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21.04.01 Breeze, British Battles 493-937

The Medieval Review

21.04.01 Breeze, British Battles 493-937


Breeze (University of Navarra) has written an interesting but odd book that will, this reviewer suspects, struggle to find its proper audience. For starters, despite its title it is definitely not a military history: Breeze claims in the first sentence of the introduction that "This book is about war." But this claim is true only indirectly and most military historians will find themselves frustrated reading it. Indeed, it is not really even a book of history. What Breeze sets out to do is establish the locations of twenty-three battles in Anglo-Saxon Britain, mostly in the north around the Anglo-Scottish frontiers and in the Welsh marches. His method for establishing the locations of the battles is largely linguistic-philological (the realm of Breeze's expertise), in dialogue with the available historical accounts. He says that if the arguments he presents are convincing, three results follow: "much of Anglo-Saxon history can be rewritten" (ix); archaeologists can waste less time examining unlikely locations; and the establishment of his method for place name analysis can become more widely known and applied beyond just battle locations (which he promises to do in two further volumes on "England's Earliest Women Writers" and on Roman British place names). Breeze is not unambitious, one must admit.

Are his ambitions justified? To a large degree, this reviewer thinks they are. But Breeze will still face problems with gaining wide acceptance for some of his theories, unfortunately. The key problem, it seems to me, is the necessarily interdisciplinary nature of Breeze's work, especially in applying linguistic analysis to place names. The form of many of Breeze's arguments, put abstractly, is something like the following: our sources say this battle took place at x; this has traditionally been interpreted as meaning modern place A; but x is better seen as (or emended to) y,deriving from the Celtic y',which is clearly modern place B. Admittedly, it would take his analysis deep into the historical linguistic weeds to fully explain the "y deriving from y' " step, but this may be the step that is necessary both to prove his case to historians (who otherwise tend to see the argument as based on superficial resemblances between place names) and to convince readers that his method is indeed useful and applicable beyond the particular cases Breeze himself explores. That is, without explanations of known syntactic and sound change rules and so forth, what is in fact a reasonable (if not always iron clad) argument can simply looks like "this could be this". In this, Breeze's analyses may be compared to the densely linguistic argumentation in, for example, Robert Mailhammer and Theo Vennemann, The Carthaginian North: Semitic Influence on Early Germanic (John Benjamins Publishing, 2019), which tackles a far more controversial topic even among historical linguists and makes a case that, even if the reader may not agree by the end, at least the argument is clear and thorough

To add some specificity to this, Breeze argues for new locations for, for example, Mount Badon, usually included, following the 9th centuryHistoria Brittonum, as a battle fought by the historical King Arthur; Breeze places it at Braydon, near Swindon, Wiltshire, and thus separates it from the rest of the Historia battles, which are all in southern Scotland and northern England, and thus calls its Arthurian credentials into question (likely one of the points that has made Breeze's linguistic arguments appear less convincing). At the other chronological end of his study, he locates the relatively famous Battle of Brunanburgh on the River Browney near Lanchester, County Durham rather than in Bromborough in Cheshire/Merseyside. This latter case shows the strengths of Breeze's method. The Bromborough location is the accepted one, having been argued for by Paul Cavill and Stephen Harding, for example, in Michael Livingston's massive The Battle of Brunanburgh: A Casebook (Exeter, 2011). (Why this work does not show up in Breeze's bibliography is a mystery, though other articles by Cavill do.) Breeze's analysis of Brune as the Anglo-Saxon for the River Browney (and indeed as a place name) and of Lanchester as the burgh referred to by the battle's name in the sources not only makes sense linguistically and culturally in terms of how battles were usually named (that is, after places rather than unknown people, in this case a mysterious Saxon man named Bruna),but leads Breeze tobe able to place the battle on the Browney near where the Roman road from England into Scotland runs, and on the side of the British Isles where the Scandinavian invaders who the sources say were defeated along with the Scots would plausibly have landed. So in fact, Breeze's location analysis does lead to insights about military activity, even for a battle whose details, despite the number of sources that mention it, remain terribly obscure: at least strategically, Aethelstan is very likely to have chosen a position blocking the Roman road connecting Scotland and England, near a hill and fort, as the place to meet and famously defeat a Scots-Norse invasion. Breeze's case for Brunanburgh's location may not be proven,but as a framework for a strategic narrative, as a potential guide for archaeological exploration, and as a proof of method, it beats the heck out of the sort of conclusion that Cavill and Harding can reach, which is roughly that a precise location near Bromborough remains, and is always likely to remain, undeterminable. Perhaps because it was not near Bromborough at all.

But again, somehow, Breeze's book does not convey all this in a way that historians see easily--"apparently see easily," I should perhaps say, given previous receptions of Breeze's other work. Whether this is a matter of his linguistic method not being presented clearly and thoroughly enough to convince historians that historical linguistics really has something valuable to say, his conclusions not being highlighted and driven home obviously enough, or some other factor (it is possible that Breeze's argumentation, which slips periodically into a tone that might be read as "dismissive snarkiness," contributes here), is beyond this reviewer's ability to figure out. Perhaps this book will have more success. One suggestion relating to making the conclusions more obvious: the book could have used more maps. It has one at the very front that identifies the battles discussed. But aside from showing a general pattern that battles in this period of British history, if Breeze is right about their locations, tended to happen on the margins where Anglo-Saxon met Celtic--not a surprising conclusion but still a useful one--it does not convey enough about what Breeze is doing. Maps of more of the individual battle locations, connecting local features to the linguistic evidence, would help, as would maps showing the traditional location of a battle and Breeze's proposed relocation. Breeze's Brunanburgh, for example, really is a long way from the accepted site, and really does make a lot more strategic sense on a map. At its extreme, of course, this recommendation might boil down to "make the book a map; each chapter should be a footnote explaining the placement of each battle," which perhaps illustrates the stylistic problem with Breeze's project.

Still, there is much worthwhile analysis here, leading to conclusions that various specialists--historians, archaeologists, geographers, should pay attention to. It may not be convincing to recommend a book with the review equivalent of saying "take your medicine, it'll be good for you," but that's where Breeze's book leaves this reviewer.