On the face of it, yomping around Britain trying to find remnants of the Dark Ages doesn’t sound like a very rewarding prospect. If the phrase today conjures an era of people preferring cattle raiding to public bathing, swords to books, wooden feasting halls to stone and brick, and woolen trousers to togas, to historians it’s the scarcity of written record (only Gildas, St Patrick and a couple of Chronicles say anything meaningful before Bede) that throws the period into an abyss.
On top of that, it’s difficult to pretend archaeological evidence excites the senses. It’s always a disappointing tale of ditches that were dykes, grassy stumps that were fortresses, and dank caves that were hermit homes: it all requires far too much imagination—something archaeologists seem perversely eager to sap with their sawdust language and tedious journals.
Max Adams throws all these notions up in the air and shoots them down like whizzing clays in The Land of Giants: Journey Through the Dark Ages. This is no prickly self-justification of a fusty, academic venture or a vapid attempt to render the period in contemporary values and parlance. Instead the Visiting Fellow at Newcastle University, an expert in a marvelous combination of Early Medieval Northumbria, nomadism and trees, tramps around the country solo, with his girlfriend or a friend, for days on end, with his tent, in all forms of weather, testing every sort of transport, while dwelling on what the Dark Ages mean to him and the locations he visits—the whole thing’s like being trapped inside the head of an intelligent masochist.
Perhaps the head of a more articulate person too. The text ebbs and flows into poetry. Few history books flirt with the literary high style quite so effortlessly. Setting the scene on the first page, Adams sketches the landscape, a place where the
“Air is rigid with cold. A thick hoar of frost... Lazy, hanging drifts of smoke from a wood fire. The sunlight is a dreamy veil of cream silk.”
Starting off with a walk along Hadrian’s Wall, where the mostly Germanic limitanei referred to the natives as Brittunculi or "Little Britons”, where commanders set up their own lines of patronage, and Gallic bishops roamed trying to tease natives away from multiplying heresies, Adams notes that the Annales Cambriae describes AD 447 as “Dies tenebrosa sicut nox”, a time when the days were dark as night. It’s a sentiment that still had currency in the Anglo-Saxon elegy, The Ruin, three hundred years later, when it described the buildings of predecessors:
“Wondrous is this stone wall, wrecked by fate;
The city buildings crumble, the works of giants decay.”
The two passages brilliantly demonstrate how the spell between Arthur and Alfred forms Britain’s dream zone, when fact became fiction and fiction often became more important than fact. And Adams outlines the fog, the particulars and broader trends adroitly.
There are some hiccups, however. First, he has peasants touting the “heresy of a suspiciously liberal British-born cleric called Pelagius”, a common theological misstep that associates the heresy with a form of proto-freedom for the masses when in fact the reason Augustine of Hippo felt obliged to tackle it was because the faction’s thinking corrupted Grace and tied merit to salvation—meaning a form of Nietzschean super-Christian, a Christian aristocracy, could go around asserting a greater claim on the Kingdom to come.
Second, he calls Tacitus “Gossipy”, which must count as first. Historians such as Suetonius are regularly accused of playing fast and loose with their sources, but Tacitus is seen as one of Rome’s more reputable chroniclers.
The travelogue pans provide much of the book's momentum. The reader laughs along with Adams on the rare occasions he must walk along A road for miles— “a form of sensory torture—or nodes with pleasure at the fact place-names give away past functions and surnames betray origins (Charlton’s as free farmers, Walcotts as Britons in English areas, and Sascotts as the English in British areas). But history forms the real ballast: Adams Is permanently scouting for signs of continuity, finding in the holly and the yew of our graveyards for instance, the British ideas of the eternal, the symbols of death that transcend religion.
That’s not to say there aren’t lulls in his “adventures”. There's almost a parodic dullness to parts, such as where an entire paragraph is given over to ruminations on a breakfast of porridge in the drizzle or when Aclams indulges in a series of longueurs about his boat trip, where it appears the walker feels obliged to name drop people and events so those may not be offended by omission. Bear Grylls this is not.
But In being so outrageously arid I find it hard to believe there’s not an inkling of dark humour at play. And the drabness is always leavened by an endearing honestly, with the author
acknowledging several times that his “professional enthusiasm wavered” or “my expectation were too high”, in a list of miserable situations.
There is also an admirable resistance, a dignity, in refusing to purge the copy of the humdrum; the normal meat of travelling: its small victories; little tragedies and subtle moods shimmed in and out of. One passage has Adams reporting how the perfection of Tolpuddle gives him an uneasy feeling, rather like Switzerland. In another he narrates how having an accomplice changes his walking style:
“In company the trail is all about camaraderie, companionable silence, satisfaction at days’ end; anecdotes. [Its an] adventure in adaptability, in shared pace and perspective, two people notice more than one.”
When it comes to the historical nitty-gritty, Adams is also on cue. He does not deny the Dark Ages deserve their title, as some revisionists might., but retreats from the semi-apocalyptic picture painted by the likes of Bryan Ward-Perkins. This ambulist observes that although the population of Britain probably dropped off a cliff, this may have been ascribable just as much to a dramatic fall in temperatures and the arrival of a plague in the sixth century, as it might be to rapine, war and a general breakdown of civil order. He also reflects that although the period's protagonists are trapped in a mad vortex of myth, the battles of Ambrosius, Vortigern and Arthur are probably “allegories of more nuanced conflict”.
Adams is also strong on the forms of Christianity that brokered the emergent civilization on the isles of Britain. Whether discussing celebrity saints, dubious miracles, ambivalent kings or grim church politics, the author never fails to weave in a broad tapestry of values, motivations and Life forces that leave the reader feeling enlightened rather than force-fed. A particular highlight to stand (and therefore show sufficient hostility) upon the entrance of British bishops at the Synod of Bangor, with terrible consequences for Christian unity.
Liberally sprinkled, like gems on a Byzantine crown, the details scattered throughout The Land of Giants are phenomenal. Readers will enjoy absorbing the fact Epping Forest has been migrating in a North Westerly direction for centuries; the Old English word for a lord is “hlaford”, a provider or guardian of bread; most British rivers have pre-English, Brythonic names; and the Vikings were looking for cash and portable wealth as that they could afford brides in a polygamous society. which access to eligible women had become the preserve of an elite.
Few will know there was once a great tower mausoleum, standing across from the Cor Burn valley in Northumberland, that commemorated an important victory by a Roman general in the last second century. Perhaps the biggest revelation, however, is that in 617, twenty years after the arrival of Gregory the Great's mission, there was still no Christian state among the Anglo-Saxons and Canterbury’s archbishop had his bags packed ready to leave. It was only the Christianity of Princess Aethelburh and a providential set of battles and marriages that meant the faith survived instead of withering.
For all the brilliance on display here, the book’s not a particularly good introduction to the Dark Ages. Its insights are too scattered and unsymmetrical, the narrative too broken by the nature of visiting random places that, in turn, cast too haphazard a light on parts of the period.
What The Land of Giants does well, however, is rehabilitate the notion of history as a project of and for the emotions. A grand edifice built on Deuteronomy 8:3, that Man doth not live on bread alone, each place Adams visits seems important less for what it is rather than for what the author can conjure from it. There's a visceral feeling to it all. I don’t doubt this was the task the author set himself. One of the angriest passages in the book has Adams lambasting the fact that:
“The English are forgetting their walking rights and privileges, neglecting to keep their paths open. Like muscles, they atrophy through lack of use.”
It’s a sentiment that carries into the political sphere.