Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Old English, A Historical Background: Gathering Information (Or, When Things Get Wildly Out Of Control)

As you may recall, one of my 2023 goals  was "Study Old English:  Be able to translate a text by December 2023".  This mostly was a personal vanity project for me, and like many of my personal vanity projects I can lose momentum pretty quickly.  But as wise men have said (and as reminded most recently by friend of this blog Eaton Rapids Joe), what gets measured gets managed.  

And so I came up with a supporting plan: I would do a blog series on Old English.  This would meet the need of keeping my momentum up and essentially holding myself accountable at some level to someone - in this case, my audience.

As can be imagined with someone whose undergraduate and graduate degree are in social sciences, the first place I inevitably start is background, specifically history. After all, if you do not know where you come from, you will have very little idea of how you got there and lack context for how things turned out.  

Initially I felt pretty confident:  I had at least three books (below) to guide me on my initial writing.  Sure, I thought, I might need one more book to get us to the Norman Invasion and the tail end of post Anglo-Saxon England, but likely that was it.

Fair enough, I said.  I found the second book in "The Norton Library History of England" and bought it (below).  Conveniently it went through the second half of Anglo-Saxon England and past. 

Wonderful, I thought.  I am ready.

And then, of course, I actually started writing.

My pre-455 A.D. history was pretty solid and I knew fairly well.  Even that next period was known to me; collapsing civilizations have an odd and special interest in my heart and I have been at least a passing student of Celtic history and The Celtic Twilight for over 30 years.  But really, that only got us up to 597 A.D., when St. Augustine arrived on British shores.  Suddenly my "Defining History in Six Easy Blog Posts" became a lot more difficult.

I do not suppose this is a surprise, of course - after all, around 600 years is a lot of history.  And when I hit something I do not know about, my first reaction is 1) Buy a Book; and 2) Study.  And so I started reading, trying to catch up on something like 400 years of history on an era that I knew very little about in detail but definitely impacted the Anglo-Saxon language (my actual project).  Suddenly, the books I had did not seem like enough.

And then, randomly, I looked at my bookshelf in the "British History" area (yes, I have the organized by areas and interests):

Low and behold, not one but two general general British histories.  On the one hand, general histories are simply that:  general.  On the other hand, every author has a slightly different take and thus every book contains slightly different interpretations (they are also, thankfully, pre-2000's; I find older books more useful even if I have to supplement with more modern materials).

But then, the writer in me jumped up:  I should not just include bland history.  History is made up of personalities and as we continue into the later period of the Anglo-Saxons, we have more written materials and thus at some level, we start to see individuals as more than just simple actors.  One of the personalities we know more about than almost any other is Alfred the Great (coming soon).  The books I had talked some about him, but not really at the level I was hoping for.

Then, again, I looked at my bookshelf - not at the "British History" area but at the "Medieval Literature" area (also a thing).  There, sitting there as it had been since we moved in 2009, was this:

Yup.  The biography of Alfred the Great (one of two "biographies") we have from the period.  I have probably looked past it a hundred times in the last 10 years, largely because I was not doing any thinking of Anglo-Saxon England at the time.

But wait!  There was more:

You might remember that The Ecclesiastical History Of The English People by The Venerable Bede was one of the two major works we have on the history of early Anglo-Saxon England prior to the formalization of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the late 9th Century.  And here I had not just that work, but other works of the period to give a flavor of the writing of the period.

As we are now fully into Viking Age England, if only I had a book on that:

In all fairness, I remember that I owned this one.  It is actually a quite good book that I acquired likely 35 years ago just because it had a discussion of "The Battle Of Maldon" (which we will get to eventually as well).

Which then led two the great opponents of the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings (who they turned back) and the Normans (who they did not):

God bless Osprey Publishing.  On a personal note, the book on The Normans was the very first Osprey book I bought - Dublin, Ireland, 1989.

One of the other pivotal figures in Anglo-Saxon England is, of course, Harold Godwinson, the beater back of one (but not two) invasions and the last Anglo-Saxon king.  There is much less about him specifically in the historical record (if for no other reason that he was not anticipated to be king).  

Thanks, 2014 me for thinking ahead:

Suddenly the project that was going to be a thing to keep me on course for a project has become a project all on its own.

This is what I love about things like history (and philosophy and geography and agriculture and, well, really anything):  they are interlinked.  One thing leads so easily to another:  I start with a simply study of history and suddenly I am reading up on literature and invasion routes and 9th Century agriculture and where the Vikings succeeded (and where they did not) and how the establishment of the fortified areas known as burhs became our modern English word borough and Dear Lord, I may still need to buy another book.

In short, this turned out to be a lot more than I intended.  But I am loving it.

Of course, one hanging thread is the fact I do not recall how much the Norse literature mentions their interactions with Anglo-Saxon England.  No worries.  I have it covered...


  1. Well, if somebody has to have all those books, who better than you! To me, it's quite providential, considering how much I am enjoying and learning from your study series. I agree that one of the great benefits of blogging is that sort of unspoken contract with one's readers, to keep on writing.

    I regret that I didn't take an interest in history earlier in life. Not until I became an adult, actually, and we started homeschooling. A specific area of interest happened with an old mini-series on Elizabeth I. It became a starting point and I've gradually crept forward and backward in English history. The genealogical connection really helps nurture the interest.

    1. I agree with you, although the spacing in my house and my lack of bookshelf space speaks otherwise (oddly enough, my suggestions to have all our decor in "books" is not going as well as I would have hoped for).

      It is a contract, is it not? A good contract, at least for me: it keeps me honest and writing when I would otherwise not want to.

      I think I had very specific interests in history when I was younger. One of the most influential things that happened in my life was that the Summer of my 11th year, we went to Japan (my maternal Uncle was stationed there). That was a pretty heady thing for an 11 year old boy, which introduced a love of things Japanese. Which lead to history, first Japanese and then World War II. Which lead to an interest in Japanese Language and Germany, which lead to German in High School. Which lead to an interest in European was all downhill from there.

  2. Wow, not a small task you set before you, Sir.

    Ecclesiastes 12 12 And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

    I look forward to your efforts and hope you make side trips into the Backwood Home link I sent you.

    To misquote Little Red Riding Hood "The better to read your books, Sir".

    1. The task is mostly self-imposed Michael; I apparently know no other way to do things than to through myself in whole heartedly to them.

      Thank for the link! Super helpful. Most of my books are "analog", but one does still need light.

  3. Nylon126:18 AM

    There is a state saying here that covers today's post TB.....Uff Da! And I mean it in a good way since there are several meanings that are NOT good. To already have that many books in your library on that time period on that area of the world, well, "I'm overwhelmed"......... :) Learning more I am with these posts.

    1. Nylon12 - "Hello, my name in Toirdhealbheach Beucail and I have a book problem..."

      I have often made fun of myself here and elsewhere that books are my hobby, my great love, my entertainment, and passion - and they really are. Sometimes it is just one off titles that grab, sometimes it is whole eras or periods. In which case I need to get enough to be "knowledgeable"...

      I have to confess that I am already having so much fun with this that I am thinking of what other subjects I can delve into.

    2. "I have to confess that I am already having so much fun with this that I am thinking of what other subjects I can delve into." And that statement needs 5 stars, a like, a thumbs up, an apple. . . . .

    3. Heh Heh. I need to keep my eyes on the current thing (but i think I have already decided on the next thing).

  4. "And when I hit something I do not know about, my first reaction is 1) Buy a Book; and 2) Study."

    I have the same first reaction though I would add the caveat of "and it interests me" into that statement. Although I enjoy your cliff notes version, I'm not sure I would be interested in the deep dive that reading all those books would take me. I have too many other areas of interest that I still haven't exhausted yet. But if you gave a speech on your readings, I would most likely attend and hear you out.

    1. Ed, I think that is true for me as well, although I do think I tend to self screen before I reach the level of investing more time. Also, I do like to give things a chance - in some cases things I did think I would be interested in turned out to be very engaging.

      Thanks for your vote of confidence. I do not know that I will being hitting the "Blogger lecture circuit" anytime soon (if there even is one), but will keep it in mind.

  5. The difference between barbarians and gentlemen is their library. I must be a barbarian gentleman. My library is history, technical, scientific, and project oriented. But a bit more pointedly focused on the mechanical / scientific.

    side note: I've read that police officers that are routinely called to the same homes with family issues note a distinct lack of books in the home. I wonder if they realize that? Or if there is a "field psychologist" level correlation in their subconscious? "Oh, look at the books! This place isn't prone to family violence."

    1. STxAR, the word Barbarian stems from the Greek word Barbaros (Latin is similar) and it referred originally to those who did not have Greek language or culture. If I recall correctly, the word stem from onomatopoeia for Greeks in what they heard as barbarian dialects sounding like "bar, bar bar".

      I saw an article yesterday that came to exactly the same conclusion that you did via a sociological study: children from homes with books tend to have less difficulties than those that do. Interestingly, it was not a "and they can come to it later" thing that could be repaired in adulthood (not that it cannot I imagine, just much harder). Were this actually true, one would think we as a society would push reading all the more.

    2. Mom and dad read, and read to me. When I started learning to read, dad would ask me to read from his paper. He would praise me for being able to read so well so fast. Made me want to do more. Then books became my friends. Then they became my door to unknown worlds. Now, they are my door to old times, where the technology is mature, as are the people. Where the people are real and interesting... sigh......

    3. My mother was a great reader; my father not so much until much later in life. They read to me until I could read for myself, and then I was off -like you, books became my friends and my refuge. They are indeed windows to the past - or at least, the ones I read are.

  6. My thrift store find yesterday was a 25 cent copy of Woodstove Cookery (subtitle at home on the range) by Jane Cooper.

    I need to check around for more Garden Way books as this one is well past Cooking on a wood stove.

    How to check out and basic repairs on wood stoves, make a dehydrator for the stove top, firewood selection (with leaf drawings to ID), use of coal and more. Guess what I'm reading for a few days.


Comments are welcome (and necessary, for good conversation). If you could take the time to be kind and not practice profanity, it would be appreciated. Thanks for posting!