Friday 13 August 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Never Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England by Michael Livingstone


Anglo Saxon 937 AD

"Late in AD 937, four armies met in a place called Brunanburh. On one side stood the shield-wall of the expanding kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. On the other side stood a remarkable alliance of rival kings - at least two from across the sea - who'd come together to destroy them once and for all. The stakes were no less than the survival of the dream that would become England. The armies were massive. The violence, when it began, was enough to shock a violent age. Brunanburh may not today have the fame of Hastings, Crécy or Agincourt, but those later battles, fought for England, would not exist were it not for the blood spilled this day. Generations later it was still called, quite simply, the 'great battle'. But for centuries, its location has been lost. Today, an extraordinary effort, uniting enthusiasts, historians, archaeologists, linguists, and other researchers - amateurs and professionals, experienced and inexperienced alike - may well have found the site of the long-lost battle of Brunanburh, over a thousand years after its bloodied fields witnessed history. This groundbreaking new book tells the story of this remarkable discovery and delves into why and how the battle happened. Most importantly, though, it is about the men who fought and died at Brunanburh, and how much this forgotten struggle can tell us about who we are and how we relate to our past."

Reviewing a non-fiction isn't easy. If you have no knowledge of the subject matter, you have nothing to compare it to and you could be perpetuating shoddy research that just happens to read well. If you have full knowledge of the subject, you end up doing a peer review and won't be reading about it here.

I'm not exactly in between, but the subject matter, the Anglo-Saxon kings, formed part of my degree course so I am familiar with the battle under discussion in this book, and the wider world exposed in its pages.

I have reviewed this author before for Discovering Diamonds and the response from two historians was staggering, disputing in the strongest terms what was in the book, and supplying articles they'd written explaining it. So, I came at this volume with some trepidation.

However, what I found when I began to read gave me some comfort as Michael Livingstone gives a solid, honest, account of the era, discussing in depth his view and his findings as we approach the archaeology of the battle of Brunanburh.

The location of the battle is the matter under discussion, as well as the background to the battle and why it was fought. He sites it in the Wirral, and as the Wirral Archaeology group have agreed independently, and the facts (or presented as 'facts') certainly seem to support that. What gives me most hope is that he sets out his reasoning using topography and the sources for the battle and their various distance from the battle in geography and time, what access they each had to the events. 

He says 'Look, this fits the topography, the detail in the sources, and, most importantly, the timings given in sources.' Viking or Anglo-Saxon, there is still only a certain distance you can travel in a set amount of time, and this is what clinches it for me.

Livingstone does look at the other claims for the site of the battle and argues in a rational way against them, examining each argument and then breaking it down to contradictions and errors, and omissions. He says such things as, 'you can't use the argument that this place isn't in Domesday Book to refute it existed before such and such a date, and then accept that neither is London nor Bristol included when we knew they existed in 1086.' That one of the historians is the great Michael Wood, does make me tremble a little - could Michael Wood be wrong? It seems so...

I'd like to see some peer reviews, judge their view of the arguments laid out in this book but I think that the conclusions of this are sound.

Along with that, this book is written with an honesty and clarity that marks good, modern texts, removed from the academic speak and to more accessible language, without dumbing down. Livingstone's explanation of the use of the term Dark Ages is so obvious - it wasn't 'dark' for them, only us, and it is our problem, not theirs. Love it. 

Whether the argument does point to the Wirral as the site of Brunanburh, the book itself is an excellent view of a historian writing his argument, piecing together his view and his reasonings, and his recounting of Anglo-Saxon England and beyond and manages to make a complex situation understandable. 

Read it, if you are interested in this era - you'll learn plenty and Livingstone's writing style is addressing you personally, which is nice.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Nicky Galliers
 e-version reviewed

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