Anglo-Saxon Myths: State and Church, 400-1066

Article excerpt

Anglo-Saxon Myths: State and Church, 400-1066. By Nicholas Brooks. (Rio Grande, Ohio: Hambledon Press. 2000. Pp. xvi, 308. $70.00.)

Nicholas Brooks is a master-craftsman of Anglo-Saxon history, and this second volume of his published papers (following Communications and Warfare, also in 2000), like a Shaker chair, enthuses for beauty and utility alike. The collection begins with a wise, and wide-ranging, inaugural lecture delivered at the University of Birmingham in 1986, and a model of the genre, exploring the paradox of forgeries as historical sources. It ends with a study (originally published in 1988) applying multidisciplinary resources to map big questions of change, natural and man-made, onto the local landscape of Romney Marsh in the county of Kent. For both chapters, crucial evidence is supplied by charters, some more or less forged. In between are ten papers, loosely linked by the idea of myths, legends, and forgeries as tales told which can also be truth-telling. After an evocatively-introductory chapter 2 come a pair of studies of Kent and Mercia in the early Anglo-Saxon period (first published in 1989), the latter propounding the explosive, and seductive, argument that the Tribal Hidage represents a Northumbrian humiliation of Mercia at some point (three options are indicated) in the seventh century, and both highlighting the contributions of wealth and ideology to the formation of early kingdoms. Next, and aptly, comes the one previously unpublished paper in the volume,"The English Origin Myth" (chapter 5). Brooks argues persuasively that the Historia Brittonum preserves legends-useful fictions-taken up in ninth-century Gwynedd but originating as the stuff from which an elite's consciousness of collective identity was forged in AEthelbert's Kent.

And so to Canterbury, whose Anglo-Saxon history, and extraordinary archive, Brooks has done more than anyone to explore. Chapter 6 discusses the evidence, written and material, for its ecclesiastical topography. At the heart of this collection, chapter 7, "The Cathedral Community at Canterbury, 597-1070" (originally published in 1995), constitutes an "updated summary" of much of Brooks's major book of 1984. Yet Brooks's 1984 hypothesis that Alfred spotted a window of opportunity opened by Vikings to seize the lands of Kentish ministers seems to have been discarded-regrettably, since it's preferable to 1995's contention that "in an age of Viking attacks, it was more than usually apparent that the interests of church and state coincided"(p. …