The Medieval Review 11.06.36

Hooke, Della. Trees in Anglo-Saxon England: : Literature, Lore and Landscape. Anglo-Saxon Studies. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 310. $90. 978-1-84383-565-3. . .

Reviewed by:

Richard Keyser
Western Kentucky University

In this deeply researched and engagingly written book, one of England's most accomplished landscape historians shifts her gaze from patterns of settlement and land use to trees and woodlands. Shaped by the distinctive English tradition of landscape history, which following the pioneering studies of W. G. Hoskins in the 1950s blends history, archeology, and the direct observation of local landscapes, [1] Hooke's voluminous scholarship--including a dozen books--has focused on the Anglo-Saxon period. In this book Hooke examines the role of trees from a broad, interdisciplinary perspective, one that should interest scholars in a variety of fields, including historical ecology, environmental history, medieval studies, literature, and folklore.

Although Hooke's comprehensive approach to her subject means that the book as a whole does not argue a specific thesis, it demonstrates just how omnipresent trees were in the lives and imaginations of Anglo- Saxons--and, as her frequent comparisons suggest, of many other early peoples. This comment applies primarily, however, to the first of the book's three parts, which examines how trees figure in religion and culture. The second two parts of the book instead focus on trees and woodland in different types of landscape, and thus draw more directly on Hooke's previous work, especially her masterly synthesis, The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England (Leicester University Press, 1998). Yet even for readers familiar with her work, the second two parts of the book usefully approach the landscape from an arboreal perspective, which remained secondary in most of her earlier publications. Moreover, Part II offers a convenient reiteration of her arguments about the character of English landscapes in the Anglo- Saxon period and how they changed over the long term. I will return to this below, after a more detailed review of the newer material of the book's first part.

In Part I, called "Tree Symbolism," Hooke surveys a myriad of references to trees in religion, literature, folklore, and archeology. She puts the fragmentary Anglo-Saxon evidence into a wider European and occasionally even global context, filling gaps in the English record most frequently by turning to Ireland, Wales, and other Celtic areas, whose cultures preserve more traces of early interest in trees (e.g., 24, 36). Methodologically, this survey consists essentially of an inventory of the archeological and textual evidence. Although Hooke mentions in passing a number of modern interpretations of "tree symbolism" and examines how certain texts or cultural practices imagined the role of trees and landscapes, she does not explicitly engage in any debates about how early ideas about nature should be understood. Given this decidedly empirical approach, it may not be surprising that she omits any discussion of the contemporary rise of ecocriticism in literature and cultural studies. But more problematic is the fact that she overlooks a number of recent works that bear directly on how Anglo-Saxons made sense of the natural world, including studies by Nicholas Howe, Clare Lees and Gillian Overing, and Alfred Siewers. [2]

Divided up according to both chronological and disciplinary criteria, the four chapters of Part I cover, respectively, pre-Christian cultures, the impact of Christianity, literature, and folklore. The first chapter briefly surveys cultures that predate the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the "melting pot" of the British Isles (6). After noting the widespread evidence for sacred groves and archeological findings of prehistoric wooden figurines and ceremonial post- enclosures, Hooke reviews Greco-Roman, Irish, and Norse literary evidence for the role of trees in pagan religions. The second, more substantial, chapter on Christianity pursues some of these themes by examining how missionaries and monks cut down sacred groves and sought to eradicate pagan nature worship, an effort that was only partially counterbalanced by the propagation of such Christian tree symbolism as the trees of life, of knowledge, and of Jesse. Yet even while penitentials and canon law collections combated some heathenish practices and superstitions, others persisted, albeit in baptized form. Examples include the Anglo-Saxon emphasis on the cross as a transformed (holy) tree, notably in the Dream of the Rood, churches that were built on the sites of sacred groves, and churchyards that boast very old yew trees, which later centuries came to see as symbols of resurrection.

The third chapter begins its survey of Anglo-Saxon literature by noting that runes, riddles, and collections of healing charms known as leechdoms contain numerous references to specific trees and plants. Though these sources are in many ways distinctively Anglo-Saxon, the botanical and medical lore they relate derives from a variety of sources, some of them Greco-Roman. Hooke points out, however, that in much Old English literature, "nature for its own sake finds little place" (69). In this she follows Jennifer Neville, who argues that Christian writers largely succeeded in expunging pagan cosmology and nature worship from the literary texts that have been preserved. [3] In the surviving literature the natural landscape typically serves merely as a stylized backdrop, especially as a desolate place of exile, or as a forbidding wilderness harboring wolves, monsters, or devils, such as the famously sinister lair of Grendel and his mother in Beowulf. Spiritually, the natural world often represents "the danger and insecurity of worldly life," as in Bede's likening of man's brief life on earth to the flight of a sparrow through a fire- lit hall on a dark winter's night (70). Yet Hooke notes that some religious texts reflect "a kinder view of the wilderness," such as the isolated spot that a hermit came to love (84-5). In contrast, Irish literature seems to have absorbed pagan associations of nature into Christian culture more successfully.

In the fourth chapter Hooke compiles a fascinating catalog of trees in folklore and customary behavior. She notes that while some of these traditions may have survived into the Anglo-Saxon period from a more remote past, others are known only from later periods, but may have earlier roots. Examples include great trees that marked the place of tribal or political assemblies or royal residences, like the five sacred trees of Ireland. Oak trees often marked preaching places or served as "Gospel Oaks," where the Lord's Prayer was read out during the perambulation of parish boundaries. Many saints' lives preserve legends of flowering staffs, which when struck into the ground flowered or grew as trees. In Norman and later periods, various human figures that were strongly associated with wild nature, including "green men" and wild men or satyrs, began to crop up in English literature and art. Hooke opines that all of these probably represented the evil, uncontrollable forces of nature, at least for the church, even if some were more benignly indicative of natural rebirth, like the May King. She points out that while modern practices like maypole dancing, Yule logs, and the bringing of greenery into the home at Christmas may have deep roots, their antiquity can rarely be proven. Such customs may have been introduced in the later Middle Ages or the early modern period, rather than reflecting, as James Frazer and Robert Graves once argued, direct survivals from ancient paganism.

In Parts II and III, Hooke turns to the role of trees and woodland in the landscape, and here she defends both the methods of landscape history and the conclusions concerning the Anglo-Saxon period that she has presented elsewhere. In these sections of the book she draws above all on the documentary evidence of place names and the boundary clauses found in many charters, but she interprets these textual clues in the light of the pertinent facts of geology, hydrology, and meteorology, of such archeological data as pollen analyses, animal remains, and building excavations, and of the study of more recent documents, maps, and surviving features of the landscape.

In Part II Hooke examines the nature and distribution of woodland in Anglo-Saxon England as a whole (chs. 5-7). The weight of this evidence, Hooke argues, corroborates the picture that she and other leading English landscape historians have painted over the last generation, one that turns on its head the view commonly held until the 1970s that lowland England was thickly wooded in the Anglo-Saxon period, and only became lastingly transformed into a predominantly cultivated landscape after about the eleventh century. The new vision instead sees most of England as already having been cleared and cultivated by the late Bronze Age, and as having experienced only modest regeneration of woodlands in subsequent periods. In particular, after the Romans' fifth-century departure, woodland regeneration was, at least in southern and central England, minimal (113-15). Thus she tends to concur with the more assertive arguments of the botanist Oliver Rackham, who famously calculated from Domesday Book that by 1086 only about 15% of England (in the surveyed counties) was wooded, and that most of this was managed as wood pasture or coppice. The primeval "wildwood" had long since disappeared. [4]

Hooke's arguments are, however, both more tentative and more nuanced than Rackham's. These characteristics of her work owe much to the fact that she concentrates on the Anglo-Saxon period, which is comparatively poor in both texts and (so far) archeological evidence. In contrast, Rackham, who has contributed more than anyone else to the new understanding of traditional woodland management, focuses primarily on the period since ca. 1250, when account books, estate surveys, and modern maps offer more detailed information, and secondarily on prehistory and antiquity, which are better served by the scientific data of paleobotany and landscape archeology. He devotes much less attention to the intervening Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods, which tend to get folded into his emphasis on the essential continuity in management practices between the Iron Age and the eighteenth century.

Few scholars have as yet questioned this new paradigm of continuity, [5] and Hooke herself does not explicitly take issue with it. Nonetheless, she points out that so far the results of paleoecological and archeological research leave much open to doubt for the early Middle Ages (121). Similarly, she recognizes that the documentary evidence of place names and boundary descriptions on which she focuses is spotty; only half of the 1600 surviving Anglo-Saxon charters contain boundary clauses, and these are concentrated in southern and central England. Even where texts exist they cannot offer certainty about the landscape, because the interpretation of the meaning of place names is "rarely secure" (49); place names originating in one period may no longer reflect land use in subsequent periods (126); it is "impossible to know" whether references to tree species in boundary clauses and place names refer to one outstanding specimen or to a local abundance of that species (167-9); and the texts reveal almost nothing about how woodland trees were managed (158).

Hooke compensates for these problems by combining as many different types of evidence as possible and by carefully mapping all the available information locally and regionally. For the most part her review of this material confirms her own and other landscape historians' views, in particular by emphasizing the enduring contrasts among several classic types of landscape within lowland England, including open field countryside, areas characterized by dispersed settlement and abundant wood pasture (Rackham's "Ancient Countryside," similar to the French bocage), the moorlands of the southwest peninsula, the grassy chalk downlands of southern England, and various wetlands.

Hooke's detailed attention to the Anglo-Saxon period allows her to paint a more complex picture than the prevailing emphasis on continuity sometimes suggests. Thus she argues that in the Anglo- Saxon period the distinctiveness of the above regions became particularly pronounced. The sharpening of these contrasts was due to several factors: in the Midlands the development of open field agriculture had probably already begun to intensify production and concentrate settlement, but this system had yet to spread much elsewhere. In fact the collapse of Roman towns and government probably lessened overall demand for agricultural produce, leading in some areas to the abandonment of field systems and a return to a traditional emphasis on pastoralism. Thus many regions outside the Midlands were less fully farmed than in Roman and later medieval times (165). And while the Roman departure may not have led to widespread regeneration of woodland, this may have occurred locally, especially along tribal boundaries, whose wood pastures only later became subdivided among individual estates (115-18). She also cites archeological excavations of timber used in construction that suggest large trees were plentiful and that some of them grew in dense woodlands; only later did timber from large trees become scarce. Some small wood derived from coppicing just as in later periods, but some of it indicates "rather casual management" (159). By the later Anglo- Saxon period there is more evidence for the regeneration of woodland in many regions, much of which may reflect a new taste for hunting among the nobility and royalty, in line with trends on the continent (142-3).

Finally, Part III assembles evidence concerning individual tree species (ch. 8-12). Chapters eight to ten discuss the species that were associated with three of the types of landscape introduced in Part II, treating trees of, respectively, well-wooded "Ancient Countryside," wetlands, and open field countryside. The last two chapters consider the species that occur in a variety of habitats and those that make little or no appearance in the written records. While repeating some of the facts and ideas of the first two parts of the book, the five chapters of Part III add much more detail about each species' distribution, habitats, uses, and associated lore. These chapters epitomize the book as a whole insofar as their encyclopedic character, while perhaps unappealing to some readers, should attract others for their rich and accessible trove of information and ideas about trees and landscapes in Anglo-Saxon England.



1. Matthew H. Johnson, "On the Particularism of English Landscape Archaeology," International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 9 (2005): 111-122.

2. See for example: Nicholas Howe, "The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England: Inherited, Invented, Imagined," in Inventing Medieval Landscapes: Senses of Place in Western Europe, ed. John Howe and Michael Wolfe (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002), 91- 112; Clare Lees and Gillian Overing, "Anglo-Saxon Horizons: Places of the Mind in the Northumbrian Landscape," in their edited collection A Place to Believe In: Locating Medieval Landscapes University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006); with other essays here on the Anglo-Saxon landscape by Stacy Klein, Kelley Wickham-Crowley, and Ian Wood; Alfred Siewers, "Landscapes of Conversion: Guthlac's Mound and Grendel's Mere as Expressions of Anglo-Saxon Nation-Building," Viator 34 (2003): 1-39.

3. Jennifer Neville, Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

4. Oliver Rackham, Ancient Woodland: its History, Vegetation, and Uses in England, rev. ed. (Castlepoint, 2003), 103-36.

5. But see: Dolly Wilson [now Jørgensen], "Multi-Use Management of the Medieval Anglo-Norman Forest," Journal of the Oxford University History Society 1 (2004): 1-16; Richard Keyser, "The Transformation of Traditional Woodland Management: Commercial Sylviculture in Medieval Champagne," French Historical Studies 32 (2009): 353-84.