Clay, John-Henry, In the Shadow of Death: Saint Boniface and the Conversion of Hessia, 721-54.
According to John-Henry Clay, the Wessex-born St Boniface, long known as the apostle of the Germans', is 'one of the most intensely studied figures of the early Middle Ages' (p. 403). So why should an account of just thirty-three years of his missionary campaign in an area equivalent to the pre-Reformation archidiaconate of Fritzlar require a 487-page book?
Clay distinguishes his own work from previous scholarship on Boniface by its interdisciplinary nature. He describes himself as 'a historian of anthropological bent' but firmly places his work within the pale of 'landscape studies' (pp. 39-40). However, his chief methodological novelty consists in using the rich deposit of North Hessian archaeological research to explore how the mission was carried out at a regional level or, as we might say, on the ground. Nor is it just the physical landscape of hills, groves, and springs with names suggesting pagan cultic worship that Clay examines, for he projects upon it various metaphorical landscapes: 'the landscapes of politics, of shifting boundaries of settlement and control, of movement and trade, of ecclesiastical governance and religious devotion' (p. 5).
Before reaching this point in Chapters 7 and 8, entitled 'Representing the Mission' and 'Experiencing the Mission', a great deal of preliminary territory must be traversed: namely 'Introduction', 'Historiography', 'West Saxon Origins', 'Hessia on the Eve of the Bonifatian Mission', and 'Chronology of the Bonifatian Mission in Hessia'. The thoroughness with which preliminary debates on such matters as pastoral care in the early Anglo-Saxon period and the interpretation of furnished inhumations arranged in large cemeteries are canvassed doubtless reflects the book's origin as a PhD thesis. Many readers might have been prepared to take on trust conclusions reached here only after extensive argumentation, so as to arrive more directly at Clay's original contributions to the subject of the mission to Hessia.
For all the interesting byways that the author traverses, it is not clear how history viewed through landscape differs from what historians have long been doing. R. H. Tawney spoke of the need for the historian to have a stout pair of boots, and even this review shows that topographical metaphors pervade everyday speech. Furthermore, what we might think of as traditional historical discourse is easily subsumed into the landscape project by metaphorical means.
One of the most interesting sections of the book is Clay's analysis of the terms and expressions used in correspondence about the mission (pp. 238-77 and App. 1 and 2). This kind of literary analysis would appear to be on quite a different plane from the discussion of the physical landscape until we recall (though surprisingly Clay does not) that many such tropes are what E. R. Curtius would have called topoi. So perhaps everything can be connected to 'landscape' if broadly enough conceived. Readers must make up their own minds about how novel and well-grounded such an approach may be.
School of History and Politics
The University of Adelaide
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|Title Annotation:||Short Notices|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2013|
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