Thursday, November 10, 2011

Patrick Wormald’s LRB Reviews

“My view of the world, that of a historian rather than a journalist, is that it is peopled by inadequates, not villains; people who misuse (much more often than abuse) power, precisely because they have no real clue what to do with it.” 
Patrick Wormald, in a letter to the LRB, 18 no. 19 (October, 1996) in response to Paul Foot’s review, in the previous issue, of Mark Peel’s The Land of Lost Content: The Biography of Anthony Chenevix-Trench (Pentland, 1996).

The authors of the bibliography that comprises the first chapter of S. Baxter, et al., Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Aldershot, 2009) make no claim to completeness: ‘ pretence is made to itemize all of his reviews or occasional pieces of journalism.’ (S. Foot with S. Baxter, ‘The Writings of Patrick Wormald’, Studies in Memory, pp. 1-9, at 1 n.1.)  As it stands the bibliography seems remarkably thorough, listing as it does all major publications and substantial reviews in academic journals and the TLS. Falling under the stated terms of exception - and consequently absent from the bibliography - is the sequence of 2000-4000 word essays published by Wormald in London Review of Books from the early 1980s until shortly before his death in September 2004. Opera minora these may very well be when considered in the context of his work as a whole, they are nevertheless worth reading and worth recording, not least as parts of one scholar’s broader engagement with the past and the business of thinking and writing about the past. In addition to the expected reviews of scholarly works on the early and high Midde Ages in the LRB we find Wormald on subjects and authors far from Anglo-Saxon England:  Stonehenge and Saladin; John Fowles, John Michell, and Aubrey Burl: 

“Mr Burl’s intellectual method is to take the archaeological evidence of ritual, where it sometimes seems that anything which is not entirely circular is a phallus and anything which is a mother-goddess...”

Archaeologists at the centre as much as on the fringes came in for criticism, couched in a way that the editor of the English Historical Review would have been unlikely to have waved through to the presses:

“Hodges has a dozen ‘paradigms’, half a dozen ‘parameters’, and more ‘models’ than Cliveden in its early Sixties heyday.”

Whilst still recognisably the same work as the author of articles such as ‘Lex scripta...’, ‘Bede, the Bretwaldas, and the Origins of the gens Anglorum’, ‘Bede, Beowulf and the Conversion’, these reviews are also often both broader in their range of reference and sharper in both tone and bite; at points far nearer to Hitchens (C.) than Maitland (F.). That said, these reviews contain no shortage of insights and epigrammatic judgments on the early medieval past and the methods of medievalists. Three examples: 

The history and historiography of Roman Britain abounds in paradoxes. The first and not the least of these is that one of the most obscure and geographically remote Roman provinces has attracted a literature that makes the history of Roman Greece or Syria seem peripheral by comparison.”

“In a Radio Times interview announcing Magnusson’s series, Peter Sawyer compared references to the gruesome Viking ritual of the Blood-Eagle, whereby, in honour of Odinn, a man’s lungs were draped across his shoulders like an eagle’s folded wings, to stories of Uhlans bayonetting babies. The difference is that First War German newspapers did not exult in spiked infants, whereas it is Scandinavian sources who fully describe the Blood-Eagle. Magnusson confidently assures us that ‘there is not a scrap of historical evidence that it ever happened outside the fevered imagination of saga-writers,’ which is presumably why it is not even mentioned in the other books. But it depends what one means by scraps.”

And, finally:

“A little over a century ago, the Battle of Hastings was the subject of a scholarly dispute of a virulence not seen again until the Storm over the Gentry or the Condition of England Question in the 1960s. One protagonist, the polymathic E.A. Freeman, echoed some famous words of Macaulay, celebrating the ‘cause for which Harold died on the field and Waltheof on the scaffold’ (Waltheof was the last survivor of the Old English aristocracy: he was executed for treason in 1076 after a rebellion which, according to the sources, was fomented by leading members of the Norman nobility). The other, the acid-penned J.H. Round, found the patronage denied to him by the academic circles that favoured his opponent by supplying the aristocracy with lineages going back to 1066. Soaring effortlessly above the mêlée, F.W. Maitland, a greater historian than either (or anyone then or since), asked to be updated on the progress of ‘the battle’ from his winter resort in the Canaries. We know more about what happened on the field of Hastings that October Saturday than about any battle anywhere since Ammianus Marcellinus chronicled the destruction of the East Roman army by the Goths nearly 700 years before. Yet the price paid for good sources at this stage of history is that they rarely agree.”

The complete LRB archive is accessible on line to individual and institutional subscribers. However, a free seven day full access subscription is currently available hereIn addition to Wormald’s reviews those by Stuart Airlie (on Karl Leyser and Maurice Keen), Peter Godman (on Tolkien), Jinty Nelson, and Tom Shippey, amongst others, are all accessible. The articles from which the quotations above come, together with all other contributions, are listed below in order of appearance:

“Year of the Viking." Review of The Vikings, by James Graham-Campbell and D. Kidd, The Viking World, edited by James Graham-Campbell, The Northern World, edited by David Wilson, Vikings!, by Magnus Magnusson, The Vikings, by Johannes Bronsted, Viking Age Sculpture, by Richard Bailey and The Viking Age in Denmark, by Klaus Randsborg. LRB, 2 no. 14 (1980) pp.  9-10.

“Everlasting Stone." Review of The Enigma of Stonehenge, by John Fowles and Barry Brukoff and British Cathedrals, by Paul Johnson, LRB 3 no. 9 (1981), pp. 20-21.

“Romanitas." Review of Roman Britain, by Peter Salway and Roman Britain, by Malcolm Todd, LRB 3 no. 21 (1981), pp. 21-22.

“The New Archaeology." Review of A Short History of Archaeology, by Glyn Daniel, A Social History of Archaeology, by Kenneth Hudson and Rites of the Gods, by Aubrey Burl, LRB 4 no. 5 (1982): 5-6.

"Hegemonies." Review of Dark Age Economics: The Origins of Towns and Trade, AD 600-1000, by Richard Hodges and Londinium: London in the Roman Empire, by John Morris, LRB, 4 no. 19 (1982), pp. 22-23.

"Robin’s Hoods." Review of Robin Hood, by J. C. Holt, The Early History of Glastonbury: An Edition, Translation and Study of William of Malmesbury’s ‘De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie’, by John Scott and Megalithomania, by John Michell, LRB, 5 no. 8 (1983), pp. 22-23.  

“Joseph Jobson." Review of Saladin in his Time, by P. H. Newby and Soldiers of the Faith: Crusaders and Moslems at War, by Ronald Finucane. LRB, 7 no. 7 (1985), p. 14.

Warrior Women." Review of Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066, by Christine Fell, Cecily Clark and Elizabeth Williams, LRB, 8 no. 11 (1986), pp. 6-7.

“The West dishes it out." Review of The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonisation and Cultural Change 950-1350, by Robert Bartlett, LRB 16 no. 4 (1994), pp. 23-24. 

"Did Harold really get it in the eye?" Review of The Battle of Hastings, 1066, by M. K. Lawson, The Normans: The History of a Dynasty, by David Crouch and Domesday Book: A Complete Translation, edited by Ann Williams and G. H. Martin, LRB, 26 no. 11 (2004), pp. 30-32. 

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