Top positive review
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First Class Scholarship
on 26 February 2013
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...