BOOK REVIEW: The Long Twelfth Century View Of The Anglo-Saxon Past (Martin and Woodman, Eds.)–Review by Jenny C. Bledsoe

Brett, Martin and David A. Woodman, eds. The Long Twelfth-Century View of the Anglo-Saxon Past. Studies in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland. Surrey, UK; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015. 438 pages (HB). $154.95. ISBN: 9781472428172.

Edited by Martin Brett and David A. Woodman, The Long Twelfth-Century View of the Anglo-Saxon Past (Ashgate, 2015) provides an introductory chapter and fourteen essays in a variety of disciplines, including history, literature, and art history. The result of a 2011 conference at Robinson College, Univ. of Cambridge, the collection does not provide a “single new synthesis” of the period (c. 1066-e. 13th c.), but rather explores “the diversity of answers which might be given” to the question of how long twelfth-century creators (authors, artists, scribes) viewed and shaped the Anglo-Saxon past (2). As Martin Brett (Univ. of Cambridge) describes in the introduction, the collection results from the conference organizers’ premise that “the ways in which post-Conquest writers and artists positioned themselves in relation to the Anglo-Saxon past could tell one much about the world they thought they inhabited themselves” (1). The majority of the scholars in the collection are historians, but the contributors examine a wide variety of sources, including chronicles, saints’ lives, laws, charters, manuscript illuminations, architecture, and romances. The individual chapters do not contribute to one, unified thesis about the topic, but rather ground themselves in specific, local studies, leading to spectrum of conclusions about the relationship between long twelfth-century writers and artists and the Anglo-Saxon period which preceded them. Brett argues that the diversity of conclusions which the contributors reach illustrates “the richness and variety of the whole period” (9).

The collection contains four sections, arranged by source material: “Part I: The Anglo-Saxon Saints”; “Part II: Anglo-Saxon England in the Narrative of Britain”; “Part III: Anglo-Saxon Law and Charter”; and “Part IV: Art History and the French Vernacular”.

“Part I: The Anglo-Saxon Saints” features three chapters on hagiographical sources. In chapter two, “The Viking Hiatus in the Cult of Saints as Seen in the Twelfth Century” (13-25), Robert Bartlett (Univ. of St. Andrews) demonstrates that long twelfth-century writers link tales of Viking destruction with stories about the reestablishment of Anglo-Saxon communities (22). Bartlett describes a literary trope of Viking violence, which functioned as “a recognizable stereotype to be invoked, often to explain a gap in the recorded hagiographic traditions” (23). In chapter three, “Folcard of Saint-Bertin and the Anglo-Saxon Saints at Thorney” (27-45), Rosalind Love (Univ. of Cambridge) takes a more localized approach, exploring the authorial identity of Folcard of Saint-Bertin. Folcard advocates for the veneration of Thorney’s Anglo-Saxon hermit saints, the three siblings Thancred, Torhtred, and Tova, highlighting the monastery’s connection to solitary religious lifestyles (39). By exploring Folcard’s hagiographical corpus, Love concludes, “his Thorney dossier taken as a whole carefully provided the community with a claim to be involved in every phase of the monastic history of Anglo-Saxon England” (45). Love and Bartlett both demonstrate how long twelfth-century authors utilize Anglo-Saxon saints to create a firm foundation and heritage for monastic communities.

In chapter four, “Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica as a Source of Lections in Pre- and Post-Conquest England” (47-74), Teresa Webber (Univ. of Cambridge) argues that Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum saw great popularity in the eleventh and twelfth centuries partially because of its use as “hagiographical lections delivered in the night office of matins on major feast days” (48). Webber presents several examples, including St Oswald at Peterborough (59-60), Wilfrid and Fursey at Christ Church, Canterbury (60-1), and St Augustine at St Augustine’s, Canterbury (62-4). Webber’s chapter contributes to our knowledge of the reception of Bede, the Historia ecclesiastica’s liturgical use, and the long twelfth-century acceptance of Bede’s authority as absolute (69). These three chapters prove productive reading alongside a recent book by Cynthia Turner Camp (Univ. of Georgia), Anglo-Saxon Saints’ Lives as History Writing in Late Medieval England (Boydell and Brewer, 2015), which explores the ways in which late medieval authors adapted earlier English saints for contemporary concerns.

“Part II: Anglo-Saxon England in the Narrative of Britain” includes five chapters on explicitly historical sources. In chapter five, “Danish Ferocity and Abandoned Monasteries: The Twelfth-century View” (77-93), Julia Barrow (Univ. of Leeds) describes a twelfth-century tendency to blame Viking destruction for monasticism’s decay since the tenth century. Interestingly, Barrow notes a link between English and continental accounts, identifying the same trope in French history writing. Yet, while French historiographers possessed ninth-century accounts of Viking attacks on churches, the English lacked such sources. As a result, Barrow argues, “a very limited repertoire of narrative elements was reshuffled again and again to produce stories that answered what seems to have been a desire for excitement combined with a need for validation” (93). Similar to Bartlett’s observations in chapter two, Barrow demonstrates that long twelfth-century writers frequently utilized the trope of Viking destruction to build communal identity. In chapter six, “Symeon of Durham’s Historia de Regibus Anglorum et Dacorum as a Product of Twelfth-century Historical Workshops” (95-111), David Rollason (Durham Univ.) explores the way historical workshops functioned in this period. At work on an edition of Symeon of Durham’s historical narrative, Rollason considers several models for how history was written during the period and characterizes twelfth-century workshops as embodying a “vigorous collaborative historical culture” (111).

In chapter seven, “William of Malmesbury’s Diatribe against the Normans” (113-21), R. M. Thomson (Univ. of Tasmania) describes William of Malmesbury’s attitudes about Norman influence in England. In his Gesta regum Anglorum, William commends the Normans for reviving religious practices throughout England (115). While the previous passage dates from early 1126 or before, a passage in William’s Commentary on Lamentations (c. 1135) laments England’s abuse at the hands of corrupt Normans. Thomson explores these contradictory passages, offers some possible reasons for William’s discontentment, and as a result argues that “general English unhappiness with the Conquest persisted well into his lifetime” (121). On the other hand, Elisabeth van Houts (Univ. of Cambridge) explores Norman perspectives on the Anglo-Saxon period in chapter eight, “Normandy’s View of the Anglo-Saxon Past in the Twelfth Century” (123-40). Van Houts finds that, unlike Anglo-Norman writers, the majority of Norman historiographers lacked interest in early English history: “of all Norman historians discussed here, it was only the Englishman Orderic Vitalis who campaigned for the Anglo-Saxon heritage to be taken seriously” (140). In chapter nine, “Richard of Devizes and ‘a rising tide of nonsense’: How Cerdic Met King Arthur” (141-56), John Gillingham (London School of Economics and Political Science) analyzes Richard of Devizes’s interpretation of Anglo-Saxon history. Gillingham argues Richard emphasized religious differences more than his source (Geoffrey of Monmouth). In all, the five chapters of Part II show long twelfth-century historiographers envisioning and rewriting Anglo-Saxon history in a variety of local and regional contexts.

“Part III: Anglo-Saxon Law and Charter” features three chapters. In chapter ten, “Historical Literacy in the Archive: Post-Conquest Imitative Copies of Pre-Conquest Charters and Some French Comparanda” (159-90), Julia Crick (King’s College London) examines long twelfth-century imitative copies of Anglo-Saxon charters. Crick argues this scribal activity “belongs to a continuum” and “attest[s] important historical processes: archival control, the sorting and processing of information about the Anglo-Saxon past, and … how contemporaries viewed English antiquity” (160). In chapter eleven, “The Use and Abuse of Anglo-Saxon Charters by the Kings of England, 1100-1300” (191-227), Nicholas Vincent (Univ. of East Anglia) examines the use of modified Anglo-Saxon legal charters as proof of monastic land possession after the Conquest. In chapter twelve, “Pre-Conquest Laws and Legislators in the Twelfth Century” (229-72), Bruce O’Brien (Univ. of Mary Washington) notes the relative scholarly neglect of legal texts created or copied between c. 1150 and 1200 (229). In the first half of his chapter, O’Brien identifies “evolving trends in the creation and copying of Anglo-Saxon laws throughout the twelfth century” (231). In the second half, he presents a case study of a late twelfth-century English legal manuscript, which he calls the Colbertine lawbook (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat. 4771). All three chapters in this legal history section explore relatively understudied manuscripts, highlighting many directions for further study.

“Part IV: Art History and the French Vernacular” includes three chapters. In chapter thirteen, “‘History’ in Anglo-Norman Romance: The Presentation of the Pre-Conquest Past” (275-87), Judith Weiss (Univ. of Cambridge) explores the historical aspects of several Anglo-Norman romances, including Horn and Waldef. In these romances, Weiss finds a variety of attitudes about English history, Britain’s original inhabitants, and the arrival of the Normans. In chapter fourteen, “The Scribe Looks Back: Anglo-Saxon England and the Eadwine Psalter” (289-306), Catherine Karkov (Univ. of Leeds) analyzes the Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R. 17. 1) and its focus on the twelfth-century needs of the Canterbury community. Karkov argues that the Psalter “looks back beyond Anglo-Saxon England to the origins of what would eventually become themes in Anglo-Saxon art and manuscript production, doubling and dividing them in a way that provides both continuity with the past and a very new statement about what a book can be and what it can do with the past” (304). Finally, in chapter fifteen, “The Anglo-Saxon Tradition in Post-Conquest Architecture and Sculpture” (307-58), Malcolm Thurlby (York Univ.) studies post-Conquest architecture and architectural sculpture and attempts to differentiate Norman and Anglo-Saxon formal elements.

The collection’s design makes for easy reading with footnotes (rather than endnotes) and illustrations located within the appropriate chapters (rather than in an appendix at the end of the book). The collection includes eleven black and white illustrations from medieval manuscripts, seven charts and tables, and five photographs of buildings and architectural features. Several tables may prove useful reference material for scholars interested in legal history. In chapter 10, Crick provides two particularly valuable tables containing preliminary lists of pre-Conquest diplomas and charters (table 10.1, pp. 165-7) and writs (table 10.2, p. 168) copied in the long twelfth century.

The studies are aimed at a scholarly audience, but the inclusion of modern English translations, usually with the original language in the footnotes (or vice-versa), makes the collection accessible to scholars who are not specialists in the period or its languages. The collection will be of interest to scholars and advanced graduate students of the British Middle Ages in a variety of disciplines, including history, literature, art history, religion, and related fields. The book will likely interest historians of medieval Europe as well because of several chapters’ emphasis on correspondences between English and continental European writing.

The long twelfth century as a period of study is more common in the discipline of history than in literature. Literary scholars often characterize this period as one of little literary value. This collection of essays illustrates the wide variety of literary and other sources extant from this period, and thus demonstrates the importance of further studies of the long twelfth century.

Jenny C. Bledsoe

Jenny C. Bledsoe is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Emory University. In her research, Jenny connects multilingual twelfth- and thirteenth-century British religious literature to earlier and later medieval hagiography, devotional literature, and material culture. In particular, she studies the early thirteenth-century Katherine Group and its material, textual, and relational networks. Her dissertation is entitled Vernacular Religious Literature and Material Culture in Medieval Britain: The Katherine Group and Its Manuscripts. Jenny has published scholarly articles on the cult of St Margaret of Antioch in the Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures and Medieval Sermon Studies.



Camp, Cynthia Turner. Anglo-Saxon Saints Lives as History Writing in Late Medieval England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2015.