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13.04.03, Petts and Turner, eds., Early Medieval Northumbria

13.04.03, Petts and Turner, eds., Early Medieval Northumbria

This volume, the fruit of a 2006 conference in Newcastle, offers a Northumbrian longue durée with the aim to flatten out the eighth-century peak in historical evidence and scholarly attention created by Northumbria's glorious Golden Age. It does so, successfully, by paying close attention to regional differences that mitigate against any sweeping generalizations about the swirl of identities and shifting boundaries between the fifth and twelfth centuries in Northumbria, which was "not a culturally homogenous zone" (5). Three key words stick out in this archaeological survey: narrative, or rather anti-narrative in the sense of deconstructing seamless histories; its antidote, regionalism, a focus on local variations; and choice, that is intentionality in the way Northumbrians produced diverse artifacts to represent competing ideologies as well as cultural syncretism.

The contributors include several leading lights: Martin Carver, Michelle Brown, Julian D. Richards, and R. A. Hall, whose death prior to publication is mourned in the volume (vii). Other contributions showcase the ongoing research of new millennium doctoral students from York, Newcastle, Oxford, and Durham. Many of the essays serve up simultaneously a literature review giving the state of the field, while offering new results on specific locales and suggestions for further research. After an initial survey introduction by editors David Petts and Sam Turner, the volume is divided into two cleverly titled sections, "Regions and Places" and "Identities and Material Culture," although arguably essays in the first part address identities via material culture while those in the latter part share an emphasis on regional distinctions. Overall, it is a useful book for anyone interested in early medieval societies and archaeology, with only minor annoyances. A couple of the essays suffer from the usual dissertation affliction of heavy secondary quoting or intrusive constructs. Although the images and color plates are fine, the charts and maps are uniformly fuzzy and hard to read, which is unfortunate since many of the essays are data heavy.

The book could just as easily be called the archaeologists' reply to historians in the way that it adds to the ongoing dialogue between the material and written records, and the gaps in each. The editors emphasize a salutary rapprochement between the two disciplines, pointing out those who move between textual and material sources as exemplary (10). Curiously, two of the three so noted are senior scholars, one a manuscript specialist (Brown) and the other an archaeologist (Carver), while the third is a recent graduate of Queen's Oxford mentored by historian John Blair (Felicity H. Clark). The remainder of the essays are archaeologically based, often deploying new approaches to material culture in their study of place names, waterways and boats, halls and churches, manuscripts, burial grounds and grave goods, monuments, combs, and metal artifacts. In that sense, the volume is dominated by archaeologists speaking to historians, with Carver's bridging essay at the start of Part 2 offering a broader vision of how to read early medieval Northumbrian material culture.

One of the evidences of this dialogue is the repeated use of the word "narrative," which appears to be archaeological speak for historians' propensity to tell a coherent story that omits significant variation evident in the material evidence. Thus Mark Wood ("Bernician Transitions: Place-Names and Archaeology") offers "fragmented narratives" against the "dominant narrative" of a consistent hybrid Anglian-Brittonic culture, emphasizing considerable regional variation in these interactions (60-61). Nicola J. Toop ("Northumbria in the West: Considering Interaction Through Monumentality") attacks Bede's "flat narrative" but offers her own "simplified narrative," outlining a "series of interactions" producing a "diverse patchwork of polities" in the region (86, 104). Still, the historian Clark ("Thinking about Western Northumbria") is willing to give Bede more credit for recognizing distinctly different zones of Anglian influence in the west.

Against any synthesizing narrative, regionalism as a theme prevails. Rob Collins ("Military Communities and Transformation of the Frontier from the Fourth to the Sixth Centuries") uses his "occupational community theory" to show how limitanei left behind by the retreating Roman military transformed themselves into warbands for the new local elites, but in different ways in different places. R. A. Hall's survey of fifth to twelfth century York ("Recent Research into Early Medieval York and its Hinterland") notes differences between two parts of the region in the Anglo-Scandinavian era, one showing Anglian continuity (Dixon Lane/George Street) and discontinuity in another (16-22 Coppergate). Julian Richards and John Naylor ("Settlement, Landscape, and Economy in Early Medieval Northumbria: The Contributions of Portable Antiquities") divides Northumbria into zones to make best use of the portable antiquities scheme for recording metal finds, with the unsurprising conclusion that patterns of settlement were not uniform, especially the differential in evidence between east (more) and west (less) of the Pennines, as well as Northumbria's unique "artefact fingerprint" compared to Southumbria.

Regionalism does not suggest isolation, however, as many of the essays address issues of migration and cultural encounters. Christopher Ferguson ("Re-Evaluating Early Medieval Northumbrian Contacts and the 'Coastal Highway') emphasizes transregional contact by demonstrating how much easier or quicker boat travel was along the coast or inland waterways than overland. Brown's essay ("'Excavating' Northumbrian Manuscripts: Reappraising Regionalism in Insular Manuscript Production") claims an archaeological approach with a regional bent: she challenges the "magnet" theory of "polarized production centres" like Monkwearmouth/Jarrow and Canterbury and posits instead monastic federations that transcended territorial boundaries, including a Mercian schriftprovinz (270-271, 279). She also makes a delightful argument that if Iona is Ireland abroad, then Lichfield is Northumbria "abroad" in Mercia, thus both supporting regionality and translocalism.

It is Carver, nonetheless, who best mediates the ground between sweeping historical narrative and the undermining effects of regionalism in material artifacts. Carver wants both. He simply adds to, rather than subtracts from, the Bedan narrative of migration, kingship, and conversion his own subversive storyline of local "subterranean" views, using the construct of intellectual communities to identify regional affiliations where people thought alike, similar to Brown's use of schriftprovinz. Here is where the theme of choice comes through: Carver would rather believe that the diversity in the material record reveals an intentional dialogue rather than a muddle or babble, such that multivalent artifacts are evidence of "free thinking" in local choices of cultural models to adapt (187, 195). He contrasts this free thinking with an unfortunate definition of religion as "an ideology that has stopped thinking." What he means by this is apparently not religion as a cultural phenomenon but institutional religion that uses power to enforce conformity, which may not apply to all religions and certainly not to early medieval Christianities. What he particularly attacks, rightly so but not the first to do so, is the pernicious effects of the pagan versus Christian model of reading artifacts, not to mention texts. "It is not the Northumbrians who were confused, it is us," so "if we free them from these anachronistic terms, we may hear what they have to say" (201). And for Carver, and many of the essayists, it is all about politics and ideology--whether belief plays any role is unclear. Brown, however, demonstrates more empathy for the synthesizing impulse of local Christians, noting that "you had to really want to make the Lindisfarne Gospels look the way it does" (273), even if it is the product of one brilliant artist-scribe who initiated no new trends (276).

This theme of intentionality in the diverse record of artifacts is highlighted in other essays. Colm O'Brien ("Yeavering and Bernician Kingship: A Review of Debate on the Hybrid Culture Thesis") "acknowledges syncretism and the awareness of a deep past embedded here as being fundamental to the exercise of kingship at Yeavering" (209), ending with a salient quote from Patrick Geary on how elites "appropriated disparate traditions and invented new ones" (218). Jenny Walker (The Recursive Structuring of Space: Socio-political and Religious Performance in the Hall") explores the ideological manipulation of early medieval people at Doon Hill and Yeavering, endeavoring to create "an idealized image of themselves and their place in the world" (233). Sarah Groves extracts increasing social stratification from the unusual presence of animal bones accompanying physically active adult males ("Social and Biological Status in the Bowl Hole: Early Medieval Burial Ground, Bamburgh, Northumberland"). Even comb designs, made of worked bone or antler, reveal conscious fashion choices that reflect cultural dynamics, in Steven P. Ashby's essay ("A Study of Regionality: Hair Combs and Bone/Antler Craft in North-east England c. AD 800-1100"), with Irish-influenced Anglian styles resistant to Scandinavian influence. Aleksandra McClain ("Local Churches and the Conquest of the North: Elite Patronage and Identity in Saxo-Norman Northumbria") examines the long phase of church rebuilding begun in the Anglo-Scandinavian era of Northumbria before the Norman Conquest, changes she sees as part of local negotiations (155) and the formation of elite (rather than ethnic) identities (162) evident in their conscious choices to preserve Anglian architecture: new patrons recognized the value of that past and bought into it (170).

So what does a historian make of this archaeological invitation to dialogue? First of all, it is very exciting to have access to diverse data enriching the historical record (although this reviewer would have liked more from the later ninth and tenth centuries--most of the essays are focused on the earlier period or on the broad sweep). Second, historians are well aware of the danger of subscribing to dominant narratives to the exclusion of regional variation and are well attuned to the problematic nature of the written record; if anything, recent historiography has tended to attack such narratives while highlighting the marginal, oppressed, or subversive voices from the past, so these archaeological finds provide more grist for that mill. However, narrative in itself is not wrong or bad as some seem to imply. Rather, it is a basic human impulse, in both early medieval Northumbria and today. The kinds of narratives we write today say as much about us as Northumbrian artifacts and texts do about early medieval cultures. And what this book seems to say about us, is that we prefer fragmentation to wholeness and individual freedom rather than orthodoxy. I should think, though, that many early medieval Christians and Northumbrian elites had different values, even if they varied from each other in their vision of society, and were more prone to synthesizing and unifying.