Land Grabs and Learned Lore from an Unmerry Old England: 'The Anglo-Saxon World'

Game of Thrones comes often to mind when reflecting on the internecine revenge and diplomatic contentions filling many paragraphs, here.

The Anglo-Saxon World

Publisher: Yale University Press
Length: 480 pages
Author: Nicholas J. Higham, Martin J. Ryan
Price: $45.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-06

If you can read this sentence, you owe a debt to Anglo-Saxons. Much of your basic language, perhaps bits of your law, and likely some of your former if not present neighbors, if you live in the English-speaking world, perpetuated and augmented a social cohesion based upon early medieval foundations of their roots. The peoples who formed the English kingdom forged it first from the elite if intrusive identities of 5th century Saxons, Angles, and Jutes who confronted the remnants of Romano-British culture.

Before the Angles and Saxons, Brittania did not attract much attention. Although it took a tenth of Rome's legions to occupy its contested realm, it did not supply much wealth. Career opportunities for its Celtic natives, as Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan tally them, proved limited: laborers, recruits for the military, slaves, and prostitutes. They begin their survey with an examination of Britain, as a fusion of Roman rule, adapted by native British peoples, characterized the first few centuries after its occupation in the middle of the first century C.E. Dealing with a distant land, and increasingly beset by barbarian incursions, Rome did not sustain its dominance. Its power had faded from the island before the end of the 4th century, as the imperial legions gradually withdrew to defend the Western Empire, and the sea raiders surrounding the coasts of Britain stormed in.

After paraphrasing recent research, Higham and Ryan remain hesitant to calculate how many Saxons, Angles, and Jutes left their German, Frisian, and Danish homes to settle in Britain. It appears a "high-prestige" contingent convinced or coerced the Romanized and indigenous lowland Britons to adapt Old English (OE) by the middle of the 5th century. Few words we speak in its modern descendent come from Celtic tongues, and this imbalance demonstrates the replacement of ancient languages by that new import as its popularity and status spread rapidly. A sort of "apartheid" may have accompanied this Germanic regime, so that those loyal to Celtic culture and leadership found themselves increasingly marginalized. The wergild, or man-price value, varied when restitution was sought in a violent society where invaders and resisters battled among themselves and against many occupiers: a Briton was worth half of the value of those who made the laws as Angles and Saxons.

Compounding this imposition, over the next two centuries, came Christianity. A Celtic version had endured if in a persecuted manner among some natives (as the invaders were pagan for a considerable if varying time initially), but Saxons and Angles found that a revival of the Roman version (first introduced under later imperial occupation of Britain, intriguingly) suited martial rule and mental constructs well. Catholicism imported by missionaries from the former empire delivered clerical administration, militarized models, and continental learning. By 730, Britain had been Christianized, at least officially. As Beowulf shows, still puzzling scholars today, pagan elements lingered long.

For the Germanic peoples imposing control over fractious and divided Celtic kingdoms, the importance of family, lineage, and kindred enabled "kingship" (from the same root as "kin") to combine not only spatial advantage in territory conquered, but also tribal alliances, which were negotiated to expand the dynasties of Northumbria, Mercia, Anglia, Kent, and the Saxon lands of Essex, Wessex, and Sussex. Eventually, seven kingdoms fought for dominance. Given the bloody conflicts against internal and foreign rivals, its rulers took a long time before settling on the name of England (the Latin on coinage as King Alfred craftily minted ca. 875 to call himself rex anglorum is an elusive phrase as it may mean king of the Angles or of the English, as they came to label themselves later). This review necessarily simplifies what The Anglo-Saxon World conveys in complicated chapters full of formidable names in many languages and what proves for dutiful stretches, relentless strife.

This depth, compressed into density, may weigh down even a reader as fascinated by this era as this reviewer. Higham and Ryan present in nearly 500 pages a necessarily thorough and account, one which will be consulted more in history seminars than in airport lounges. Given the scarcity of evidence for much of this period, the lack of social history, lively anecdotes, or everyday life as it was endured can exact demands on those looking for the past made popular, but the rather old-fashioned top-down dominant approach of names, dates, and reports does result in a trusted, open-ended resource, as the authors weigh and sift contested evidence.

The fact that The Anglo Saxon World interprets specialist lore and scientific findings adds to its value. Its heft and generous inclusion of charts, maps, tables, and illustrations (many from archeological excavations, monuments, manuscripts, the engrossing Bayeux Tapestry, and especially coins -- I'm not sure how many depictions, if any, are in color from the galley proof) will ease your learning curve; the authors supply a list of sources in a running series of endnotes, but they keep the text itself free of parenthetical citations or superscription, which lightens their academic tone.

What's admirable about this wide-ranging presentation? The asides as to how Anglo-Saxon terms and inventions echo down to us. For example, shire-reeve incorporates the establishment of this territorial division with the man who patrolled it as a royal agent by the late 10th century, a "sheriff". And as for if not law or order, then their lack; certainly when the Vikings arrive ca. 800, the pace quickens.

The "St. Brice's Day Massacre" of November 1002, may be unknown to gangland aficionados today, but it anticipates what any brutal leader who needed to crack down on his rivals and defend his turf might do. Aethelred, although denigrated in his own parlous reign as the "unready" (literally "ill-counseled" as this very term denotes linguistic shifts over a thousand years), endures as an English king determined to launch a pre-emptive strike against Danish mercenaries. After two centuries of Viking raids, then occupation, Aethelred (unlike some of his Germanic predecessors) tried to rally against the Scandinavian raiders and their English allies, as warlords and collaborators.

When some Danes fled into St. Frideswide's Church in Oxford, the king ordered their sanctuary to be burnt down, and those within it. All over the realm, on royal command the Danes were slain, as digs over the past decade reveal. Carbon-dating and isotope analysis of skeletons can pinpoint Scandinavian origins for the bones dug up from mass graves: many young men with multiple wounds not suffered in battle, decapitated, attacked from behind while prone, or hit in the back of the skull.

Emma, Aethelred's second wife, found herself willingly or wisely married off to his Danish successor, Cnut, who in 1016 took over England. Game of Thrones comes often to mind when reflecting on the internecine revenge and diplomatic contentions filling many paragraphs, here. The hard bargain apparently driven by Emma herself hints at this sort of lively inspiration for tale tellers.

The next year, Cnut divided England among himself and three rivals, only to kill off one the same year, while eliminating three more leaders. Furthermore, consider the fate of Aethelred's sons and grandsons. "Eadwig, the son of Aethelred by his first consort Aelfgifu of York, was driven into exile in 1017 and killed soon afterwards, while Edward and Alfred, Aethelred's sons by Emma, went into exile in Normandy. Edmund Ironside's sons, Edward and Edmund, were likewise exiled to the Continent, ending up eventually in Hungary having escaped attempts by Cnut to have them murdered." One reflects upon the distance needed to flee to what was the edge of Europe, and a barbaric enclave itself, to elude vengeance of a Viking made uneasy king.

Unsurprisingly, the authors find Cnut's long reign intriguing; they trace the derivation of our meaning for "rich" to the OE rice which by this time melded the older meaning of "power" with the newer one of "wealth" to symbolize the fusion of the two for an ambitious set of social climbers. Among these was Cnut's favorite Godwine, who'd enter the jockeying for the throne after Cnut's death in 1035. No wonder both King Alfred and Harold II would stamp pax (Latin for "peace") on their coinage alongside their regal profiles: the Vikings kept pressing their advantages while the English fought or bought them off. The issue of succession defies brevity: the authors' chart of the English, Norwegian, and Danish claimants to or inheritors of the English crown, and the Norman dukes who would soon seize it, records nearly 50 progenitors, spouses, siblings, and/or descendants, with 15 kings controlling some or all of England between the 10th and the 12th centuries.

The "some or all" proves the sticking point. Harold Godwineson's less than ten months as ruler found him driving back Norwegian invaders -- then immediately hastening south to fend off William of Normandy, to an end every student used to know if no other date in English lore. The year 1066 represents the "biggest land grab" in the kingdom's history. Monasteries were given over to the newcomers; castles loomed over the angry inhabitants of besieged cities and insurgent borders. Heavy cavalry had won the Norman battle at Hastings; armed might bested the resistance put up by Harold's feebler allies.

The conclusion of this sprawling narrative may be less familiar that that preceding scene. Normans decimated those they hated as Saxons. England's elite rebelled repeatedly; William imposed a scorched-earth policy over much of the restive north of his vast but hostile kingdom. The peasants and villagers had nowhere to run. Far fewer in numbers than the 5th century Anglo-Saxon elite which had conquered what they finally called England, the "barely one percent" of Normans swept in to take over the 99 percent, its mixed peoples calling themselves now the English.

The island's newest (and last successful) invaders first settled down in France and turned from Viking Northmen into Normans. Then, emboldened to rush into an England under Scandinavian attack, and embittered by what they saw as Harold's unlawful taking of the crown against William's own claim, they killed, expelled, or drove off the ruling class among their Saxon predecessors. Ironically, many from this displaced English elite joined the Vikings as they continued in their raids -- if elsewhere.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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