14.04.17, Bates & Liddiard, eds., East Anglia and its North Sea World

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Richard C. Hoffmann

The Medieval Review 14.04.17

Bates, David and Robert Liddiard. East Anglia and its North Sea World in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013. Pp. xiv, 349. ISBN: 9781843838463.

Reviewed by:
Richard C. Hoffmann
York University, Toronto

The common intent of this collection's seventeen essays may seem straightforward enough: how did the medieval regional community of East Anglia, the easternmost projection of England, engage with its maritime frontiers? Or is it all that clear? A potentially fecund ambiguity surfaces when the preface announces that "this book sets out to discuss medieval East Anglia" (xiii), while co-editor Robert Liddiard's introduction claims that "this collection... takes the North Sea during the Middle Ages as its central theme..." (3) So, land or sea? Just two paragraphs in Liddiard's fifteen pages do actually discuss the sea; all else is devoted to medieval human connections across it. This is, to be sure, a fair representation of the book itself, where "the North Sea world" is no marine environment but a barren stage where only human actors and artifacts move.

The book resulted from a conference held at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, in April 2010. While contributors are identified only by name, a modest search reveals nine from institutions in East Anglia, five from elsewhere in southeastern England, three from other universities in England and Wales, and only one based outside the British Isles. They include historians and archaeologists; landscape, art, numismatics, and architecture specialists; and experts on medieval religion, economic life, painting, and animals. Presenters and conference audience alike surely enjoyed lively and familiar interactions and the University of East Anglia demonstrated its engagement with its regional heritage: this wealthy but peripheral province of medieval England had many connections abroad.

The body of the book is divided into three parts. The first comprises four "overviews" mainly of East Anglia as a distinctive territorial space. John Hines finds the entity of East Anglia to originate in post-Roman interchanges of objects and people between Scandinavia and eastern Britain and the political attractiveness of wealthy settler dynasts. Tom Williamson identifies the regional landscape as established by north- and south-flowing river basins and its unity as created by the southern Wuffingas who were memorialized at the ship burial of Sutton Hoo and enriched by exchanges across the southern North Sea to Frankish Gaul and beyond. In a sprawling and often hypothetical discussion ("...must have been influenced," 77), Bryan Ayers considers late medieval material culture (ca. 1200-1500) around interlocking themes of urbanism, ships, and commercial contacts around the sea. David King then uses interregional parallels among artistic structures and motifs in various media to speculate upon potential lines of transmission. Some of these themes are picked up by authors of subsequent parts; others are not.

Part II, called "Trade and Economy," contains six essays with at least some shared chronological or methodological aspects. Numismatists Gareth Williams and Rory Naismith treat respectively the circulation of foreign coins in sixth-century East Anglia before the first local coinage, and the interaction of indigenous moneyers and monarchs who provided those circulating in this most monetized part of pre-Viking (eighth- and ninth-century) England. In a quite different approach, zooarchaeologist Aleksander Pluskowski compares the capture of wild animals in the Scandinavian and Russian north to supply Europe's high and late medieval trade in luxury furs with the organized rearing on the manors of post-Norman East Anglia of introduced domestic rabbits--both for their meat and to supply markets for furs of lower status. Eljas Oksanen offers material and written evidence for the increasingly shared commercial interests of twelfth-century Flanders and East Anglia, which came repeatedly into conflict with the political ambitions of rulers on both sides of the water. Wendy Childs then draws on her unparalleled familiarity with the enrolled customs accounts and other commercial records to track the changing orientations and fortunes of King's Lynn, Great Yarmouth, and Ipswich, the three principal ports of East Anglia, from the early fourteenth to the late fifteenth century. Shifting commodity markets for wool, grain, fish, ale, and cloth played against political relations with Norway, the Baltic, Hamburg, Dutch ports, Flanders, and France to drive the rise and decline of traders and urban communities alike. The last paper in this group opens to Anglophone readers a fascinating story with but tenuous connection to the North Sea: Anna Agnarsdóttir synthesizes research by Icelandic historian Björn Þorsteinsson (1918-1986) and others to demonstrate that English involvement in Iceland trade and fisheries extended much longer than its traditional fifteenth-century dating and was, especially in its last sixteenth-century phase, primarily carried out from East Anglian ports.

The third part is aptly entitled "Case Studies: Influences and Links," for here the overseas connections of medieval East Anglia are exemplified in several fields. Archaeologists Christopher Scull and Tom Pestell identify objects of extra-British origin in funerary deposits from proto-urban Ipswich and in Viking Age sites respectively, the former illuminating commercial and cultural ties to the continent, the latter settlers and trade goods from Scandinavia. There follow two papers on the Romanesque, here primarily the twelfth century. Stephen Heywood considers stone structures a mainly Norman introduction to East Anglia, whence a hybrid of Norman and Anglo-Saxon styles spread northeastwards across the North Sea and into the Baltic. While Heywood concedes potential influence from the Rhineland, Richard Plant argues that the regionally distinctive round towers of Bury St. Edmunds, Ely, and Peterborough derived mainly from models in the Empire, many of them subsequently rebuilt in different form. Processes of cultural transmission remain obscure. The remarkable overseas expedition of 1147, when a fleet of English, North German, and Flemish ships captured Muslim Lisbon, Charles West argues, ought less to be attributed to papal or Cistercian crusading strategies or even the politics of religious war in the Iberian Peninsula than to the culture shared among trading communities around the North Sea. West then identifies specific participants from East Anglia. Religious issues of a very different sort are revealed in Carole Hill's essay on how the example and writings of the Swedish St. Bridget (Birgitta, 1302/3-1373) provided a prototype for activities of pious wives and widows--Margery Kemp among others--in late-fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Norfolk. Finally Lynda Dennison identifies works of art and artists of Flemish origin in late fourteenth-century East Anglia, which most likely influenced contemporary manuscript illuminations there.

While many of the papers are well supplied with useful and relevant illustrations (photographs, maps, graphs, tables), a physically shoddy production ill serves contributors and readers alike. Before a single complete and careful reading was finished, whole pages had come loose from both the beginning and the middle of the volume. The Boydell Press can take no pride in the performance of its American printer and bindery (iv).

Although the unelucidated technical vocabulary of some papers will dismay all but fellow specialists, this variegated scholarly sampler successfully introduces readers in and of East Anglia to the diversity of their medieval heritage. Specialists will find clusters of papers on early medieval migrations, settlements, and material cultures; on commerce and other trans-marine linkages of the twelfth through fifteenth centuries; and on certain elements of artistic production. In retrospect the absence of treatments of comparable literary objects stands out. Similarly disappointing is the lack of a concluding essay, preferably by a scholar able to tie things together with a reciprocal perspective on East Anglia from an opposite shore of the North Sea.

The "North Sea world" posited by this book's title and introduction surely entailed a web of connections over the sea, but saving two isolated mentions of England's eleventh-century shift from eating freshwater to marine fishes (the so-called "fish event horizon"), that sea could as well have been sand as water, a concourse of scenery but no participant in the stories here told. Yet scholars and scientists know that the North Sea was subject to important variability in its hydrology (estuaries, deltas, marshes), geology (sea levels, coastal erosion and deposition), climate (storms, sea surface temperature), and biology (fish, invertebrates, marine mammals) during the Middle Ages. Students of East Anglia have even published on several of these topics. How then could the 'North Sea world' of the present volume so miss the tang of salt water? Why are so many scholars content to imagine a medieval world so dry and devoid of non-human forces and life forms?

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Author Biography

Richard C. Hoffmann

York University, Toronto