“One of the most intractable problems in the whole range of early medieval studies concerns the dwellings of the Anglo-Saxons. It is generally agreed that they were of wood and that no example survives above ground. Beyond this the student must rely on incidental references in the literature and on the scanty data provided by excavation.” C. A. R. Radford's opening remarks on the Anglo-Saxon house in the inaugural issue of Medieval Archaeology (1957) belong to another age.1 In the sixty years since Radford wrote, archaeology has revolutionized our understanding of Anglo-Saxon architecture. This much is clear from John Blair's majestic new book, Building Anglo-Saxon England. The amount of archaeological evidence and scholarship amassed since 1957 is remarkable, and Blair uses it and his subject to advance a new history of Anglo-Saxon England. The result promises myriad new directions for Anglo-Saxon studies.
A tacit objective of Blair's book is to revisit W. G. Hoskins's The Making of the English Landscape (1955)—a canonical interpretation of England's topographical history.2 In Blair's view, Anglo-Saxons “behaved within constructed space: the rural space of farms, the ritual space of holy landscapes, the administrative and defensive space of forts and installations, the hierarchical space of great halls and proto-manorial sites, the commercial space of towns” (3). As with Anglo-Saxon England's other art forms, Blair argues, the approach to architecture was distinctive and elegant. This assertion diverges boldly both from Hoskins and from prevailing postmodern and postprocessual approaches that echo art historians such as Erwin Panofsky and Walter Horn, who before and just after World War II outlined programmatic and guiding ideas for understanding and studying the Continental Carolingian Renaissance.
The most innovative aspect of Blair's work is his analysis of the spatial characteristics of excavated Anglo-Saxon buildings. Hundreds of buildings, settlements, and landscapes are illustrated to provide examples of the “short-perch” and “long-perch” measurements that characterized the era's precise architectural engineering. The short perch—equal to 4.59 meters or 15 modern feet—was used as the unit of measure in Anglian zones of central and eastern England as well as in Kent, often in multiples of four to make boxes 60 feet square. Anglo-Saxon Wessex, by contrast, employed the long perch of 18 feet (about 5.5 meters), close to the measure used in Merovingian settlements in northern France. Both units, Blair believes, were imported from the Continental homelands of the Anglo-Saxons, though they were adapted to local English circumstances.
Dividing his book into twelve chapters, Blair takes the reader through five themes: historiographic contexts; the first transformation, ca. 600–700 CE; the consolidation, ca. 700–920; the second transformation, ca. 920–1000; and, finally, postmillennial planning and building. The text's fluent synthesis is supported by an extensive bibliography.
Blair shows how the Anglo-Saxon built landscape took shape around AD 600, as the Frankish church began to colonize the more than thirty local tribes. The short- and long-perch measurements, thus, belong not to the fifth-century migration phase but to a later one. A central feature of that latter age was the adoption of field systems developed around common grazing lands. New tribal arrangements formed and evolved, leading eventually to great hall complexes and “ostentatious display.” Among the complexes were Yeavering, Cowdery's Down, Sprouston, and Lyminge. With timber architecture employing impressive precision, these buildings conformed to gridded and measured plans. Such plans were not unique to royal halls, however. The first nucleated villages—Catholme (Staffordshire) and Wharram Percy (Yorkshire), for instance—and their fields were similarly planned, as were the upland farmsteads of Chapel-le-Dale, near Ingleborough, Yorkshire.
This formula was also used during the later seventh century for ecclesiastical sites, and for the earliest post-Roman urban settlements, the emporia. Blair's analysis of the emporia is brief but significant:
The English emporia were sites of both production and exchange [that] existed primarily thanks to the activities of international seaborne merchants, without whom they would have had no raison d'être; … while they were important as channels for imports, including specialised and luxury goods, it was as channels for bulk exports that they really mattered.…They do not make sense as self-contained entities, but only as components of structured groups; it is to the complementary components, not to the emporia themselves, that we should look for the hierarchical and ceremonial elements. (166)
Blair shows that buildings within the 50-hectare emporium at Hamwic, in Anglo-Saxon Southampton, followed a grid or row plan on the short-perch module, whereas buildings excavated in Lundenwic (i.e., Anglo-Saxon London) were less systematically planned. According to Blair, the four known emporia—Eoforwic (York), Gippeswic (Ipswich), Hamwic, Lundenwic—represented a special category within wider regional networks of polyfocal places.
No less important were this era's monasteries and minsters. Some, such as Lyminge, evolved from royal sites; others were built on old Roman foundations. Blair concludes that monastic sites offered the most comfortable forms of dwelling since the Roman era, while seventh-century minsters were centers for innovation in mechanization and industry. In this they followed earlier Frankish monasteries, assuming a central role in organization, production, exchange, and distribution activities and supporting the international trade of the emporia. By the early eighth century, however, minsters “edged into the background, and kings took the lead. From this point on … royal power is central” (176).
Moving to the ninth century, Blair downplays the role of the Vikings. Drawing on archaeological evidence, he offers what he terms a “counterintuitive conclusion”: that the main impact of the Vikings was to make most existing settlements less visible (306). During this period, the center of power in England moved permanently to the south, focused on the kingdom of Wessex. Rural settlements contained neither lordly nor ecclesiastical focal points—architectural expressions of hierarchy were virtually nonexistent. Whether the residents of these villages were free and independent farmers or subjects paying dues and providing services to some higher authority is unclear.
During the mid- to later tenth century, there appeared a seigneurial class whose members built grand residential halls in these villages. Blair describes a Weberian evolution of upwardly mobile ceorls (aggrandizers) who accumulated land, built complex houses with kitchens and churches, and, upon assuming official duties, won the superior rank and responsibilities of thegns (aristocratic retainers). This assertion is at odds with the standard historiography of both Continental and English feudalism, and with the popular notion of the Norman manor as a bureaucratic invention.
Tenth-century developments provided the platform for early eleventh-century growth and the subsequent transformation (after the 1060s) of the archaeological record. The Normans went about introducing a new built environment in a way that Blair likens to British inner-city clearance and construction efforts of the 1960s. The most conspicuous consequences of the Norman Conquest were the rebuilding of cathedrals and abbeys and the construction of ubiquitous new fortifications. Yet projects of these kinds, Blair suggests, were already under way in the earlier eleventh century. Had Harold celebrated victory over Duke William on 14 October 1066 (instead of the other way around), the impact on the English landscape would probably have been similar.
The archaeological and topographical imprint left by the Anglo-Saxons may have been light compared to that of Romano-British or later medieval groups such as the Normans, but it was no less complex. Blair tells his story in extraordinarily fine detail, focusing on gridded Anglo-Saxon buildings and the landscapes they occupied. These can now be reconstructed thanks to hundreds of excavations and surveys conducted over the past forty years. If there is one overriding idea in this ambitious book, it is that the Anglo-Saxon church, particularly its monasteries and minsters, served as the backbone for England's agrarian and commercial evolution after the later seventh century. By the mid- to late tenth century, the episodic and sometimes turbulent relationship between the church and the mosaic of tribal territories resulted in a state where magnate houses became prominent expressions of a new class exploiting much-enlarged and more effectively managed territories.
This long, well-illustrated book offers immense riches, not least in Blair's idiosyncratic footnotes. (See, for example, his argument, in the face of the Brexit vote, for England “as part of a heterogeneous ‘outer Europe,’” although Europe is marginal to his story; 419n9.) As Blair concludes: “I have tried to show how the … fugitive … traces of buildings and settlements are bringing to light a harnessing and a replanning of the natural environment that was often complex, and sometimes achieved with an artifice and skill comparable to the small-scale works of art” (416).