Big books, high praise and tiny queries

(Written substantially offline on the East Coast main line between Edinburgh and Newcastle, 23rd May 2011.)

My current job is quite luxurious, there’s no point in denying it (and you know, I don’t exactly mind). One of these luxuries is somewhat enforced, however, which is: time to read. This is a luxury, no mistake, because I sorely missed it in the previous job, where I could only spare the time to read up for my own papers; now I can read more, but, on the other hand what I have to read is now also dictated not just by what I’m working on but by what I’m teaching, where I really do have good reasons to get current quickly because I have to tell other people to read it. So, since arrival, I have been attacking this problem.

Cover of Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568

Cover of Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568

Cover of John Blair's The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society

Cover of John Blair's The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society

Quite a lot of the books I have got through have been really quite large. I don’t mean so much the multi-authored exhibition catalogues and conference proceedings the Continental scholarship, especially, generates, like Jordi Camps’s edited Cataluña en la época carolingia that’s been in my sidebar, well, possibly since I started the blog—and every now and then I take in another of its informative little papers—but single-author syntheses. Among these there are two I thought it was fairly urgent for me to get a hang of, Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007) and John Blair’s The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005). The reason for the latter will be obvious: my idea of the scholarship of the man I’m standing in for was a decade behind the times and since then he’d written something that was now on every reading list in the subject. Guy’s book, meanwhile, I’d bought on a whim in the CUP bookshop a few years before, probably after hearing him present somewhere but maybe just on the basis of what I knew of his work, which is now of course much easier to know about, and because of a sneaking suspicion that it probably should be on a lot of reading lists, and it just took me a while to make it urgent: sorry, Guy! But Guy’s book is 616 pages long, and John’s 624 (gloss, heavy), so this was a bit daunting; I knew when I picked these things up that I would be living with them closely for a while. (There’s also another very obvious extremely large book of wide-ranging comparative focus that has defeated scholars as least as bibliovoric as me, temporarily I’m sure, which I am now taking on properly rather than just reading via the index, and that invites comparisons in what follows, but if they occur at all they will have, in justice, to wait till I’ve taken it all in.1)

There are obvious limits to what I can say about these books: both these (all three of these) scholars’ goodwills are important to me, in so far as I have them I want to keep them and so you would probably expect what follows to be basically praiseworthy, and so indeed it will be (although it has been a pain to phrase because of implicit comparisons – I apologise if any offence remains to be taken, it is not intended) but that’s because I think they are good, I have no need to pretend about this. My adulation will be very slightly tempered below with some tiny points of query, but I think the first thing to make clear is that it was or is worth reading all of these books. I actually enjoyed the reading of Guy’s; I picked it up each time genuinely wanting to know where it would go next, as opposed to simply wanting to know what was in it. It may be that he was conscious that his book was in a series of supposed textbooks, and so wrote deliberately clearly, and if so it pays off, he is admirably lucid and the reading goes quickly. John’s is slower going because there is so much information on every page that one keeps being caught up by footnotes and going, “really? where? <flip flip flip page> Wow that sounds interesting. Hang on, where was I?” (Guy’s is by no means short of information but John has little local details that distract. This may only really affect English readers though.) Also, and this is just my weakness really, Guy’s chapters are shorter and more divided up: beyond a certain amount per lump I do find that my brain creaks trying to hang on to it all, and here Guy is kinder. (I’m conscious that I myself fail on this assessment; sorry about that.)

Roman ruins at Volubilis, Morocco, old Mauretania

Roman ruins at Volubilis, Morocco, old Mauretania

Both of these books also offer very big interpretative answers to substantial historical questions. Guy is of course offering an answer to to the great question about the fall of the Roman Empire, and he is far from the only person doing so; the only reason his book isn’t on more reading lists, I would guess, is that most people who set them read Peter Heather’s almost equally large tome that narrowly preceded it into the shops and then felt they had all the answer they needed for the moment. Many will know that Guy and Peter do not agree about many things: Guy is scrupulously polite in his references here, however, indicating disagreement where necessary but never without respect, and certainly the opposition is not silenced but acknowledged and engaged. The big difference between Guy and his opposition for me, and the one that means I prefer Guy’s take, is that for him archæology is crucial. Archæological evidence is given at least equal billing throughout his book and it substantially underpins his argument, which is, basically, that even in economic and military crisis Rome was still a sufficiently potent political force that it warped and changed the cultures at its borders and offered them opportunities of engagement and enrichment that drew them in towards it, while at the same time its military and aristocratic culture was increasingly affected (and I use that word both transitively and intransitively) with supposedly-barbaric overtones. No-one, however, wanted to fell the Empire; they wanted to control it. It was competition between such ambitious members of a military élite that overlapped the Empire’s borders which did the whole thing in.2

In the course of this, Guy raises several important issues about assumptions people make about barbarian identities, not least that they are detectable in burial styles and that they are incompatible with Roman identities. The most interesting examples of counters to these that he provides, for me, are the facts that the Visigoths only started doing furnished burial with grave-goods once they were in Spain, so it can hardly be an imported ethnic practice—he argues that instead it represents, here and in other places, competition and insecurity among élites that Romans as well as others could employ for status display (pp. 342-346 for Spain and more generally at pp. 27-29 and per people thereafter)—and the weird and oddly loyalist imperial dignities claimed by the Moorish rulers of the western edges of Roman Africa, left on their own by the Vandal takeover as ostensibly legitimist rulers who would never again recognise a higher authority (pp. 405-410). I don’t know where else you could go for someone writing in English who makes these populations part of the wider story of Empire.

All Saints' Brixworth, usually held the oldest Anglo-Saxon Church substantially standing

All Saints' Brixworth, usually held the oldest Anglo-Saxon Church substantially standing, from Wikimedia Commons

John’s book is also part of several wider debates. Most people are probably familiar with John’s work because of the ‘minster hypothesis’, an argument he started in the 1980s about the organisation of the early Anglo-Saxon Church which now has a Wikipedia entry, and which holds that it was substantially or entirely built round collegiate churches with priests operating out of a shared base ministering to very large mother-parishes, and that there wasn’t really any other kind of Church organisation than that before the tenth and eleventh centuries. This `minster’ category included both gatherings of priests and gatherings of monks; John held and holds (pp. 2-5) that there was no functional difference except in wealth until the age of reform.3 This book represents the deep background that makes such a picture of the Church in early Anglo-Saxon England plausible. (He doesn’t deny the occasional existence of smaller-range churches, especially in zones where the British Church might have survived into Anglo-Saxon control, but doesn’t think them significant.) He has a case, at the very least: it’s impossible to deny that with this much detail thrown behind it, pulled from legislation, place-names, charters, narratives, archæology and topography, and this level of detail means that even if you don’t yourself buy the case, or indeed if you’re actually interested in something else, there’s still stuff in here that’s relevant to you. An example: a highly-touristic friend of mine said, on a visit to mine while I was reading this book, that he’d been in Kidderminster the previous week, which he gathered had “roots in your period”; I dimly remembered having read as much, figured the name was a give-away and was indeed able to check John’s index and show my friend a date of first record (736), the Old English place name (Husmerae) and a picture of the charter where it and the incipient church first occur (Sawyer 89),4 which was nice.

From this book, then, could start dozens and dozens of local history enquiries, and equally many have been incorporated and assimilated into it. There are also, either side of the big argument about the shape of the Church, absolutely fascinating chapters about the conversion (pp. 8-78) and the social function of the parish church (when we have some; pp. 426-504), both a bit more informed by foreign scholarship and indeed social anthropology than the more structural chapters, but because of that all the more engagingly humanistic, showing a lively compassion for the everyday member of a community and an almost combative willingness to consider the unusual and see if it makes more sense with the evidence than arguments of long tradition. What John achieves with these chapters is to demonstrate how flexible, adaptable and individual such traditions might be, and how we might do better to talk in terms of changing religious practice than of converting people. So, whether or not you come for the argument, stay for the people: this book is full of them, and John’s writing is always prepared for them to do something odd or opposite to the usual interpretation of the evidence. It is, really, a very rich volume.

The Ruthwell Cross, now in Ruthwell Parish Church (ironically?)

The Ruthwell Cross, now in Ruthwell Parish Church (ironically?)

It seems almost rude, therefore, to wish that there was even more in it,5 and indeed I would probably have groaned to find it as I was reading, but with it all inside my head in some way, I still want to know what John thinks about some areas he doesn’t have space to cover here. Some of these are questions hanging from his argument, and I actually hope to have his help in tackling them separately later, so I’ll not go into detail now, but they include the significance of Roman sites to the Anglo-Saxon kings—owned but unused?—the possibility of non-church religious foci like standing crosses occupying the small parish rôle, and the actual management of the ministry in a minster landscape. All of these strike me as areas where John’s book indicates that we don’t yet have good answers, and that is another value it has but I wonder if he has answers anyway for which there just wasn’t space here.

As for Guy’s book, that leaves me with fewer questions, not least I admit because I know his subject in much less detail and so am just readier to accept what look like careful well-founded answers. I do really like his recharacterisation of the ambitions and mores of those implicated in the Empire’s break-up, and I really like his use of archæological evidence as part of that. But, on the Continent I work much later and I don’t have the kind of acquaintance with the material to query someone who so obviously does. It’s only when Guy deals with England, my long-lurking secondary interest, that I have enough of a grasp to wonder if his argument doesn’t get a bit fragile this far away from Rome. I don’t just mean his challenging reinterpretation of Gildas’s chronology, which is set aside in an appendix (pp. 519-526), but, well, really just one thing: quoit brooches. These are made to bear an awful lot of weight in his interpretation of sub-romanitas in southern Britain (pp. 236-237 & 316-319). I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in the book where he would allow that one type of dress item holds a fixed archæological significance (in this case, (post-)Roman military organisation) over a hundred and fifty years of change, they are here almost his only evidence for such a survival and I’m not sure I buy it. At the very least, at the end of that period the fact that this was an old type of artefact must have meant its meaning differently to what it did when they had first been current wear among soldiers in the island. Maybe I have him wrong here: I’m sure he will say if so, but to me this implies that we might better think of more disruption to identities and organisation earlier in Britain than he suggests, and I don’t see why it should damage his argument for the rest of Europe at all if Britain, as so often, refuses to fit comfortably in with it.

Second- or third-century Roman quoit brooch

Second- or third-century Roman quoit brooch

So yes: big books, high praise and tiny queries. But the queries are only tiny, and the books’ impact is much greater than them; I humbly commend these works to the readership. I already own one and am happy about this; I will have to own the other. May there be more whence these came!


1. I ought perhaps to worry about his reading this, which I know he does, and finding out that I haven’t yet properly read his magnum opus, but firstly I’m sure the fact that I cite his earlier work avidly but not this one had been noticed and in any case I’ve by now given up assuming I have any information that he hasn’t already found out. If he didn’t have two eyes I’d be looking for ravens, I tell you.

2. I’m conscious that I’ve rephrased fairly freely here and that I may be emphasising things a bit differently to Guy, but I do want to point out that the fact that I can do this belies the particularly bone-headed Amazon review of this book that maintains that it has no argument. The book’s argument is set out at the beginning, the end and most of the discussion between is directed to it so I can only presume that the reviewer didn’t spot it because they were only prepared to see the argument they already believed.

3. The debate before this can be pursued through J. Blair (ed.), Minsters and Parish Churches: the local church in transition 950-1200 (Oxford 1988); Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104; Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. 193–212; and D. M. Palliser, “The ‘Minster Hypothesis’: a Case Study”, ibid. Vol. 5 (1996), pp. 207–214.

4. Blair, Church, pp. 102-103 & fig. 14.

5. And it reminds me infallibly of the first time I ever saw Stuart Airlie presenting a paper, one in which he said while discussing the inadequacy of the treatment of his subject by some recent Sonderforschungquellenschriftarbeit-type monster, “And isn’t that always what you think when a new six-hundred-page German-language monograph bang on your subject area lands on your desk? `Oh, it’s just not big enough!'” This reassures me that I may not be confessing awful scholarly inadequacy by occasionally enjoying it when a book is short.

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24 responses to “Big books, high praise and tiny queries

  1. Hello! I meant to tell you that it was wonderful to meet you at Kzoo, but I came from from Michigan with flu, and fell off the planet’s face for a bit. So, it was wonderful to meet you!

  2. What I really appreciated about Dr. Halsall’s book were his detailed descriptions of the evidence and how he interpreted the evidence in reaching his conclusions. He did this in a clear, explicit manner which I had rarely encountered before, and never for these particular issues. It has really gotten me to closely look at how arguments are presented which has changed the way I evaluate stuff I read. There are books I come across every now and then that turn on my little mental light switch and his was one of them.

    • I would have to say something similar; I just missed being actually taught by Guy but he’s still wound up in the same category as Philip Grierson for me, someone whose work occasionally lights up my thinking with shocks of sense. This does not, of course, stop me arguing with him…

  3. Ah – while I’ve been navel gazing about what I don’t know, you’ve been doing something constructive! This is very nice and useful to read. And it’s (and I say this selfishly) always nice to be reminded that one’s friends may not be as completely together and perfect as they seem :-)

    • Additionally, thanks for the BWP review — it’s going into my teaching materials file as an exemplar of how to write a review of related works.

      • I’m always glad to see people following the links, but that one is especially neat. What I like especially is his readiness to put aside his own openly acknowledged views in the cause of a fair review.

    • If I’d actually read everything I’m supposed to have read for teaching I’d never have been able to write anything in the last ten years! and then, of course, no-one would have given me the chance to teach. Such is the paradox of our profession.

  4. Quoit brooch style. I think you might have the wrong sort of quoit brooches. The QBS I am talking about is something that lasts maybe 50 years from c.425 to c.475. The style named after these brooches is acknowledged to descend from the style on official imperial metalwork. Now, most people (i.e. people who have forgotten more about these artefacts than I have ever known) usually say that they manifest a hybrid of Roman(o-British) and ‘Germanic’ influence, but I am stumped as to where on earth they find this ‘Germanic’ influence (on which they hang a connection with ‘Saxon’ mercenaries). For me they are a manifestation of an insular (and only one of the several visible) response to the collapse of Roman authority and a political identity that (on the admittedly flimsy basis of the conscious link with imperial metalwork) based its claims to legitimacy on a claimed link with the retreating empire. Thus when this empire finally fizzled in the 470s the bases for power based upon links with it, and the meaningful symbolic content of the style, vanished – and with it the style itself. Of course I’d still need to explain why people are using the artefacts in graves – as heirlooms, some generations later. Mea culpa on that one. Clearly I wasn’t – er – clear enough about this.

    But thanks for all your very kind comments; do keep disagreeing!

    I suppose the reason I have changed my public stance towards the author of the other big book on the barbarians (in its 4 marginally different manifestations…) is that my “scrupulous politeness” was met with such rudeness and misrepresentation. That and phrases and ideas that result either from distasteful politics, or sheer carelessness, or a lower intelligence than I had always assumed (or a combination of any of the above). Ho hum.

    Thanks, too, for the defence against that boneheaded Amazon review.

    By the way, I went to school in Kidderminster. Also, the father of the (as of yesterday) sadly late Gil Scott Heron once played for Kidderminster Harriers.

    • how would you compare interpretations based on these brooches with those based on onion-shaped (IIRC) fibulae found on the Danube limes, in terms of Roman-Barbarian integration and influence?

    • Gil Scott Heron, yes, very sad. I knew I had got older when my son texted me to tell me Heron had died. I’m sorry also to have apparently misunderstood you over the quoit brooches and their timespan; I shall have to go back and soak that bit up again.

      Of course I’d still need to explain why people are using the artefacts in graves – as heirlooms, some generations later. Mea culpa on that one.

      That can be read as part of a vaguer Rome-fascination, though, can’t it, like piercing Roman coins to use as medallions; it doesn’t have to have quite the same ‘this identifies me as a Roman officer’ value. And anyway, as I know I don’t have to ask you, whose are grave-goods anyway?

    • Yes, Gil Scott Heron will be sadly missed. His father played also for Glasgow Celtic.

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  6. I just read the discussion of the bone-headed Amazon review. Christ. It’s terrifying. If you don’t believe me about Heather playing into the hands of the fascists, whether accidentally or not, that’ll provide all the ammo to show I’m right.

    • There’s some question there about dangerous truths, isn’t there? I mean, if we find that we have information that can be politically exploited, but we believe it to be the case, what are we ethically supposed to do? But this may be better discussed at your post…

      • For sure. But (among other problems with the presuppositions lurking behind the line you suggest in this particular case) I think that if that were the case one would have to be a damn sight more careful about the way one expressed it – if one didn’t agree with the political purposes to which it could be used – than is P. Heather (or B. Ward-Perkins).

        • This is an interesting question, but – at least following my immediate intuition – I suspect that it would more often than not be a thought experiment.

          Good, progressive political commitment is informed by good history – not in the trite, and unconvincing ‘those who do not learn from history…’ sense, but more significantly because what Marc Bloch described as the laboratory of finished experiments that is history is how we can seek to grasp the ways that people, societies and ideas work, differ and relate across time and space. Reactionary politics seeks historical narrative, to some degree or other, in myth. It substitutes fantastic models of causation – blood, race, the hero or great man, words and ideas shorn of social location – for the much more complicated nexus of collectives and individuals, ideas and material realities, which alone can provide historical explanation.

          While I am sure there must be fascinating cases in which uncomfortable – as Jonathan says dangerous – truths emerge from research, and the committed historian must develop a broader framework of historical understanding in which to present these, still the more common demand on the historian is to replace the myths, and narratives developed by modern political elites, with explanations which, however modestly and partially, reflect the complicated and contextualised ways in which these processes actually unfolded.

          I know this line of thinking is still painted as so much unfashionable modernist certainty, but I still think it’s necessary. That’s why I think Guy’s really to be applauded for being so keenly aware of the politics of his subject’s reception… of course everything is political but I think a lot of historians could often do with being reminded of this truism, particularly when their profession may be just than bit more so than most…

          • I don’t think I can argue with any of that, or would want to! But I will add one thing that fits with this as well as what Guy said, which is what made me think it: I think that at least some of the historians in question here are basically politically neutral; they have the academy, and regard it as separate from the world. There can’t be many historians who are currently happy about the Conservative government in the UK whatever way they voted, for example. But this is the thing that Guy has realised and maybe some others need to: in this climate, and surely in most political climates, a neutral stance is a conservative one, because it implies no change is worth engaging for. From there, I think, unspools the unpleasant thread of connection that Guy points out.

            • Oh absolutely, I couldn’t agree more – what is it that Howard Zinn said, ‘you can’t be neutral on a moving train’. I think you’re probably (more-or-less) correct about those historians in question. (An amusing case at Oxford also springs to mind, where a certain Tory has no qualms in admitting he is following the lead of Marxist historiography, and indeed has a much more ‘forces of production’ argument than his other colleague who leans the other way.) Of course, part of the problem is that de-politicisation, as an act, is itself a highly political move, and those who accept notions of ‘neutrality’ or of what they do as somehow separated from everything else, are joining themselves to a much deeper bed of ideology than they ever realise.

              Of course we should hope that the current assault on higher education, as part of this violent and ideological attack on the values and institutions of public and socialised wealth, make more historians and others aware that they sit motionless as the carriage moves them forward. The next step though is to realise that neutrality is *always*, sadly, complicity, despite such a stance often being suggested by good intentions. Until that is, to borrow imagery from Walter Benjamin, we apply the emergency breaks and derail the train.

              • I’m slowly coming to realise that almost everyone who thinks about the past has found or still finds Benjamin useful; I am going to have to spend some time with his work some day soon. Thankyou also for the food for thought.

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