Victor Head, Hereward (Alan Sutton, Stroud, 1995). ISBN 0-7509-0807-6, pp. ix + 182, £18.99.
Hereward has only been an icon of national consciousness since the publication of Charles Kingsley's Hereward the Wake in the late nineteenth century. In the Middle Ages his fame seems to have been local, being largely confined to the East Midlands. But, nevertheless, almost from the earliest record of his activities, his deeds have been romanticized. The earliest reference to Hereward is to be found in the D version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written in the 1070s. It merely records his escape in 1071 from the Isle of Ely which had been besieged by William the Conqueror in a feat that was clearly already so famous as to require no further explanation. There follow three laconic references to him in Domesday Book with some claim to authority, but thereafter there are only a number of twelfth-century and later literary works of doubtful historical worth. As historians have recognized for many years, there is little material for a life of Hereward which is free of mythologizing.
Victor Head has recognized this problem but refuses to accept that the search of the historical Hereward is Quixotic. Unfortunately, however, he is promiscuous in the sources that he allows of serious consideration. General Harward, who wrote a tome on Hereward which would have been worthy of, if less readable than, 'historians' like Eric von Daniken, is accorded a closely printed appendix of no less than thirteen pages. And yet his 'history' of the Hereward family from its fifth-century roots in Germany through a magical mystery tour of Dark Age England, Anglo-Norman Lincolnshire, and the Victorian world is only of interest in illuminating the folie de grandeur of certain English gentry of the late nineteenth century (and even then British Israelites are far more interesting}. For Mr Head, any and every reference, it would seem, is worthy of discussion. It is true that he is not taken in by all the pyramidiots. By the same token, however, he never gets down to the real sources. There is no analysis of the (well-recognized) relationship between the Gesta Herewardi and the account of the siege of Ely in the Liber Eliensis (the one is almost certainly 'a second edition' of the other); the Domesday evidence, difficult as it is, is all but ignored; the genealogies are uncriticaly accepted despite their contradictions.
Several recent studies have shown that sensitive reexamination of these sources and their interrelationship can throw up simulating, if not always reliable, insights into eleventh-century society. Cyril Hart's 'The Companions of Hereward' in his collection of essays entitled The Danelaw has, for example, shown that many of the dramatis personae of the Gesta were real people and has thereby suggested the extent of local involvement in the events of 1070-1. Such studies are, nonetheless, limited. They do not, however, exhaust the potential of the sources. Mr Head devotes a chapter to the legend of Hereward, but he does little to relate it to the concerns of the society that produced it. In common with many writers he assumes that the legend is a popular one rooted in the lower classes. But the survival of the tradition in Latin and French enables us to perceive that the only audience we know of was well-to-do. This in itself is interesting. We see at once an aristocratic society in the early twelfth century that has comprehended an Englishness that it has taken to its heart. We also see in the lauding of a local boy with the intelligence and pluck to stand up for his rights and those of his own a sense of regional identity at a time of crisis and change in government.
The later medieval sources in their turn reflect the concerns of the times which produced them, but Mr Head has little time for them except as illustration of a somewhat forced analysis of folklore themes. He is some what better on the motivation of Charles Kingsley and his audience, relating the story to English imperialism and middle church Anglicanism. This, however, hardly redeems a book that signally fails to fulfill its aim of discovering the real Hereward.
İDavid Roffe, 1995