Thursday, 23 August 2012

A Dark Age Life? Alex Woolf on Æthelstan, the First King of England

Alex Woolf writes:

English history before the Norman Conquest of 1066 has something of the flavour of a back-story. Like those early parts of a Harry Potter novel that occur before Harry returns to Hogwarts, it is necessary for understanding what follows but it is not really part of the story. English kings are only numbered from the Conquest (though this is a strange coincidence, the first king to be numbered thus was Edward III) and the proverbial assertion of  ancestral antiquity is that one’s forebears ‘came over with the conqueror’. Before this comes the Anglo-Saxon period which is a curious in-between time, traditionally known as the Dark Ages, that separates the Roman period from the Middle Ages proper. Over the last generation or so there has been a concerted effort by scholars working in the field to bring it in from the dark and terms such as Late Antiquity, covering the period up to about 650, and the Early Middle Ages, more vaguely defined, have gained wider currency. Beyond the core of specialists, however, even amongst other academic historians, surprise is still sometimes expressed that we who work on the period before the middle of the eleventh century regard ourselves as medievalists; the Middle Ages, surely, was a world of knights in armour, castles, cathedrals and crusades?

While the Norman Conquest has always provided an easy hook upon which to hang the changes of the eleventh century in England, these changes were not confined to one country alone but affected all of western Europe to a greater or lesser degree. The Feudal Revolution, which saw serfdom replace slavery and the rise of manorial estates, provided the economic basis for a greater degree of professional specialisation reflected in the rebirth of towns and the appearance of merchants and craftsmen who had their own households quite distinct from the farming communities where the bulk of the population still lived. Historians debate how rapid these changes were. One school, led by French scholars such as Georges Duby, Pierre Bonnassie and Guy Bois, speak of la mutation de l’an mil, arguing that the change was rapid, occurring within a generation in each part of Europe it reached. Perhaps this reflects the French tradition of revolution? Others, including most Anglophone historians, imagine a more gradual almost imperceptible transformation taking place over, perhaps, as much as two hundred years. Again, this may reflect our recent experience of constitutional change. The world before the Feudal Revolution was a world of lords and peasants. Most land was held by free farmers who owned riding-horses and weapons and who supplemented the labour of their families with that of slaves. Serfdom existed but was largely confined to the greatest estates, in most areas only those belonging to the King or the Church. Elsewhere in the land lords wanted not rents and renders from their men, for there were as yet no towns and few opportunities to spend surplus income, but their support in legal and military activities. They had no need for craven and malnourished subjects they could rackrent, but for men who would ride with them to court and battle.

One of the by-products of the Feudal Revolution, when it came, was an explosion in the production of texts. Initially an education that included reading and writing was still largely provided by the Church and most writers were in Holy Orders of some sort but the increasingly complex economic world with which the clergy were now engaged led to a much greater degree of integration with secular society. Secular interests thus began to impact more on literary production. Complex theology continued to attract much attention from some writers but others produced works on history, administration and even texts written largely for entertainment. One of the new genres which took off in the course of eleventh and twelfth century was the secular biography. Prior to this the vast majority of lives were written as hagiographical exercises to promote the cult of a man or woman considered to be a saint. In the eleventh century several German kings and William the Conqueror were the subjects of such secular biographies and in the early years of the twelfth century we see lives appearing for Louis VI of France and Roderigo de Vivar, El Cid, amongst others. In the same period the terse annalistic chronicles of the earlier period which recount little more than the deaths of kings and prelates and the occasional battle (sometimes without even giving the result) are replaced by complex reflective histories in which the authors are not afraid to voice their scepticism for some of their source material.

This transformation of the textual record is, to a great extent, what separates the Dark Ages from the later period. The paucity and terseness of the earlier source material makes it very difficult to get a sense of distinct personalities or indeed the balance of individual contribution as against Zeitgeist in historical process. The decline of the ‘Dark Ages’ as a paradigm in modern scholarship largely reflects the shift away from ascribing historical change to individual agents and instead to focussing on underlying tensions in society and long term process. So long as one eschews interest in the contribution of individuals in anything other than theological debate then one can shed light on the Early Middle Ages. Sarah Foot, the Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Oxford, has thus set herself a Herculean task in attempting to write a 250 page biography of an Anglo-Saxon king whose fifteen-year reign is recounted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, our best narrative source for the period, in only 84 lines of the printed edition, 73 of which comprise a single poem dealing with a battle which lasted a single day. At the outset Foot describes Æthelstan, the First King of England as ‘a biographical treatment’ ‘rather than an examination of Æthelstan’s life in the context of his times’ (p.3). There can be no doubt that Foot’s subject, Æethelstan, who reigned from 924 until 939, is a worthy one. It is common now to identify him as ‘the grandson of Alfred the Great’ but for much of the middle ages he was at least as well regarded, perhaps even more highly, than his grandfather who attained his title of ‘the Great’ only in the thirteenth century. Alfred has benefitted since the late sixteenth century from the rediscovery and wide dissemination of a contemporary life written at his court while he still lived, by Asser, the Welsh Bishop of Sherborne. Asser’s Life of Alfred is unique as a secular biography from England before the mid-eleventh century and seems to have been inspired by, and to some extent modelled upon, one of its few rivals from the whole of Europe, Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, written some seventy years earlier. Anglo-Saxonists have long been aware that but for Asser’s book Æthelstan, rather than his grandfather, might well have been the stand out pre-Conquest king. While Alfred’s direct rule never penetrated far north of the Thames, Æthelstan extended his realm as far as the Firth of Forth in 927, becoming the first King to rule all the English. 

The recent resurgence of interest in Æthelstan however, (Paul Hill’s The Age of Æthelstan: England’s Forgotten History was published in 2004 and another book by Charles Insley is due out next year), probably owes its genesis to the episode devoted to him in the second series of Michael Wood’s In Search of the Dark Ages broadcast on the BBC in 1981. Widely regarded as the best episode in the series, largely down to Wood’s personal enthusiasm for and unparalleled appreciation of the source material regarding the King, this programme inspired a generation of future scholars, including this reviewer. It can be no coincidence that Wood’s Æthelstan was broadcast while Foot was an undergraduate at Cambridge and that the following year she chose to write a BA thesis on the subject (p. x). Wood’s influence and interest remain strong and his contribution in both published works and personal generosity is fully acknowledged by Foot in her notes. It is perhaps indicative of the difficulty of working with such meagre and fragmentary source material, however, that it has taken thirty years for the seeds sown by that original television programme to bear substantial fruit. We have long known that Æthelstan was important but the problem of how to produce a sustained study has at times seemed intractable.

Foot’s decision to produce what she calls a ‘biographical treatment’ bucks the trend in the study of early medieval reigns, which has tended revolve around collaborative volumes by a variety of specialists in different aspects of the subject’s era, such as the book on Æthelstan’s father Edward the Elder, 899-924 (2001), edited by Nick Higham and the late David Hill. In this she seems to have been influenced by her own social context and she acknowledges the influence of biographers of much later English kings including her Oxford colleagues Judith Maltby and John Watts. Above all she notes the contribution of her husband Michael Bentley whose biography of the Cambridge historian Sir Herbert Butterfield appeared in the shops at almost exactly the same moment as Foot’s Æthelstan (one cannot help but wonder if one or other of these authors graciously held back their publication date to allow for this pleasing symmetry). The effect of these influences on the shape of Æthelstan is that it attempts to reproduce the psychological and emotional insights which routinely inform biographies of moderns. The question is, to what extent is this possible for a Dark Age Life? Even for Alfred the appearance of intimacy which Asser provides has to be handled with extreme caution. He was writing in his subject’s lifetime, at his subject’s behest and rarely strayed from his models. Asser’s Life displays the level of objectivity we might expect from a biographical press release on David Cameron produced by Andy Coulson. 

The difficulties presented by Foot’s approach are perhaps most clearly exemplified in the chapter entitled ‘Family’. Here we are faced with major problems. Contemporary sources tell us next to nothing about the king’s childhood. A twelfth-century historian, William of Malmesbury, who tells us much of the detail with which we customarily pad out the woeful contemporary record of Æthelstan’s life, claims that, though he doesn’t believe it, he has heard or read that the king was a product of a one-night-stand with a slave girl. Other late sources, which may be influenced by William, or the story he cites, also claim that he was illegitimate but no earlier source suggests this. We are left then uncertain as to whether the subject of this biography was the product of a tumble in the hay (or worse?) or was the legitimate son of a noble-born woman. We know that Edward married another woman when Æthelstan was about seven or eight, in about 900, but we don’t know whether his mother was dead, set aside, confined to a nunnery or simply carrying on as before (he is alleged to have had a full-sister who married Sihtric king of Northumbria as late as 926 (p. 18) which, if true, might suggest that Edward was still sleeping with Æthelstan’s mother after his ‘second’ marriage). This single issue should alert us to the problems of assessing psychological or emotional development in our subject. William is also our only source for the story that Æthelstan was brought up at the Mercian royal court by his aunt Æthelflæd and her husband Æthelræd, although contemporary evidence does suggest that his relationship with the Mercians in his reign was closer than that of his predecessors so this is generally accepted as likely. Again though, we don’t know if the boy would have felt that being sent out of his native Wessex was rejection by his father or whether he was being groomed to take over the Mercian kingship since his foster-parents had no son of their own.

The other major mystery of Æthelstan’s life is his apparent celibacy. There is no record of him being married and no mention of his having had any children other than a handful of very late, legendary, tales. Foot attempt to make much of this suggesting (perhaps not altogether seriously) that having had too many sisters as a child may have influenced either his life choices or perhaps his sexuality (pp. 58-61). In this period, however, it would not be impossible for Æthelstan’s wife to have slipped beneath the radar, particularly given the prominence of his second step-mother, Eadgifu, the mother of his eventual successors Edmund and Eadred. If, as is possible, he did remain unmarried this may have been part of a deal brokered with Eadgifu in order to exclude the family of his first stepmother, whose oldest son had briefly precede him in the kingship of Wessex in 924 and whose younger son died in mysterious circumstances a decade later. Eadgifu, whose father had been ealdorman of Kent and who had close links with the Church of Canterbury, remained a powerful figure into the latter part of the 960s and was probably younger than her stepson. She may either have insisted that Æthelstan did not produce heirs who would threaten her sons’ prospects or simply eclipsed Æthelstan’s own wife, had he indeed been married. With this level of uncertainty about the most significant influences in a man’s life can we really make any attempt to produce an emotional or psychological  profile of him?

As well as the chapter on family, Foot provides chapters on ‘Court’, ‘Church’, ‘Kingdom’, ‘War’, ‘Death’ and finally the rather curiously titled ‘British Monarch’. I say curiously in this last case because to an early medievalist the term ‘British’ means ‘pertaining to the Britons’; that is to say to speakers of the British language which is ancestral to modern Welsh, Cornish and Breton. When speaking of the British Isles we tend to use the word ‘Insular’ (as opposed to ‘Continental’). The use of ‘British’ in this earlier sense remained its normal usage well into the eighteenth century and it could still be used unproblematically as a synonym for ‘Welsh’ as late as the early nineteenth century. As Linda Colley demonstrated admirably in her 1992 book Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, the adoption of the words ‘Britons’ and ‘British’ to apply to the citizens of the United Kingdom and what pertained to them was an innovative appropriation of modern times. Indeed the word ‘Breton’ appears for the first time in English in the 1830s because it was only then that the use of ‘British’ for the people of northwestern France would have become confusing. Foot’s chapter in Æthelstan deals with the king’s claims to hegemony beyond the English part of the island, his sporadic overlordship over the Scottish king Constantín and firmer hold on the loyalty of most of the Welsh rulers. On his coins he uses the title Rex totius Britanniae – King of all Britain – a style which reappears in some of the charters used to record royal land grants. What is puzzling is that Foot did not use this title, either in Latin or in translation, for her chapter heading. The explanation for this, and for many of the other peculiarities which subject specialists will find irritating about this book, is that Foot has positioned and packaged her venture with an eye to modern historians as much as medievalists. This is not a complaint about ‘popularism’. This is a scholarly academic book, heavily referenced and with all the appropriate caveats, and is certainly not aimed at the pop-history market. Rather Foot here, as at other times in her career, has positioned herself to engage with historians working in later periods, and principally those concerned with British and English nationhood as they are understood in contemporary usage. The biographical approach and the sometimes anachronistic-sounding language, as in the chapter heading ‘British Monarch’, are deliberate attempts to engage with a particular kind of historiography that is generally confined to works dealing with the period after the Glorious Revolution. The question that remains is whether the discomfort that this approach engenders in early medievalists like myself is simply the result of sectional prejudice (‘That’s not the way we do things here!’) or whether it stems from a deeper and more legitimate unease that such an approach to the tenth century is dangerously teleological and risks doing more damage than good to our understanding of the period.  

Foot has long followed in the footsteps of the late Patrick Wormald in promoting an idea that English national identity was actively promoted as a political concept by Alfred and his successors and this colours her interpretation of the evidence. In discussing the poem commemorating Æthelstan’s victory of the Hiberno-Norse Olaf and the Scot Constantín at Brunnanburh (the poem alluded to above which makes up 73 of the 84 lines given over to his reign in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), Foot argues that the ‘poet makes much of the fact that the English army consisted of West Saxon and Mercian contingents fighting together, stressing the unity of Æthelstan’s people’ (p. 172), but one could use the same evidence to argue the opposite; the fact that the poet chose to distinguish the West Saxons and the Mercians at the battle stressed the diversity of Æthelstan’s people. Throughout this book Foot emphasises political and structural unity of Æthelstan’s kingdom even when she presents us with evidence to the contrary such as the King’s known itinerary (usefully mapped in an appendix at pp. 259-266) which suggests he rarely travelled into northern and eastern parts of is realm but compelled notables from these parts to attend him in Wessex. One curious omission from the book also points to this desire to argue precocious unity for the English kingdom. There is no mention anywhere in the book of the powerful nobleman Æthelstan Half-King who from 932 until long after King Æthelstan’s death ruled East Anglia as some sort of viceroy. There is no evidence that the King ever visited East Anglia or indeed that he ever disposed of estates there. Details such as this must shed doubt on the unitary nature of Æthelstan’s imperium even amongst his English subjects. A younger generation of scholars such as Michael Davidson and George Molyneaux have argued that claims for a unified English polity going back to Æthelstan’s time are unjustified and that the evidence for standardised governance really only begins to emerge in the reigns of Edgar and Æthelred at the end of the tenth century. Æthelstan was a great king and the first to rule all the English but he did not rule a unified kingdom of England. It is to be hoped that Sarah Foot’s book will increase awareness of Æthelstan’s reign and significance outside of the small coterie of subject specialists, it will certainly stimulate debate within it.

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