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Don't give up on the Dark Ages

Our history now begins in 1066 with the arrival of the Normans; before that, there's nothing
REACH FOR your axe, Thorfinn Skullsplitter, Earl of Orkney and terror of everywhere. You are about to be excised from history alongside Arthur, Augustine, and Alfred and sundry warlords, scholars, saints and poets. Their exile to limbo has been decreed by the Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board, which has expunged the Dark Ages from the A-level history syllabus. British history now begins in 1066 with the arrival of the Normans; before that there was, well... nothing.

As with so many high-handed and unnecessary decisions, the excuse is cost-effectiveness. There are too few sixth-formers studying the Anglo- Saxons and the examination market-place must respond to demand. This is nonsense; the choice is not the pupils', but their teachers'. They no doubt shun this period because they did so at university, choosing some more "relevant" module with a catchy title - "Beatlemania: working-class youth in the post-colonial cultural revolution". Or they assume that students are happiest with what is familiar, which usually means the 20th century.

There were, however, some schools that got to grips with Aethelred and Cnut and enjoyed what they were doing. There can be no better intellectual training than studying a period in which the sources are scarce and the student has to depend on his or her own powers of observation and reason. An understanding of the nature of this period and its inhabitants comes from a distillation of chronicles, linguistics, poetry, art, aerial photography and archaeology.

If the purpose of an A-level course is to train the mind, develop critical faculties and foster imagination, then the study of the Dark Ages cannot be bettered. Tracing the patterns of Anglo-Saxon and Viking invasion, settlement and assimilation, following the expansion of Christianity and examining the development of government and law, provides an unequalled knowledge of what lies at the basis of our present state. Moreover, this period set those cultural and political boundaries that today mark Wales and Scotland.

As for relevance, that is always tricky, for it assumes that human behaviour conforms to universal patterns. None the less, the twists and turns of Dark Age political life offer some useful guidelines for today's youth. Aethelred the Unraed (ie without counsel) has provided one famous political precedent, invoked whenever a government is accused of appeasing the intractable: Danegeld. To buy peace and keep out the Scandinavian marauders, the king doled out large sums to various warlords. He gained little, for they came back, continued making a nuisance of themselves and upped their demands. Almost exactly a thousand years later, the cynical are wondering whether the same pattern is being repeated in the Irish peace process.

Be this as it may, any budding politician, lawyer or businessman in the sixth form would find much of value in a study of the Dark Ages. It provides abundant examples of the triumph of the ruthless, and the value of propaganda. Power was gained by sword and stealth and a capacity to join the winning side.

Consider Earl Godwin of Wessex. A smooth-talking, foxy warlord, he was one of the props of the Anglo-Danish kingdom of Cnut, supported by his two sons, Kings Harthenut and Harold Harefoot, who perished young during drinking bouts (a salutary warning here). He masterminded the accession of Edward the Confessor, having a few years before slain his brother, the aetheling Alfred, and set about procuring earldoms and estates for his sons.

Godwin's son, Harold, kept up the tradition, seizing the crown in 1066. His problem was lack of effective propaganda; his rival, Duke William of Normandy, had, as it were, the press on his side, in the form of the Church. Clerics denounced Harold as an oath-breaker and exalted William as a warrior of God. With its monopoly of learning and magic, the Church was an invaluable ally in spinning and winning hearts and minds. St Columba's curse on his foes was worth a dozen warriors to any King. Just as the modern politician courts the media, Dark Age warlords-on-the-make and kings kept on the right side of clerics who wrote history and, if properly rewarded, could be induced to provide testimonials of piety and wisdom.

So what better subject could there be for the ambitious sixth-former? Nothing will shock or surprise him. He will have learnt the arts of survival and been reminded that human nature is as constant as human beings are inconstant. The Oxford and Cambridge Board should have made it compulsory, perhaps as part of a social or management skills course. It might include "Thorkill the Skullsplitter, a new approach to crisis resolution".