Ryan Lavelle's Alfred's Wars sets out to examine the conduct and the consequences of warfare in the Anglo-Saxon period. While the martial spirit of that age has done much to draw both scholars and the greater public to the period--whether in the blood of Beowulf or in the bones of the great poems on the battles of Maldon or Brunanburh--there is little question that the field of military history in Anglo-Saxon England has been far less tilled than that of the Hundred Years' War, for instance. In particular, Anglo-Saxon England has lacked a go-to study that can introduce readers to this tumultuous and fascinating period in history.
For its efforts to redress this relative paucity of scholarship, both by coalescing extant opinions and forging a few new insights on its own, Alfred's Wars well deserves much of the success it has gained thus far (the book won, for instance, the 2012 Verbruggen Prize). In the first of nine chapters thick with professionally requisite footnotes, Lavelle utilizes the career of Æthelweard, a tenth-century ealdorman (and author of the Latin Chronicon), to reflect the reader back through the ideologies of warfare across the period (Chapter 1). He then studies, in turn, the primary combatants on English shores (Chapter 2), the pragmatic questions of military equipment and organization on both land (Chapter 3) and sea (Chapter 4), what we are able to discern of Anglo-Saxon campaign strategies (Chapter 5), what is known about fortifications in the period (Chapter 6), the specific situations of some known battlefields (Chapter 7), and the post-conflict peacemaking that was driven by strategies that could bite as sharp as swords (Chapter 8). The final section of Lavelle's book (Chapter 9) aims to sum up the book as a whole by recalling Æthelweard and making a few observations regarding the continuity of the Anglo-Saxon state beyond the Norman Conquest in 1066.
A few things stand out from even this bare outline of Lavelle's work. The first and perhaps most obvious is that Alfred's Wars is a rather misleading title. This is a book that is centralized around the reign of King Alfred the Great (871-899) only insofar as his reign falls chronologically somewhat near to the center of the greater history of conflict between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, a period that Lavelle appears to date from c. 789 to 1087. The reader seeking a thorough examination of the Alfredian wars in particular will find it here only in bits and pieces spread across a larger framework. In this regard, the book's subtitle is a far more accurate descriptor of its contents: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age. As it happens, though, even in this description there is some disconnect between expectation and content, at least for this reader. Leaving aside the fact that Lavelle uses "Viking" here and across much of this book with little accommodation to that term's problematic history, such a subtitle suggests that Lavelle is bringing together a kind of sourcebook for the study of Anglo-Saxon warfare-- which is only half-true. Lavelle does not include, for instance, full text of the sources available for the study of even the Battle of Ethandun, likely the most famous of Alfred's fights. It is true that the book does utilize such sources heavily in its interpretations, and it does quote them at length, but these uses are fragmented and scattered as they apply within the thematic structure that Lavelle has chosen.
Indeed, while I could quibble and argue with several positions taken within the book--Lavelle's application of A.H. Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" to medieval warfare (177-179) certainly raised my eyebrow-- these are small matters against what struck this reader as the primary weakness of the book: the decision to construct it around different aspects of warfare rather than around a chronological history of warfare in the period. What Lavelle has to say about the Battle of Ethandun, for instance, collectively provides a fine understanding of this remarkable event; alas, this very useful reading is spread across over a dozen discussions in six chapters. The writer knows his sources to such a high degree that I consistently wanted to hear all he had to say on a given subject, only to find myself instead piecing it together on my own. And while there is no doubt some utility to studying naval warfare across the age, it must be said that maritime matters do not exist in a vacuum: war at sea is affected by war on land, which is affected by fortifications, which is affected by political machinations both in war and peace, and so on. The inevitably multi-faceted nature of warfare and the profound effect of a cross-cultural historical upheaving that explodes the kind of arbitrary thematic divisions Lavelle attempts to establish (like, for instance, the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum) results in a volume that can be both repetitive and sorely lacking in context. As but one example, Alfred's first appearance as the military leader that would earn him the epithet "the Great" was as a victorious prince at the Battle of Ashdown in 871. This engagement was of tremendous importance for being the first clear Anglo-Saxon victory over what contemporary writers described simply as se micel here, the Great Army. This confederation of "Vikings" had arrived in East Anglia in 865 and had gone on to sweep through Northumbria and parts of Mercia before turning its eyes on Wessex, then ruled by Alfred's brother, Æthelred. As with Ethandun, the "sources and interpretations" of the Battle of Ashdown are not in any single place but rather dispersed across the multiple thematic areas of Lavelle's work (thus at times requiring repetitive restatement of key social or political developments relative to the event). Worse, this monumental event is as a result never clearly situated within the historical context of the Great Army that is so vital to understanding its impact. In fact, not once in this examination of warfare in the Viking Age is the Great Army discussed at any length, even though it is arguably the single most important influence on warfare in the period. Even more astonishingly, the arrival of the Great Army merits no mention in Lavelle's Appendix chronology of "key events and military campaigns from the ninth to eleventh centuries" (339-347), and the Index of the volume lists neither the Great Army nor any of its leaders, the supposed sons of Ragnar Lodbrok (Ivarr, Halfdan, and Ubbe), to say nothing of Bagsecg, the later leader of the reinforcing Great Summer Army of the Danes killed at Ashdown.
As a result, for all its erudition and accumulation of sources both primary and secondary (Lavelle reprints large swaths of other scholars' works, though very strangely he allows footnotes to enumerate through them as if there is no break between his work and theirs), Alfred's Wars does not ultimately fill our need for a standard starting point for the study of warfare in the period. To the contrary, the book is aimed at an audience that knows enough of the period to fill in the blanks of history (like the Great Army) and make the necessary collective connections between independent discussions of events or places (like Ashdown). Even as a reference work Alfred's Wars can require some level of academic knowledge: Ethandun, for instance, is not actually listed in the Index. To see what Lavelle has to say about this greatest of Alfred's victories, one is required to know that Anglo-Saxon Ethandun is, in Modern English, Edington; one ought to look for references there. The Battle of Ellendun, on the other hand, merits no such modernizing treatment, probably because Ellendun was likely fought near Wroughton in Wiltshire, while Ethandun was (almost) assuredly fought near Edington. To learn about Ethandun one apparently needs to know a great deal about Ethandun!
Although it is far from the "comprehensive guide" to Alfred's reign that its cover copy promises (the mistake of an over-enthusiastic editor, no doubt), and although I have disagreed with its structure in addition to other features of the book, there remains lasting value in what Ryan Lavelle has accomplished in Alfred's Wars. For the scholar already engaged in the period and armed with a ready knowledge of the basic history, this book provides a fresh look at many key elements of warfare across the full range of this fascinating period. In spite of its misleadingly precise title, therefore, Alfred's Wars will, without question, be oft-examined by those scholars working across the formative centuries of the land that would become England.