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Anglo-Saxons in a Frankish World 690-900


James T. Palmer


Studies in the Early Middle Ages, vol. 19.

Turnhout / Tournai (Belgium) : Brepols, 2009.

Hardback. x, 324 p. £60.60. ISBN-13:978-2503519111


Reviewed by Ian Wood

University of Leeds




The role of the Anglo-Saxons in the evangelisation of Germany has long attracted attention. In recent decades there has been a particular flurry of work associated with celebrations of the birth and death of St Boniface.  James Palmer provides what is, for the most part, a fine account of current opinion, which is not to say that he has no insights of his own. The title of his work is, perhaps, a little misleading: Palmer is concerned with missionaries, and not with all aspects of contact between England and Francia: there is nothing here, for instance, on economic exchange or on political influence. And even ecclesiastical relations are largely seen in terms of the lives of missionary saints: so we get a brief glimpse of Wilfrid, but no comment on Benedict Biscop or on Aldhelm and their Frankish connections. We do not even get very much on the books of missionaries, though Nancy Netzer's work on the Echternach scriptorium could have enriched the argument. As for the missionaries themselves, Palmer is largely concerned with how their lives were perceived and presented: this is a thoroughly up-to-date approach, and one which the author himself refines. There are a number of sharp comments on the manuscripts in which the Lives of missionary saints are to be found, and, even better, there is a strong sense of the way in which the reforms of Benedict of Aniane made it necessary to re-present some aspects of the work of eighth-century missionaries. Less fully sketched, but potentially just as important, are a set of suggestions about the impact of events of the 840s on the commemoration of Carolingian saints. Palmer's overall argument is, thus, one to which scholars will be indebted.

There is also much to be gained from arguments which are confined to individual chapters. The opening chapter which deals largely with the ideal of peregrinatio is a very nuanced assessment of the extent to which it really was a significant factor, carefully cutting much modern historiography down to size. Some of the other chapters do not quite measure up to the strengths of the first. There is certainly nothing wrong with the discussions of paganism and “Otherness”, but there are curious gaps in the bibliography: Karl Helm's crucial work on Germanic paganism is not in evidence, nor is Dennis Green's much more recent study of Language and history in the early Germanic world. It is impossible to say whether Palmer used these books, for a number of works cited in the footnotes seem not to be in the bibliography. Moreover Palmer is unfortunate in that John-Henry Clay's study In the shadow of death: St Boniface and the conversion of Hessia, 721-754, which was due for publication in 2010, has a good deal to say about paganism in the region around Fritzlar.

Even more unfortunate in its timing is Palmer's final chapter, on Willibald's journey to Jerusalem. We are told that very little work has been done on the Itinerarium of Willibald, an assertion that was perhaps valid at the time when the book went to press, though one could again note a number of gaps in Palmer's bibliography: above all he does not cite the 1962 edition of Hygeburg's works by Andreas Bausch, which has a substantial commentary; but there is also no mention of the work of John Wilkinson, who dealt with all the early pilgrim narratives over a lifetime of work. More immediately challenging to Palmer is Rodney Aist's Christian Topography of Early Islamic Jerusalem, which is a book-length study of the Willibald Itinerarium, and which appeared at exactly the same time as Palmer's book. Aist, Clay and Palmer are all published by Brepols: and while one should certainly admire the attention that the publishers are paying to the early medieval period, one might wonder whether they should not be putting their various authors in touch with one another.

With Aist and Clay, Palmer has been unlucky: on the whole he is well versed in English scholarship on early medieval mission, and one can say much the same of his knowledge of the relevant German scholarship. There are more lacunae when it comes to recent French scholarship, the most striking absence being Bruno Dumézil's Les racines chrétiennes de l'Europe of 2005. The simple problem is that so much is being published on the missionary history of the early Middle Ages at present that it is almost impossible to keep abreast of it all, and it is absolutely impossible additionally to master everything of value that appeared before the closing decades of the twentieth century. Certainly Palmer's own book deserves to be read: it may have missed one or two works of significance, while some aspects of his argument have already been overshadowed by more concentrated studies. But this is unquestionably a work that one can recommend as a point of departure for understanding the work of the Anglo-Saxons on the continent in the late seventh and eighth centuries.




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