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13.01.11, Livingston, The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook

13.01.11, Livingston, The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook

The Battle of Brunanburh, which took place in 937 and is celebrated in an Old English poem contained in the annals of the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle for the reign of King Aethelstan (924-39), was an encounter which saw an English force (specifically warriors from the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia) fighting against a Hiberno- Norse-Danish-Northumbrian-Scots (and probably not Welsh) coalition. The battle, which resulted in a victory for the Anglo-Saxon ruler, is generally--though not universally--acknowledged to have been an important one. Its impact was felt across the British Isles and into Scandinavia, continuing to echo in the cultural traditions of these regions for centuries. The essays reflect the interests of these linguistic communities, focusing heavily on the Battle of Brunanburh as both a text and as a battlefield location. The text of the Old English poem is central to this analysis; in many ways the poem is straightforward as an account of a heroic victory but in other ways it is more enigmatic. From a historical point of view the question of whether the poem provides an indication of where the battle took place is central to these discussions but such things as the question of the purposes of the poem, for a triumphant West Saxon dynasty, are also pertinent to the analysis. However, The Battle of Brunanburh (the poem) is not the only textual representation of the Battle of Brunanburh (the event), a fact which The Battle of Brunanburh (the book) shows eminently well.

The volume, as the subtitle A Casebook suggests, represents the collective work of thirteen contributors, many of whom have been involved in the editing and translation of some forty-six sources dating from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries, mostly as extracts but occasionally (e.g. in the case of Armes Prydein Vawr) in full, which refer to the battle and its context. These texts and their commentaries come to some 214 pages (86 pages being notes), just under half the book.

The reproduction of sources as lines from the original text with facing page English translations, vary in length from a couple of lines (the Annals of the Four Masters) to twenty-seven pages (the Stanzaic Guy of Warwick). Occasionally, when a source is well-known but its account of the battle entirely derivative, as with Roger of Wendover's Flores Historiarum and Matthew Paris's Chronica Majora, both dependent on John of Worcester, the source is left as a blank item with a note to the reader to see the notes in the commentary (where the debt to its exemplar is noted). This does mean that the list of primary sources on the contents page and on the Press's website comes out at fifty- three rather than the forty-six which are really reproduced but when this much material is tackled, nobody is going to miss seven sources which can be found elsewhere.

The use of the sources by readers of this book will doubtless vary. Historians of the events of the tenth century will presumably find the contemporary sources and the question of reliability of accounts of the battle in twelfth-century sources such as that of John of Worcester to be the most useful elements of the sources collected in this volume. For me, a new facing-page translation of Armes Prydein Vawr was most useful of the primary sources here; although translations of Armes Prydein are available, to have it juxtaposed alongside the poem on the Battle of Brunanburh from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (provided here in differing translations from the A and B manuscripts) is a valuable exercise. The broad similarities were striking, in terms of both sources' reference to a time of original settlement and the fact that both poems--the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle poem recording the past and Armes Prydein prophesising some glorious event yet to come--refer to battles as the actions of factions. I did wonder whether Armes Prydein can really be considered as representative of contemporary evidence from the 'coalition of the willing' against Aethelstan, however, and the presence of a long extract from Egil's Saga much further on in the volume serves to draw attention to what we do not know about the interests of the participants on this "Allied" side. One might question why Egil's Saga is included so far down the list when it is so important for helping us to get bearings on the significance of the battle but the editors evidently made a choice to classify the sources in strict order of chronology.

This chronology does allow a reader approaching the memory of the battle from the point of view of studying varied cultures and/or linguistic communities to get a sensible handle on the development of those collective memories, created or otherwise. However, it did affect the placement of Irish sources, such as the Annals of the Four Masters, which come at the end of the sources section. As they represent contemporary traditions (though "complicated by its textual history" [240]) which are more pertinent to the study of the battle as an event with clear political consequences than the later medieval sources with which they are included, a strictly historical reading of the sources might have given the Irish sources more priority.

Still, in terms of the editor's aims and methodology, the decisions of placement are entirely defensible. These issues aside, the source commentaries are on the whole very useful and help to give an overall coherence to the volume, though they do vary in length, depending on whether a particular source is tackled in detail in one or more of the volume's essays. Again, the lesson to the unwary reader is to read through the book: the issue of the twelfth- century monastic writer William of Malmesbury's use of a "lost" source--a contentious subject which plays a significant part in the study of Aethelstan's reign--is not raised in the commentary, leaving the reader to find out about it in Scott Thomson Smith's essay on the Latin sources.

The rest of the book consists of some eleven essays. The first, "The Roads to Brunanburh" (a nod to the singer-songwriter Al Stewart's Roads to Moscow?) is the introduction, by the editor. It is exceptionally useful in setting both the literary and historical context of the battle. The other essays are focused on the sources and the views of the battle itself. John K. Bollard, with Marged Hancock provide an essay on "The Welsh Sources Pertaining to the Battle"; Scott Thompson Smith, an essay entitled "Preliorum maximum: The Latin Tradition"; Thomas Bredehoft writes on "The Battle of Brunanburh in Old English Studies," while Robert P. Creed assesses the "Battle of Brunanburh as a Poem"; A. Keith Kelly's essay, "Truth and a Good Story: Egil's Saga and Brunanburh" tackles the Icelandic tradition, while Robert Rouse ("Romancing the Past: The Middle English Tradition") takes the consideration of traditions into the later Middle Ages. Each of these essays provides a useful, source-focused assessment of the material contained in the first half of the book, and, though Geoffrey Gaimar's Old French narrative seems to have slipped into a crack between the floorboards, it strikes me that with such a variety of rich seems of textual traditions on the battles, the authors had little choice but to take this approach. I can only offer a personal choice from the essays, noting that the essays on the Welsh sources and the Old English traditions are very useful to the historian (I wonder, given the context of tenth-century co- operation with the Sais by the likes of Hywel "Dda," the rhetoric of the Armes Prydein may have been akin to the distinction between the Egyptian government and people's stance regarding the US-led coalition against Iraq in 1991); Scott Thompson Smith's sweeping survey of the Latin tradition from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries may be a little too sweeping for deep conclusions to be drawn but even here the focus on one element in the Anglo-Latin sources of the twelfth century makes an excellent case study, which Thompson Smith pulls off with aplomb.

It is the lack of specifically historical studies which surprises, however. Perhaps it shouldn't have surprised me. This may have been a deliberate choice for an essay in a "Medieval Texts and Studies" series but the section on 'Essays on the Battle' is not really on the battle but seems to be a mix of everything else that wouldn't fit into the source criticism and, with respect to the sources stopping in the sixteenth century, one wonders if the editors had chosen to include, say, Tennyson's translation of Brunanburh or an account of the battle in some potboiler historical novel from the nineteenth century, Joanne Parker's essay on the Victorian imagination of Brunanburh could have sat just as easily in the "Essays on the Sources" section. Richard Coates, Stephen Harding, and Paul Cavill are all specifically interested in the place-names associated with Brunanburh, and collectively provide a strong case for placing the battlefield in the Wirral (at Bromborough). A discussion of the place-names is important for this volume but the conclusions are at odds with the introduction's comments that "somewhere in Britain" a battle took place (forgivable rhetoric by the editor, perhaps?). The strength of the place-name traditions associated with the site are still debated, and, had there been a historical essay in the volume, it would have been useful to get some sense of geographical context for the battle taking a position between that of Coates and Michael Wood, one of the major proponents of an alternative location for Brunanburh.

This is an interesting collection of essays and sources. Approached as a collection on the cultural significance of the Battle of Brunanburh it works well, and there are plenty of historical observations to be made from the essays in the collection, but the reader should be aware that this is not in itself a historical study of this important battle.