Seminar CLXIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 5

Did you see that? Surely not! But yes! It was a post about my research area! But it went so quick you may have missed it because now it’s back to Anglo-Saxon England again, which does seem to be most of what I spent the spring of 2013 reading or hearing about. I did go to one other seminar between this and the previous one reported, in fact, but it didn’t really give me anything to work with so instead we pick up where we left off with John Blair’s Ford Lectures, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, here with his sixth and final lecture on the 22nd February, “Landscapes of the Mind”.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

This lecture revolved around the worthy contention that it’s only really possible to understand how people in the Anglo-Saxon world were using and changing their landscape if we also have some idea how they thought about it, easy to say but rather less easy to do! There are some obvious texts, and some less obvious ones: John did not, for example, use The Ruin, a poem which seems to be about what was then left of Roman Bath that even I have worked to death in a teaching context but which seems, well, kind of like a literary construct, but he did use The Wife’s Lament to open up for us a world constructed in zones, in here and out there, safe versus wild, the hall, as we might (and John did) put it, and the sparrow. As I say, the literary and textual evidence for this kind of thinking has been well worked over but there is these days also the possibility of doing more, and recently much more, with the archæology.1

The Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire

The Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, Tæppes hlæw, Tæppa’s Low, built within an Iron Age fort and later, as we now believe, equipped with a church

One of the things that becomes obvious when you approach the matter like this is that the Anglo-Saxons were keen reusers of sites that had associations with the past. Despite the otherworldliness felt by the narrator in the Ruin, or rather, because of it, they built in old monumental precincts, they buried people in Iron Age or Bronze Age burial mounds, or, as at Taplow above, built new burial mounds within Iron Age structures. It seems unlikely that the people reusing such sites can have had more idea what their original purpose had been than do we, but that they connected with something unusual may have been enough. After conversion to Christianity, also, as we’ve seen before, these sites retained old associations so that executed criminals might be buried there, or, The Wife’s Lament suggests, the living imprisoned there as exiles from normal space. Those were, however, some kind of official response, and for people without a full understanding of Christian practice such places presumably shared their significance with newer places of contact with the beyond like churches, all being points of access to the sacred or supernatural.

Crop-marks of a 'woodhenge'-type monument at Catholme Farm, Staffordshire

Crop-marks of a ‘woodhenge’-type monument at Catholme Farm, Staffordshire, a point which became the main entrance of the Saxon settlement, which, John told us, also backed onto a Roman road, had burials at all its entrances and was laid out on a grid-plan

Both churches and older constructions could in fact be seen as replications of antiquity, John argued, the stone structure of churches calling on Roman antiquity and Anglo-Saxon mounds calling on the older landscape in which their builders found themselves. These ‘structures of eternity’, perhaps also reflected in stone cairns, contrast sharply with the ephemeral, transient traces of the structures of the living, timber houses that would move over generations as one mouldered and a new one replaced it nearby, and that would be opened and closed by rituals we see in the form of placed deposits of materials, animal remnants and so forth.2 These also had their life-cycle, whereas the landscape of the beyond worked in terms beyond mere life-times or generations.

The mostly late-Saxon church of Brixworth

The mostly late-Saxon church of Brixworth, with a distinctive fabric that may result from the imitation of building in wood. Photo by the author, more of these in a future post…

Much of this, however, seems to have changed, wouldn’t you know it, around the year 1000, when the building of churches on a much wider scale really got going, many of which were probably therefore of wood; they start to have stone fonts, too, which is hard to show earlier when baptism may have been done in lead or wooden tanks. Stone bridges begin to be known, by the twelfth century stone houses too, whose generational perambulation around sites was thus arrested.3 In the 1050s, as discussed here before, we also seem to start seeing fortification in stone. The landscape now became permanently occupied, unlike the light, precise and ephemeral imprint left on it by the earlier Anglo-Saxon cultures. John, closing with these ideas, was careful to stress extensive local variation, made worse by the fact that our texts, largely from the West Saxon milieu, tell us little of the areas where we can see most investment in material culture, the Wash catchment area he’d identified in earlier lectures. For some areas, especially the West Midlands, there is for some periods just no settlement evidence at all, and almost everywhere there is still much more to do. But, a cheering thought, with so much of what is being done now a matter of digital record, we can proceed to do this more with a much better and easier grasp of what there is to do it with.


1. A first attempt at both in Sarah Semple, “A fear of the past: the place of the prehistoric burial mound in the ideology of middle and later Anglo-Saxon England”, in World Archaeology Vol. 30 (London 1998), pp. 109-126.

2. Most of what I now know about such things I know from sharing a Common Room for two years with Clifford Sofield, whose work has been mentioned here before but from whose thesis, “Placed deposits in early and middle Anglo-Saxon rural settlements”, unpublished D. Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 2012, we should expect interesting publications.

3. On the explosion of church-building the best place to look is, of course, John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), forgive no page references but I’m away from my notes as I write this. On bridges, the best and almost only thing is Nicholas Brooks, “Rochester Bridge, AD 43-1381″ in Nigel Yates & M. James Gibson (edd.), Traffic and politics: the construction and management of Rochester Bridge, AD 43-1993, Kent History Project 1 (Woodbridge 1994), pp. 1-20. Where you go for stone houses, I’ve no idea, it’s after my period; wait for John’s book!

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One response to “Seminar CLXIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 5

  1. Pingback: Seminar CLXVI: debating with John Blair | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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