OUP (2018) h/b 464pp £95 (ISBN 9780198759379)
This is a history of Britain up to the medieval period, which focuses upon the landscape and the evolution of territorial identity. Early chapters map the territory of Iron Age communities in South East Britain, drawing upon coin circulation and pottery distribution. Such evidence suggests that the Iceni were in East Anglia, the Trinovantes in the North-Eastern Thames Basin and the Catuvellauni in the North-Western Thames Basin. The South East Midlands formed a separate zone characterised by lower level of coin use, until the expansion of the Catuvellauni under Tasciovanus and Cunobelinus in the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age. Other forms of material culture, such as brooches, torcs, horse fittings and loom weights, present a similar picture.
Social divisions broadly matched topographical zones. A boulder clay plateau marked the boundary between East Anglia and the Northern Thames Basin. Because of its poor soils, this was sparsely populated and naturally formed a liminal zone. The boundary between East Anglia and the South East Midlands was a low-lying corridor between a chalk escarpment and the Fen wetlands. The Chiltern Hills separated the South East Midlands from the Northern Thames Basin.
Chapters 4 to 6 examine the Roman period. Britain was divided into administrative territories, most being civitates where surviving Iron Age élites carried out local administration. As Rippon notes, the concept of Romanization is now falling out of fashion, because there were many different cultures across a range of social groups. There were regional variations in the distribution of villas, as well as different forms of urban hierarchy. Even so, R. is constrained to accept that incorporation into the Roman Empire brought with it a degree of homogenisation. Mass produced pottery from Gaul and other goods flooded the market. The whole province was subject to imperial government. Even so, regional identities continued and even re-asserted themselves in the later period, as reflected in mosaic schools and styles of metal belt fittings.
At least some of the boundaries between territories appear to have followed the divisions between Iron Age Communities: for example, the Iceni, the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes. Those three territories were administered from Venta Icenorum, Verulamium and Camulodunum, each being a town laid out on formal Roman lines. The South East Midlands lacked any major town and may have fallen within the civitas of the Catuvellauni. As R. notes in the final ‘Conclusions’ chapter, it is debatable whether the Trinovantes formed a separate civitas, with the indigenous élite undertaking local government. (This reviewer believes that they did not, possibly due to their role in the Boudiccan rebellion.) Venta Icenorum appears to have been small and impoverished, with a weakened local aristocracy.
After the Romans withdrew in the early fifth century, there was an influx of Germanic peoples. The areas where they settled can be seen from the archaeological record. During the fifth and sixth centuries, the newcomers created Grubenhäuser. These were shallow flat-bottomed pits above which suspended wooden floors could be constructed. Also, they buried their dead in highly distinctive, furnished graves. Extensive Anglo-Saxon settlements can be identified in East Anglia, the South East Midlands and the Northern Thames Basin. Writing in the early eighth century, Bede described how Angles, Saxons and Jutes had settled in Britain three hundred years earlier. Over time, they established polities. These included the kingdom of the East Angles in East Anglia, the kingdom of the Middle Angles in the South East Midlands and the kingdom of the East Saxons in the Northern Thames Basin. The boundaries between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms roughly followed the topographical features which had separated those territories during the Iron Age and the Roman occupation.
Archaeology reveals many areas where Germanic immigrants did not settle. Analyses of pollen sequences reveal that those areas did not simply become reforested. The inference is that these were enclaves of Romano-Britons. In those areas many of the identified late Roman field systems share a common orientation with the historic landscapes shown on the nineteenth century Ordnance Survey, (first edition, pp. 274-5).
The overall theme of this book is territorial continuity at least up to the ninth century. Despite massive invasions and migrations, across much of Britain the boundaries of major regions were similar from the Iron Age through until the medieval period. But R. does not advocate environmental determinism. That would be too simplistic. He argues that regional identities developed within the broader landscape; these identities persisted or reasserted themselves over time.
In the tenth century, however, an increasingly powerful English state imposed a uniform system of administration across the whole of England (p. 332). It is likely that in the South West (which had successfully resisted Viking incursions), the tenth century shires were based upon existing territorial units. But across the rest of England, which had been subject to Danelaw for a century, sadly this was not the case. So when the Domesday Book came to be compiled in the 1080s, it was not based upon Iron Age boundaries or Roman civitates.
The author is sparing in his praise for the efforts of earlier scholars, but perhaps that is understandable in view of his own new insights. This is not a book for the faint-hearted. It is packed with details, tables, cross-references, and analyses. But for anyone with a serious interest in early British history, it is compelling reading. Some readers (such as this reviewer) will find the book hard to put down, in their eagerness to learn how the ‘story’ ends.