“Saxons vs. Vikings”

The fundamental questions of any political community are who’s in, who’s out, and what to do when somebody new shows up at your door. For prehistoric Britons, the Romans may not have been welcome visitors but at least brought hot baths and well-laid roads. For Roman Britons a few hundred years later, the Saxons were a largely intolerable bunch only somewhat subsequently pacified by conversion to Christianity (by which time the Roman Britons were mostly gone, with relatively few descendants and the hot baths no longer functional.) For the Saxons, the Vikings were bad news altogether, with enthusiasm for exotic torture methods and only a temporary willingness to be bribed into ceasing the mindless violence by Danegeld once in a while.

And then the last surviving Saxon kingdom got its act together, starting kicking Viking butt, and unified most of the island in a single political community that has survived for well over a millennium, with the current reigning monarch at least claiming to be the 32nd great granddaughter of Alfred the Great, sorta kinda the first king of England. (His grandson Aethelstan  probably has a better claim to the title, in truth.)

This is, more or less, the story in Ed West’s Saxons vs. Vikings, one of two short books West published this year as prequels of sorts to his book about the Magna Carta, 1215 and All ThatWest is a columnist and editor whose bibliography reads a bit like a  Pilgrim’s Progress of  the Young Conservative in the 21st Century (How to Pull Women to The Diversity Illusion to gently humorous pop-history books about the history of England), and his best political writing also tends to focus on more recent fracturings of the community of the realm in the face of the arrival of strangers, but fortunately he is content in his history books mostly to provide a “good parts version” of more scholarly works, with some extra jokes and movie references. Even so, Saxons vs. Vikings doesn’t flow quite as well as 1215 and All That. This is partially because Eleanor of Aquitaine, her  errant husband Henry II and her two pain-in-the-ass sons John I and Richard the Lion-Hearted form a nice dysfunctional family soap opera while Anglo-Saxon history is, to an outsider, a mess of maniacs with unpronounceable names stabbing each other over control of tiny portions of the Midlands. But it’s also true that West should get his publisher to shell out for someone to draw some maps and a timeline or two to add to the book, so we can keep track of who was stabbing who, where and when. He does better with quick summaries of what’s known of the social history of his main actors (Roman Britons, Saxons, and Vikings), and in wrapping things together once Alfred the Great comes onto the stage.

In the end, one of the unfortunate impacts of the Internet has been to make knowing things less valuable culturally by making most knowledge available almost free. But in spite of over a century of education administrators maintaining that schools should be teaching critical thinking and the skills to succeed in a complex global society, the only things we are very good at learning from one another are stories and very narrowly defined, easily practiced skills. Popularizing science and history and making them into digestible and interesting stories in the face of almost infinite distraction are noble callings, and while knowing the name of one ax-wielding maniac from the 7th century won’t answer the question of what to do when another one shows up knocking, it does at least pass the time agreeably until they do.

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