Book Review: ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND by Frank Stenton

Title in white on yellowed paper with black writing
Genre: Non-fiction History
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 1.5 stars
Series: part of academic series

Synopsis:

Book cover for ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND: title in white on green square in upper right corner on image of an elaborately knot-work filled letter from a manuscript

Discussing the development of English society, from the growth of royal power to the establishment of feudalism after the Norman Conquest, this book focuses on the emergence of the earliest English kingdoms and the Anglo-Norman monarchy in 1087.

It also describes the chief phases in the history of the Anglo-Saxon church, drawing on many diverse examples; the result is a fascinating insight into this period of English history.

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


Review:

There are two types of modern non-fiction (I am using modern to cover ~100 years.) The “layman’s non-fiction”, written to be accessible to anyone with a smidgeon of interest but no formal background. They’re easy to read and centre around a good narrative to keep you reading. Examples include CASTLE (Marc Morris) and PRISONERS OF GEOGRAPHY (Tim Marshall).

Then there’s the “academic’s non-fiction” that is very much designed only for the MOST interested, who usually have a formal background in the subject. They’re much denser and quite a slog to go through as they are not designed for everyone. There are references every few sentences and themes often supersede narrative (aka, here’s 100 pages on the economic structure before we return to the more narrative flow.) The Yale English Monarchies (like HENRY IV, by Chris Given-Wilson) are an example.

ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND is an old book (first published 1943 with minor revisions in the following decades until his death in the late 60s and very much an “academics non-fiction.” It is SO hard to get through. It took 4 months, and several weeks of very deliberate reading, to get to the end.

It is a very comprehensive look at Anglo-Saxon England (considered one of the best, hence this is still in publication almost 80 years later), but the tone and structure did not help. The chapters themselves did follow a narrative flow, but then the next chapter might jump back 100 or so years to follow a different idea. It was generally all grouped in vague time frames, so there were two chapters on religious history in the book. It meant that trying to keep the overall timeline in mind was pretty tricky, trying to work out what events in this chapter were concurrent with the previous.

To complicate matters, the narrative style and sheer volume of names and titles meant I could lose track of the details at the start of the page by the end. At one point, when the book was listing the progression and establishment of bishoprics, I got so lost that I pulled up the wikipedia list of Anglo-Saxon bishoprics to work out what was going on!

The problem is this is such an interesting area of history, it’s just this book couldn’t keep my attention. I picked it up because I wanted to know more, but the tone and sheer information density wandering away from or obscuring the narrative thread made my thoughts wander. I procrastinated the last 100 pages so badly it took 4 times longer than the other sections to read!

However, I have actually been sent a review copy of another book on the same topic (THE ANGLO-SAXONS, Marc Morris) which I’m excited to read because I do want to understand this period of history better! (The review for that will be live before this one, because of scheduling needs!)

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