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Reviewed by:
  • The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook ed. by Michael Livingston
  • Jayne Carroll
The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook. Edited by Michael Livingston. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2011. Pp. xvi + 441; 17 b/w illustrations. $110.

Bringing together all the medieval sources—in their original languages and with a modern English translation—that pertain to a single but very significant event is, as the back-cover endorsement of Donald Scragg states, “extremely worthwhile.” The event in question is the famous battle between the army of the Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan and a coalition of Hiberno-Norse, Scots, and Strathclyde Britons led by Anlaf Guthfrithsson that took place in 937 “around Brunanburh.” This volume presents in chronological order (as far as is possible) the medieval sources that make, or may make, significant mention of the battle, and gives title and notes, but no text, for those that reproduce earlier material without deviation. The work of editing and translating is shared, the bulk of it between scholars who have contributed essays to the volume. Some of the texts are edited and translated afresh, others are “adapted” from existing editions and translations, and a couple are simply reproduced. Welsh, Old and Middle English, Old Icelandic, Latin, and Anglo-Norman nestle side by side, testament to the far-reaching fame of the battle, and the perceived great power of Athelstan. Some mention the battle directly, others are there to throw light on the political contexts of early tenth-century Britain. The accounts of the battle range from the terse—the two-word entry for 937 in Annales Cambriae, “Bellum Brune,” extremely so—through the eulogistic tenth-century Anglo-Saxon writings in English and Latin and the increasingly embroidered post-Conquest narratives of saintly intervention and dastardly barbarian tricks, to the utterly fantastic renderings that replace entirely Athelstan’s victory with that of Guy of Warwick, who defeats a Danish giant, Colbrand, in single combat. Thus the volume serves not only those who seek to understand the details of the battle and its context but also those who wish to trace how and in what contexts its core narrative accretes other material. [End Page 387]

While it is of course possible to quibble with some of the individual word choices translators have made, I found nothing in the translations unacceptable—although I’m not equipped to judge the Welsh language material—and many of them a pleasure to read. Each text is accompanied by useful notes, although the focus of these depends to a certain extent not only upon the individual text but also upon the bent of each editor, and some of them would almost certainly lose the general reader or beginning student.

The first text presented is the Welsh Armes Prydein Vawr, or Great Prophecy of Britain. Here we have a poem explicitly and intensely hostile to the Anglo-Saxons and their mechtëyrn (great king) (ll. 18, 100), a likely candidate for whom is Athelstan, and which prophesies a coalition of Welsh, Irish, and “foreigners of Dublin” (l. 131) united against the English. Although the text’s position in the book is the result of the chronological ordering (the editor allows it a date range of 927–50), it has the potential to influence thinking on the battle in stimulating ways. We don’t normally begin our approach to the matter of Brunanburh from the perspective of the hostile Welsh, angry at the theft of their homeland and the taxes imposed by the Saxon kechmyn (shitheads) (ll. 27, 40, 184). One of the strengths of this volume is the kind of extension it offers to the range of approaches to a subject whose departure point is most often the accounts of the battle in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Latin histories of the twelfth century. The juxtaposition of familiar and unfamiliar texts encourages fresh thinking and provides a useful teaching tool to encourage a source-critical approach that could take in many aspects of production context.

A word of warning, though: dates are given at the beginning of each text, with no explanation of whether they refer to composition or to manuscript preservation. Doubt is...


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