Toby Martin: The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England (part 1)

Toby Martin 2015, The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England

Toby Martin 2015, The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England

This is the definitive study of English cruciform brooches. Now and then a study comes along that is so comprehensive, and so well argued, that nobody will ever be likely to even try to eclipse it. It is my firm belief that future work on English cruciform brooches will strictly be footnotes to Toby Martin. He has collected and presented a huge material, asked interesting questions of it, and dealt with it competently using state-of-the-art methods. I’d be happy to hand this book as a model to any archaeologist anywhere who wants to produce a detailed study of an artefact group.

These brooches belong to the 5th and 6th centuries AD, or in Scandy terms of relative chronology, the Migration Period and Early Vendel Period. Every area around the North Sea (including western Sweden) has its regional varieties, yet they are similar enough that it is abundantly plain that contact between Scandyland and England was certainly not waiting for the Viking Period to begin. My own studies of the period have concentrated on the shores of the Baltic, and so I have never done much with cruciform brooches. I am happy to learn.

Still, I have a few nits to pick with Toby Martin’s book. This is going to get technical, but he clearly cares about methodology, and so I’m pretty sure he’ll be interested in the points I make. I’ll cover chapters 1-3 here and then return to the book in a later blog entry. Chapters 4-7 deal with societal interpretations of the jewellery.

“The cruciform brooches in the grave from Alveston Manor … are exceptionally primitive for group 2 and therefore belong to the very earliest part of phase B, if not the latter end of phase A.” (pp. 114-115, my italics)

This is nonsense and a rare case of Toby Martin slipping into an ugly analytical error, viz typological idealism or reification of the phase. By this point in the book, he has spent endless care in defining brooch types and then dividing his type list into three chronological phases. We only know that there is a phase B, and which brooch types allow us to recognise it, because Toby Martin has done the work and told us so. By his own definition, no group 2 brooch can belong to phase A. It is logically impossible for Toby Martin to be unsure of which phase a group 2 brooch belongs to. After all, his types and phases do not exist outside his definitions. As he points out on p. 123, “The opening of phase C … defines the end of phase B”. He knows how this works.

“… some phase B cruciform brooches in at least the second quarter of the sixth century. There is one slight discrepancy in the decidedly primitive type 2.1.1 cruciform brooch from Eriswell grave 28 … This cruciform brooch, with its fully round top-knob, like the pair from Alveston Manor …, appears to straddle the group 1 and 2 divide.” (p. 118, my italics)

This again is typological idealism, reification of the type. Toby Martin isn’t allowed to wonder like this if a well-preserved brooch belongs to group 1 or 2: he is the one who decides the rules for that. If he thinks this brooch is dodgy, then he needs to separate it out as an edge case, defining groups 1 and 2 in such a way that the Eriswell 28 brooch gains admittance to neither of them. He has chosen not to.

“These final, flat and exclusively bichrome cruciform brooches find no parallels whatsoever among Norwegian cruciform brooches … Perhaps the persistence of cruciform brooches in England was due to their becoming akin to the flatter, broader relief or square-headed brooches. The latest Norwegian cruciform brooches do not share these similarities and never tended toward such flat forms and in so doing, perhaps sealed their fate.” (p. 123, my italics)

Brooches do not make themselves, Toby Martin. The Norwegian brooches did not fail to jump aboard a new fashion for flatter brooches. What happened was that Norwegian people pondered the option of making flat cruciform brooches like their relatives in England wore, and decided, “No, fuck it, let’s start making an entirely new class of brooches instead. After all, in Eastern Norway the Vendel Period is already starting.” You can’t explain the end of a brooch series with reference to the brooches themselves failing to make a fashion jump.

I’ve called these points nitpicking, and that is what they are in the context of this enormous and enormously solid study. Let me end by emphasising again that Toby Martin should be a model for us all in how he deals with small finds!

Update 16 June 2016: And the review continues.

Martin, Toby F. 2015. The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon Studies 25. Boydell Press. Woodbridge. 338 pp. plus plates. ISBN 978-1-84383-993-4.


Poet and Spy

Reading a good book, Charles’ Nicholl’s The Reckoning. The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992, 2nd expanded ed. 2002), about the 16th century playwright. It’s a bit overloaded with asides and covers far more characters and factions than anyone can keep track of without extensive note-taking. But quite intriguing withal. I find it fascinating how rich and detailed the written sources for this era are.

“Christopher Marlowe … is remembered as a poet, ‘the Muse’s darling’, and as a wild young blasphemer in an age of enforced devotion, but he was also a spy …

It is not a pretty view of the Golden Age of Elizabeth, and it is not a pretty view of Christopher Marlowe either. In these fragments which record his involvement in the secret world … there is a common thread of falsehood. … The keynote of this kind of work is precisely non-commitment: to belong to both sides and neither. It is a world of gestures, of alterable meanings: the ‘secret theatre’.

So we return to the circumstances of Marlowe’s death armed with this perception of [plots] and pretences, these forms of political gamesmanship which are such a feature of this world he belongs to. Marlowe’s political career is not – as in the conventional literary biography – a separate and rather puzzling side-issue. …

… We find Marlowe in the company of spies and swindlers because, regrettably, he was one himself. Our regret has no real claim on him. Posterity prefers poets to spies, but this young man could not be so choosy. He lived on his wits or else went hungry, and he was probably rather better rewarded for spying than he was for the poetry we remember him by.” (2002, pp. 317–318)

Pickwick Afterlife

The final third of Stephen Jarvis’s upcoming novel Death and Mr Pickwick continues in the same rather kaleidoscopic fashion as before. The asides and Chinese boxes are innumerable. We never do get an important female character. The frame story is never developed much. In fact, the book only really has Robert Seymour the artist and Charles Dickens the writer, plus innumerable minor characters, and an agenda.

Jarvis’s main points with the novel are that a) Seymour deserves credit as co-creator of Pickwick’s first two or three chapters, b) Dickens deserves blame for dissembling and not sharing any of the Pickwick fortune with Seymour’s widow and children. I’m willing to agree on both points. But I don’t find them very interesting.

a. Dickens was an extremely prolific and creative writer with or without Seymour. If we learned that Pete Best provided important uncredited input on two songs on the first Beatles album, this would not change our opinion of Lennon-McCartney.

b. So Dickens wasn’t all nice. Many geniuses aren’t. Biographers have showed on much less shaky grounds that he mistreated his wife quite badly. In that situation it seems less important how he treated the widow of a man he met only once or twice. Neither Lennon nor McCartney have been great husbands, but they’re revered anyway. Just because you like cheese it doesn’t follow that you should be best friends with a cow.

Towards the end of the book, Jarvis has Dickens worrying that his posthumous reputation might be tarnished if someone found out about his unpaid literary debt to Seymour. This reads like the motivation for the whole novel project. But even if this finely written book becomes a great success, I don’t think the author of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations will have much to worry about. And nor do I believe that he did worry much.

Summing up I’d say that this brick of a book is so varied that it is rarely boring, but also so meandering that it is rarely particularly gripping.

Stephen Jarvis’s Death and Mr Pickwick will be out in the UK from Penguin Random House on 21 May, and in the US from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on 23 June. I reviewed the first third of the book on 16 March and the second third on 18 April.



Sketches of Boz

In the second novel-length third of Stephen Jarvis’s hefty Death and Mr Pickwick, artist and caricaturist Robert Seymour starts in earnest to put ideas together for the Pickwick Papers. Yes, that’s right: here (as maybe in reality) it is the illustrator who comes up with the concept for the book, but being dyslexic and proud he doesn’t want to write it himself. Narrative pictures with brief “letterpress” text added by someone else afterwards is an established form at the time. Charles Dickens finally makes his entrance on the novel’s stage, first as as “Chatham Charlie”, then under his pen name “Boz”, and receives the commission to write the book. He gets the job because a more well-known writer turns it down, and because Boz is believed to be good at keeping to deadlines in a serialised form. Twelve thousand words a month!

The frame story continues to be interesting. Here, fat Mr. Inbelicate continually tries to convince the incredulous narrator that Seymour conceived most of Pickwick, and instructs him to write the novel thus. This of course mirrors the relationship between Seymour and Boz. Mr. Inbelicate has the idea for the book and has collected vast historical materials for it, but for some reason he can’t or won’t write it himself.

As in the first third of the novel, the digressions are many (what on Earth is the gratuitously cruel story of that electro-doctor doing there!?), and so are the minor characters, almost all of whom are male. Reading this fat paper book, which I have serialised for convenience into three volumes using a kitchen knife, I really missed the search function of an e-book. It would have been immensely useful in order to keep track of the many not very memorable participants in the 1830s London publishing scene.

At one point we see Seymour driven almost to suicide after being lampooned in print by a publisher he’s quarrelled with. And we see him moving to a new address with a summer house in the back garden, the very place where we know from real history that he will finally end his life after Pickwick’s initial instalments appear. The first third of the novel has Seymour. This the second third has Seymour + Boz clashing over creative control. The last third will have Boz only, and I expect Seymour’s widow Jane to step to the fore as a more important character (after 540 pp.) to claim her share of the bounty from the best-selling serialised novel. Stay tuned.

Stephen Jarvis’s Death and Mr Pickwick will be out in the UK from Penguin Random House on 21 May, and in the US from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on 23 June. I reviewed the first third of the book on 16 March and the final third on 9 May.

Google Play Books Ate My Apostrophes

Update 10 April: It pays to report problems like the one described below to Google’s customer support. Seven weeks ago I discovered the problem. One week ago I reported it. Today the problem was suddenly gone, probably because Google updated the two ebooks involved and pushed new versions of the files to my phone.

I usually shop around for a good price when I buy e-books, and lately Google’s bookstore has received my custom. It’s not a very high-profile store – you see, this isn’t the well-known Google Books, where they offer scanned paper books in your browser. This is something called, clunkily, Google Play Books or Books On Google Play, where you can get copy-protected e-books for off-line reading.

A funny thing about this service is that many or all of Google’s e-book files contain original bitmaps scanned from paper books [or are they PDF images of the layout?]. You can toggle between the real e-book, which is the product of Optical Character Recognition probably followed by human proofreading, and the scanned pages. This won’t do you much good on a little phone screen, but anyway.

Now, the two most recent books I bought from Google Play Books have a strange glitch. When I complained about it to customer service, I received prompt friendly help. When none of their suggested fixes worked, I was offered a refund. So this is not a disgruntled customer blog entry. Still the problem is so strange that I want to blog about it just as a technical conundrum.

On my Android smartphone, the OCRed texts in my e-book copies of Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass (2012) and Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE (2011) have lost all their apostrophes. All their quotation marks. All their long dashes. And all their diacritic characters. When Stephenson writes “naïveté”, my e-book says “navet”, which is French for turnip. When the problem first showed up, in Roberts’ book, I actually thought he wrote non-standard English as a futuristic device.

When you run operating systems in non-English language modes, like Swedish or even Chinese, you get used to misidentified characters, with ÅÄÖÜ becoming all kinds of junk symbols. But this doesn’t look like a case of that. Google’s reader software is just quietly omitting some of the most common characters in English novels!

The problem isn’t new. I’ve found references to it on-line starting December 2010. Strangely, most of the complaints are about science fiction novels. Dear Reader, what’s your take on this?

“Matilda”: Class Perspective

Matilda-Bad-Blood-1In Roald Dahl’s last book, Matilda (1988), we are invited to laugh at the main character’s parents. They hate books, love TV, dress tastelessly and subsist on microwave TV dinners. Yet only when I saw the musical at the Cambridge Theatre in London this past Tuesday, where the mother additionally practices competition ballroom dancing and both parents speak in a broad Cockney accent, did I realise what the whole thing is actually about.

It’s an opportunity for us middle-class bookworms to laugh at a tasteless working-class family who’s come into a bit of money (through the husband’s fraudulent used-car dealership). Their unfeeling cruelty towards their bookish daughter makes them worse even than Harry Potter’s aunt and step-father. And sitting in an audience of predominantly white middle-class feminist book lovers, I started to find it hard to laugh at Matilda’s parents. The musical is an excellent production. But I didn’t like the ham-fisted way in which my buttons were being pressed.

My Bronze Age Book Is Out

Dear Reader, it is with great pleasure that I announce the PDF publication of my fifth monograph,* In the Landscape and Between Worlds. The paper version will appear in April or May. Here’s the back-cover blurb.

Bronze Age settlements and burials in the Swedish provinces around Lakes Mälaren and Hjälmaren yield few bronze objects and fewer of the era’s fine stone battle axes. Instead, these things were found by people working on wetland reclamation and stream dredging for about a century up to the Second World War. Then the finds stopped because of changed agricultural practices.

The objects themselves have received much study. Not so with the sites where they were deposited. This book reports on a wide-ranging landscape-archaeological survey of Bronze Age deposition sites, with the aim to seek general rules in the placement of sites. How did a person choose the appropriate site to deposit a socketed axe in 800 BC?

The author has investigated known sites on foot and from his desk, using a wide range of archive materials, maps and shoreline displacement data that have only recently come on-line. Over 140 sites are identified closely enough to allow characterisation of their Bronze Age landscape contexts. Numerous recurring traits emerge, forming a basic predictive or heuristic model. Bronze Age deposition sites, the author argues, are a site category that could profitably be placed on contract archaeology’s agenda during infrastructure projects. Archaeology should seek these sites, not wait for others to report on finding them.

Get the PDF for free from Umeå University, or ScienceBlogs!

* Though I’ve written at least one book chapter, on 8th century brooches, that’s considerably longer than my third book.

Childhood Horrors

chockKen & Robin have an interesting discussion in the most recent episode of their podcast, on childhood fears. Specifically, they talk about childhood responses to horror stories and movies. I was inspired to write about my own childhood horrors.

Luckily there were no actual horrors in my childhood. Nobody around me was violent or insane or very ill or destitute or hooked on drugs. The years of low-intensity schoolyard bullying was painful but nowhere near my breaking point. Still, I was really scared of some stuff, starting with Selma Lagerlöf.

Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf is one of the giants of Swedish literature. The first big book I read on my own at age five was her delightful 1906-07 tome The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a tattered copy passed down for school use to my mother from her older sibs (I still have it). The book was originally commissioned to teach children Swedish history and geography. It does so by means of a fantasy conceit: the boy Nils gets shrunken to tiny size by the spell of a gnome and goes travelling across the country on the back of a migrant goose. But, having read Nils, I then unsuspectingly turned to other books by Lagerlöf.

The Löwensköld Ring (1925) is a ghost story about a nobleman who rises from the grave to reclaim a finger ring stolen from him at the time of burial. This really freaked me out, and not in a good way. But I moved on to The Treasure / Herr Arne’s Hoard (1904), and found to my dismay that this book starts with a gory description of a family getting killed by mercenaries. I never finished it and I’ve never read Lagerlöf since. A few years later a similar but even more graphically described massacre prevented me from finishing The Last Letter Home (1959), Vilhelm Moberg’s fourth novel about Swedish migrant farmers in Minnesota.

Another source of scares was comics. I read a graphic version of Dracula, and for years afterwards I didn’t like to look out of dark windows because I was afraid that the Count’s pale leering face would greet me. Particularly if it was on an upper floor, where of course only a vampire could peek inside. I wasn’t afraid of getting grabbed and blood-sucked by a vampire – just afraid that I’d see one. I did try sleeping with garlic over my bed once, but I made the mistake of peeling the clove and piercing it for a string, and the smell got too strong.

Then there was my buddy’s copy of the Swedish 70s horror comic book Chock. (I now find that it ran translations of Warren Comics from the 60s, apparently mainly out of Creepy and Eerie.) This particular issue contained Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, and a story about an escaped convict manacled to a corpse in a desert, and it scared me silly at age ten or eleven. But the really silly bit was the soundtrack. While I read that comic book at my buddy’s house, he played me what must count as the lamest Swedish pop tune of the 80s, the 1983 Vikingarna cover of F.R. David’s 1982 hit “Words”. For years afterwards I couldn’t hear either version of that damn song without a serious chill running down my spine.

Round about this time I was also afraid that dead bodies might be hidden in the walls of our house. I think I understood that the walls were too thin for that, but still I kept thinking about it and shuddering. I was horrified when I came across P.V. Glob’s book on Iron Age bog bodies, The Bog People (1965) with its many ghastly photographs. Little did I know how desensitised to human remains my work would make me as an adult, or that I would be quite happy to excavate people’s graves.

Prequel to Pickwick

dampStephen Jarvis’s upcoming novel Death and Mr Pickwick is a sprawling book, in terms both of its 800-page girth and of its structure. I’ve read the first third and decided to write about it now before I forget the details.

There’s a present-day frame story about the narrator writing the book, commissioned by an old man obsessed with Late Georgian London’s printmaking and periodicals. This story only adds up to a few pages strewn through the first third, but there are weird things going on in it. Why does the narrator suddenly bring up his anorexic mother? I’m more curious about where this is going than about the main narrative inside the frame, whose general outline is a matter of known literary history.

The main story so far is a straight historical novel about Robert Seymour, now remembered chiefly as the suicidal first illustrator of Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. Jarvis appears to be one of those who agree with Seymour’s widow that Dickens owed considerably more of Pickwick to the dead man than a few illustrations.

The sprawling character of the novel comes from innumerable long digressions from this storyline, amounting to a crash course in the literary and artistic antecedents of Pickwick. Dickens isn’t even mentioned in the first third, though he is most likely present as an unnamed boy at one or two points.

I quite like the book even though the first third has no female main characters. In fact, it mainly has lots of minor characters who play walk-on parts in relation to Seymour’s life story, and to developments in the era’s interlinked printmaking and magazine businesses. It’s a play acted on Jane Austen’s stage, fifteen years or so after all the interesting female characters have left, taking their concerns with interpersonal relationships with them. Should the book fall into the hands of a reader who isn’t familiar with Dickens, it will probably appear quite baffling, meandering and pointless. But of course, the word “Pickwick” is in the title, and so the intended readership is indicated rather clearly. I look forward to reading on.

Stephen Jarvis’s Death and Mr Pickwick will be out in the UK from Penguin Random House on 21 May, and in the US from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on 23 June. I reviewed the middle third of the book on 18 April and the final third on 9 May.

Cover Decided For My Upcoming Book

I’ve finalised the cover of my upcoming book with designer Bitte Granlund!

Cover image: detail of a rock-art panel at Hemsta in Boglösa, Uppland. An axe with its characteristic s-shaped haft, an incomplete ship and two cupmarks. According to Johan Ling, the panel’s ship types and the level above the sea indicate a date in Per. II, about 1400 cal BC. The closest known Early Bronze Age deposition site is Hjältängarna at Grop-Norrby in Vårfrukyrka, about 14 km to the NNW. An axe was deposited there a century or two after the Hemsta carvings were made. Photograph by Sven-Gunnar Broström.