The Anglo-Saxon Age by John Blair

    While I usually enjoy these Oxford Very Short Introductions, The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction was a complete mixed bag for me. I learned a few things I had never heard of before, but, at the same time, I was disappointed with many things in this small volume. Before we get to the content, I will say I started off not liking the book from the beginning when I found out this title (and some of the other early English history titles) was actually just an excerpt/abridgment of some chapters from previously published work. This was disappointing, but from looking into it, it seems that this is only the case in some of the earlier titles in the series.

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    Now to the content. For a small nit picky thing, King Cnut is not highly regarded in the book, which in itself I can deal with, but the author then goes on to say that in the era right after King Cnut’s reign England had the strongest government in western Europe. This essentially undercut his brief negative account of King Cnut. Also, while I felt that the cultural history of this book was superior to the political narrative, material culture of the everyday people was severely lacking. Lastly, and most importantly, the whole historical narrative of the formation, consolidation, and overthrow of the Anglo-Saxon states felt very rushed. Most characters and events are mentioned briefly with no real clarification and then its on to the next event. Nothing seemed very fleshed out, with the exception of Alfred the Great. Even a relatively small increase in the page count (the text is only about 80 pages) would have helped dramatically in giving some meat to the bare bones narrative.
    On the plus side, I found it interesting that there was quite a bit of information on Welsh history (comparatively speaking anyways.) I read the names of two Welsh kingdoms that I had never heard of before Elmet and Rheged. The strongest part of the book I felt was its explanation of what structures and features of Anglo-Saxon England carried over into the Norman conquest and the high and late medieval periods. This synthesis would make medieval England fairly unique in the medieval world. (In similar terms, the book also did a good job explaining what was not in Anglo-Saxon England, such as manorialism with expansive serfdom.)

    Overall, I wish this book just had more to it. There were some good insights, but they were too few in an already small book that tried to cover way too much ground for its size.

    3 out of 5 stars. (Perhaps a little generous.)