15.02.02, Bintley and Shapland, eds., Trees and Timber in the Anglo-Saxon World

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Sarah Harlan-Haughey

The Medieval Review 15.02.02

Bintley, Michael D. J., and Michael G. Shapland. Trees and Timber in the Anglo-Saxon World. Medieval History and Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. 258. ISBN: 9780199680795 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sarah Harlan-Haughey
University of Maine

This book successfully presents an array of well researched, thoughtful essays on the role of trees and timber in the Anglo-Saxon world. Determinedly interdisciplinary, the volume brings together archaeologists, literary scholars, historians, comparative mythologists, and historical geographers to give multiple perspectives on the ways in which trees and their products influenced everyday life, ritual, and art in England during the Anglo-Saxon centuries. The volume is the ultimate product of a conference, but the editors astutely brought in authors who had not attended the initial conference to round out the book's offerings. This is a typical example of the above-and-beyond care these editors have taken to ensure that this book is truly interdisciplinary and useful to scholars in many different fields of study.

A very thorough introduction by Bintley and Shapland identifies the rise of interest in trees in Anglo-Saxon culture over the past few decades. It explores the state of research in the fields of archaeology, history, literature, geography, and religious history, and identifies areas where either much research remains to be done or where multiple disciplines would do well to talk more closely to one another. Following the Introduction is a detailed bibliography of major tree-related studies across disciplines is provided. This proves to be but a taste of what is to come--a successful presentation of top scholarship across many different areas that truly does illuminate a somewhat neglected, but certainly major part of Anglo-Saxon material culture. As Bintley and Shapland attest, trees and wood products were integral to life in this period on many different levels.

The editors have organized the chapters of this volume into thematic sections. The first, "Timber in Anglo-Saxon Building Practice," focuses on the use of forest products in the creation of physical surroundings and buildings. The second, "Perceptions of Wood and Wooden Objects," looks at wooden objects both imagined and real, in the Exeter Book riddles, the everyday life of Anglo-Saxon people, and as high status objects displayed and used by the elite. The third, "Trees and Woodland in Anglo-Saxon Belief," offers a close look at the ways in which trees formed a virtual backbone to religious practice and imagery, from the pre-Christian period to the conversion and beyond. While these may seem like three only tangentially related books in one, and one might expect the essays in each section to speak to one another while only nodding to the information presented in the other two portions of the book, in reality, these individually authored chapters are remarkably close in conversation with the work and findings of the other authors throughout the book. This reader found the volume to be impressively in-sync, in spite of a wide range of interests and specialties in the contributors. The result is a very useful and informative collection of essays that many different kinds of scholars of the Anglo-Saxon world will find helpful.

As previously mentioned, the editors' introductory chapter gives the reader a good sense of the 'state of the field' of tree and timber studies in Anglo-Saxon scholarship. It is assiduously footnoted and offers a careful critical assessment of the work being done in this field, as well as an inspiring sense of what remains to be done. The bibliography is essentially a key of entry into this fascinating world. Michael Shapland's chapter on the relative paucity of evidence that stone was used for secular building and vice versa for religious buildings results in a compelling thesis that since trees were seen as analogous to humans, i.e. perishable, they were not appropriate for buildings that pointed to eternal life. This reader was convinced by his argument, and impressed by the author's ability to draw upon many different kinds of evidence--archaeological, historical, and literary--to compose his elegant thesis. Mark Gardiner's chapter takes on another central mystery of Anglo-Saxon daily life: how sophisticated were their wooden buildings? He laments that scholars "faced with the evidence from excavation, have reconstructed timber building as crudely made structures with unsophisticated woodworking" (45). He summons a body of evidence from excavations as well as his own knowledge of building to suggest that Anglo-Saxon builders were in fact sophisticated problem-solvers. After all, he argues, "A society which was based around the working of wood was always likely to have found satisfactory methods of construction. It is a reflection of our lack of familiarity with wood that we have failed until now to appreciate sufficiently the evidence for the skill of its usage" (73). John Baker's chapter on "References to Timber building materials in Old English Place-Names" provides a useful handbook of the many places in Anglo-Saxon England that were connected with trees as resources. Many of these names betray a sophisticated understanding of the many specific uses of timber products, thus corroborating Gardiner's argument.

Part II of the volume moves away from physical structures and uses of trees and moves into the architecture of the culture in general. Martin Comey's chapter explores the ramifications of the wooden vessels in the Sutton Hoo assemblage, concluding that many of the wooden vessels discovered at that site were likely part of prestigious drinking sets. He discusses the relative attractions and uses of yew, walnut, and maple wood, and suggests plausible roles for each in a highly ritualized culture of elite drinking. It is a refreshing change of focus from the iconic metal objects so often the focus of studies of the Sutton Hoo burial. Jennifer Neville's exploration of "The Exeter Book Riddles' precarious insights into Wooden Artefacts" is a thoughtful warning against allowing the famous riddles to influence interpretations of Anglo-Saxon material culture. Neville rightly argues that very few of the riddles dealing with wooden objects can be conclusively solved, even in the case of Riddle 21, which has been used by many as "a key piece of evidence in the debate over Anglo-Saxon agricultural practices"(123). Her close readings are innovative and compelling, even though, or perhaps because, they avoid solving the puzzles conclusively. This essay is a major contribution to studies of these riddles. Michael Bintley's comparative study of Riddle 21, The Dream of the Rood, and the Æcerbot Charm is similarly innovative. Pirkko Koppinen offers another new solution, and a convincing one, when he rereads Riddle 12 for the solution: wood.

The third part of the volume takes on perhaps the most controversial and exciting questions about trees in the Anglo-Saxon world: what role did they play in religious life, and how much did tree-worship of pagan praxis survive the conversion? This four essays in this section all come at this question in different ways. Clive Tolley sets the stage by addressing the question, "What is a 'world-tree', and should we expect to find one growing in Anglo-Saxon England." Though the title may lead one to expect a close analysis of evidence for world-tree belief in Anglo-Saxon England in comparison with other mythologies and culture, Tolley spends most of his time on his own scholarly turf, ancient Scandinavian religion. As usual, he makes compelling claims and connections, but this reader was hoping for an even closer look at these two cultures in tandem. Tolley would seem to be the man to take on the job. Della Hooke's article, "Christianity and the 'Sacred Tree', picks up where Tolley's analysis leaves off, with similarly general results. Though Hooke makes interesting connections between different traditions of tree-veneration, and provides a useful survey of a lot of evidence, her conclusion that the tree seems to retain its sacredness even to the present day is not as provocative as it could be. This reviewer wished that these two impressive and innovative scholars had not refrained from exercising their full range when approaching the vexed issue of Anglo-Saxon tree veneration. The other two chapters in this section take on more focused research questions, with convincing and provocative results. John Blair's fascinating study of the ritual landscape of Bampton, Oxfordshire, provides convincing evidence "of that celebrated process, the conversion of pagan shrines to churches" (206) and that the notion of a holy tree was central to the transition from one religion to the other. Finally, Bintley's chapter on "Sacred Trees in Anglo-Saxon Spiritual History," a magisterial interdisciplinary performance, will leave the reader with a much richer knowledge of the role of trees in Anglo-Saxon sacred history, but also a healthy sense of what has been lost to us, and what we can never know.

This sense of loss and unknowability is an appropriate sense with which to come away from this volume, whose very purpose is to think hard about a resource inherently ephemeral to the record that remains to us of Anglo-Saxon culture. But that does not mean we ought not to think about trees and timber in more careful and rigorous ways, inspired by this volume's example.

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Author Biography

Sarah Harlan-Haughey

University of Maine