Generally, I enjoy reading while listening to the same book partly because of my eyes don’t work so good anymore but also because the audio distracts me from my tinnitus. Also, I love seeing the maps, source notes, graphics and sometimes actual layout and font differences which are present in the hard cover, paperback, and ebooks, but not available in audio books unless there is a pdf file for ir. With The Anglo-Saxons: there are excellent maps, some nice photographs, plus both source and informational notes. Some sources are current, some almost ancient – Yay! So I read and listened both.
A History of the Beginnings of England: 400 – 1066
by Mark Morris
2021; 512 pages
Read by Roy McMillan, 13h 16m
Rating 9.5 / European history
(Both read and listened)
The Introduction is very nicely done. It’s brief overview of what Morris is doing in the book. In it, he explains the absence of women from ancient history in general and his focus on the biographies of certain “great men.” Both of these are due to the availability of reliable sources. There was precious little written by or about women until the 18th century and even then it was slim pickings. There were a couple reasons for this; first, women were rarely important enough to get written about and second, women themselves didn’t usually read or write.
Nevertheless, within the framework of several “great men” of the era, he includes a few important women as well as providing a wide variety of information about social, cultural, intellectual and political life in ancient Britain.
Following the Introduction Morris begins his tale with “England” under Roman rule, observing that it was quite a good place to live if you were not a part of the working classes. There was peace and prosperity enabling a nice foreign trade with solid military backup until around 300 AD when the Saxons from what is now Germany began raiding. With the decline of Rome as an Empire all of Europe was changing including England. And although Morris never uses the term “Dark Ages” because it’s not really accurate, there was certainly a dimming of the lights especially in the century following 410 or so – “The implications of (the) data is unavoidable: society had collapsed.” (p. 22).
Morris’ narrative is smooth and quite scannable although don’t let that deceive you. There is an abundance of substance in every chapter as the narrative flows from person to person, era to era, and region to region. The focus on individual biographies starts with Ælle and moves on to Caewlin, Æthelberht, Eadwine, Oswald, and Penda, “the last great pagan king of Anglo-Saxon England.” And that’s the end of Chapter 2. More is known about the time from the 6th century on when the Kings were Christian and the Church was well established so that part is better attended.
In Chapter 3 we get Wilfred about whom there really is a kind of biography (for that day and age). After him comes Æthelbald who was murdered followed by the brief reigns of a couple power-grabbers. Then comes Offa who wanted all he could grab and the story continues through the centuries until we get to Harold and finally the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror in 1066. This is in 400 or so pages of narrative so the bulk of rulers is not covered but the social and economic aspects of the history is also briefly covered.
The Saxon Chronicles gets huge play as a source but so do the works of Bede and many others, both primary and secondary.
Financial Times review (London)