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19.04.11 Atherton, The Making of England

19.04.11 Atherton, The Making of England

Mark Atherton's The Making of England sets out to trace the development of a single kingdom of England, from the reign of Alfred (871-899) to the reign of Edgar (957/9-975). The aims which Atherton highlights in his introduction are twofold: to tell the political history of the period through literature, so as to reveal "the affective factor," "the inner thoughts and feelings...ideals and aspirations" of these texts' writers, readers, and subjects (3); and, in doing so, "to provide a frame for reading the "makers" of English prose and poetry during a significant period in the tenth century" (4). English literature in this context is the writing produced (and, in some cases, read) in England, whether in the Old English vernacular or in Latin. The narrative is determined by the actions of the West Saxon kings, structured around these monarchs and the reforming bishops Dunstan and Æthelwold. The conventional political frame means that the book is about the earliest history of "England," rather than the origins of "the English," who seem, in this version of events, already to exist as a stable and largely unproblematic group.

The book is divided into five parts, each containing two to four chapters, and scaffolded with brief introductions and timelines. At the end of each part, and also in two appendices, are the author's new translations of several texts. This structure, coupled with a useful index, means that the book is accessible to those wishing to read up on certain topics or texts.

Part I, "Mapping a Journey through the Anglo-Saxon World," situates us in an Anglo-Saxon geography looking towards Europe and Rome, through the journeys of King Æthelwulf of Wessex in 855 and Archbishop Sigeric in 990, the eleventh-century miscellany in Cotton Tiberius B v, which contains the Anglo-Saxon mappa mundi, and the Vercelli Book. The discussion encompasses other anecdotes, parallels and contextual information, such as the origins of place-names and the routes of Roman roads through England. The book is at its most original in such explorations of place, especially in relating selected literature to physical landscapes and the early medieval built environment; the last chapter returns to this approach in focusing on Winchester as "chief city" of England.

Part II, "The Reign of King Alfred," covers Alfred's educational and literary programme, with a special focus on the Old English Pastoral Care through close readings of images and metaphorical language. Chapter 5 is one of the few chapters that explicitly concentrates on the idea of the English, in connection with the role of kings, reading the Old English Bede alongside the Latin original and relating the Old English version's set pieces to other works of Old English literature such as Beowulf. The section is at its most arresting when discussing specific passages of the texts; the nuances (in language as well as content) of the Old English translation compared to the Latin are presented intelligibly and in a convincing way for the reader who has no knowledge of either language, which is no mean feat.

Part III, "The Expansion of Wessex," narrates the reign of Edward the Elder, his civil war with Æthelwold, and the role of Æthelflæd in the expansion of the English kingdom. Close readings of passages from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are especially effective in demonstrating how our knowledge of the period is mediated by the Chroniclers' words. Chapter 7, "The Lessons of History: "Edwardian" Literature" encompasses the Junius Psalter, the Fonthill Letter, the Old English Orosius, and the Old English Boethius; the dates of manuscript copies allow the inclusion of texts which were probably composed earlier. This literature is read with an illuminating focus on onweald--power, dominion, or authority. However, this reading is related principally to Edward's ambition, and possibly to imitation of the Carolingians, without any real presentation of what the alternative or barriers to West Saxon expansion might have been. The conflicts with which we are presented are between members of the West Saxon royal family, while Anglo-Scandinavian rulers remain shadowy figures.

Part IV, "War, Poetry, and Book-Collecting," concerns Æthelstan and Edmund, before moving to focus on Dunstan and Glastonbury. We meet Æthelstan through manuscripts associated with the king and the various textual traditions that memorialise him. The portrait of Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert in CCCC MS 183 allows a digression on Cuthbert and his community, which permits the inclusion of the Lindisfarne Gospels (several of the most famous Anglo-Saxon texts and manuscripts which date from outside the period of the book are included in such a way, giving a richer understanding of the Anglo-Saxon world; Beowulf makes frequent appearances). This provides a welcome excursion from Wessex to Northumbria, although the precise political implications of Æthelstan's patronage are not spelled out. The chapters on Dunstan are some of the most interesting and original. Atherton defends Dunstan's hagiographer, B, against critiques of his Latin learning and style by emphasising that his "saving grace is his ability to tell a significant or colourful anecdote" (177)--and then provides a few, elucidating what the texts tell us about the political and literary culture of mid-tenth-century Wessex. Some parallels are unexpected--Coleridge and Shelley--while others create a multi-dimensional image of a particular theme--B's anecdote about Edmund hunting is brought to life through parallels to Beowulf, the Old English Life of St Eustace, and the illustration to Psalm 41 in the Harley Psalter.

Part V, "Building the Nation," brings us up to the reign of Edgar, finishing triumphantly in a brief epilogue with his second coronation in 973, via a chapter on the politics of Edred's reign and two on the monastic reformers. Again, hagiography provides special interest: Atherton uses Lantfred's Translatio et Miracula Sancti Swithuni to introduce some non-elite lives, including a smith and a female slave. This movement between languages, between prose and poetry, between elite literature and documentary texts, builds throughout the book to create a varied and vivid image of tenth-century England.

Atherton lays no claim to telling a wholly new story, but his book presents it for a broader readership and with the aim of making a greater impact on general consciousness. He tells that story in a fresh and appealing way, by focusing on close readings of key texts, for their literary qualities as much as historical detail, and including some unexpected selections. In keeping the style light and the pace lively, the book is well suited to a general audience or to students coming to the period for the first time, from whatever disciplinary perspective they approach, and is sure to entice many of its readers to further study of medieval history and literature.

In some cases, discussion of texts is abridged, frustratingly, presumably to keep the narrative going and to avoid delving into too much complexity: we are not told of the ending of the Fonthill Letter, and here the author explicitly suggests that readers may be interested to continue on their own. Nevertheless, difficult or obscure texts are integrated into discussion and opened up for readers. Those using this book as an introduction to the period are likely to continue as fearless students.

For a book that claims to be about identity and nation-building, there is remarkably little discussion of what either term might mean, or of any of the problems that a large body of scholarship has grappled with in relation to early medieval England. For instance, George Molyneaux, in his 2015 book covering precisely the same period and events from a historical perspective, chose to avoid the term "unification" because of its misleading connotations with modern nation states (The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century, 9). Atherton, on the other hand, blithely equates the history of England in the tenth century with the same nineteenth-century processes: "This is a narrative that begins in diversity, like Germany before Bismarck, or Italy before Garibaldi, and it ends in unity with an organised, prosperous 'nation state'." (3) The comparison may, at this stage, be more obfuscatory than illuminating. The differences between the two historical contexts are of course numerous, and the concept of the Anglo-Saxon "state" has been the subject of much discussion among historians but, more importantly, an equation of England's tenth century with Germany and Italy in the nineteenth plays into an unsupportable vision of England as a precocious, exceptional nation.

Related to this issue is the fact that the book makes very little mention of Scandinavians and their descendants, although the period here is bookended by Viking wars, and the expansion of the English kingdom was primarily a matter of displacing Scandinavian rulers in the north and east. Perhaps this is because we have so little surviving Old Norse literature related to England. Egil's Saga is the only Old Norse text to be mentioned, but even then it is in the service of the West Saxon king Æthelstan; the experiences of Egil at the court of Eric, the Viking king of York, are not mentioned. The publicity surrounding this book suggests that it "argues that it was the vernacular of Alfred the Great, as much as Viking war, that truly forged the nation," but the negative case is not made and nor is the vernacular privileged over Latin texts. In general, the role played by Vikings and Anglo-Scandinavians (who were, after all, inhabitants of the English kingdom) is minimised, and sometimes appears as somewhat of a caricature, as when the Community of St Cuthbert are described as a "refugee community" running "to escape the clutches of marauding Viking raiders" (154); historians have certainly nuanced this view of interaction between the monastic community and the Danes, even highlighting the advantages to the community of moving to their mainland estates (e.g. William M. Aird, St Cuthbert and the Normans, 1998).

This book is an invigorating, if somewhat conservative, introduction for a general reader, or for students getting to grips with the tenth century and the monastic reformers. Researchers interested in any of the texts discussed here, especially if they wish to understand them within their contemporary political culture, would do well to read Atherton's comments to stimulate their thinking. Finally, political historians and archaeologists would benefit from reading this book for a new perspective on the period and their sources.