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Nasty, Brutish and Short? Re-making the Early Middle Ages

By news editor, on 14 February 2012

Professor Andrew Reynolds’ lecture in the 75th Anniversary Inaugural Lecture series (on 6 February) was as crowded and full as any of the previous four – and a number of luminaries were in the audience with long term interests in Andrew’s work.

The Director’s introduction drew attention to Andrew’s achievements and academic history – and also reminded the audience that, apart from the contribution he has made in a remarkably short time to medieval archaeology, he is also an accomplished craftsman and a former pop star.

This tour de force of an introduction was both informative and wide-ranging, reminding the audience of Andrew’s particular attributes as well as about the role of medieval archaeology in the Institute.

Andrew offered a brief synopsis of his own career, paying tribute to the debt he owed his parents in allowing him so much leeway. He explained his growing interest in archaeology, and particularly initially fieldwork in terms of both excavation and landscape, with a return to his native and much-loved Wiltshire.

Someone subsequently told me that he appeared to have no trace of a Wiltshire accent, which they felt was shame, but maybe that was at least partly explained by the fact that he had worked in the field in so many places, from the Caribbean to Novgorod!

Reflecting his Wiltshire roots, he drew attention to Thomas Hobbes, he of the “nasty brutish and short” and a native of Malmesbury – an early figure of the Enlightenment who was concerned with the nature of governance within societies.

He reminded the audience of the persistent characterisation of the early medieval as one of a slow recovery of civility – sandwiched between the fall of Roman civilisation and the coming of the Renaissance.

He then proceeded to use the results of his own recent and ongoing research into the early medieval structure of England to illustrate just how wrong this view was, as well as demonstrating the importance of understanding social political structures in what became the United Kingdom of England by the end of the tenth century.

He reminded the audience of his work on deviant burials as a way of understanding the nature and development of judicial activity, demonstrating the potential for this work in both suggesting the existence and implementation of judicial activity and codes, as well as the nature of early kingdoms, by using a combination of field landscape and analysis of detailed archaeological results.

Having dealt with the potential for burial evidence in terms of understanding governance, he then proceeded to describe his current work on the ‘Hundred’ system of local organisation and how in an archaeological and wider context it offered evidence for the emergence of supra-local social organisation, as well as the nature of open air meetings for groups of local communities, before considering the combination of evidence that allowed for a detailed analysis of the burgeoning levels of social and political activity and organisation.

At this point, he also questioned the importance of the development of towns which he emphasised should not be seen as a merely linear development, not least because of the persistence of Hundred meeting places even where there was evidence of population concentrations.

He made the point that increasingly towards the end of the period there was a robust, well formed system of governance that could be demonstrated from his research that did not rely on population concentrations, but on a well developed and longstanding communication system that indicated a coherent, well articulated and regulated society.

The audience was then shown the first national map of the English Hundreds to reemphasise the point.

After a brief excursion into the Burghal Hidage he then demonstrated at a more local level, in the west and south, that there was a clear case to be made for indicating the existence of a well developed complex and coherent system of communication overland and at a local level.

Andrew then demonstrated the point that the early medieval social and political system should be seen as both sophisticated and dispersed and suggested that the very robustness of the system itself was probably the reason why the Vikings had been unable to take Wessex in the ninth/tenth centuries.

He argued that the emergence of the system of governance and social cohesion which did exist had been difficult for later scholars to discern because it lacked the very attributes that they expected in at least physical terms to represent a sophisticated society.

It was time to understand the contribution that meticulous fieldwork and excavation could make, and in terms of his lecture was making, to teasing out the nature of Anglo-Saxon governance and its sophistication.

Concluding with a brief discussion of the impact- or not – of Christianity, Andrew made the point that the early medieval period was far more complex than it is often seen to be that it had the potential to act as a laboratory through further research into understanding the nature complex societies that do not rely on complex physical monuments , and that increasing work and research was making it clear not only that it was not a struggling marginal operation but a well governed, ideologically and culturally rich society.

A fitting Inaugural lecture, then, that demonstrated not only the significant contribution that the Institute has made and continues to make in the field of medieval scholarship, but also one that reminded me that Andrew Reynolds for one should be awarded Flannery’s golden Marshalltown!

James Graham Campbell (Emeritus Professor of Medieval Archaeology) delivered a witty and warm appreciation that had the audience in stitches – and underlined both Andrew’s contribution and the importance of medieval archaeology.

Just as it appeared to be all over the final surprise was a (thoroughly unexpected) broadcast of Andrew playing bass guitar in his band The Fontaines, in their top 40 track from way back “I want everything”.

A fitting finale to celebrate the new chair of medieval archaeology – a rare academic with much more than a conventional background!

Review by Tim Schadla-Hall, Reader in Public Archaeology, UCL Institute of Archaeology

Professor Reynold’s lecture is one of a series of 75th anniversary inaugural lectures being held in 2012 to mark the Institute’s 75 years leading global archaeology.

Further details of all anniversary events are available on the Institute’s dedicated 75th anniversary webpages.

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