Delving into Anglo-Saxon Charters

Historians of the Anglo-Saxon period can extract a huge amount of information from sources that look as though they’re not going to be of any value. Sometimes, however, historians can get a little carried away and can, unfortunately, gleam too much information from sources that might not be quite as genuine as first thought.

As I finally get my nose down and do the research for my dissertation my primary concern is looking at the Anglo Saxon Charters from 994-1016. These are few in number and they have been utilised to show anything and everything from the King’s favourite ealdormen, to the existence of a royal scriptorium churning out charters for the King, to defining the boundary of lands mentioned within them, and these endeavours are all to be applauded, but it is necessary to take a moment and think about the implications of the work being done.

The charters survive very often as later copies. Historians will do all they can to determine if the copy is based on an original – checking witness lists, cross checking to see if people mentioned were alive or dead at the time of the charters composition and trying to find independent information that verifies the authenticity of the charter, or not as the case may be. But ultimately any charter that has survived has done so because it had some intrinsic value to a monastery or a person interested in the contents of that charter for a reason other than historians are now using it for. As such the survival of any charters from this period can perhaps be more of an indication of events occurring in the thirteenth century, when monasteries and their lands were coming under attack and the truth of their claims was being very closely examined, than what was really happening in the time period when the charter purports to have been written. And, even then the Charter may only survive in one copy.

It feels to me sometimes as though historians build fantastical arguments that are coherent and make perfect sense, until the foundation for the claims are more closely examined. Should huge sweeping statements be made about the career of one man based on only 41 references to them in Anglo-Saxon Charters?

Perhaps not, but if we don’t use the information available, then those awful words, ‘The Dark Ages’ will make a reappearance and no one will be prepared to comment or speculate on anything. So with all that being said, being a historian of one time period (Anglo-Saxon, Tudor, War of the Roses etc) often actually involves being an expert on a different era as well, as well as knowing Latin, Anglo Saxon, Old English, Old Norse, Irish and all the other languages that have dominated the writing of history for the last 1500 years.

It’s an unenviable task, and I wouldn’t be able to do my research if I wasn’t standing on the shoulders of giants and evaluating their arguments and accepting, or disagreeing with what they say. One thing I’ve found to be helpful, is to examine the source closest in time to the period under investigation. As such for 994-1016, I can use the Anglo-Saxon Charter, provided I accept that the source is later and biased in favour of certain people and places. But I can use the overwhelming feeling at that time, say ten to twenty years after events (which is still a long time – think of how we now view the 1980’s or the 1990’s) and try to determine a ‘platform’ on which other information can be built or tested against it. Admittedly that means that I need to understand events taking place during the reign of Cnut (and beyond) in order to understand events being recorded in the reign of Aethelred II.

But I started this with a discussion about sources, and have wondered at a wonderful 21st century tangent for some time. I’ll try to drag myself back to 1000 years ago, but first I must say that there is also the bias of the current historian to take into account. We are a suspicious lot, not happy to accept anything at face value, and always looking for the crux of any information provided by our ancestors. It can only be assumed that they were just as devious and untrusting as we are, and so back to the sources. Can we use them? Should we trust them? To me it looks like there’s not actually much choice but to mine them for every available facet of information. And so I shall! With my devious little mind, and my belief that nothing may be as it seems!!

Book Review – Viking Sword by M J Porter (historical fiction)

I’m not going to review my own book – fear ye not – but I am going to use this as an excuse to pull together some of the reviews that Viking Sword received under its previous guise of Ealdorman. So here’s the blurb:

“It’s the second Viking Age in England, and King Æthelred II reigns.

Five ealdormen represent him in the old Saxon kingdoms.

Battles are being fought against the viking raiders looking to plunder England for her wealth.

Leofwine is the ealdorman of the Hwicce.

On a diplomatic mission in 994, escorting home Olaf, the King of Norway, Leofwine is gravely injured in battle, losing the sight in one eye, and badly scarring half of his face.

Leofwine fears his new wife will find him repulsive and leave him, but she stands loyally by his side when he arrives home, delighted that her husband is still alive, as she had been told he died in battle.

Leofwine spends time with his wife and their infant son, Northman, as he recovers from his wounds.

He is a good man and a brave leader, but now his men fear his limited vision will be a hindrance when he leads them in battle, and that fear is increased when Leofwine falls in front of them.

But Leofwine is smart.

He trains his loyal hound Hunter to walk ahead of him, indicating where he may trip, and he trains hard to make up for his limited vision.

Having lost his own father in battle with the raiders, Leofwine has taken care of the lands with the help of his father’s closest confidant, Wulfstan, since he was a boy.

But he knows a great battle is looming, and he is not sure if his king, who has never lead his men in battle before, is up to the task of ridding the land of the raiders, and putting a stop to the Viking menace once and for all.”

Here’s review number 1

“Having read the Dragon of Unison books by this author, I thought I’d give this book a try too. I studied early Anglo-Saxon Northumbria but don’t know very much about that part of the later Saxon period (around 1000AD) or the history of that area but it was a really good read. The battle scenes were well covered and the story was interesting – history nearly always concerns itself with kings and court so its interesting to read about the lives of other people at that time, even if they are lords and attend meetings with the king and his court. I liked the characters as people (apart from the ones I wasn’t supposed to like) and the setting was totally believable so this all helps me when I’m reading historical novels to know some actual research has been done. The only criticism I have, and its a minor one, is that it would have been nice to have had an anchor point before I started reading – e.g. King Alfred (who everyone has heard of). To know how long he had been dead before the action takes place and the relationship between him and the king in the book, would have helped me to place the story a bit better. The list of major characters in the back of the book was very helpful for this. I was so keen to see how the story developed that I’ve already bought the second book and am half way through that.”

And review number 2

“I actually found this book to be quite a good, interesting, entertaining read.

I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of this novel. I only know bits and pieces of the time this novel is set in. But I found the characters to be interesting and well-written and the storyline to be engaging, one that kept me reading.

The amount of characters with similar-sounding names was a bit confusing, though. By the end of the book, I was struggling to differentiate between the different people.

I really liked the relationships between the characters, especially Leofwine and his wife. The scenes between them were particularly sweet and it was nice to see that real love had grown from the arranged marriage.

I felt that the author did a really good job of showing the politics that was in the kingdom. I also thought that it came across really well how difficult Leofwine found his injury and partial blindness – as well as how he learned to compensate for that disability. Of course, anyone who wasn’t whole in that time would have a much more difficult time of it than someone with that kind of injury in modern day.

The descriptions in the book were really good and I was able to see a lot of the events happening in my mind, especially when it came to the fighting scenes. I did, however, notice quite a few errors in the books – apostrophes used when something was supposed to be plural; and Hunter changed gender at one point.

I think I’d definitely be interested in reading more books in this series. It would be good to see what else is going to happen.”

And review number 3

A”n enjoyable story, with a minimalist style. The pacing was sound, but there were quite a few grammatical errors. The author needed to spend more time in editing, it needed just a bit more polish, but the story did not suffer despite this. I appreciated the author’s emphasis on setting and world building, not choosing to lump a bunch of shallow action sequences in, merely for the sake of grabbing fickle readers. Sword play is great, but I prefer depth of character and the author clearly does as well.
A good read, I would recommend it to those who can enjoy fantasy or historical fiction that is not layered with commercialized violence.”

 

These reviews all offered slightly different scores on the review, but I really appreciated the readers taking the time to not only read my book, but also to review it! So thank you again, and if it’s wet your appetite, then please grab yourselves a copy from Amazon.

 

 

Book Review – The Seven by Peter Newman – fantasy – recommended

“Years have passed since the Vagrant journeyed to the Shining City, Vesper in arm and Gamma’s sword in hand.

Since then the world has changed. Vesper, following the footsteps of her father, journeyed to the breach and closed the tear between worlds, protecting the last of humanity, but also trapping the infernal horde and all those that fell to its corruptions: willing or otherwise.

In this new age it is Vesper who leads the charge towards unity and peace, with seemingly nothing standing between the world and a bright new future.

That is until eyes open.

And The Seven awakes.”

I received a free EArc from Netgalley.

But that said, after only a few pages, I decided to read the previous book in the series, as the world I discovered was both intriguing and quite alien. I thought I needed some back story, and indeed I did. My review for The Malice is here.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2011536175?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1

I should also perhaps have taken the time to read The Vagrant but impatience won out, and anyway, The Vagrant, unlike in The Malice, is a real part of this final part of the trilogy (I am assuming it’s the final part).

Anyway, back to The Seven.

The world created by Peter Newman throughout The Vagrant series is inherently alien. It feels new and strange and, on occasion, very, very weird. This, more than anything, immediately draws the reader in, for Newman’s descriptions are sparse in the extreme, and I was often left decrying his lack of description (which is weird for me because I often skip excess descriptions in books content to let my imagination hold sway). Neither is it just his descriptions that are sparse, the whole nature of the book is trimmed down so that you really have to read each and every word – there’s no skipping a bit because you sort of know what’s about to happen. There is also, in the grand scheme of things, little conversation. This ties with the ‘pared’ down nature of the planet that these people inhabit.

The characters in this final book – Vesper, Samael and Scout, The Vagrant, Jem, her daughter, Obeisance and The Seven, as well as The First, Neer and other characters from the earlier book (including The Buck although not as much as I might have liked) – are all scarcely sketched and yet all have very distinct characters. There is no need to’like’ any of the characters (not like in some books) and yet throughout the series you gain respect for them all – even when they might be being cowardly or acting contrary to what we might hope they do. This is a strength of the book – for all the weirdness and strangeness – these are people (I use that word lightly) that we can understand if not relate to.

I very much enjoyed the ‘backstory’ in The Seven. Throughout The Malice I found it a little distracting, but in The Seven, the back story is vitally important, and indeed, at the end, I would have liked to know more about Massala and her creations.

Book 3 is eminently more readable than The Malice – and I don’t think it was because I knew more about the ‘world’ of The Vagrant – I think the storyline is more recognizable and therefore flows better. Yet I don’t think the author ever quite gives the reader what they want – there is not really a happily ever after, there is just an ending, and one which is never wholly assured until it actually happens.

There are very good battle scenes, and very good ‘political’ scenes and yet through it all, the world of The Vagrant remains aloof – difficult to grasp onto. It is not a typical fantasy book and some might well struggle with it, but I think it’s well worth the struggle (The Malice took me a month to read because I struggled with elements of it – The Seven is a much quicker read) and it is refreshing to read something so very different and ‘new’.

The Seven is available now and can be purchased here;

Book Review – Killer of Kings by Matthew Harffy – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“AD 636. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and the fourth instalment in The Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell.

Beobrand has land, men and riches. He should be content. And yet he cannot find peace until his enemies are food for the ravens. But before Beobrand can embark on his bloodfeud, King Oswald orders him southward, to escort holy men bearing sacred relics.

When Penda of Mercia marches a warhost into the southern kingdoms, Beobrand and his men are thrown into the midst of the conflict. Beobrand soon finds himself fighting for his life and his honour.

In the chaos that grips the south, dark secrets are exposed, bringing into question much that Beobrand had believed true. Can he unearth the answers and exact the vengeance he craves? Or will the blood-price prove too high, even for a warrior of his battle-fame and skill?”

Killer of Kings is the fourth full-length novel in The Bernicia Chronicles, but only the third that I’ve read, although I’ve also read the short-story that accompanies the series which I actually enjoyed more than the full-length novels because it was about Beobrand’s brother, who seems to be a wee bit cheerier than poor grumpy Beobrand.

Killer of Kings starts very strongly – the short prologue is excellent and I thought, because of what happens in it, that it was the beginning of something quite monumental. Sadly that’s not the case and instead, the first 50% of the novel is taken up with almost only one battle. Personally, I found it to be a very long build up to the battle, and then dismissed far too quickly.

The remainder of the story is very much a trip down memory lane for Beobrand, and this bit of the novel I really quite enjoyed before Beobrand goes off to settle an old blood feud.

I found the novel to be moderately entertaining but would have appreciated more sophistication in the plot line. As I said, 50% of the novel is concerned with only one battle, and so what comes after feels at times rushed and also a little bit too easy for old Beobrand to accomplish what he wants. He quickly takes up with moaning and grumbling about his injuries (as he did throughout book 3) but he is almost a happier Beobrand than throughout the previous book.

Overall, he is too easily swayed from his own wishes by weak attempts to incite him to honour which fall a little flat. The ongoing Christianity/Pagan Gods thing is, I know, a staple of the time period, but as with the Bernard Cornwell books, I feel it could be handled in a far more sophisticated manner, if not, entirely forgotten about for much of the book. Penda the Pagan was, as the author admits, no persecutor of Christians and as such, it’s difficult to make the East Anglian battle about religion – it was about ambition and strength, and we are told little about what happens as a consequence of the battle in terms of who is, or isn’t king, and what impact this might have had on Penda and Oswald..

The side-story – taking place at home and in his absence – is used to string the novel along – a battle scene followed by what’s happening in his absence – and while I know this is a literary convention employed by many to great affect. I found the back story to be a distraction from Beobrand’s tale, and also, a little too predictable, even as it mingles with Beobrand’s journey to his childhood home.

Overall I think the novel is a firm three star, bordering on a four, and therefore I’ve given it a four. The author has a strong view of the Albion inhabited by Beobrand and his comrades and this is a strength of the novel.

Killer of Kings is available from 1st June 2017.