hollis, Stephanie
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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