Seminary XXII: get a life, King Æthelstan

(Since I drafted this post and then foolishly fell off the Interweb for ten days, the renowed Magistra has put up her own post about this same seminar, but as her analysis goes rather deeper, I think this summary is still useful. Please see it, not as a substitute for her post, but rather as a taster merely…)

King Athelstan offering a copy of Bede’s Life of Saint Cuthbert to the saint, from the book

On 27 February the IHR Earlier Middle Ages seminar was absolutely packed out, the crowd having been brought by the promise of Professor Sarah Foot speaking to the title “Should King Æthelstan Get a Life?” The question has been occasioned by her project to give the man, if not a life, at least a biography. After all, he was the first ruler of all England, rex totius britanniae as his coins proclaim him, he married his sisters into half the royal families of Europe, was vanquisher of the Danes, one of the foremost men of his times, he should be a grand subject. But really we don’t know very much. Most years we have an idea of something that he did; but there are several where we just don’t have anything. There are, we were told, a few entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 39 more-or-less acceptable charters, a bit of hagiographical material, some foreign notices and a poem. There may once have been an actual Life, as Michael Wood has most recently argued, but if so it survives only in the work of William of Malmesbury and we don’t know what he did to it. So actually, writing any conventional kind of biography is rather difficult, and drawing the man and his personality, other than a fascination with relics that led to the suggestion that really, he possibly did need to get out more (except when he was touring the country and defeating his enemies obviously, but the problem is that a king who does that looks like every other successful king and what the man himself was like, other than lucky and active, is even harder to tell when it fits a stereotype so well).

So there was a lot of musing on what kind of biography can be written, not just for Æthelstan but for any early medieval figure, and as I have ambitions in this line myself, that was interesting; I’m also grateful for having 150 gabby charters rather than 39 formal ones, even if I don’t have any chronicles. But Professor Foot also took a couple of examples of nuggets of information from which real sense of personality could be squeezed, mainly the law-codes (though Steven Baxter and others worried that these were recorded at sufficient remove from him that authorship and voice become very difficult things to second-guess), and that left some hope that when she is finally able to write this book, it will have some ideas and perspectives on King Æthelstan that were never before combined.

A silver penny of Athelstan naming him as King of All Britain

Edit: botched link to Magistra’s post fixed, trackback perhaps added.


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