- The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066–1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past by John D. Niles
This is a useful historical survey of the discipline of Anglo-Saxon studies—or what is going to be such a discipline. As its title indicates, the book sets its beginning in the year 1066, when Anglo-Saxon England became an object of scrutiny. Scholars of the pre-Conquest period have long been fascinated by the subject, and many books and essays have been written on different phases and areas of Anglo-Saxon studies. What makes John D. Niles’s The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England unique is its historical sweep, as it “offers a step-by-step review” of the changing idea of Anglo-Saxon England during the later part of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance period, the eighteenth century, the Romantic period, and the Victorian era, together with shorter and yet equally fascinating histories of this subject in North America and the British Empire (p. vii). Niles’s book will appeal to Anglo-Saxonists in different stages of their career. Graduate students who are just beginning their work will benefit from the panoramic view of the field offered here. Established scholars who already know the history of their own subfields of Anglo-Saxon studies (e.g., language and literature, history and law, art and architecture) will still find something new in this substantial book with an interdisciplinary outlook. The volume should also be of interest to scholars working in other areas of English studies. In fact, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England is designed to provide something for everyone. Published in the series Wiley Blackwell Manifestos, it contains numerous plates showing pages from manuscripts and printed books, paintings and cartoons, pictures, and images of artifacts. The volume also includes stand-alone essays called vignettes, which deal with diverse topics such as runic letters, the Tremulous Hand of Worcester, and the apocryphal story of King Alfred burning the cakes. Together, the volume makes an intervention in rethinking the concept of “Anglo-Saxon.”
The first chapter, “The Impact of the Norman Conquest,” begins with “the court of King Alfred the Great (r. 871–99) and his immediate successors” (p. 2). In the tenth century, England at length became “a politically united kingdom,” and the realm accordingly found it necessary to create “the idea of Anglo-Saxon England” (p. 4). The beginning of Anglo-Saxon study might be sought in “the great Doomsday Book census of 1086,” which the newly arrived, French-speaking Normans undertook “so as to ascertain just what lands and revenues they had won on the English side of the Channel” (pp. 6–7). These new settlers, however, came to consider themselves English in a relatively short period of time. While Old English texts recorded in manuscripts eventually became unintelligible to speakers of (now Middle) English, the legacy of Anglo-Saxon England could be recognized in their legal and religious practice. The second chapter, “The Discovery of Anglo-Saxon England in Tudor Times,” discusses how interests in the Anglo-Saxons rose during the Reformation. One of the key figures in this intellectual movement was Matthew Parker, Queen Elizabeth’s first archbishop of Canterbury, who not only salvaged numerous vernacular manuscripts from the chaos of the Dissolution but also studied, with other [End Page 273] scholars, these manuscripts in pursuit of knowledge about the state of the church in medieval England especially prior to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Scholars from this period also developed an interest in Anglo-Saxon history.
The next three chapters trace the rising, founding, and maturing of the study of Anglo-Saxon England through the efforts of antiquaries. The third chapter, “British Antiquaries and the Anglo-Saxon Past,” covers such key figures as Robert Cotton (a renowned manuscript collector) and William Camden (the author of the Britannia and the founder, in 1622...