Holmes on Animals in Saxon & Scandinavian England

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Matilda Holmes, Animals in Saxon and Scandinavian England: Backbones of Economy and Society. Sidestone Press, 2014.

I didn’t plan on writing another book review this soon but I do have to share the news on this book – my find of the month. I discovered that this valuable book is available from the publisher in PDF form for only  € 4.50 ! Its also available in print for about $40 and somewhere in between for e-books from other vendors. The PDF works just fine on e-readers.

On to the review: This is the publication of Matilda Holmes PhD thesis on archaeozoology of early medieval England. Holmes cataloged and analyzed 315 archaeological reports or collections from 241 sites. Results are segregated into Early Saxon (450-650 AD), Middle Saxon (650-850 AD), Late Saxon (850-1066 AD), and Saxo-Norman. Not only does she catalog the regular domestic animals (cows, pigs, sheep/goats) but also horses, dogs, chickens and geese. It doesn’t stop there! She also does a variety of deer, hares, 38 species of wild birds, 27 taxa of freshwater and migratory fish, and 37 marine taxa of fish. The main domestic species- cattle, pigs, and sheep – have additional data on age and distribution of butchered parts. All of this data is listed by site and period. She then analyzes it for type of site to look at the economy and evolution of sites like wics and ecclesiastical sites. So if you want to know exactly what was found at Ælfric’s abbey at Eynsham it is here for domestics, game, fish and fowel. Same for site of Hartlepool for the entire period, and multiple collections for sites like York or Wroxter. Unfortunately the ongoing excavations from Lyminge are not included, and neither are the excavations from Bamburgh. I suppose these haven’t been published yet.

I haven’t had time to completely explore all the data tables. A few things jumped out though. Remember that story in Bede’s History that Bishop Wilfrid taught the people of Sussex to fish for something other than eels? Well, guess what, the only fish remains found at Bishopstone in Sussex in the Early Saxon period are eels (freshwater) and whiting (marine). Not an abundance of fish species. This of course doesn’t really say anything about the Wilfrid story other than that they really did fish for eels.  Overall, eels are very abundant at sites all over England. So were pigs in towns, as well as in rural areas. Its not surprising that there were significant differences between rural areas and wics or burghs, but former Roman towns also had distinctive profiles including the early period of Wroxter. There is so much data here it will take a while to digest.

This is an interesting book for practically any topic involving animals in early England. The data presented there is likely to be the foundation for many studies to come and the PDF is at a price that can’t be beat. I couldn’t help but think of the novelists who read here and how useful this would be for them. I hope you all check it out.

Aberth’s An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: Crucible of Nature

John Aberth. An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature. Routledge, 2013. 326 pages.

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Although the title of John Aberth’s book An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature is almost identical to Richard Hoffman’s book recently reviewed here, they couldn’t be more different. Aberth’s book is a cultural history of human thought and use of the environment, an entirely emic perspective. The focus is on humans, not the environment itself. 

He divides the material into three sections: air, water and earth; forest; and beasts. While this may make some sense for descriptive organizational purposes, it is really antithetical to an environmental history. An environment is the inseparable combination of the three. It reads like a series of anecdotes on topics that are of interest to Aberth, with some nod toward being wide-ranging. It is restricted almost exclusively to Europe and then primarily to the later Middle Ages. The main problem is that there are no research questions posed or arguments made. I come away from the book without a clear sense of something new that I can apply elsewhere. 

This is not to say that a cultural history of human interaction and thought on nature isn’t important. In Gregg Mitman’s 2005 paper on the history of environmental thinking in America,  he shows how these concepts have shaped how we think about human health, our place in nature, and the health of nature itself (and therefore our ability to exploit it for economic gain). These same concepts were present in the Middle Ages and could have been analyzed in a way that contributed to ongoing research topics especially in the 13th and 14th centuries. 

If you are looking for a survey of thought and use of nature without a particular research topic, you may enjoy this book. I prefer at least some data and scientific or medical information in environmental histories. 

 

Reference:

Mitman, G. (2005). In search of health: Landscape and disease in American environmental history. Environmental History, 184–210.

Richard C. Hoffmann. An Environmental History of Medieval Europe. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge University Press, April 2014

Sept. 7, 2014

Hoffmann’s An Environmental History of Medieval Europe

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Richard C. Hoffmann. An Environmental History of Medieval Europe. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge University Press, April 2014. $25 paperback, $12.50 e-book.

History roots in time and place — establishing situations, telling stories, comparing stories, linking stories. Environmental history brings the natural world into the story as an agent and object of history. This is medieval history as if nature mattered. (p. 3)

As a biologist, it is almost unimaginable to me for the natural world not to be a factor in history – not in a deterministic way – but as an integral component. This is a reminder to me, and now to you, that I read medieval history through a different lens. This book is very consciously a textbook  intended for historians and history students. As the very first  medieval environmental history textbook, Hoffmann is very carefully laying the theoretical foundation for a new sub-discipline. For non-historians, it provides insight into historians methods, concerns, and in some cases anxieties.

To study history as if nature mattered requires coming to an understanding of how culture and nature interact and the types of evidence available. In the introduction Hoffmann discusses a hybrid model of culture and nature that provides a more complete understanding of the medieval world. An important point here is that unintentional and unconscious human activities have real impacts on the environment, other species, and eventually feeding back on human culture in sometimes unexpected ways. This is especially true of anthropogenic remodeling of the landscape that affects species contemporaries were either completely unconscious of or at least are absent from medieval documents. Hoffmann gives the introduction of malaria to the Rhine delta  by Roman soldiers as an example (p. 9).  He also discusses the human mediated introduction of invasive species, the common carp and rabbit, that altered the biodiversity of Europe. Thus making humans both indirectly and directly responsible for local extinctions of native European fauna. As a biologist, the hybrid culture-nature model feels very instinctive and reminds me of Edmund Russell’s evolutionary history work.

Shifting through the evidence for environmental history is the tricky part. Hoffmann establishes the distinction between emic and etic evidence but doesn’t dwell on the terms. Yet, his framework is basically a division of emic (‘cultural’) and etic (‘culturally neutral’) types of evidence, where culture is largely traditional historical emic evidence and nature is primarily (but not exclusively) etic. Hoffmann wrestles with how to justify and integrate these two types of evidence throughout the book. At times it felt to me like he was being too apologetic for the scientific evidence, but this may reflect my own comfort zone. There are two chapters on cultural topics – attitudes toward God’s creation and on ownership of land, which are out of my comfort zone so I will leave those to others. The remainder are a mixture of etic and emic types of evidence.

Hoffmann opens the historical discussion with a valuable chapter demolishing all ideas of an European wilderness at the dawn of the medieval period.  Europe had been inhabited and sculpted by humans over thousands of years before 500 AD. For example, the great Beech forests of Europe only took hold because of human induced livestock and agricultural practices during the Iron Age.  Literary references to wilderness are at best secondary growth (and therefore anthropomorphic regrowth), and often pure rhetoric.

From here he moves into my period of greatest  interest, the early medieval or late antique period. All across Europe this was a period of unrelated political and ecological instability. Hoffmann rightly warns us against ecological determinism. Rome imploded for its own political reasons; ecological instability was a complication for the recovery. Moreover, Hoffman notes that the three ecological zones of Europe — the Atlantic or maritime zone, the continental zone and the Mediterranean – did not experience the same ecological change during the Roman period or the early medieval period that followed. Overall, it became much more difficult to sustain the Roman favored Mediterranean “agroecosystem” north of the Alps. The climate of the Roman Optimum not only allowed grapes to be grown in Britain, but more importantly allowed extensive expansion of wheat growing areas northward. As the climate cooled cereal production fell to be replaced by a mixed agriculture system that looked much more like pre-Roman northern Europe. All across Europe Roman settlements and building styles were abandoned as people spread out over the land. For the first time nucleated villages with new field systems developed replacing the Roman estate system. Case studies of Frisia and the founding community of Venice serve as examples of cultures that flourished in the cooler, wetter climate. Under the Carolingians, an amalgamation of Roman and barbarian agricultural systems emerges as the bipartite manor system with the family farm as the base unit that will last through the rest of the medieval period. The long 8th century (roughly 680s to 830s) is a turning point in the maturation of new medieval agricultural systems not only within Carolingian lands, but also in frontier areas like Ireland and Scandinavia.

The core of the book are the three chapters on medieval land use and management of living and non-living ecosystems. Although all of these chapters are rooted in the early medieval period, they really focus on 900-1500. I will not try to summarize the material in these intricate chapters. I particularly liked the material on land use, and milling technology. Focus is clearly on ‘agroecosystems’ and on rural life. The urban environment is restricted to a short section of the non-living ecosystem management chapter. Its placement in this chapter strikes me as odd.  As he just explained in the previous chapters on land use and agriculture, these are all man made environments.  I would have liked to see an entire chapter on urban environments, and some discussion of the built environment and its ecosystem.

I am thrilled that Hoffmann included chapters on infectious disease and natural disasters. The infectious disease chapter begins with a basic introduction to infectious disease in pre-industrial Europe and then examines ‘five’ diseases in particular – malaria, leprosy, Justinian plague, the Black Death and English sweating sickness. There are some substantial problems with the plague case studies. First, he leaves the etiology still open when there is now scientific consensus that the Yersinia pestis aDNA from both the plague of Justinian and the Black Death are both ancient, accurate, and the cause of death of these individuals. He uses a plague wave map which is no longer considered representative of the spread of disease (see Mengal 2011). It is also well known now that the black rat is only one of many hosts of the plague and that historical accounts can no longer rise or fall based on rat demographics. Yersinia pestis has not attenuated for any host: rodent, flea or mammalian host; it doesn’t need to. The old paradigm that successful infectious agents eventually attenuate to their hosts quietly fell some time ago. Human ectoparasites including the human flea and (experimentally) human louse can transmit Y. pestis to humans.  The genetics is muddled – for example, Y. pestis doesn’t have mitochondrial DNA!  Like many histories of the plague there are some significant misunderstandings of how immunity works and how long it lasts in a population. Acquired immunity (gained by surviving an infection) is not hereditary. Therefore there is no reason to believe that communities would have immunity stretching between the first and second plague pandemic.  Much of the modern thinking on the Black Death will be summarized and further developed in the upcoming inaugural issue of the Medieval Globe, edited by Monica Green and entitled Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death due to be released in November 2014. Past plague discoveries have been discussed on my other blog Contagions. I also suggest Barrett and Armelagos’ The Unnatural History of Emerging Infections (2013) for a general discussion of infectious disease in anthropomorphic environments.

Moving on to the ‘inconstant planet’, I really enjoyed this chapter. Earthquakes, floods, climate change, and volcanoes all impacted medieval Europe. A little more on flooding and river systems would have been appreciated. Despite not having an active volcano, analysis of ice cores indicates that some of Europe’s most significant climate crises were fallout from volcanic activity outside of Europe. These volcanic induced climate crises highlight how difficult it is to use climate data for historical purposes. Extreme weather had a sharper impact on historical accounts than slow climate change trends. I won’t say that one was more important than the other because it depends on the question being asked. Hoffmann offers some important perspectives on wrestling with climate and extreme weather events, that do increase during times of climate change (warming and cooling).

Hoffmann has crafted a fine text to lay the foundation for the hopefully growing sub-discipline of environmental history in the Middle Ages. With the exception of the plague material, he has done a remarkable job covering such a vast amount of material. With books of this type, there can always be more material to wish for and other options for organizing the material. This does not distract from the value of this book. I expect that this book will be reprinted and perhaps updated for many years to come. I would be remiss if I did not point out to the publisher, that this book really needs a new index before it is reprinted. Why they chose to index only one specific organism (the beaver?!) is beyond me. This book is rightly full of material on all types of livestock, wildlife, plants and even microbes, but this index is of little help to find them! The trend toward e-books with search features does not replace the need for a good index.

It really is critical to understand the medieval environment to provide context to modern environmental history, as well as medieval history in general.  I look forward to more historians becoming involved in interdisciplinary work with archaeologist, climatologists, and others working with past environments.

See also:

Edmund Russell. Evolutionary History: Uniting history and biology to understand life on Earth. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Mengel, D C. “A Plague on Bohemia? Mapping the Black Death.” Past & Present 211, no. 1 (May 27, 2011): 3–34. doi:10.1093/pastj/gtq069.

Ron Barrett and George Armelagos, The Unnatural History of Emerging Infections. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death , edited by Monica Green, due to be released in November 2014

The Bone Thief: Stealing St Oswald

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[I didn't intend to be gone this long. I hope someone is still out there!]

Its been years since I’ve taken much time to read novels. I’m embarrassed to say how few I’ve read in the last couple years, but the Bone Thief finally was a temptation too great. How could I resist a novel about the theft/transfer of St Oswald’s bones from Bardney to Gloucester?

VM Whitworth‘s The Bone Thief did not disappoint. Readers of this blog will know that Oswald’s relics were enshrined at St Oswald’s Minster in Gloucester, so I don’t want to give away anything else. Not surprisingly it follows a quest tale type but it’s not a very typical quest. He doesn’t have to go  very far, but Whitworth finds plenty of obstacles and surprises to keep the tension. She nails the shifting loyalties and tensions of the time perfectly and managed to place Oswald’s relics centrally in West Saxon – Mercian politics  without cheapening their spiritual importance. I loved the way she treated St Oswald throughout the book (and what a nice little surprise at the end!).  I highly recommend the Bone Thief.

For a glimpse into Lady Ætehlfled’s Mercia, here is a previous post on their defense of Chester.

The Makers of Scotland

Tim Clarkson, The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings. Edinburgh: John Donald, 2012. 224 pg.

In his third book, Tim Clarkson takes on the first thousand years of recorded Scottish history. It’s a huge task, but Tim was more than up to the challenge. I really enjoyed it. I tend to focus so much on my narrow time period that it’s really good to properly put it all in context. For example, I was struck while reading this the parallels between the Anglo-Saxon adventus and the Scandinavian contact and migration to Britain. Both begin as raiders seeking only loot from soft targets (villas vs monasteries), then both are either offered payments or mercenary positions to protect Britain from their fellows, and lastly by military and other permanent migration to the isles.  All food for thought and I do wonder by these parallels aren’t talked about more. By usually constraining most of my reading to the pre-Viking period I can often miss such important contextual associations.

Do the math, to cover a thousand years in 225 pages, you can only expect so much depth. I think Tim covers as much chronological detail as possible in a book this length. He managed to untangle the Scottish and Pictish families and succession clearly and briefly. I wish I could talk him into writing a Men of the North style book on Dál Riata! By choosing not to delve into academic controversies, Tim swept aside discredited theories, replacing them with well received  new paradigms, and sometimes making a choice where the there isn’t consensus. Countless updates and choices brings out the clear and consistent voice of the historian I have gotten to know so well over so many years. Tim doesn’t write much about historical theory but his historical paradigms are deftly woven through The Makers of Scotland, just as with his other books. In some ways his voice has more clarity here because of the expanse of time covered – and that is a good thing!  I highly recommend The Makers of Scotland as an ideal, comfortable read whether you want a contextual refresher  or are coming to Scottish history for the first time.

Tim Clarkson is a generous and accessible author. He can be found at his blog Senchus (highly recommended) and on twitter at @EarlyScotland.

Clarkson’s The Men of the North

Tim Clarkson (of Senchus) has done what it was always said couldn’t be done. With a heavy dose of skepticism and the proper caveats, he has produced an engaging and evidence-based history of the northern Britons. By stripping away most of the legend that has built up around the Men of the North the real northern Britons finally emerge to take their place among the peoples of Scotland.

What emerges from Clarkson’s narrative is a people who are survivors above all else. Survival is more than endurance. It is also accommodation and careful statecraft, acceptance of what is possible, while knowing where to draw the line.  While it would be going too far to say that they were often allies of neighboring kingdoms, they must have occasionally found common cause and do seem to have frequently acknowledged the greater power and influence of a neighboring king. This is  a matter of choice as much as  necessity; there were many periods they could have fought to the bitter end to shake off their yoke. The British remnant left around the River Clyde parlayed their hand for over 500 years.

The Britons remained a military force to be reckoned with until the end. Clarkson’s discussion of the known kings and two famous battles reminds us how very local these conflicts were. Yet, they had the respect of neighboring kings who ruled much larger kingdoms. How did they endure against much larger, resource rich kingdoms?  As Clarkson discusses, the northern Britons have a long tradition dating back to Roman times of a military society. The Britons north of Hadrian’s wall had several centuries of being both clients and foes of the Romans. The experience they gained during the Roman period of warlord statecraft must have served them well heading into the medieval period.

By the late seventh century, the Britons ruling from the Rock of the Clyde (Alt Clut) were the only visible state left. The loss of Gododdin, Rheged and other kingdoms finally allowed the northern Britons to consolidate into a seemingly single kingdom giving them a unity that long alluded Britons elsewhere. Their ability to utilize  warlord statecraft against each other prevented them from forming a unified kingdom early enough to resist Northumbria’s surprisingly slow erosion of their territory.

Once the Britons eventually united into the kingdom of Strathclyde they became a serious force to be reckoned with in the isthmus of Scotland and perhaps the Irish Sea. Toward their later years successful incursions into British lands were only done by allied armies of their neighbors, first Anglo-Pictish in 756 and later the largest targeted attack by the  Dublin Norse on a single site in 870. The kingdom survived these two defeats. How ironic that the last British kingdom of the north dissolved and was permanently annexed into Scotland in 1066 in part because they lost the support of the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom.  Unlike when their Roman partners slowly crumbled, the Norman onslaught was relatively rapid and they could not withstand a unified Scotland, if at that point they wanted to. The Strathclyde Britons joined Scotland with their heads held high and with early active participation in the Scottish realm.

Clarkson is to be congratulated for sifting through some difficult and patchy evidence to produce as much of  a narrative as I think is possible. There are very few histories for the early medieval Britons. I’m not sure that I know of any within the last 20 years. With the scarcity and nature of the evidence there can often be multiple  interpretations, but I didn’t find any that stood out to me as not being reasonable. Its not often I can say that when reviewing a book! If you are interested in the Britons, northern or elsewhere, this is a book you should read.

Kzoo Book Report

One of the highlights of the International Congress on Medieval Studies, better known as Kzoo, is the book exhibit.  The book exhibit lived up to its usual reputation. Maybe it was my imagination or the time of day I was there, but it seemed a little thin. I went twice on Friday and then to the 5-6 pm last hour of exhibit on Saturday and at no time was it so busy that it was hard to walk through. That is unusual. The happy hour goers with their plastic cups of wine basically filled the courtyards and one hallway but didn’t really spill over into the book exhibit. Most of the usual exhibitors were there, but it seemed like they brought less (though that could be because I couldn’t get there before Friday). It seemed like the used book sellers had more space, but that could be my imagination. I think there were a few missing but they must be minor publishers because I can’t think of any of the major publishers being missing.

Talked to an editor and a publisher so here is some book news.

Scott DeGregorio is editing a Cambridge Companion to Bede. It will have chapters by what looked like all of the editors of Bede’s works. Publication is being held up by one Englishman who also did not show up for his session this year; he knows who he is… Scott expects that it will be out in 2010-2011. Like all Cambridge companions, it will be aimed at undergraduates and presumably intended to be a textbook.

There were fliers out and about for advance orders for George Hardin Brown’s Companion to Bede, that according to its flier will be out in August 2009. Seems confusing having two such similar named books come out within a year of each other. This monograph, however, is not primarily aimed at undergrads.

I also talked to the rep from Four Courts Press – who had several interesting books displayed if you are interested in Viking era Ireland – and I asked him about the forthcoming collected study on Adomnan entitled Adomnan of Iona: theologian, lawmaker, peacemaker. It is listed at 288 pages for $70 (hardback). It was supposed to have been out this past winter.  This is a publication of conference on Adomnan celebrating the 1300th anniversary of his death in 2004. According to their catalog it is supposed to be out this winter. However, they told me they don’t have the text from Jonathan Wooding (the editor) yet, which means that it will push publication back to at least late 2010 or 2011. The publisher told me I was about the 9th person to ask him about it today so anticipation is fairly high.

The one bit of good news is that there were plenty of newly published books on hand and plenty of mockups for forthcoming books. I don’t think there is much of a slowdown in publishing, at least not evidenced by the book exhibit. When I said above that they brought less, I meant fewer copies and fewer older books. One publisher would only take orders because apparently they only brought one copy of each book. I do have to say though that the prices were not great this year. Most of them could be bought on Amazon for the same price or less. That is what I told one publisher who wouldn’t sell me her last copy of a book, and sure enough I just checked and its actually cheaper on Amazon.