Toby Martin: The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England (part 2)

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

Back around Christmas I reviewed the first three chapters of Toby Martin’s big book about Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches. Those are the technical chapters dealing with typology and chronology, and I loved them. They are rock solid. Now I’ve read the remaining four chapters that deal with the societal interpretation of the brooches. In the following I am going to use the author’s given name because Martin is me.

I think Toby’s investigations and interpretations here are excellent. I particularly like his painstaking study of how the cruciform brooches relate to osteological age and sex, and to the cremation versus inhumation rites. Also how he emphasises that his three typological periods for the brooches aren’t just a convenient dating instrument, charting some kind of blind typological drift. Toby insists quite rightly that the phasing is evidence that people’s ideas about these brooches changed rather dramatically. A phase A brooch from AD 450 meant something completely different to its owner and observers than a phase C brooch would in AD 550.

So I have no complaint about the meat of this study. But I am rather unhappy with its packaging. Chapters 4-7 suffer considerably from theoretical bloat. Toby is rehashing a lot of theoretical arguments that have very little bearing on the matter at hand and are largely quite old. One might call it decorative theory. It looks like Toby is signalling to a certain type of reader who is more interested in theory than in Anglo-Saxon England. His book is a worse read for it.

See for instance the intro to chapter 4 on page 129. It is completely divorced from the concrete reality of Anglo-Saxon England. Everything on this page would apply equally well to Bronze Age China. Or see p. 205-208, where Toby recounts 25-year-old fringe arguments from someone who thought that biological sex (as distinct from social and symbolic gender) is not a natural dichotomy. And then he shrugs the whole thing off and says that for the present intents and purposes, it’s all about osteological sexing anyway so the distinction is moot! My opinion about the 1990 paper that Toby references is that true, there are a few hermaphrodites out there, but they are far less common than people with only one leg, and we nevertheless assume that people in the past generally had two legs. It’s not something he needed to cover.

Then there’s Ian Hodder’s old 80s chestnut “material culture is active”. I have always felt that this tenet of post-modern archaeology is rather vacuous. People repeat it endlessly but it doesn’t actually change the way they argue about the past. The symbolic potential of material culture was after all not discovered in 1982. Toby however is ambivalent. A few times he repeats the tenet for decorative purposes, but then on p. 231 he suddenly says “The objects were capable of nothing by themselves.” And he’s so right! People make objects which transmit messages and other people are later influenced by these messages. Mental culture is not divorced from its material correlates. This however does not mean that material culture is active, any more than the words I address to my kids are active. I am an agent. “Please empty the dishwasher” is not. And nor is the dishwasher.

Enough complaints about the paint job. Here’s some further points about the machine.

I really like Toby’s discussion (p. 146) about phase B brooches (AD 475-550). They combine discrete types of head, bow, foot etc. rather freely. And the finds of lead master models not for entire brooches, but for these separate anatomical parts of brooches, indicate that the artisans actually constructed their repertoire of brooch designs much the same way that Toby has himself constructed their typology.

Toby repeatedly states that he doesn’t think cruciform brooches were recycled for metal very often (e.g. p. 133, 142). His main argument for this position is that a considerable proportion of the brooches we find in graves and in the ploughsoil show evidence of wear and repair. This argument holds no water. Recycled brooches are invisible to us. We can never know what proportion was recycled, nor how common in was for old, worn, repaired brooches to get recycled. He shouldn’t have taken a position on this issue IMO.

Toby demonstrates neatly and painstakingly that during phase A (AD 420-475) the brooches were worn by girls and women of every age, on their dresses. Then during phase B they were worn mainly by women aged over 25, on their cloaks. In this society, women usually died between age 26 and 40: clearly phase B cruciform brooches were part of a matronly role. Now, I may have missed Toby saying this, and I will change this review if it turns out that he has, but I don’t remember him commenting on the situational difference between a dress and a cloak. Your dress is only visible indoors, in privacy. You wear your cloak over it, outdoors, in the public space. So with the start of phase B, the cruciform brooch not only becomes restricted to older women with a certain amount of power, but also to their public personas away from home.

Two points about language.

I really, really don’t like the use of the word “traditional” (e.g. p. 228) to describe the established consensus view on a scientific issue. It suggests that the consensus view is old, unexamined, uncritically accepted, poorly founded. And that the author knows much better than his “traditional” forebears. In fact consensus views in science are only achieved through a lot of hard work and discussion among very smart people. The next time Toby is tempted to call a viewpoint traditional, I suggest that instead he refer to the works of scholars who have sided recently with that view in the literature.

Toby mostly uses the word “elites” in contexts where it is ambiguous whether he means several groups or several people. But occasionally (e.g. p. 189) he slips and shows that he thinks that me and my buddies can be “elites” (if we weren’t actually bolshy proles, that is). This is like calling a football player “a team”. Very ugly error.

Final words, repeated from the first review: it is my firm belief that future work on English cruciform brooches will strictly be footnotes to Toby Martin. He should be a model for us all in how he deals with small finds!

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.

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.