Seminar CLIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures I

Turning to the pile of unreported seminars, lectures and so on that I have for you leaves me keenly aware of how far behind I am but also of how much I don’t, in some sense, need to cover. The last seminar I went to in 2012 and the first in 2013 were covered at Magistra et Mater long ago already, and so was the second, and thus I find myself leaping forward to 18th January 2013 and back to Professor John Blair, who on that afternoon gave the first of his lectures as Ford Lecturer for 2013.1

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The Ford Lectures are an annual series of public lectures in history that have been running in Oxford since 1896. They are given by a historian elected by a board that administers the relevant bequest, and they are what we might call ‘kind of a big deal’. They are attended by a whole range of people, by no means all historians, and they consequently have to be pitched for an intelligent but non-expert audience. Probably as a result of this some fairly important books have resulted from them that hold their value even today.2 Given this audience and opportunity, Professor Blair opted to showcase his latest work, the early outcomes of the project that had left yours truly holding the fort for him while he was on leave, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, and the first lecture was called “Defining Anglo-Saxon Landscapes”.

Excavation of the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

One recent high-profile excavation, the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

The starting position here was basically that the massive availability of new archæological data accumulated since digging became a normal part of building and development work permits a new survey of what we know about settlement in the Anglo-Saxon period, but very little has been done to take this chance, not least because of the sheer volume of material.3 But John evidently likes a challenge and has read really quite a lot of it, and talked to a great many people in various places. Not all these people had talked to each other, of course, so sometimes there was work from places very near to each other which no-one but John had seen all of; even where this wasn’t the case, the construction of a national framework offered new meanings for it all at a higher level. In the lectures John focused most notably on Mercia, but the book will apparently offer more (and he has already covered some of the gaps by publishing his recent Chadwick lecture).4

Recreation Anglo-Saxon woodwork made by Regia Anglorum

Recreation Anglo-Saxon woodwork made by Regia Anglorum

Even what we had involved considerable diversity, however, of settlement and of evidence and investigation: coins, sunken-featured buildings, post-built houses, portable artefacts and grave-goods have all been found and indeed been sought differently over the years and from place to place. John also laid considerable stress on what we cannot see, of which the most obvious thing is wooden artefacts, tools and possessions and indeed in some cases buildings; he used examples from modern Karelia, here among many other places, to make the point that, “fugitive things can be very elaborate”. Not just wood, of course: my notes also mention tapestries and tents as examples of things that we know could be very splendid in the Middle Ages but which almost never survive archæologically. On top of this, but consequently hard to detect, are genuine regional differences in Anglo-Saxon-period practice, which might be matters of fashion or identity but might also in any given case also or instead be environmental as much as anything, and lying around the landscape are things that are very evident but impossible to date, like earthworks, which lately have been getting more and more likely to be Anglo-Saxon in date in at least some cases but usually only might be.

A burial with brooches from West Heslerton, East Yorkshire

Last signs of an identity crisis? A burial with brooches from West Heslerton, East Yorkshire

The purely environmental factors can be differentiated from more cultural ones because the latter change, however. For much of this period, for example, the South Coast was apparently not as important an area in trading and settlement terms as the North Sea coast, despite the former’s greater proximity to the Continent.5 Trade is one thing, however, and settlement is another and harder to get at; it doesn’t seem to reliably coincide with coin finds or cemetery evidence, for example, so that a complex model of culture and materiality is needed. John hypothesized that for the earliest part of the period, where furnished burial seems to be the main cultural expression we can recover archæologically, Anglo-Saxon society was going through a crisis of identity that makes the very phrase `Anglo-Saxon society’ problematic, but that once it was through that things like buildings, coins and ceramics became a a more likely sphere for material investment. Filling out that suggestion had to wait a week for the next lecture, however, and so I shall leave it to another post having hopefully whetted your appetites for more!


1. The ones I’m not covering, just for completeness, are: Edward James, “Visualising the Merovingians in Nineteenth-Century France”, paper presented to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London, 12th December 2012; Éienne Rénaud, “From Merovech to Clovis: what can we really know?”, ibid., 9th January 2013; and Rob Houghton, “The Vocabulary of Groups in Eleventh-Century Mantua”, ibid. 16th January 2013.

2. I suppose the ones that matter most to what I do are J. Armitage Robinson, The Times of St. Dunstan: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Michaelmas Term, 1922 (Oxford 1923); Frank Stenton, The First Century of English Feudalism, 1066–1166: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Hilary Term, 1929 (Oxford 1932, repr. 1961); Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Hilary Term, 1943 (Oxford 1946, repr. 1998); J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Michaelmas Term, 1970 (Oxford 1971); Donald A. Bullough, Alcuin: Achievement and Reputation. Being Part of the Ford Lectures Delivered in Oxford in the Hilary Term 1980, Education and Society and the Middle Ages and the Renaissance 16 (Leiden 2004); and Peter Sawyer, The Wealth of Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2013), but there are lots of others covering other periods.

3. An Oxford determination to address this is already evident in Helena Hamerow, Rural Settlements and Society in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2012).

4. John Blair, The British Culture of Anglo-Saxon Settlement, H. M. Chadwick Lecture 24 (Cambridge 2013).

5. John here made considerable play of distribution maps emphasising the relative wealth of an area he described as “the Wash catchment area”, a sort of Greater Great Ouse reaching down to the Chilterns, but in terms of the coastal areas the importance of the North Sea compared to the Channel is a conclusion one could also find in Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982) and Chris Loveluck, “Problems of the definition and conceptualisation of early medieval elites, AD 450-900: the dynamics of the archaeological evidence” in François Bougard, Hans-Werner Goetz & Régine le Jan (edd.), Théorie et pratiques des élites au Haut Moyen Âge : Conception, perception et réalisation sociale. Theorie und Praxis frühmittelalterlicher Eliten: Konzepte, Wahrnehmung und soziale Umsetzung, Haut Moyen Âge 13 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 21-68.

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2 responses to “Seminar CLIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures I

  1. Agh! Numerous mangled tags now fixed. I’m sure it looked OK in preview…

  2. Pingback: Seminar CLVIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, II | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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