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51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First Class Scholarship
This is certainly one of the three best pieces of scholarship I have read over the last year or so, and the best I have come across up to now on the End of Roman Britain, the so-called "Saxon Invasions" and the Dark Ages. It is both a very useful and a very necessary book, given the rather controversial topics that it covers. In addition, it is written in a clear and...
Published 17 months ago by JPS

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but all could have been said and done in a shorter time
Some interesting facts and a good alternative version of how the Angles, Jutes and Saxons got onto these shores, basically a good book. But like some other reviews have already pointed out, I got the feeling the author was a tadge angry.
At the end of the day if Arthur existed or not is really matterless.
Those such as Bernard Cornwell who write (very good in Mr...
Published 11 months ago by michael eastlake


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51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First Class Scholarship, 26 Feb 2013
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JPS - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Hardcover)
This is certainly one of the three best pieces of scholarship I have read over the last year or so, and the best I have come across up to now on the End of Roman Britain, the so-called "Saxon Invasions" and the Dark Ages. It is both a very useful and a very necessary book, given the rather controversial topics that it covers. In addition, it is written in a clear and entertaining way.

The first of its numerous merits is to attempt (very successfully, in my view) to "set the record straight", sometimes with virulence. It does this by keeping to what we really know about this period. Unlike the multiple existing books on "King Arthur" and his times, on the end of Roman Britain and on the coming of the Saxons, it tries to stick to both the very few and somewhat dubious written sources and to the archaeological material without jumping to pre-conceived conclusions.

The second merit of this book is that it does show that the supposed "Arthur of History" may very well not have existed, and that it is currently simply impossible to prove either his existence or his entirely legendary nature. What the author does show, however, is that the conditions prevailing in Britain during the 5th and 6th century were such that several warlords might have at times become sufficiently powerful dominate swaths of Britain, just like they would during the 7th century.

The third merit of this book is to present in its first part ("Old Worlds") and its second part, respectively, "the traditional ideas about what became to Britain after the Roman Empire" in what the author calls the "modern "pseudo-histories" and the ways in which scholars and academic view the period nowadays. This, together with the third part ("Mad Worlds - Red Herrings and Old Chestnuts") walks us through some of the main (and misleading) arguments about the "historical Arthur" and the end of Roman Britain (of which "UnRoman Britain" and Stuart Laycock's other books are just one example).

Halsall's book would have been very valuable in itself if it had just stopped here. This is because it uncovers the assumptions and exposes the rather dubious methods that authors have been using to make their point and present "the truth" about the end of Roman Britain. One piece which I found particularly interesting was to show how little value can really be placed in the DNA studies that have been conducted on sample populations in certain areas of the United Kingdom and of Germany to demonstrate the existence of common genetic and geographical origins. More generally, the author exposes a rather widespread tendency among authors to be selective in both the archaeological data they use and the interpretations they draw from it, and to neglect what does not fit with their pre-conceived theories.

There is, however, much more to the book than this. Part 4 ("New Worlds?") makes up almost half the size of the book and contains the author's own - and very interesting - views. Regardless of whether one agrees or not and whether readers will find him convincing or not, he does argue his points rather well and a number of them are crucial points.

One is the need for systematic comparative analysis with what was happening across the Channel and in Spain, and more particularly in Northern Gaul during the 5th and 6th centuries. As the author puts it, studies of this period have often tended to have an "insular" character, therefore minimizing the similarities (but also the differences) with what happened elsewhere in the Western part of the Roman Empire.

Another is the need to avoid simplistic oppositions between "Romano-Britons" and "Saxons", just like historians on the mainland are starting to overcome the dichotomy between "Gallo-Romans" and "Barbarians" (whether Franks, Goths, Alamans, Alains, Sueves, Burgondes or Vandals, to mention only these). As the author shows rather well in this book (and in his previous book "Barbarian Migrations on the Roman West", 2007), the opposition between "Barbarians" and "Romans" needs to be qualified, at a minimum, given the interactions between the Empire and the populations coming from outside of it. One of the multiple consequences is that the so-called "Barbarians" had been subject to Roman influences for decades, if not for centuries, and generally wanted to settle within the Empire, rather than destroy it. Significant numbers had already been brought into the Empire well before the 5th century, and possibly as early as the first century AD, to serve in the Roman forces. At least some of these returned to their homelands with enhanced status as a consequence.

A third point is that, far from being an "invasion", the arrival of "Saxon" (but also Angles, Jutes etc...) war bands in Roman Britain was probably the result of a deliberate policy by the Roman authorities at the end of the 4th century. These bands seem to have been used to garrison specific and strategic areas, allowing for the military authorities to (temporarily, or at least this what they envisaged) withdraw troops to participate in the civil wars for the control of the Empire.

A further point shown by the author is that the power vacuum, fragmentation and economic crisis that took place during the first years of the 5th century lead to endemic civil wars between the various factions in Britain, with the federate war bands having to take sides. This, of course, is a rather different, more realistic, but less palatable story that the opposition between the heroic resistance of the "Romano-Britons" against the invading "Saxons", with the later slowly taking over all of the lowland parts of the country by sheer weight of numbers and by taking advantages of the infighting between Britons. It is also a somewhat more realistic story since something quite similar was happening on the continent during the same period.

Another fascinating point that the author discusses at length is the nature and scale of the Saxon migration and of the Saxon settlement, together with the numerous problems that it raises. Britain was not flooded with migrants, and neither was the Western Empire swamped by "Hordes of Barbarians". However, Guy Halsall does show that migrants trickled in over a period of about 150 years, probably a much longer period than on the continent, but that the migrations were not one-sided. Some Germanic populations returned to the mainland and some Saxons settled in Normandy or in the Loire valley, while some Britons migrated to Armorica (modern Brittany, in France) and Irish migrated to actual Scotland and Wales. With regards to settlements, the author also shows the difficulties in attributing specific findings to specific ethnical groups.

More generally, he very convincingly shows how and why pre-existing populations might quite rapidly be seen as "Saxons" and become assimilated. This would happen within one or two generations, regardless of their ethnic and geographic background, as they would adopt the appearance, language and customs of the now-dominant group, just like their ancestors had become "Romano-Britons" a few centuries before. Here again, this is very similar to what happened on the other side of the Channel on Nothern Gaul and the two Belgica.

As readers will have guessed by my rather overlong review, I got carried away by this rather excellent book which I cannot recommend enough. Had it been possible, I would have rated it seven or ten stars...
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Solid and illuminating, if sometimes a little cross, 3 May 2013
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Martin Turner "Martin Turner" (Marlcliff, Warwickshire, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Hardcover)
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Worlds of Arthur is a solid examination of all of the historical and archaeological material which pertains to Arthur, and a rebuttal of all of the popular attempts to find a grounding for a historical Arthur figure at the back of the legends. In doing so, author Guy Halsall gives an informed and informative account of the evidence surrounding the coming of the Saxons and the continuation of Romano-British settlements across Britain. At times the writing is a little bad tempered -- Halsall has clearly debated with people who rely on misinterpretations and special pleading. Nonetheless, as a serious examination of what is -- essentially -- a non-serious subject, he does his best to provide a huge amount of genuine research and knowledge in his demolition of pseudo-Arthurianism.

The internet has given a huge boost to pseudo-Arthur studies. Materials which were previously only available in research libraries are now there for all to examine, and there are probably more theories being seriously advanced than ever before. However, as Guy Halsall demonstrates, most of them were overturned some time ago, and the rest stand on very little more than a foundation of wishful thinking.

I was afraid that this book was going to be just one long demolition of these kinds of theories, but it isn't. Halsall is careful to set out almost all of the documentary and archaeological evidence we have for the period -- at least in terms of summarising the main conclusions. As someone who studied dark age archaeology as an undergraduate in the 1980s, I was pleased to be reminded of some things I knew but had forgotten, and be brought up to speed on which of the ideas beginning to be developed then have established themselves in the mainstream. This is not quite an undergraduate level guide to the post-Roman period, but it is nonetheless very good.

My only slight criticism of this book is that it is to some extent jousting at windmills. My sense is that most people who are interested in Arthur recognised that there is no or almost no sound historical evidence that he existed, but it is nonetheless jolly fascinating to tug at the threads, speculate and generally see what can be made of what there is. I don't see anything particularly wrong with this. Halsall is really writing against the (I believe) minority of people who genuinely think that the evidence is real and compelling, and should be adopted into main stream history. This is fair enough, but I doubt that many of these people will be willing to read a book disproving their favourite theories.

Despite this, a good read, and an excellent source-book if you are writing historical fiction in the dark ages, or a-historical Arthurian stuff.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lies, Damn Lies and King Arthur, 22 Mar 2013
This review is from: Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Hardcover)
This book is a must for anyone who genuinely wants to know more about the years following the collapse of Roman rule in Britain. As the title suggests, the book focusses on Arthur, the most famous king that Britain never had. But it is much, much more than that. For too long, those of us with a lay interest in this period have had a choice between two fairly unpalatable extremes - search out the expensive, hard-to-find, often dry academic tomes, many of which seem to assume that the reader is educated to at least degree level Latin, or make do with the turgid reams of cod-historic rubbish written by bug-eyed leyline furtlers convinced that King Arthur and his knights lie a-sleeping at the bottom of their garden.

Halsall's book is all at once academic, engaging, well-written, infuriating, funny, snide, provocative and perceptive. But that's not why you should read this book. You should read this book because Halsall presents a cogently argued picture of "Dark Age" Britain which is rooted firmly in evidence and which synthesises different disciplines in a manner immediately accessible to poor saps like me who don't know their toponymy from their paleobotany.

You don't need to agree with Halsall's core argument to be able to appreciate that, for once, academia has taken the fight to the populist centre ground. I take issue with many of Halsall's conclusions, but I cheer him on all the way as he replaces wild hypothesis with sound, rational thinking.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and illuminating, 16 Jun 2013
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This review is from: Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Hardcover)
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I grew up reading the myths and legends of King Arthur, but have always done so with a large pinch of salt, predominantly because there are so many contradictary sources of information and stories dotted throughout history. Having read one or two of the books claiming to be the 'real true story' of King Arthur, I must admit I did approach this book with a certain level of scepticism - which was slightly allayed as I read the decidedly grumpy (but amusing) introduction to the text. I must make it pretty clear at this point that I am approaching this book from the perspective of a lay person. I am not an archaeologist, historian or anthropologist, and am reading this book based on a fairly weak understanding of the Dark Ages of Britain. That having been said, I found this book a surprisingly easy read - easy to follow, fascinating and not 'dumbed down', but not written so densely and with so many references that I required a substantial tome of history to refer to throughout.

The book covers a lot of Anglo Saxon history dating from the migration period through the end of the Roman Era and also covers a lot of the internal wars of Britain after the Roman period ended, both from the perspective of the historians writing at the time and from that of archaeology both dating from the 1950's onwards and present day findings. I particularly like the fact that the author (to my mind at least) seems to be saying 'here is the history and the facts. Now go and make your own mind up'. I also particularly enjoyed the chapter 'Red Herrings and Old Chestnuts' in the book where the author looks at a lot of misconceptions associated with various different versions of the King Arthur legend and debunks them - Guy Halsall makes some very pithy, amusing and pointed observations concerning a lot of the ideas surrounding the Arthur legend!

All in all, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with a love of the Anglo Saxon era, as well as to anyone with any level of interest in who the mythical King Arthur was, and if he ever actually existed. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone wanting an interesting and approachable text on the Anglo Saxons and the Migration Period.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent and insightful read, 21 May 2013
By 
Fiona Millar "cookiemum" (Edinburgh) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Hardcover)
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'Worlds of Arthur' gets straight to grips with its overarching argument, that there is not a shred of evidence that the King Arthur of myth and legend ever existed. The other theme strongly running through the book is that we don't really know anything for certain regarding the time period that Arthur supposedly existed. Halsall provides an interesting and authoritative insight into the 'Dark Ages', investigating mainstream and controversial theories regarding the society, politics and movements of people across Europe.

Sometimes it feels as though the thread of Arthur gets lost in the exhaustive information given, but it's no less interesting for that, and Halsall does eventually pull the narrative back together to conclude that if there was a resl Arthur, his story is a far less interesting one than the story of society as a whole throughout this period of history. Not perhaps a book for those more interested in the myth and legend side of Arthur, but a very informative and interesting book for anyone interested in learning more about the history and social context of the times.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterful summation of what we don't know about Arthur!, 12 May 2013
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Enquirer (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Hardcover)
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I will not bore you with the full-blown review that this book really deserves. (I will just bore you with the following!)If you are a fully-paid up 'King Arthur Nut' this professsional historian's go at things is bound to irritate, antagonize, or even demoralise you. If you are a Romantic by nature you may well end up a bit disappointed. If you are a coldly scientific academic you WILL be able to find holes in his argument. Personally, I think this makes it an outstanding book!

I was drawn to the 'World of Arthur' by the familiarity of Guy Halsall's name in wrgaming circles - and of course the name Arthur. When I realised that it was a serious analysis of what we do and don't kow about the period, I was hooked. Halsall is essentially a sceptic, not a revisionist. He is not trying to mark out personal territory with provocative theories as his equivalent of pissing on trees. He is not even trying to cash in on the King Arthur industry per se. Rather, he is providing a toolkit to an intelligent reader, to enable an evaluation of things for him or herself. This is not to say that he entirely resists injecting the work with his own theories. The Bibliography is superb and the bit at the back on sources and use of sources really eye-opening. It does, however, clarify that in, say, Chapter 10, that the source of the ideas in Halsall 2013 is - Halsall 2010! Actually, both you and I can probably live with his own speculations, since they at least derive from academic discipline rather than an overdose of nationalism or tesosterone.

Maybe it would be better to call this a set of skeleton keys rather than a toolkit. These keys do not quite fit in my humble view, but they do open doors. I learnt a great deal about 'black earth' in urban sites, British names with dog in, Saxon names with wolf in, Gildas' preaching style, perceived ethnic identity, the history of archaological thought, and so on. You will not go short of wit, insight or information here.

I must finally draw your attention to the great similarity betwen Mr Halsall's approach and that of early Liberal theology.It was very good at clearing the field, but not so great at producing a later crop in that field. Textual criticism 'discredited' every single early New Testament text and all eye-witness claims, no matter how well-attested.It was a case of 'goodbye Matthew, Luke and John'; Mark not the amanuensis of Peter, and Paul either a dangerous bandwagon-jumper or a much later commentator. Then, naturally - goodbye Jesus. Halsall is so offended by the Arthurian fundamenalists that Arthur also has to go, once he has ripped the guts out of Gildas, Bede et al. It is not insignificant that Halsall actually calls himself a 'romantic Arthurian agnostic'. Our current society puts a high status on the 'scientific' over the mere 'literary'. This means that, for now, archaeology will always trump text. Before long, the wheel will turn once more. There is always the touching expectation that the archaological record will continue to expand, while the textual one is finished. I anticipate some long-lost document being found in the lining of some boring missal......

I am now starting my re-read.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshing, 16 Feb 2013
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Paul Mortimer - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Hardcover)
Just finished - what a great book! One of the best that I have read on the subject for a long time. Halsall certainly knows his sources and discusses them clearly, together with the archaeology and other evidence. He provides many new (for me) insights and possibilities and doesn't take entrenched positions or set up circular arguments. This isn't going to be a full review as I really need to read much of the book again to get the most from it and I am still thinking through many of the well argued suggestions that Halsall makes and how they will impact on my own ideas of the period.
Halsall really has made an important contribution to the study of this age and he has been able to put 4th to 7th century Britain into the wider context of Europe and the latter Roman Empire.
I was disappointed by the lack of footnotes and references, but this is a minor quibble when measured against this book's ability to get the old (especially in my case) grey cells working.
I am looking forward to getting to grips with this volume again.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Believable, 24 Feb 2013
Thirty years ago I read The Age of Arthur by Morris, a very readable book asserting that the dark ages need not be so dark. Since then I've had much interest in the emergence of the Anglo Saxon world . This book starts by letting me know that that formative book was discredited before I read it.

I'd always been puzzled about the fate of the Britons in Anglo Saxon lands and by the fact that I read that Essex and Mercia were the strong Saxon kingdoms rather than the supposed older ones on the eastern coast.

Halsall presents a completely believable alternative to the evolution of Roman Britain' one that fits my layman's intuition. He does it in a very readable and sometimes amusing style.

So no hesitation about 5 stars, I'd wager that in thirty years I'll find that this will have more credibility than Morris' Age of Arthur proved to have.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars MAKING SENSE OF A MESS, 16 Mar 2013
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This review is from: Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Hardcover)
This is an extremely intelligent and scholarly nook which I can strongly recommend to anyone interested in Dark Age Britain. Professor Halsall is an expert controversialist and is not afraid to take on established views. The book divides into two parts. In the first he is concerned to demolish the romantic myths surrounding Arthur showing they have little historical basis. Although his hatchet job is well done, I found this the least interesting part of the book since Big Grown Up Dark Age scholars never really believed in Arthur, did we?
I found the second part, where he offers his own new interpretations of what took place in the mysterious period 400-600AD, far more interesting. Here, given the lack of credible historical sources, we are confronted by, as he puts it, a `mess' since we really only have archeological evidence to go by. So he is to be commended for trying to make sense of this in a stimulating and original way This he does by arguing that Britain in this period should ne seen in the context of the whole pattern of European Barbarian invasions where the evidence is better. In particular he wants to draw parallels between Britain and Northern Gaul in this period. However a major problem with this argument is that Britain witnessed a complete language replacement which did not occur in Northern Gaul. This suggests that in the British case either (a) there was a larger Germanic migration or (b) that the existing British Celtic population became more deeply acculturated into Germanic values.
In short the book does leave some key questions unanswered, but that is no criticism given the difficulties in this whole area. Perhaps a follow up Ages of Arthur 2 is called for in which he could develop some of his ideas more fully?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but all could have been said and done in a shorter time, 21 Aug 2013
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Some interesting facts and a good alternative version of how the Angles, Jutes and Saxons got onto these shores, basically a good book. But like some other reviews have already pointed out, I got the feeling the author was a tadge angry.
At the end of the day if Arthur existed or not is really matterless.
Those such as Bernard Cornwell who write (very good in Mr Cornwall's case) fictional books around Arthur will continue to do so, and no doubt they will be bought in there droves, by folk I would like to think will understand it is a work of fiction, even if they are from a non academic background!
Those who believe Arthur was real, complete with armour plated romantic knights, wizards and magic swords will also believe this despite any evidence to the contrary, and will lap up books claiming to be the real truth despite the best efforts of by Mr Halsall
With all legends most folk only want to believe in the romantic myth not the mundane truth.
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Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages
Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages by Guy Halsall (Hardcover - 14 Feb 2013)
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