Bernard Bachrach

title.none: Hill, Anglo-Saxon Warrior Ethic (Bachrach)

identifier.other: baj9928.0101.017 01.01.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Bernard Bachrach, University of Minnesota,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Hill, John M. The Anglo-Saxon Warrior Ethic: Reconstructing Lordship in Early English Literature. Gainsville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000. Pp. ix, 174. $55.00. ISBN: 0-813-01769-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.01.17

Hill, John M. The Anglo-Saxon Warrior Ethic: Reconstructing Lordship in Early English Literature. Gainsville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000. Pp. ix, 174. $55.00. ISBN: 0-813-01769-6.

Reviewed by:

Bernard Bachrach
University of Minnesota

Hill, professor of English literature at the United States Naval Academy, sets as his primary task an examination of how a very limited selection of Anglo-Saxon writers, four, treat the relationship of important secular magnates, whom he labels "lords", to the men who serve them in a military capacity. These men he styles "warriors" and the relationship, he calls "lordship". Hill argues that the way in which writers of vernacular Old English literature, between the later eighth and later tenth centuries, treat this "lordship" changed over time. While such an observation certainly may have interest for specialists in literature, Hill believes that, in fact, this literature is reality-based in so far as the different ways in which the authors under consideration here treat lordship over time mirrors changes in Anglo-Saxon society itself. He even goes to far to suggest in his conclusions that some of the work under discussion may have been authored to stimulate these changes. If Hill is correct in this observation then historians might well find it useful to look at some stories found in the vernacular literature for the purpose of illustrating what was going on in the real world that they have constructed, for example, through the use of government documents and/or archaeological artifacts.

Hill begins with a matrix of controlling assumptions regarding the "story world" of the literature in which the activities and ideas that he is studying take place. He asserts that the Anglo-Saxon authors, whom he studies, depict a "face-to-face" society. This world, Hill avers, is "noncentralized" and "nonstatist". Further, he observes that "simple ideals of behavior and law" flourished. (4) In this context, he affirms that the Anglo-Saxon England depicted in this literature is similar to the primitive worlds studied by modern anthropologists. Indeed, he confidently applies the results of anthropological fieldwork in sub-Saharan Africa to the story world he describes as though information were transferrable as a consequence of this putatively shared primitivism. (23)

Anglo-Saxon England, by contrast with Hill's story world, was a Carolingian-type state. There was a substantial central bureaucracy and a flourishing government at the local level. Indeed, a great many thousands of lambs were slaughtered each year merely to provide parchment to administer Anglo-Saxon England at its various levels of government. The maintenance of the physical infrastructure of roads, bridges, and fortifications, that had been created by the Romans, was sustained by institutions such as the "tri-noda necessitas" which had its origins in the later Roman empire as indicated in the Codex Theodosianus . Offa of Mercia (d. 796), who built his great dike which separated England from Wales, mobilized vast human and material resources through a sophisticated government apparatus which was based upon practical literacy. The men who carried out the surveys for the "tribal hidage" and the "burghal hidage" not only were literate and were numerate, like their successors who produced Domesday Book, but possessed considerable surveying abilities. These latter skills, which also resulted in the Roman layout of many Anglo-Saxon burghs, likely were learned through study of the Agrimensores ; these texts were well known and frequently copied throughout the early medieval West. The West Saxon kings headed a sophisticated military organization which could put into the field in excess of 10,000 fighting men for either offensive or defensive operations throughout the regnum and its frontiers through the use of the "select obsequia ", i.e. military households of mercenary soldiers supported in the households of the great lay and ecclesiastical magnates of the realm. Alfred built a large navy with newly designed ships and pursued a military strategy, which today we call "defense in depth", that coordinated offensive land operations, the defensive use of burghs, and the interdiction of enemy ships at sea.

Hill's appreciation of Anglo-Saxon story-reality is so fundamentally different from historical reality, that whatever value that may be found in Warrior Ethic must lie in providing insights into the kinds of fantasies that were thought entertaining by early medieval Anglophones. However, Hill insists upon littering his analysis with bromides of Freudian psychoanalysis which at this late date is so thoroughly discredited that psychiatrists no longer even bother to criticize it. Psychoanalysts have never provided scientifically sound research to support the notion that their metier ameliorates mental illness, much less that it has value for providing the keys to understanding human behavior in all places at all times. Indeed, one would be hard put to find psychoanalysts either teaching in medical schools or practicing in mental hospitals. With this background in mind, it boggles the imagination that some specialists in literature still take Freud seriously. Indeed, Freud is used by Hill in a manner which suggests that concepts such as "orality" play the same role in his epistemology that "revelation" plays for the Christian theologian.

A second problem created by Hill, which stands in the way of his ability to convey what was interesting to the Anglo-Saxon audience, is a doctrinaire adherence to the notion that the putative variable "primitive" permits the introduction of information from sub-Saharan Africa which someone or other also sees as primitive. For example, in discussing Wiglif who putatively "moves from a novice warrior status to that of a young warrior about to prove himself in battle", Hill asserts; "Undoubtedly he has already gone through a warrior initiation ritual of some sort--anthropological reports on such rituals, while usualy coming from clan-based societies (the Anglo-Saxons did not form clans), note in common a socializing effect, a channeling of competitive aggression between the mixed cohorts of older and younger warriors." Hill then goes on to discuss Fadiman's "particularly detailed account" of what the Meru of Mt. Kenya do. (23).

For some eight centuries prior to the construction of the earliest of Hill's literary artifacts, Beowulf , first the Romans and then her successor kingdoms in the West recruited Germanophones and others from beyond the frontiers as allies and mercenaries on a large scale. For example, the Romans settled Indo-iranian Sarmatians and Alans in Britain and the Merovingian kings during the later sixth century recruited Saxons as military colonists and settled them at Bayeux. Some of the soldiers, who recruited to serve in the West, went home to places like Vendel in Sweden, where they had their smiths imitate Roman army equipment--also compare the description of helmets in Beowulf and the one found at Sutton Hoo. In any event, these German speakers were trained in traditional Western methods of warfare and went through Western rituals in the process. Mt. Kenya is not on the radar screen.

Whether various Anglo-Saxon stories, which found their written form likely somewhere between the later eighth and later tenth centuries, provide differing constructions of "lordship" is not clear from this study. Hill does not seem to appreciate that in the real world, it is necessary to provide definitions, which, of course, must be both necessary and sufficient, if he is to demonstrate change. Without these definitions, the reader is left with observations that often gave this reviewer the impression that he was being admitted into the author's stream of consciousness as one or another fragment of text crossed the computer screen. In short, other than the obvious fact that in one or another story some fighting men die in combat with their "lord" and in other stories some fighting men do not die with their "lord" there seems to be not much at issue. Whether a "N" of four stories written down in the course of some two centuries, which are discussed by Hill, illustrate anything more than the idiosyncratic interests of a particular author with regard to what Hill styles "lordship" remains unproven.

Finally, it is necessary to emphasize that the notion of a "warrior" is a romantic fantasy that has no insitutionalized place in real war or for that matter in military organization. Indeed, the attributes of a so-called heroic code pursued by these storybook "warriors" are the antithesis of what military operations are about. Individualism, which is high in the heroic calculus, undermines unit cohesion which is at the center of military effectiveness. The pursuit of personal glory erodes discipline in the unit and when sought after by the leader undermines the morale in his troops who rapidly get the idea that they could be sacrificed to the commander's personal agenda. In Western civilization, warrior heroes from Achilles to Rambo have been a staple of entertainment, employed, of course, with our enthusiastic complicity to dull our sensibilities to the painful reality that war is hell.