As you know, my favourite period for my writing is the Anglo-Saxon era AD 410 -1066.
Out of curiosity, I began to read up on the period before AD 410. What struck me immediately was how the Roman Empire had gone from magnificence to woefulness in the third century. The more I studied, the more I wanted to write a novel about it. I was under no illusions because the argument is complex. I’d like to share my findings here, not least to temp you into obtaining a copy of The Saxon Shore my latest novel, which contains a pinch of each of the following ingredients!
The question is WHY?
You think the world is a mess in 2024 – you should try AD 286 (when my novel begins).
In no particular order of importance --
That’s complex enough, isn’t it? It took Diocletian to sort it out, but in AD 303 he began to persecute Christians
I have tried to write page-turning fiction about this period from ca. AD 286 to the Edict of Mediolanum AD 306 when Emperor Constantine the Great decreed Christianity would be tolerated throughout the Empire. I hope that the Saxon Shore will be published by the spring. Look out for my postings in Facebook and here.
I have been fortunate enough to receive some excellent reviews from American readers, so this is not a petulant response by any means. However, one kind American lady magnanimously wrote that she loved the story, but shame the novel was littered with typos. Hang on a minute, dear lady, how is that possible? After a career teaching English, double-checking, triple-checking, my Beta readers and, finally the demanding editorial proofs can even one typo have escaped us? But ‘littered’. Now I wouldn’t bother writing this blog if it was a question of just one eccentric’s opinion, but several Americans have complained in their reviews about typos.
Then, it came to me in a flash: British and American English! Is it my fault if a reader reads colour when she is convinced it should be color? Or sympathise when she knows it is sympathize? Well, it’s hardly surprising that a British author writes in British English. His Vance & Shepherd Metropolitan murders are set in London – the capital of little Old England. Then, there are his Anglo-Saxon novels. Good job I can’t write those in Old Englisc (sic!) or only a few experts would understand them, but surely an American would admit that it would be incongruous to write a novel set in the eighth century AD in American English.
Now, I must indulge myself with a little language history. Old English gave way to Middle English (the language of Geoffrey Chaucer) who died in 1400. Then we had William Caxton, (born 1422) whose printing press did much to make English uniform throughout England. His painstaking typographical settings contained all his foibles, so modern-day English spelling has much to do with Caxton’s preferences, which is perhaps that he thought night should be spelt (not spelled) so and not nite. I was born in Lincolnshire about ten miles from the port of Immingham from where (or whence) the Pilgrim Fathers left in the Mayflower before calling in farther down the coast in the port of Boston (Lincs, not Massachusetts). Of course, they were mainly Puritans and took with them plenty of copies of the King James Authorized (sic) Bible with its beautiful English, despite the frequent thee, thy, and thou it is the most diffused book in the world. And we should not forget (forgot, forgotten) that Americans use get, (got gotten), so they use a purer seventeenth-century usage than British get, got, got. It used to bother me that Americans called a tap a faucet until I discovered that in seventeenth-century Britain the faucet was the name given to a cask or barrel tap – open it and out flows ale – now that’s charming!
Few Americanisms set my teeth on edge, but one of them, understandably is john. Why call a toilet john when it can be a loo? I speak for all the Johns in this world! Even worse is an expression in current vogue, ‘from the get-go’—I hate it—what’s wrong with ‘from the start or ‘from the beginning’?
Thanks for bearing with me. As a reward especially to any patient Americans, I’ll say right here that there are Americans among my favourite writers – favorite writers – such as Ernest Hemingway, Gore Vidal and poets Frost and Dickinson. Also, I promise not to criticize my American writer friends in a review about their typos (non-typos!)
At school they taught us that Anglo-Saxon began in 410 when the Romans definitively abandoned Britannia to defend Rome against Alaric. Instead at university, they chose 383AD presumably because the imperial usurper, Magnus Maximus raised the standard of revolt at Segontium (Caernarfon) in north Wales, and crossed the English Channel.Maximus held much of the western empire, and fought a successful campaign against the Picts and the Scots around 384. His continental exploits required troops from Britain, and it appears that forts at Chester and elsewhere were abandoned in this period, triggering raids and settlement in north Wales by the Irish. Until the late twentieth century, historians drew on the writings of Gildas and Bede. Gildas and other sources were used by Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, written around 731.Bede gave a precise date, 449AD, for the first arrival of the Anglo-Saxons and he said they came from three tribes: the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who themselves came from different parts of Germany and Denmark – the Angles were from Angeln, which is a small district in northern Germany; the Saxons were from what is now Lower Saxony, also in northern Germany; and the Jutes were from Jutland, now part of Denmark. According to Bede the Angles settled in East Anglia, the Saxons in southern England, and the Jutes in Kent and the Isle of Wight.
I do not believe any of the dates 383, 410 and 449 are credible. The truth is that much earlier Saxon legionnaires came to Britain, retired from the legion, married Britons, cleared land and tilled it, settling and introducing their language, Old English, to the Britons. The construction of roman forts, the Saxon Shore forts provide further evidence in the third century that Saxon piracy was rife along the south and east coasts. Other archaeological evidence indicates a Saxon presence in England as early as the third century.
Gildas used the correct late Roman term for the Saxons, foederati, people who came to Britain under a well-used treaty system. This kind of treaty had been used elsewhere to bring people into the Roman Empire to move along the roads or rivers and work alongside the army. Gildas called them Saxons, which was probably the common British term for the settlers.
Hence, my current work-in-progress, a novel beginning in 286AD and provisionally entitled The Saxon Shore. I hope to finish it before the Spring, as I ama bout to start Chapter 9, there’s a way to go yet.
After the turbulent end to the roman period in Britain, matters become clearer. The fifth-century settlement is still obscure, but events become clearer with the
Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, c. 650-800AD
I now wish to list my published Anglo-Saxon novels in the following heptarchy (7 kingdoms) context (See map):
1. Kent, settled by the Jutes. Ethelbert of Kent was the first Anglo-Saxon king to be converted to Christianity, by St Augustine around 595 AD.
2. Mercia, whose best-known ruler, Offa, built Offa's Dyke along the border between Wales and England. This large kingdom stretched over the Midlands.
3. Northumbria, where the monk Bede (c. 670-735) lived and wrote his Ecclesiastical History of Britain.
4. East Anglia, made up of Angles: the North Folk (living in modern Norfolk) and the South Folk (living in Suffolk). The Sutton Hoo ship burial was found in East Anglia (see below).
5. Essex (East Saxons). Here the famous Battle of Maldon was fought against the Vikings in 991.
6. Sussex: the South Saxons settled here.
7. Wessex (West Saxons), later the kingdom of King Alfred, the only English king ever to have been called ‘the Great', and his equally impressive grandson, Athelstan, the first who could truly call himself ‘King of the English'.
Here are my novels with dates and kingdoms specified (more or less in order of publication)
When did Anglo-Saxon England end? Every schoolchild learns 1066 with the Norman Conquest. But is that true? Depends. Certainly, almost all the Saxon aristocracy perished in that year and the Normans seized their lands, but rural life continued unchanged. You have to evaluate the millions of peasants against the hundreds of Norman aristocrats. Sadly, the splendid Anglo-Saxon culture was destroyed. Finally, King Harold’s daughter married the Prince of Kiev – that might be a novel in the making! Thank you for reading.
Garnet and Gold is the name I gave to my box-set of four historical novels https://www.overdrive.com/media/9112917/garnet-and-gold because when I think of those early kingdoms, I imagine the splendour of the jewellery made by patiently hammering thin sheets of gold, overlaid with a labyrinth of niello work, carefully soldered to encase precisely-cut pieces of garnet, the semi-translucent gemstone, which would be enhanced by the light passing through the stone reflected back by the gold layer. Clever, or what? My guess is that the best pieces, which we are fortunate to see from Sutton Hoo in the British Museum and the Trumpington Cross—the main feature of this blog—in the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, were reserved for the richest and most powerful individuals f the time (about the 7th century AD). Historians are almost certain that the Sutton Hoo ship burial was the grave of King Raedwald, king of East Anglia.
What then of the mysterious bed burial near Cambridge? Who was the teenage girl archaeologists estimate between 14 and 18 laid to rest with a stunning pectoral cross in one of only 15 bed burials so far brought to light? My guess is that she was a princess who can be identified as one of England's earliest converts to Christianity – and who lived in a settlement boasting one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon Christian burial sites in Britain. The pectoral cross is only the fifth of its type found to date. Perhaps the most famous is the one buried with St Cuthbert in Durham cathedral.
The 3.5cm diameter Trumpington Cross comes from one of the earliest Christian burials in Britain, probably dating between AD650-AD680. Because the earliest Anglo-Saxon converts to Christianity were from noble families, with its adoption filtering down through the social hierarchy, the teenager buried at Trumpington Meadows was undoubtedly of aristocratic or even royal status.
Although buried with treasured possessions including gold and garnet pins, an iron knife, glass beads and a chain which would have hung off her belt, it was the unexpected presence of the cross –which marks the teenage girl as an early convert to Christianity.
The Trumpington Cross is testament to the very early years of the English church after St Augustine was dispatched to England by the Pope in 597AD to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings; what a spectacular dress accessory!
The bed consisted of a wooden frame held together by metal brackets, with further pieces of looped metal fixing the cross-slats to create a suspended bed base, similar to modern beds, but with a straw mattress. The body was then placed on the bed, probably when it was already in the grave.
All of my books are published by a hybrid publisher: Next Chapter.
They describe themselves and I quote: “Next Chapter is a Rapid Versatile Publisher (RVP) that combines the professionalism and quality of traditional publishing with the creative freedom of independent publishing.”
When they accepted my first novel, I had to wonder if I’d done the right thing to opt for them or to simply self-publish. Thirty-five novels later, all published by Next Chapter or one of their imprints, my answer is a resounding yes, I’m more than satisfied with the treatment I receive.
But, what is a hybrid publisher? The Intellectual Property Bar Association (UK)’s Hybrid Publisher Criteria includes the following list of expectations, which all hybrid publishers are expected to meet (I quote them):
Define a mission and vision for its publishing program.
Commit to truth and transparency in business practices.
Provide a negotiable, easy-to-understand contract for each book published. Publish under its own imprint(s) and ISBNs.
Publish to industry standards
Ensure editorial, design, and production quality. Pursue and manage a range of publishing rights. Provide distribution services.
Demonstrate respectable sales.
Pay authors a higher-than-standard royalty.
I am happy to say that my publisher amply meets all these criteria – so thank, you Next chapter’s CEOs. As an author, I’m well aware of the vanity publishers out there. If you are a new writer, beware the sharks! Just use a search engine to find out who they are and avoid them like the plague! Thank you for your kind attention,
Dear American friends,
In the eighteenth century your Founding Fathers drew on the words of a writer, Thomas Paine, and enshrined many of his principles in your Constitution.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the American government in the twenty-first century could again draw upon a writer for inspiration? Don’t snort! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not referring to myself (although it could do worse, but, of course, you want better and I know of someone much worthier and far more scholarly and she lives and works, dear friends, in your midst in the United States.
I refer to the exceptional American-Iranian Ms Fatemeh Keshavarz, who variously describes herself as a Muslim, poet, feminist, and literary scholar (though not necessarily in that order). She is also very modest and I would add to her list, enlightened humanist.
The lady is scholarly, teaching Persian/comparative literature in St Louis University. Although much of her work must deal with the past, this lady has an eye for the present and the future.
With singular originality, she has identified a modern narrative that she calls New Orientalist. Please bear with my slight digression: I’d like to take you back again to the beginning of the nineteenth century when the first Orientalist wave occurred in European literature. We’re talking about exceptional brains like those of the romantic poets, S.T. Coleridge or George, Lord Byron.
Please take a moment to read this verse of Coleridge’s aloud. Some say it is the most lyrical expression of English poetry—the beginning of Xanadu:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
Nobody can doubt the laudanum-inspired genius behind those words, but dear friends, we can question Coleridge’s geopolitical knowledge. Fair enough, he’d never been anywhere near China. As for the well-travelled Lord Byron, his oriental knowledge, too, was second-hand.
That is why the New Orientalists are so insidious. Ms Keshavarz does not doubt their intellects: she cites several examples of what she calls exilic voices. Who among you had never read Xanadu? I’d be honestly surprised if even one of you raised her hand. Similarly, surely, we have all read The Kite Runner, by Khaled Husseini, exiled from his native Afghanistan. Ms Keshavarz also cites among others, The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad and most damaging of all, the recent bestseller, Reading Lolita in Teheran, A Memoir in Books, by Aznar Nafisi.
Generously, Ms Keshavarz recognises the talents of these writers, but critiques, you’ve guessed, their geopolitical integrity. As she writes about Reading Lolita etc. “The book has focused attention on gender issues in contemporary Iran and moved many readers with its personalised critique of totalitarianism.”
But before reaching the important crux of Ms Keshavarz’s argument, I’d like to digress and explain why a writer of Anglo-Saxon historical novels would wish to blog about this issue. Please bear with me a moment, not all is as it seems. If any of you has explored my website (I fervently hope you all will), you’ll know that after writing about twenty ‘Anglo-Saxon’ novels, I decided to measure my skills against another genre and opted for a series of police mystery novels beginning with The Quasimodo Killings and setting them in Metropolitan London, UK—a city I know reasonably well. Now this is really hot off the press! Two days ago, I decided to write Book 4 of this Vance & Shepherd series and to link the river Thames with the Tigris.
Here’s the rub: my precarious health and wallet together make it impossible for me to visit Iran. I have long admired Persian history and have a great respect for Iranian culture and as someone who is very diffident about television news (yes, even the BBC!) I decided I needed to stop writing the new book. I’m prolific and already the first two chapters were done. Now, I refuse to fall into the trap. I will not be guided by the blind.
When I lack first-hand experience, I turn to research. Hence, I chose Ms Keshavarz’s brilliant Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than “Lolita” in Teheran. The title alone was enough to convince me, here was what I needed—how right I was! I heartily recommend it to you all for the below reasons, but meanwhile wish to underline that sadly, I have never met Ms Keshavarz and we certainly do not share the same publisher, nor do I have any financial interest in recommending her book. As I said, here come the reasons, and again, I quote from Ms Keshavarz: The emerging Orientalist narrative has many similarities to and a few differences from this earlier incarnation. It equally simplifies its subject. For example, it explains almost all undesirable middle eastern incidents in terms of Muslim men’s submission to God and Muslim women’s submission to men.
This kind of view simplifies and replicates earlier narratives with their strong undercurrent of superiority and of impatience with the locals. We cannot and must not, implies our lady scholar, erase through unnuanced narration, the complexity and richness in the local culture.
In my new book, I wish to emulate Ms Keshavarz and avoid stereotypes. Damn, it’ll only be a mystery novel, not an essay about modern-day Iran, but like the scholarly lady, I’d like to listen for the seemingly insignificant voices that carry the wisdom, tenderness, beauty, and humour in a culture, to open the door and let them into the safety of our recognition.
I’ll end this blog with a huge thank you to Ms Keshavarz for teaching this old dog new wisdom from afar and with the promise that I’ll finish my Book 4 of the Vance & Shepherd series. Watch this space! and whilst you’re waiting, treat yourself to Ms Keshavarz’s informative Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than “Lolita” in Teheran.
Always remember that democracy is a fragile orchid, forever in need of tender loving care. Democracy cannot be imposed from the outside but must grow from within.
Thank you, American friends and others for reading thus far.
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Yours, John Broughton
This particular blog began as an idea of mine to write a bucket list of Anglo-Saxon monuments and sites that I’d still love to visit. Since many of my ideas mutate through distraction or curiosity, here we are with a totally different blog. Have you noticed how many place names in England contain the word minster? Westminster might be the most famous, but I’ve counted at least thirty and each has its own fascination.
First, let’s see what minster means. It’s an ecclesiastic word, dating from Anglo-Saxon times. The word derives from the Old English "mynster", meaning "monastery", "nunnery", "mother church" or "cathedral", itself derived from the Latin "monasterium" and the Ancient Greek "μοναστήριον", meaning a group of clergy where the Brothers would cloister themselves to meditate.
Let’s take York Minster as an example to distinguish between Minster and cathedral: it is officially the 'Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York'. Although it is by definition a cathedral, as it is the site of a bishop's throne, the word 'cathedral' did not come into use until the Norman Conquest. The word minster was what Anglo-Saxons named their important churches.
Now let’s look at some of the other minsters:
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