Peter Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire, History of Lincolnshire 3, History of Lincolnshire Committee for the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, Lincoln, 1998. ISBN 0 902668 02 1 (hb), 0 902668 11 1 (pb), xvi + 289. £25.00 (hb), £12.95 (pb).

With the appearance of Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire the History of Lincolnshire series, with one more volume to go, almost marks its completion. The work is some sixteen years late, but, in the event, the delay has been a fortunate one. In that time the important Middle to late Saxon site at Flixborough has been excavated, field surveys of North Lincolnshire and the Fenland have appeared, a new edition of the Lincolnshire Domesday has been published, and metal detector enthusiasts have brought to light a vast amount of new evidence for the pre-Conquest period. All this Peter Sawyer acknowledges. Equally significant, however, has been an unprecedented explosion of interest in the period and area which has resulted in the publication of a vast number of significant papers in the fields of archaeology, history, numismatics, and onomastics.

Peter Sawyer has availed himself of much of this material. The book opens with a brief account of the sources available and a discursive review of the shire and its resources which is largely based on the Domesday survey of the county. It then proceeds chronologically with chapters on the Britons and Anglo-Saxons, the seventh century, the Mercian Empire, the first Danish conquest, and the tenth and eleventh centuries. There are then two thematic chapters on the church in the late Saxon period and the economy and towns. The final chapter is a brief account of the Norman conquest in Lincolnshire. The book finishes with a series of ten appendices which allow a more detailed and technical discussion of the often intractable evidence. Throughout there are copious, if rather under-inked, illustrations and figures.

The resulting narrative is achieved with a commendable deftness. The complexities of the archaeological record are explained with an often refreshing clarity. For example, he interprets Kevin Leahy’s subtle analysis of pagan burials in Lincolnshire and makes it accessible to a wider audience. Here is also an acute discussion of the short-comings of place-names for developing a chronology of land exploitation which will ensure that no one will ever again get away with an analysis of land settlement based solely on Danish name forms. He presents an overview of the finds reported by metal detector enthusiasts and uses the data to identify pagan and middle saxon ports and markets.

All of this is welcome. The unwary reader must, however, be warned that it is a deftness that at times conceals the complexity of the issues addressed. In the early part of the book the possibilities of interpretation are limited by the evidence available, and here Sawyer largely follows the conclusions of the excellent studies in Pre-Viking Lindsey. From the late ninth century, ‘the taming of the Danes’ emerges as a theme which is interwoven with the origins of the distinctive institutions of the shire, and the author’s own inimitable interpretations take over to the exclusion, and often notice, of all other views. Among a number of contentious issues, I shall single out his account of the origins of the distinctive tenurial topography of Lincolnshire, the development of its local government, and the impact of the Norman Conquest on those structures.

Reflecting current orthodoxy, the soke is interpreted as a pre-Danish form and the origins of Domesday estates is sought in its fragmentation. What is novel in Sawyer’s account is the assertion that those estates were formed in the power vacuum that followed the slaughter of much of the leadership of the Danish army of York at the battle of Tettenhall in 910. The conclusion that the distinctive Lincolnshire tenurial structure was formed less by the imposition of Danish power than by its dissolution is beguiling, but alas it does not tell the whole story. Entropy is, of course, a fact of life and it is rarely recorded. Nevertheless, it si a striking fact that almost all the pre-Conquest references to the creation of estates entail grants of land. Soke was the main medium of aristocratic patronage throughout the period and interlocking patterns of tenure as recorded in Domesday Book show that it was widely used. This, however, is but one mechanism. Equally as significant as fission was fusion. Domesday attests the formation of estates through the forfeiture, purchase, and simple reorganization of sokeland, and, going to the very heart of sokeland, there is nothing to suggest that this was unusual in the eleventh century.

Elsewhere in the Northern Danelaw one occasion for the reorganization of estates in this way was the creation of the shrieval system. Sawyer restates his view that the whole process was late. He asserts that the wapentake was a pre-Danish institution, seemingly on the grounds that many had English names, but avers that the Danes were left to their own devices in the tenth century. The introduction of tithings in the late tenth century had little effect and it was not until the carucation of the shire in the reign of Cnut that royal control of the newly formed Lincolnshire was made real. This, however, is to ignore the functioning of the twelve-carucate hundred, a subdivision of the wapentake peculiar to the North, as a tithing and its apparent notice in the Wantage Code of 997. These characteristics rule out a Danish or pre-Danish origin for the institution of the wapentake and make a strong case for the creation of an integrated system of local government in the late tenth century.

From the reign of Cnut into the early twelfth century was all plain sailing: for Sawyer there was no tenurial revolution in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. And yet here, for once, he is at pains to recognize the criticism raised of his views. Robin Fleming has forcefully argued that, after an initial period of acceptance of pre-Conquest relationships, the Normans forged a new order that reflected the circumstances and needs of the Norman settlement. Sawyer’s defence, however, is far from convincing: he merely points out that the grant of the Isle of Axholme to Geoffrey de la Guerche was early where Fleming asserts that it was late in the Conqueror’s reign. More’s the pity, for he misses a chance to point out the deficiencies of an argument based almost entirely in terms of commendation where Lincolnshire provides compelling evidence for a settlement based largely upon the pre-Conquest tenure of sake and soke.

Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire provides one view where many others are possible. The upside is that the book is very readable. One of the most difficult tasks in writing a local history is to strike a balance between detail and theme. An assemblage of parish histories is as unsatisfactory as local illustrations of a national story. To my mind Sir Frances Hill got it about right in Medieval Lincoln, and Peter Sawyer comes close. Some may quibble that it is no source book for the history of Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire, and nor is it. But there is much here that will aid the reader who wishes to go further. Despite its deficiencies, the volume is a stimulating addition to the History of Lincolnshire.