Thursday, September 17, 2009

Simon Young's "A.D. 500": Book Review

What if a Byzantine delegation travelled to the British Isles in the chaos after the Romans left and the Saxons invaded? Young collates what's extant about British Celts, Welsh, Irish, Picts, Scots, and Saxons. He dramatizes this material as if recorded by a scribe editing the earlier ambassadors' log-book. The conceit reveals information that I predict even specialists will learn from, and the generalist will enjoy. It's instruction made entertaining, thoughtful, and even wryly witty.

Young's drawn upon archeological and historical reports that are up-to-date. He favors a rather earnest tone, but this reflects the mood he figures the Greeks would have assumed in reporting the wonders and barbarities they, emissaries from Constantinople, would have witnessed through skeptical, jaundiced, yet credulous eyes. I found the earlier material, as the dozen delegates sail up the Atlantic fringe to land around Cornwall to wander through the Pretanic homelands into Wales, rather familiar, but this time period for all its lack of substantial extant detail has been scoured by scholars. Similarly, the Irish portion must take in later accounts that are back-dated to allow us more insight into customs that presumably lasted long, and went back earlier, for the Celts.

The book does lumber along with the Greek trekkers, stringing along anecdotes but often-- if inevitably given the gaps we face in the historical record-- they seem more strung along than intertwined. As Young admits in his preface: "Though the following pages may not satisfy professorial standards of history, it is far more gratifying for reader and author alike to place the little beads of sixth-century knowledge on a fictional string, than don rubber gloves and forensically isolate them, putting each in its own sterile museum box." (x) I must agree.

I liked the Pict portion, for all its necessarily scantiness, for this people seems the most enigmatic for us. Going down through Scotland, when the party crosses the ruined Roman walls that bordered the war zones of what became England, the narrative quickens and the sense of excitement in the traveller's journals can be felt. "The days of glory, these, when legionaries knelt beside the writhing bodies of dying Picts and tried to read in vain the strange tattoos they found there" strikes the exact tone of a chronicler. (134-5) The dangers surrounding foreigners caught between the crumbling defenses of the Christianized, semi-Romanized remnants of British Celts and the ever-encroaching pagan, brutal, Saxon hordes gain vivid retelling. "In fact, modern Londinium is like a sandcastle barracked by the sea, where a child has begun to dig out its finely sculpted innards to add a few more desperate inches to its walls." (192)

This is a short book, that flows in parts-- especially in the pre-"English" section and also at the end that does not wrap up the events neatly-- too awkwardly due to the Young's task of integrating lore and data into the mindset of a sixth-century scholar editing eyewitness journals of the sights they saw in turn rumored or reckoned, taken in reality from fragmented evidence and textual scraps. Yet, he does manage to convey the horror and wonder that must have greeted perhaps the real Greeks that made it, perhaps from a couple of hints in the records, that far north. His book concludes with abundant references that support his hedges and his claims. For that reason, with hesitations, I recommend it. There's doubtless no easier way for the inquiring non-academic to dip into this century's British and Irish realms. From here, of course, the original texts and the scholarly journals can be entered. This remains my favorite period of history, for we know so little still about what fills imaginatively, if hesitantly, two hundred pages here. (Posted to Amazon U.S. and Britain, 9-17-09)

No comments: