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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 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...
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on 25 September 2014
The author brings a clear analytical approach to many of the problems surrounding the post-Roman period. His analysis raises doubts as to the significance of apparently Saxon evidence in burials, the related cartographers' version of history with a steadily moving east-to-west front of Saxon conquest and finally the questionable nature of DNA evidence for mass migration from northern Europe. He raises an interesting possibility relative to the lack of proto-Welsh words in Anglo-Saxon, suggesting that as in Gaul, Roman Britain could have switched to Latin; thus Latin loan-words appear in both Welsh and Anglo-Saxon. He also provides a good description of the reoccupation on the hill forts and their role as centres for imported Mediterraen luxuries at least in the western parts of Britain.

Despite all this, readers may reach the end of the book without finding they have much more insight, and perhaps less than they had before. The author wants to dismiss the evidence for the survival of activity in many Roman towns. It would seem that this requires a more detailed discussion than he gives it. His argument that Wroxeter, even if occupied, might not qualify as a town seems something of a quibble, especially given that the convergence of roads or tracks would tend to preserve a market function. However, the possible survival of Romano-British influence around some eastern towns such as London, St. Albans and possibly Lincoln and Chichester, actually ties in with the author's proposal than the initial Saxon takeover was patchy rather than a smooth east-to-west advance.

The weakest part of the coverage is the treatment of religion. It is not certain how Christianised Britain was at the end of the fourth century, but it seems paganism was no longer an issue in non-Saxon areas by the sixth century. It is very possible Christianity survived in Saxon controlled areas. However, the admittedly unreliable Bede's account of the meeting between Augustine and the British bishops near the divide between the two areas of control must still give some credibility to a religious distinction capable of playing a part in the politics of Britain. The dismissal of Pelagius in not much more than a paragraph is also too sweepinng, given the lack of any specific evidence for his ideas have been extinguished in Britain.
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on 22 March 2013
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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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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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It would appear that I fall squarely into Professor Halsall's target readership. I am not an academic or a person with a professional interest in the Arthur question. I have a passing familiarity with Arthur scholarship, with the source materials (Geoffrey of Monmouth, Aneirin and so on), and with the early history of Britain. I am curious about what there is to be known about the "Arthur of History", and in a larger sense what there is to be known about England and Wales in the relevant time period. That said, I have to report that I found Prof. Halsall's book informative, even handed and entertaining. Further, as an amateur at best, I also found it clear, engaging and manageable.

Prof Halsall declares at the outset that he is, with regard to Arthur, a "romantic Arthur agnostic". While he finds no serious evidence for Arthur's existence he also finds no evidence that conclusively establishes that there was no Arthur, and in this vacuum he shares the hope that there might have been an Arthur, and all the better if there was.

The immediate point of this book is to debunk a great amount of popular writing, and questionable scholarship, that has twisted or exaggerated the evidence to prove the existence of a great King Arthur. One gets the impression that perhaps the greatest motivator here is frustration over the fact that serious academics have not defended their turf and have abandoned the issue to gifted quacks.

If the only thing going for this book was tedious debunking, and the academic equivalent of a who-knows shrug, there wouldn't be much to recommend. Like UFO debunkers and Bermuda Triangle debunkers, and the like, the argument would become tedious well beyond the average reader's interest level. But there is much more happening in these pages. Because Prof. Halsall is deeply and broadly knowledgeable about the period in question, the examination of the Arthur myth goes hand in hand with a review of what is best known about the period, and incidentally about what is most interesting about the period.

This interest is compounded by the fact that Prof. Halsall is an engaging writer and an amiable companion as he takes the reader through the period, the sources, the current understandings, the latest archaeological findings, and the like. We have made such advances that we now know "for certain" less about fifth- and sixth-century British history than we knew "for certain" in 1975, but that does not detract from the interest of the material or the interest of the larger explanation of how academics try to piece together what can be known.

So, if you are interested in historical Arthur, this is a good choice. If you are interested in fifth- and sixth-century Britain, this is a good choice. If you would just like a very well written illustration of how professional historians and archaeologists go about trying to understand a distant, almost lost, but well defined time and place, this would be a fine choice.

Please note that I received a free advance ecopy of this book in exchange for a candid review. Except for that I have no connection at all to the author or the publisher of this book.
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on 16 March 2013
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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on 21 August 2013
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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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
...yes I really do think. At the beginning of section II, Halsall quotes scholar David Dumville: "We must reject [Arthur] from our histories and above all the titles of our books." Yet the naff fantasy novel style cover art (including Glastonbury Tor in the background) is clearly designed to draw in those people who want to hear about the "historical Arthur".

These will of course be disappointed, as Halsall demolishes the pseudo-histories and even some of the more scholarly attempts to discover a "real Arthur", including that by John Morris (The Age Of Arthur: A History of the British Isles). I did rather enjoy reading Morris back in the eighties, but many scholarly commentators have sniffily dismissed him without apparently giving good reason. Halsall is the first author I have read at least to state exactly why, in his opinion, Morris should be disregarded, seeing him as in effect deliberately "covering his tracks" in his research, making it difficult to discover where he has altered the evidence to fit. For Halsall, Morris is the perpetrator of one of the greatest historical hoaxes ever.

So what does Halsall himself state about the history of the couple of centuries after the break from Rome? He dismisses any notion that there was a conscious rebellion (thus disagreeing with Jones' The End of Roman Britain, Snyder's An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, AD 400-600 and Faulkner's Marxist wishful thinking of a people's uprising in The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain) or that towns continued to thrive (White's Britannia Prima: The Romans in the West of Britain & Dark's Britain and the End of the Roman Empire), or that there was any kind of return to tribal warfare (Laycock's Britannia - The Failed State: Tribal Conflict and the End of Roman Britain).

Halsall seems more in agreement with the likes of Ward-Perkins (The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization) and Esmonde-Cleary (The Ending of Roman Britain) that there was a major economic collapse at the end of the fourth century.

All well and good so far. But many of Halsall's ideas are as outlandish as, if not more so, some of those he criticises. In summary, he would have it that:

- Gildas' "De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae" should be dated half a century earlier than the usually accepted date of c. 540, and the "Vortigern" of Gildas is the same person as Magnus Maximus. Thus Halsall indulges in a similar process to many of the pseudo-histories of conflating personages.

- Prior to moving to Gaul after his usurpation, Maximus withdrew Roman defences back to the British lowlands, approximately along a line from Yorkshire to Hampshire, and brought in Saxon federates/mercenaries to defend that border. This idea Halsall bases upon the location of early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. Here he wants to have his cake and eat it and come back for cheesy biscuits afterwards too, in that he also would have it that the Wall was also fortified with Saxons at this time. Halsall does thus go down a similar path to Laycock of federate settlements deep within Britain at an early date. The Anglo-Saxon expansion was thus "inside out" from long-settled immigrants in central Britain who arrived from the late 4th century rather than external invaders from the East in the mid 5th century.

- The Saxons do not appear distinctly in the archaeological record - thus apparently being in contradiction to the data which Halsall has previously used to formulate the idea of the lowland defensive line - for the half-century from the 380s. This is because, being in Roman service, for all intents and purposes they looked and behaved exactly like Romans, and it was only the second and third generations who subsequently "asserted their Saxon identity". Halsall would like to draw comparisons with the firstcomers on the SS Empire Windrush dressed in British style suits, only for some of the second and third generations to start re-asserting a Caribbean identity in appearance and culture.

These notions of "identity", and also "status" and "class" seem to pervade scholarship in this area these days, trying to impart 21st century thinking onto the minds of 4th and 5th century people. There is much sociological claptrap going on here. Halsall also appears, as is the fashion, to be all too eager to downplay any notion of "invasion" or say anything which could be construed as negative about "barbarians". He continues his theme from his Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 about "push" versus "pull", and that the movement of peoples into the Empire was a "pull" effect, not a "push" instigated by the outsiders themselves. It was all the Romans' fault that the Empire fell apart, you see, not those thoroughly nice and wonderful barbarians.

Halsall wants to be selective about some of his evidence. He doesn't really want to countenance the light which might be shed upon the Anglo-Saxon migrations by DNA analysis, throwing up some specious sounding arguments against it, and freely states a fear that such would stoke up "nationalism, xenophobia & racism". So does Halsall want to suppress data for political reasons?

Oh, and for all his railing against Morris "covering his tracks" in what were after all quite considerable references, Halsall gives hardly any references at all of his own.
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on 16 February 2013
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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on 24 February 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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