Review – Water and the Environment in the Anglo-Saxon World

3 mins read
Edited by Maren Clegg Hyer and Della Hooke
Liverpool University Press, £80
ISBN 978-0786940285
Review Stuart Brookes

Focusing not so much on marine environments (as the title might suggest) as on wetlands and inland waterways, this book is the latest addition to a series of multi-author volumes exploring the environment of the Anglo-Saxons. Rivers, marshes, landing places, and sacred springs were just some of the important watery places that existed in early medieval England. The nine chapters of this volume explore these features, focusing on some fairly well-researched topics, such as inland waterways, towns, and fishing, and some less familiar ones, like water in Anglo-Saxon poetry and fenland frontiers.

Most contributors take a fairly functional approach to their topics: these were watery resources, transport routes, boundaries, and landscapes. A couple of papers, however, also consider some of the social and cultural aspects of water, in both a symbolic and ritual sense. Here we get some idea of the ways in which water was perceived, experienced, and contextualised by people. From Anglo-Saxon poetry we learn, for example, that the water acts as a ‘conduit to emotional and spiritual places’, while rivers often lent their names to communities as a form of identity.

A pleasing aspect of this book is the way that the theme is explored via a number of different perspectives. There are contributions from archaeology and landscape history, as might be expected, but also from place-name scholarship, literature, and even molinology (the study of mills). Similarly, the contributors are a mixture of established scholars and early career and independent researchers, a blend that works very well. For me, the focused essays on subjects such as watermills, landing places, canals, and bridges worked better than the surveys of broader topics, such as fishing and watery landscapes, which perhaps deserved longer and more nuanced exposition. If the purpose of these papers is to serve as a quick introduction to a topic, it is a shame that the list of further suggested reading, compiled at the back of this volume, is so brief. Nevertheless, there is much of interest for both specialists and general readers.

This review appeared in CA 337.

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