John Blair’s 'Building Anglo-Saxon England'

In the summer of 1969, excavating on the Bell Hotel site in Gloucester, we discovered – deep down – the remains of the Flavian Roman legionary fortress. The upright posts of the building were spaced at such millimetre-precise regularity that in the manic last days of this salvage dig we could estimate and locate the posts, thus drawing up plans of whole buildings. The precision was remarkable, but bear in mind these were the same Romans who built the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Pont du Gard. Three years later I was lucky enough to visit Peter Addyman’s immaculate excavations of the later 6th-to 7th-century village at Charlton Down, Hampshire. What struck me powerfully was the same precision employed by the house-builders. Their engineering on this desolate hilltop was no less millimetre precise as that we encountered in Gloucester. From that moment in Peter Addyman’s company I wanted to be an archaeologist pursuing the ‘barbarians’ rather than the ‘civilized’ Romans. There was so much more to discover.

A ground-plan of a building from Brian Hope-Taylor’s excavations of the 7th-century royal palace at Yeavering (Northumberland)

This precision takes pride of place in John Blair’s new book, Building Anglo-Saxon England (Princeton University Press, 2018). He uses it to weave a new history of England up until the 11th century based principally on archaeological evidence. Much of it is simply thrilling to read.

Hundreds of excavated buildings are illustrated to show the use of the short and long perch measurements that characterize the precision engineering that I witnessed at Charlton long ago. To be more precise, the ‘short perch’ is 4.59 metres or 15 modern feet and was used as the unit of measure in the Anglian zones of central and eastern England and in Kent, often in multiples of four to make boxes 60 feet square. Wessex, by contrast, used the ‘long perch’ of 18 feet (about 5.5 metres) close to the measure used in Merovingian settlements in northern France. Both units, Blair believes, were imported from the Continental homelands of the Anglo-Saxons, though like the vernacular architectural tradition, adapted to local circumstances in England.

The essence of Blair’s book is that the (gridded) buildings and the landscapes they occupy provide a fine detail that only now can be imagined thanks to hundreds of excavations over the past forty years. Central to his story is the importance of the Anglo-Saxon Church, and particularly the monasteries and minsters, that provide a back bone for England’s agrarian and commercial evolution after the later 7th century. The episodic and sometimes turbulent relationship between the Church and the tribes results in a state by the mid to late 10th century in which magnate houses became prominent expressions of a new quasi feudal class exploiting much enlarged, effectively managed territories.

The riches in this long, well-illustrated book are immense, not least in the idiosyncratic footnotes (see footnote 9 on p.419 arguing, in the face of the Brexit vote, for England being part of a heterogeneous outer Europe). Its certain importance is eloquently asserted by Blair himself in the conclusion: ‘I have tried to show how the..fugitive …traces of buildings and settlements are bringing to light a harnessing and a re-planning of the natural environment that was often complex, and sometimes achieved with a artifice and skill comparable to the small-scale works of art’.

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