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Building Anglo-Saxon England, by John Blair

10 August 2018

William Whyte considers the architecture of the Anglo-Saxon period

JOHN BLAIR’s Building Anglo-Saxon England provides a guide to a world now almost utterly lost and wholly unrecognisable. Beautifully presented and richly illustrated, it takes the reader back to what used to be known as the Dark Ages. Thanks, in no small part to the work of its author, a distinguished historian, the centuries between about 600 and 1100 are now less dark. But they are, it seems, no less strange.

For much of the period and in many of the places he describes, this was a world without texts, without stone buildings, without ceramics. This was a world in which the “big three” cities were London, Southampton, and Ipswich, and the very grandest and most important individuals spent their lives travelling: “the carts bumping along decaying Roman roads, laden with poles, rails, panels, and bundles of cloth and leather”, ready to set up camp before moving on again.

This is a serious, scholarly study. It draws on decades of research and also on Professor Blair’s more recent and voluminous reading of what is known as the “grey literature” produced by archaeologists: the unpublished reports of individual digs which, when put together, can begin to reveal a broader picture.

The result is a panoramic view, providing new insights into Anglo-Saxon architecture and a new way of understanding the Anglo-Saxon world. It takes in small shacks, sprawling towns, great earthworks, and the few still standing remnants of the age, not least the impressive towers of Oxford Castle and All Saints’, Earls Barton, in Northamptonshire. It reveals a country sharply divided by place, and a period of significant and momentous changes. It also plays down the impact of the Vikings and the Norman Conquest, in a powerfully revisionist account.

John BlairThe only “Anglo-Saxon” (the author’s quotation marks) timber walls still standing, at Greensted-juxta-Ongar in Essex, are those of a church built shortly after the Conquest. A photo from the book under review

Although this Anglo-Saxon world is terribly foreign, there are some surprisingly familiar elements, not least the discovery that settlements were being formally planned as far back as the seventh century. And in no other book would you encounter such wonderful details as the discovery that “what would now be called ‘en-suite facilities’ seem to have been invented in mid-tenth-century England.”

Professor Blair’s emphasis on the highly specific regional development of the era is also revealing — and not just because it explains so much about the Anglo-Saxons. His “core zone”, eastern England, turns out to be the heartland of Brexit. It seems a coincidence, but, seen in this light, perhaps it’s not.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

Building Anglo-Saxon England
John Blair
Princeton University Press £40
Church Times Bookshop £36

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