BAR Publishing, £35
Review John Blair
Early medieval Staffordshire was very important, but its importance must be reconstructed from the slightest of clues. This study of Pirehill Hundred applies a multidisciplinary approach (archaeology, topography, place-names, occasional documents) to four thematic strands. First, barrows: it is shown not only that the number of Anglo- Saxon barrow-burials has been underestimated, but also that what mattered in early medieval perception was less the real date of a mound than the focal role ascribed to it. Second, saints: the well-known stories of Waerburh, Wulfhad, Ruffin, and Bertelin are revisited in their local landscape context, with some important new placename evidence. Third, sculpture: also well-known thanks to the recent Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture volume, but here convincingly associated with an emergent early 10th-century thegnly class. And, fourth, local aristocrats and gentry, whose tightening hold on the landscape through c.AD 900-1050 is traced using place-names and topography.
It is the region that unites these diverse themes, but is it anything more? The imprinting of memory on the landscape, and the role of monuments as sites of social negotiation and identity, are emphasised throughout. The strands sometimes seem rather diffuse, and perhaps do not always quite come together. But the material is handled ably, from a good knowledge of recent literature both local and general. Certainly, the most-successful methodological strand is the place-name work, which throws significant new light on the barrows, the manorial centres, and the saints and aristocrats whose own names are thus preserved. Blake does overcome the dire scarcity of evidence to the extent of showing that this was a busy and dynamic region with a great deal going on: the whole is greater than the parts.
Ironically (given its title), the book makes abundantly clear how far this region was from ‘the edge’: it was central to the Mercian kingdom, and to the economy and society of England. In the long tradition of local case-studies, this is a worthy addition with valuable methodological lessons, and will be of interest well beyond the boundaries of Derbyshire.