The Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas J Higham & Martin J Ryan

Book Review by caldrail

As we look around the British landscape we often see evidence of former times. Crude stone monuments to our distant prehistoric ancestors. Hill forts of the Bronze and Iron Ages. The regular stone foundations and occasional walls of Roman civilization. Huge churches and castles of the Middle Ages. Yet there is a long period of history that hasn't really left much in the way of permanent reminder, a period of history we often call the Dark Ages. Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Worse still, what sources the Anglo-Saxons left us were often written long after the event and to please an important person. Not only is there little common ground in period literature, it defies archaeological confirmation. It has even become almost impossible to separate their fact from fiction in some cases. It seems that the Anglo-Saxons liked their heroic stories so much their world became enveloped in the very same traditions, as if they could not believe it had been any different. Compared to the certainties of other periods, the Dark Ages remain mired in controversy and mystery. But they're not getting away with it...

The Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas J Higham & Martin J Ryan sets out to describe what kind of Britain has been hidden away from popular perception. Unlike the Roman and Norman occupations that foisted a culture upon the natives, the Dark Ages, or Early Medieval Period as scholars tend to prefer, was a formative period when the inhabitants of Britain were jostled both by foreign settlement and their own sharp edged politics. It was an era of development, confrontation, religious conversion, and cultural expression. A time of change when a national character was emerging, only to be subdued by the Norman conquest.

An immediate impression was inescapable. The weight of quality paper, the wonderful smell of fresh printing, and the glimpses of page after page of colour illustration. The format is one of themed essays arranged more or less in chronological order written by the two authors. Key subjects receive special attention. Sometimes we learn about specific individuals of the time, or the archaeological evaluation of a Saxon settlement. We can read about where the Romans left off, where England came from, the realities of Arthurian mythos, the architecture and artistic values that have vanished, the struggle for hearts and minds between major religions, the struggle between dynasties and kingmakers, and of course, the struggles between settlers and invaders. This was, after all, not entirely a story wrought by Saxons. There were also Vikings. Fearsome raiders who were not only wrathful, or downright greedy, but also occupiers of a great swathe of Northern England and whose culture has left as deep an impression as anyone else's.

The reader will also discover a rich vein of wisdom concerning this period of history. Not only does The Anglo-Saxon World presents an entire catalogue of factual information, it also presents well thought out conclusions. Where possible, and some of those are very revealing of a Britain that had attributes we would raise our eyebrows at today.

If there is one criticism that cannot be avoided it is the use of celtic fonts on map labels. Such script is bold and brash, with an air of period charm, yet does not easily lend itself to the scale of print on the illustration. Indeed, one or two of the maps barely seem to have any purpose with so little detail upon them. Others are nonetheless very revealing, and the reader is often left to reach his own conclusion from the information provided.

The odd thing about this book is that the subject and tone invites a certain environment in which to read it..You might think that with such an academic tone that it would be something formal. Yet this is not a book for intense study in a silent library, nor a sourcebook for a noisy classroom.

With so much information compressed into the pages, discussion of a world that is by its very nature so close to the epic fantasies, with so much immersion and illustration, this is a book to be savoured by the fireside with your favourite ale to reward your reading. The Anglo-Saxon World is going to challenge your preconceptions. It may well challenge your wallet. However, for those who want to set out to discover Dark Age Britain, start your epic voyage here.

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Union Jack Anglo Saxon World for the UK