Sunday 16 June 2013

The Wild West of Dark Ages Britain

My novel, working title The Serpent Sword, is currently being edited and yesterday I started writing a historical note for the end, explaining some of the decisions I have made and liberties I have taken with the history. As I was writing, I started thinking about the way I have portrayed the land of Northumbria in 633 AD. 
The first half of the seventh century is situated deep in what is traditionally called The Dark Ages. The period is dark in many ways. It was a violent time, where races clashed and kingdoms were created and destroyed by the sword.
A lord with some of his gesithas
Men with ambition ruled kingdoms with small numbers of warriors - their gesithas, or retinue of companions. Although they professed kingship tracing back their claim through ancestors all the way to the gods themselves, I imagine them to be little more than gangsters, or the cattle barons of the American West of the nineteenth century. Each vied for dominance over the land, clashing with other kings in battles which were simply turf wars. They exacted payment in tribute from their ceorls, or churls - the peasants that lived on their land. This was basically protection money to keep the king and his retinue stocked up with weapons, food and luxuries, so that they would be at hand to defend the populace against the dangers of a largely lawless land.

A cowboy fights a native American
Throw into this mix racial tensions and the expansion of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the east of Britain, enslaving and subjugating the older inhabitants of the island - the Waelisc, as the continental invaders called all foreigners (and the word that spawned the modern name for Wales, Welsh and Cornwall), and you have a situation not unlike the American “Wild West”. Invaders from the east, with superior fighting power destroying a proud culture that inhabited the land long before they came. As the Saexons (the name that the Waelisc gave to the invaders) pushed further westward, there would inevitably have been a frontier where any semblance of control from the different power factions was weak at best and at worst totally absent. As in the Wild West of cowboys and Native Americans, men and women who wished to live outside of the laws laid down by their societies would have gravitated into these vacuums of power.
Woden - all-father of the Anglo-Saxon pantheon of gods
As if that wasn’t enough, there is also the clash at this time of several major religions. Many of the native Celts would worship the same gods they had believed in for centuries whilst many others worshipped Christ; the Angelfolc (the name used by Bede and adopted by me in the novel to describe the people who would eventually become known as English) were just beginning to be converted to Christianity, but many still worshipped the old pantheon of Woden and Thunnor (more commonly known by modern day readers with the Viking names of Odin and Thor). 
Anglo-Saxon Christian cross
Christianity itself was being evangelised from two main power bases: the island of Iona, where the Irish tradition had taken root, and Rome, from where Italian priests, such as Paulinus had been sent. Christianity would eventually sweep all other religions away before it, and the disagreements on the finer points of theology would later be settled at the Synod of Whitby (but that is for another book).

A page from Bede's "A History of the English Church and People"
Above all else, the Dark Ages is an apt name for this period, due to the lack of first-hand written accounts. Much of what we know comes from writings that were penned many years later. Two principal sources are Bede’s “A History of the English Church and People” and the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, which was written by many nameless scribes over centuries. Earlier accounts of Germanic and Celtic tribes by Tacitus, a Roman historian are also useful for inferring what the early Anglo-Saxon cultures were like.
The fact that it is a time seen as "through a glass, darkly" makes it a perfect time to write about. An author does not have a free hand, but there are certainly more areas of uncertainty than with many other periods, allowing a level of flexibility to tell an exciting tale against a backdrop of turmoil and conflict.


  1. Hope the book is as good as this blog.

  2. Fabulous analogy Matthew. It was indeed a time of turmoil politically and religiously. I love the period because of the intrigue one can use as a writer. All the best with Serpent Sword. All this wonderful Dark Ages excitement couldn't come at a better time for us!