Wow. How much is wrong with this?

Is there some reason that explains why these things are got wrong? Why don’t some journalists, when about to trot out some ‘facts’ about history, just check with a historian first? I expect better than this of the Times:

Five things we know about the Anglo-Saxons:

  • The first Anglo-Saxons were mercenaries, brought in by the Picts to defend themselves against pirates.
  • They were not Christians until St Augustine’s arrival in 597 led to their gradual conversion.
  • The Anglo-Saxons were fiercely tribal, with England divided into the kingdoms of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Essex and Sussex.
  • From Alfred the Great onwards (he died in 899) the Wessex army gradually united England, driving out Danish and Viking invaders.
  • The Bayeux tapestry, which depicts the story of the battle of Hastings, was commissioned by the Normans but is believed to have been made by Anglo-Saxon artisans.

And five things we don’t:

  • How quickly they converted to Christianity is a mystery. The burials at Sutton Hoo, about 625, were pagan but some Christian symbols were found.
  • Much of Anglo-Saxon architecture is unknown. Many buildings were wooden and few are left standing beyond the monasteries and churches built of stone.
  • Little is known about how people, particularly the lowly peasants, lived their daily lives.
  • How Anglo-Saxon women lived is unclear, although they were able to own property.
  • What happened to London between the Roman retreat and the 9th century, when it became a centre of prosperity once more, is not well documented.

Okay, I’ll start with three: one, ‘the first Anglo-Saxons’ were probably, semantically, the scribes who first used the term in a document in an age where everyone else was still seeing Angles and Saxons separately, but even if we allow the anachronistic category, the Anglians and Saxons were hired as mercenaries against the Picts not by them; two, you appear to think, Daniel Foggo, that women cannot be peasants or at least that the two groups count as two zones of ignorance but actually we know about as much about how peasant women lived as peasant men, and that, as a visit to West Stow would show you, is more and more all the time and not so little even now either; and three, you forgot some missionaries. Also, the Times is still apparently convinced that ignorance about London is ignorance about life. I think this is someone writing an article from their undergraduate notes. I’m glad that he thought it was worth doing, but I wish he’d also thought it was worth checking. Any more howlers here anyone would like to call out?

(Hat tip to Archaeology in Europe for this one.)

3 responses to “Wow. How much is wrong with this?

  1. Ack, the problem is when this stuff gets into the public record, it keeps getting repeated until it takes on a sort of ‘authenticity by replication’. I’ve just been dealing with a bit of research where an error introduced into a 1914 account of the subject (involving a rather flagrant over-estimation of a vital number) seems to have been reproduced in just about every other scholarly work on the subject for most of the 20thC.

    I wonder where this writer got his information? Does it by chance bear any resemblance to a Wikipedia page? He’s probably some poor overworked cadet journalist on a tight deadline who’d rather be covering crime or politics (does The Times employ such lowly creatures?), but still, no excuse for the bigger howlers. As a side note, I think part of the problem is that most mainstream newspapers and magazines have done away with fact-checkers these days as part of the general slashing of budgets. That combined with much shorter news cycles in the online age has got to have a pretty detrimental effect on the quality of specialist coverage like this.

    • I don’t know about the Wikipedia entry, but the profile I linked to makes it look as if Mr Foggo’s usual coverage if British politics, but he also did the Times articles about the dangers of nighthawking, so I suspect medieval history lies somewhere in his education because those seem like unlikely things to be given together by editors. That was what made me think `undergraduate notes’. After all, the horrible truth is that he was probably an undergraduate rather more recently than I was.

  2. This would be hilarious IF it were intended as a spoof… I can imagine the Monty Python version.

    If only.

    Actually, wikipedia is considerably better informed!

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