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reviews /  member book review
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The Age of Arthur by John Morris
by: steerpyke  27 december 04
rating: rating of 4

a light in the dark (age)
In general terms there has been renewed interest in history. Television has jumped on the band wagon and with films such as King Arthur, Troy and Alexander bringing the past to peoples attention our ancestry seems once more in vogue. One area has always fascinated people due to its mystery and limited written documentation and that is the time of Arthur, the Dark Ages. Many books have been writted trying to justify Arthurs existance, find the historical realities of the man and trace his story. This in itself seems an odd thing to do, as whoever Arthur was, he represents about 0.001% of the interest and activity of this period. John Morris`s book The Age of Arthur, fills in the other 99.999% of what we know of the period and is a must for those who have an interest in the realities of the early Dark Age.

The Age of Arthur is a popular phrase used to cover the post Roman period of Britain between the leaving of the legions and the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon settlers. The book has very little to say about Arthur and is not aimed at those who wish to research this character, there are many good books on that subject, this however is a book of a very different nature.

The late John Morris was Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at University College London, founder and editor of the journal Past and Present and has published many books on the period as well as a major new edition of the Domesday Book. This book like his others is a scolarly work, at nearly 700 pages of fine print it is aimed at the more academic reader, this is not the starting point of your journey into reading history, nor is it aimed at the popular market. Thats not to say that it aims to be elitist or confined to those dusty halls of learning, Im just warning that it takes a dedicated reader to get the most out of it.

Starting with the condition of Britain in 350 AD and ending in 650 AD, it sets the scene of the crumbling and ever more so isolated nature of the most far flung part of the Roman Empire. As resources are stripped to defend the heartland of empire, oppotunists in the form of Anglo-Saxons, Picts and Scots begin to nibble away at the British shoreline. Also here not the use of the word Britain, England was the result of the English Settlements, that is the Angles from which the name derives, the subject of the book is very much Britain, not in its political sense, but more in a geographical and territorial one. With the fall of the Western Empire, the flood gates open and the bulk of the book examines the period when te land was contested between, the surviving Romano-British, The germanic Anglo-Saxons, and the Picts and Scots from the outer reaches of the Isles.

Where Arthur is mentioned it is as an idea of leadership rather than as a historical figure and he is set alongside such contemporaries as Vortigen and Cunedda, Hengest and Coel, all brought to life and shown to be much more prominant than the Arthur character could ever have been.

Morris goes out of his way to examine the sources for the period in detail, so as to prove that speculation is at a minimum, and the book is a modern interperetation of the histories of the Time. Gildas, Bede and Nennius, the three chief writers of the period, and their works are examined at length. Language, particularly names are given due respect, the structure of these names is often very revealing about the heritage of a place or person.

Although the period of this book is a very troubled time and the conflicts and power mongering are well covered, equal reverence is given to the social and religious activity of the time. The structure of society is examined, both the native Romano-British life and the l growth of the English society to become the dominant culture, its laws, agriculture, traditions and past-times. The spread of Christianity at this time is a major factor in the birth of this new hybrid nation. As the British succumed very much to Anglo-Saxon life, similarly the Anglo-Saxons succumed to British religion, giving up Paganism for a more unified belief system. There is now area left untouched in this work, and if you only read one book on the post-Roman period, then this is it.

It is a period that has been long misinterperated, mainly due to books and films inventing their own historicaly inaccurate portrayal of the times, but this work will set the record straight. As I said at the top of the page it is not the easiest of reads, but it will shed all the light you need on the birth of the English nation and the murky depths that is Dark Age Britain.

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