(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Surrey Archaeological Society’s Medieval Studies Forum Newsletter, 13 (March 2017), pages 2-8.)
What label —or labels— should we use to refer to the period between the traditional end-date of Roman imperial control of Britain in 410 CE (i.e. Common Era, a useful and here rather apt alternative to AD/Anno Domini given the religious plurality of significant chunks of the period) and the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings and subsequent Christmas Day coronation of William I in 1066 CE? Every reader will probably have one or more phrases spring immediately to mind, but how appropriate are they when you stop to consider what they actually mean? This note will discuss the most commonly-encountered terms, both old and new, not only in terms of the ever-growing body of scholarly discourse on the topic, but also in terms of how additional care must be taken when considering using some in relation to Surrey.
As someone whose research interests span multiple disciplines, for convenience and simplicity’s sake I have taken to describing myself as an “early medievalist”, thereby acknowledging that I am interested in the middle ages but with an overwhelming preference for the earlier rather than later centuries. In general, I find my interest starting to seriously wane beyond the middle of the 13th century —in other words, the best part of two centuries after the end of the timespan under discussion— yet my PhD research goes the other way by considering archaeological data almost exclusively of the period circa 300-900 CE. Early Medieval Surrey, John Blair’s seminal study that was itself based on a doctoral thesis, stretches its titular period as late as 1300 CE; which could be seen to leave relatively little chronological space for a hypothetical counterpart volume on Late Medieval Surrey!
A commonly-encountered international paradigm is for a three-way division into the Early, High and Late Medieval or Middle Ages. These are usually understood to represent respectively the periods circa 500-1000, 1000-1300, and 1300-1500 CE. However, the period of the Early Middle Ages is extended for the purposes of an important thematic essay collection, A Companion to the Early Middle Ages: Britain and Ireland c.500-c.1100, first published in 2009. Its editor, Pauline Stafford, is candid in her introduction that ‘The date limits of this volume […] are to a degree arbitrary’, but goes on to note that they ‘correspond roughly to the end of Roman Britain and the arrival and first impact of the Normans’ (Stafford 2009, 6). Significantly, clear explanation is offered for why the end-date is not 1066; it does not have direct relevance for the entirety of the British Isles. It does, on the other hand, have considerable significance for Surrey in South-East England. Here, a crucial point emerges about the contexts in which period labels are applied: a profound political change like William’s seizure of the English throne, which will be reflected in historical data, does not necessarily bring about immediate material-cultural change, as would show up in archaeology (coins and perhaps some imported items aside).
So far as the England (and Surrey) is concerned, the Early and High Middle Ages cut across the traditional conception of an Anglo-Saxon period between 410 and 1066 CE, although it must be added both of these terminal years are not without issues: imperial authorities in Rome did not simply turn off a military-political tap that had been flowing freely up until 410 CE, and nor did 1066 mark the establishment of Norman rule over the entirety of the English state. This was the label used by John Morris in his landmark 1959 archaeological gazetteer ‘Anglo-Saxon Surrey’. Despite its title, Morris was explicit in stating; ‘Only objects of the pagan period, between about A.D. 400 and 650, have been included’, and the concluding archaeo-historical discussion headed ‘The Anglo-Saxons in Surrey’ keeps to the same approximate limits (Morris 1959, 132, 148-58). By widely-accepted current convention, the Anglo-Saxon period is split into three sub-periods: Early (circa 450-650 CE), Mid or Middle (circa 650-850 CE), and Late (circa 850-1066). The choices of years are not just for symmetry; they correspond to certain political or cultural changes, although it must be said that other, more meaningful approximate terminal dates could be advanced in their stead. Note too that the earliest date of circa 450 CE excludes the four decades after 410 CE: a not-insignificant period of time, albeit one of immense historical and archaeological inscrutability. The title of Morris’ gazetteer, therefore, would make more sense if it is re-read as ‘Early Anglo-Saxon Surrey’, with “Anglo-Saxon” serving as a useful, though not unproblematic, catch-all term for the whole period through to 1066.
Anglo-Saxon is a portmanteau name that reflects the melding of Anglian and Saxon cultural identities. Bede’s famous reference to the three immigrant “tribes” of Angles, Saxons and Jutes has long dominated analyses of the archaeology of the period, with much discussion of Anglian, Saxon, and Jutish cultures. In 1933, J. E. A. Jolliffe noted a number of affinities between the medieval institutions of Kent and East Surrey in the context of his proposition of a ‘Jutish South-East’ (Kent being traditionally understood to be the heartland of Jutish settlement) but later scholarship has cast doubt upon his thesis, and any notion of “Jutish Surrey” is spurious in the extreme. Very little about the archaeology of Surrey could be described as Anglian, in the sense that it includes sites and artefact-types analogous to those from East Anglia and further north along the East Coast (and by extension Angeln/Anglia in Northern Germany). By contrast, supplanting Anglo-Saxon with Saxon —in the manner of Rob Poulton’s chapter ‘Saxon Surrey’ in The Archaeology of Surrey to 1540— would seem to be warranted for reasons beyond mere alliterative convenience. Various identifications of artefacts of Saxon style from sites (particularly early inhumation cemeteries) have been proposed over the years, perhaps most recently for the part-excavated 5th- to 7th-/8th-century CE cemetery at Park Lane, Croydon, about which Jacqueline McKinley (2003, 109) wrote the following:
‘Croydon and the contemporaneous cemeteries in Surrey lay at, or close to, the interface between different cultural groups of Germanic settlers. Most of the artefacts suggest southern Saxon influences, with limited Kentish connections indicated by some of the weaponry and textiles. Indications of links with the Anglian region are confined to some textile evidence and the presence of the horse cremation burial, though other aspects of the latter (relatively profuse pyre debris) are not characteristic of burials from that area.’
Surrey may have abutted the kingdoms of the West Saxons and South Saxons, plus the province of the Middle Saxons, but speaking in terms of “Saxon Surrey” as a period or even sub-period is misleading. It has strong echoes of culture-historical archaeology; a 20th-century school of thought that held the distributions of particular artefact types reveal the geographical extent of historically-attested ethnic groups such as Saxons, Angles, Jutes, etc. As James Harland spelled out so excellently in his recent essay for The Public Medievalist, the back-projection of early historical “ethnic” identities into a pre-historical past (i.e. the time of the 5th- and 6th-century interments at Croydon) using the presence/absence or specific forms of particular types of grave goods is now considered to be an exercise in speculation. We do not know that the people buried in the cemetery at Croydon, for example, identified themselves as Saxons. They might have done, but they may have constructed their identity in different ways: at the family or community level, and/or in terms of *Sūþræ-gē, the “southern district” from which Surrey is descended, and of which the Croydon area may have been a focal point. The fact the Croydon cemetery is not alone in yielding evidence of supposed Kentish/Jutish and even Anglian cultural inputs suggests that a much more complex and nuanced situation prevailed in Surrey than an overarching Saxon identity (something its abuttal of Kent would likewise imply).
One other small point of order coming off this is the necessity to avoid referring to “Middle Saxon Surrey”. The label Middle Saxon should pertain solely to the territory and inhabitants of Middlesex. Surrey was long considered to be the “southern district” of a pre-historical Middle Saxon kingdom on either side of the Thames, but this was fatally undermined by John Hines in 2004, who demonstrated that the bulk of the earliest “Anglo-Saxon” archaeology has been found to the south of the river in supposedly subordinate Surrey. It also fits with earlier work by Keith Bailey (1989) and David Dumville that sees Middlesex as a polity below the level of a kingdom limited to the north side of the Thames and closely tied to the proto-urban trading settlement of Lundenwic; both were perhaps Mercian creations of the late 7th century CE. Even if Surrey and Middlesex were two halves of an earlier whole, they had ceased to cohere as a single polity by the dawn of documentary testimony in the 670s. Therefore, references Middle or Mid Anglo-Saxon Surrey are acceptable; Middle Saxon Surrey is not, because it is fundamentally contradictory.
I can go no further without addressing the elephant in the room; the Dark Ages. It has long been used to refer to some or all of what came between Antiquity and the Renaissance, as well as entering common parlance to negatively characterise a period of time (hence, regrettably, the current uptick in its use). In 2016, English Heritage sparked a storm of controversy among early medievalists by producing material that referred to the period after the ‘Romans’ as ‘Dark Ages’, using a little-known piece by archaeologist Ken Dark as the academic justification for its decision in preference to a vast body of scholarship that argues for and/or uses alternative terminology. A series of articles and blog posts —many of which can be read on the website of History Today magazine, such as this initial salvo by Kate Wiles— took English Heritage to task for reviving or perpetuating ‘Dark Ages’ as a period label, but differed in their opinions as to what may or may not permissibly be described as Dark Age, and the extent to which the other available alternatives are viable at different spatial scales or points in time (for instance, Early Anglo-Saxon would be wholly inappropriate as a characterisation of the 5th- to 7th-century CE archaeology of Cornwall, despite the county later being part of Anglo-Saxon England).
The issue’s come full circle inasmuch as English Heritage has recanted and ditched the Dark Ages as a national-level periodisation, in favour of the ‘Early Middle Ages’ – interestingly, of the years circa 400-1066. A brand new blog post by Leonie Hicks provides details of the context and the pathway to the end result. (So far as I am aware, the periods ‘Medieval part 1’ (1066-1348) and its sequel ‘Medieval part 2’ (1348-1485), did not elicit an equivalent hostile response despite the astoundingly clumsy phrasing of their names, yet they’ve now been combined into a single ‘Medieval’ period.) It’s certainly a positive outcome, although I’m not sure all of the arguments against fully understood from where English Heritage was coming in its choice of terminology. Not long ago, I attended a seminar in which Chiara Bonnachi presented research findings that indicate popular comprehension of things like historical periods stem largely from education and the media, and that the first has a considerable influence over the outputs of the latter. Curriculums do change over time, which will have a knock-on effect, but a delayed one. So, for now, there’s a tension between English Heritage’s roles of meeting the expectations of a membership/admission fee-paying public (for whom the idea of the Dark Ages may be the only one they’ve been taught, read and heard) and informing them about what a site like Tintagel or Lindisfarne represents as determined by expert historical and archaeological research.
I find this Howard Williams blog post, written in the wake of the English Heritage-inspired brouhaha, to be a piercing and provocative dissection of the issues that helps to suggest some ways in which we might move forward with (The) Dark Ages as a concept. It undoubtedly has popular name recognition (admittedly reinforced by repeated usage in broadcast and print media), which could help to override some of the complexities of finding a single periodisation that accommodates the very different contexts of, say, the contemporaneous high-status settlements at Tintagel in Cornwall and Rendlesham in Suffolk. But the term, if it must be used at all, should be employed with the utmost care in a limited range of circumstances. Thus, “Dark Age Surrey” might be used in the title of a research project or paper, but only if the purpose of that work was to shed light on the period and improve understanding of it, as much in the eyes of those who might not be aware that it is not the optimal label for the period in question as for those who know this already. On the other hand, it would be highly inadvisable to make repeated references to Dark Age settlements/artefacts/personages within an article or presentation, especially given there is no shortage of alternatives with greater degrees of credibility.
Considerably less baggage is attached to the terms put forward by Mark Gardiner in a short discussion of the topic in hand at the start of a chapter concerning neighbouring Sussex. He argues for the years between 450-1175 CE to warrant subdivision into two periods or phases: the Post-Roman (450-900 CE) and Early Medieval (900-1175; concomitant with this is the insinuation of a Late Medieval period after 1175). Gardiner brings an impressive array of archaeological and historical evidence to bear, but not all of it is so defensible 10+ years down the line (for instance, the contention that there is ‘little evidence for significant trade levels until about 900’ —Gardiner 2003, 152— needs revision in view of the volume of late 7th- and early 8th-century sceattas or silver proto-pennies subsequently recorded through the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds). While the basic reasoning behind his bipartite paradigm remains sound, so far as the Post-Roman period is concerned such an overarching label runs the risk of suggesting that there was only very incremental change across the space of four-and-a-half centuries. Were Aelle, reputedly the first South Saxon king who besieged the former Saxon Shore fort at Pevensey and slaughtered all of its occupants in the year 491, and Alfred, the “Great” king of Wessex who revitalised Chichester as a stronghold in the late 9th century, really sufficiently alike as to merit both being called Post-Roman kings? I would argue the single descriptor has limitations, and these will grow as archaeological and historical thinking advances.
Elsewhere, the label Post-Roman has tended to be more narrowly applied. In a blog discussing the pros and cons of the various terms for the the 5th and 6th centuries CE with regard to the evidence from Lincolnshire, Caitlin Green concludes that ‘post-Roman’ is perhaps the most suitable periodic appellation, despite its ‘dry’ and inherently ‘factual’ nature. This comes after consideration of the evidence for the city of Lincoln and its hinterland presenting multiple reasons for believing they continued as some form of Romano- British polity into the 7th century CE; interestingly, she writes favourably about Brittonic (developing a suggestion by Chris Snyder) in reference to this polity, and ‘Anglo-Brittonic’ (Anglian + British) as an overall descriptor of the Lincolnshire area in the 5th to 7th centuries. Guy Halsall, meanwhile, has posited the inverted ‘Brito-Roman’ as a way of articulating the evolution of what he dubs ‘Roman-ness’ within some regions of Britain (Halsall 2013, 262; this forms part of an avant-garde reassessment of the material culture and related identities of the time that is tangential to the purposes of this piece but that I recommend as being well worth a read).
But Surrey is Surrey, not Lincolnshire or any other distant part of lowland Britain. The main Roman urban centre within the bounds of historic Surrey —Southwark— gives al- most no such signs of urban continuity beyond the second decade of the 5th century. There is only a very limited body of archaeological and place-name evidence, too meagre on its own to sustain the idea of “Brittonic Surrey”. Large parts of the historic county have produced no 5th- to 7th-century archaeological evidence whatsoever. To use an absence of artefacts diagnostic of “Early Anglo-Saxon” material culture to postulate the continued survival of distinctively (Romano-)British population relies on negative evidence and an essentially-invisible “Brittonic” material culture, standpoints that are hugely problematic and open to criticism. Similarly blanks on archaeological distribution maps in the parts of the Upper Thames Valley have been characterised as denoting ‘communities with different ways of doing things’ to a supposed “Early Anglo-Saxon” norm (Hamerow, Ferguson and Naylor 2013, 61); a nuanced way of thinking about the issue, but one that does nothing to help in the search for the correct way/s of referring to the period of time in question!
Post-Roman has largely superseded sub-Roman, a somewhat pejorative label insomuch as it infers that everything that happened after 410 CE was in some way inferior to what went before. While mass-production of pottery such as those from the Alice Holt industry may have ended, and coins may have ceased to circulate in large numbers (there is an ever-growing body of numismatic evidence suggesting that small numbers of Roman coins continued to be imported into Britain, albeit not necessarily as part of a monetary economy of the type that existed before large-volume coin imports ceased in the early years of the 5th century), other aspects of life —such as predominantly-pastoral farming regimes— may have been relatively unaffected (see Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 125-29). It might not be inaccurate to posit that the economy of the Surrey countryside in the late 4th-century CE after the abandonment of many villa settlements was in the main more like that of the late 5th century than the late 3rd century. In such conditions, applying sub-Roman to the years after 410 CE feels misleading.
The new kid on the block at the start of our period is Late Antiquity, a concept usually attributed to the late Peter Brown, historian and author of The World in Late Antiquity, published in 1971. The term is counterposed with the Middle Ages in the title of at least one important essay collection (Bintliff and Hamerow 1995). Definitions tend to vary so far as the approximate limits of Late Antiquity are concerned. Brown favoured it to span the 3rd through 8th centuries CE, which tallies with the Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity’s definition of its period running from circa 250-750 CE. One important characteristic of Late Antiquity as a periodisation is its geographical extent, taking in more or less the entirety of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. This does not render it unsuitable to be used at the level of a county or below, but does encourage circumspection that it may not be the most appropriate term to use in “granular”, local contexts; Late Antique may not be the best descriptor for a 7th-century inhumation burial, for example. That said, it could be usefully employed in ways that affiliate Surrey evidence with cognates from elsewhere in Europe and beyond. At present I am not aware of any published references to “Late Antique Surrey”, but the day cannot be far off when one appears in print!
There is definitely a greater range of possible terms to describe the earliest part of the period 410-1066 CE than the latter portions. Viking Age might be applied in certain capacities to contextualise Surrey in the later 9th century CE, when the likes of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and several coin hoards attest to the presence or threat from Scandinavian marauders. In fact, these witnesses come towards the end of what is often referred to as the First Viking Age that began with the earliest recorded Scandinavian attacks on Britain and Western Europe towards the end of the 8th century; a Second Viking Age is associated with the emergence of Denmark under Harald Bluetooth that culminated in the seizure of the English throne by Cnut in 1016. At the very end of the time period (after circa 1050), Saxo-Norman has been applied to characterise elements of church buildings that could be said to “overlap” the Norman Conquest insofar as they exhibit pre-Norman design idioms but may well have been built after 1066 (or vice versa); having written a Master’s dissertation about them, I can attest that the west towers of East Horsley and Wotton are excellent cases in point. Outside of non- architectural contexts, however, this label is rarely if ever apt; the only possibility that springs to mind is the execution cemetery at Guildown, if it contained the remains of the Norman expeditionary followers of Ætheling Ælfred massacred in 1036 (I for one am sceptical about the identification).
Taking everything into account, I would like to conclude by offering the following com- ments and suggestions:
- The best way of referring to the years 410-1066 in relation to Surrey is as the Early Medieval period or the Early Middle Ages. Corollary to this is the necessity that the period after 1066 is not simply called the Medieval or Middle Ages, but the Late Medieval, etc. There should be no value judgement explicit or implicit in such nomenclature (take note, English Heritage!); if we are to distinguish the two periods from one another using 1066 as the dividing line, then we must bear in mind that there are at least as many commonalities between them as there are significant differences.
- Anglo-Saxon is an acceptable broad-brush periodic/chronological label, and to an extent a cultural one as well, especially so far as Surrey is concerned given its largely invisible post-Roman “Brittonic” culture. Much the same applies to the three-way subdivision into the Early, Mid(dle) and Late Anglo-Saxon. Its rather prescriptive ethnic implication, however, does raise issues, ones that do not attend Medieval/Middle Ages.
- The standalone descriptor Saxon should not be used other than in very specific stylistic discussions, because it embodies an outmoded culture historical perspective on ethnic identities for which Surrey provides conflicting evidence. References to the Middle Saxon likewise should be avoided, this time for political-cum-geographical reasons.
- At more temporally-restricted levels, sub-period names like Post-Roman, Late Antique/Antiquity, and Viking Age each have applicability at different times and to varying extents and contexts.
- Despite impassioned recent pleas to the contrary, Dark Age(s) is not entirely without its uses. The term might be used in certain scenarios with exceedingly great care, but there are so many better alternatives so far as Surrey is concerned that in reality it is hard to envisage a situation in which it would be either the only or the optimal choice available.
My thanks to Pam Savage for reading and suggesting improvements to the draft of the original version of this piece. Further inputs are welcomed, either in the comment field below or via email to surrey firstname.lastname@example.org!
References (hyperlinked when available for free online)
Bailey, K., 1989 ‘The Middle Saxons’, in S. Bassett, ed., The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London and New York: Leicester University Press), 108-122
Bintliff, J., and Hamerow, H., 1995 Europe Between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Recent archaeological and historical research in Western and Southern Europe, BAR International Series, 617 (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports)
Blair, J., 1991 Early Medieval Surrey: Landholding, Church and Settlement before 1300 (Stroud and Guildford: Alan Sutton Publishing and Surrey Archaeological Society)
Brown, P., 1971 The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammed (London: Thames and Hudson)
Gardiner, M., 2003 ‘Economy and landscape change in Post-Roman and Early Medieval Sussex, 450-1175’ in D. Rudling, ed., The Archaeology of Sussex to AD2000 (Great Dunham: Heritage Marketing and Publications), 151-60
Halsall, G., 2013 Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Oxford: University Press)
Hines, J., 2004 ‘Sūþre-gē — the Foundations of Surrey’, in J. Cotton, G. Crocker and A. Graham, eds., Aspects of Archaeology and History in Surrey: towards a Research Framework for the County (Guildford: Surrey Archaeological Society), 92–102
Joliffe, J. E. A., 1933 Pre-Feudal England: The Jutes (Oxford: University Press)
Poulton, R., 1987 ‘Saxon Surrey’, in J. Bird and D. G. Bird, eds., The Archaeology of Surrey to 1540 (Guildford: Surrey Archeological Society), 197-222
Rippon, S., Smart, C. and Pears, B., 2015 The Fields of Britannia: Continuity and Change in the Late Roman and Early Medieval Landscape (Oxford: University Press)
Stafford, P., 2009 ‘Introduction’, in P. Stafford, ed., A Companion to the Early Middle Ages: Britain and Ireland c.500-c.1100 (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing), 3-8