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
Wednesday 14 July 1999
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".
TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp
Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s
'At times I thought he was me'film
Review: One Direction, Fourmusic
Review: The World of Ice and Firebooks
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp
- 2 Black Friday 2014: Opening times for Asda, John Lewis, PC World, GAME and Argos
- 3 To help fuel their propaganda machine against the poor, our government has now decided to redefine the word 'welfare'
- 4 Girl, 7, gets Tesco to remove 'stupid' sign suggesting superheroes are 'for boys'
- 5 Jeremy Hunt: 'I took my children to A&E because I didn't want to wait for GP appointment'
Jurassic World trailer: Chris Pratt stars in full-length trailer with Bryce Dallas and Ty Simpkins
I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp
Zoella: YouTube sensation Zoe Sugg's debut novel set to become bestseller
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs
Naked free runner captured in breathtaking photographs above London's streets
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
Ukip says babies born to immigrants in the UK should be classed as migrants – which would include Nigel Farage’s own children
Rochester by-election: Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigns after posting white van and England flags tweet
The young are the new poor: Sharp increase in number of under-25s living in poverty, while over-65s are better off than ever
Tamir Rice: 12-year-old boy playing with fake gun dies after being shot by Ohio police