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Fascinating and very well written, BUT...
on 2 July 2008
This is a fascinating book which is a compelling delight to read, but, like others, I have some serious reservations about the author's accuracy.
For a start, I'd love to know what route he took to the Ankerwycke yew at Wraysbury. I just got off at the railway station, walked straight through the village and beyond it - along the well worn tarmac road - until I saw a road sign to my right bearing the legend "Runnymede." Curious about the name, I turned right and, once among the nearby fields, it only took ten minutes by foot to find the tree (to which people are still tying their offerings, by the way). So much for walking: "for an hour across ancient fields, along trackways and over wooden bridges linking ancient islands once separated by the estuary of the River Thames" (page 42). In any case, you'd have to go back a darned sight further than the Iron Age - when this grand old dear is supposed to have first seen the light of day - to find any part of Berkshire any where near the sea. Estuary? Berkshire and Surrey are nowhere near any river mouths or ocean tides. And it isn't a "small sign from English Heritage," (page 50) it's a small sign from the National Trust. But above all is the really idiotic way he has comes up with a spurious assertion regarding the origins of the place name Runnymede - waffling on that it was coined by ancient Saxons in the deep mists of time to denote an association with runes - and in so doing, completely missed the opportunity to make a far more pertinent observation. In point of fact, evidence relating to the use of the name Runnymede dates no further back than the signing of the Magna Carta. According to the editor of the "Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names" (which you can pick off the shelf of any half-decent reference library) it actually means the meadow in council island, "runieg" being a reference to a council or assembly place. As Eilert Ekwall points out: "Runnymede was evidently an ancient meeting place." Now, the irony here is that his dubious assertion has prevented him picking up on the fact that the parties to the Magna Carta may have recognised Runnymede as a suitable place to assemble and sign a solemn charter based on their knowledge of local traditions which could - indeed - have dated back to those very same deep mists of time.
Equally bogus is the way he sets the Romans up as the rational, polar opposites to their more "mystical" successors who - alone among the peoples of the ancient world - forged the idea of "connectivity." In point of fact, nothing could be further from the truth, and it may be the case that Bates is guilty here of tendentiously projecting modern concerns onto the past. This idea of "connection," which is such a buzz idea in some circles these days, was by no means exclusive to the Germanic tribes beyond the Danube. Bates obviously hasn't bothered to read Marcus Aurelius: "All things are linked with another, and this oneness is sacred; there is nothing that is not interconnected with everything else" (ed. Mark Forstater, Chapter 4). And then there's: "the thread of causes was from the beginning of time spinning the fabric of your existence...." (chapter 7). The concept of "connection," and being in harmony with Nature, were integral parts of Stoic philosophy and the Romans were just as familiar with these ideas as their Teutonic contemporaries. And, who knows, perhaps the Romans and the Germanic tribes exchanged more than just gold and goodies over the centuries they were trading with each other on the shores of the River Danube. And to top it all, I'm sure that Sir Frank Stenton, in his history of Anglo-Saxon England, actually remarked that Bates's beloved and "connective" ivy-scroll design actually originated in 5th or 6th century Italy!
So, being engagingly readable is all very well, but it helps if you're accurate in all respects too.