Sunday, 2 August 2015

Culture, Language and amateurish Romans ! Old English Specialist and Author Stephen Pollington casts some light ...

Today I have the enormous pleasure and honour of speaking to Stephen Pollington:


I asked him -

You grew up in what was then countryside - was it idyllic, and how old were you when you were first aware of 'history'?

The presence of the past was part of the backdrop to everyday life from a very early age. Saturday mornings were spent with friends in the local cinema (which was still painted with WWII camouflage!) followed by the mandatory trip to the nearby site of a motte-and-bailey castle where we acted out the key events from the films we had just seen - most often westerns, wartime thrillers or historical dramas.
My strongest recollection is of being impressed by the age and size of a church tower that stood on the hilltop above my grandparents' home - compared to the humble dimensions of my house it seemed immensely tall and sturdy, and being made from stone - in Essex, where the soil is mostly clay - it struck me a s a strange structure, a relic of a time when all the effort and resources it took to build it could be concentrated on such a project.

image by oneblackline

What were history lessons like at school - did they nurture or stifle your interest? (People's experiences of school history lessons vary so widely and I wonder what periods you were taught about and whether it fired your interest)

History was taught as a narrative back then - it was a LONG time ago - with a focus on key events and personalities, and an unspoken theme of human progress as the underlying assumption. This was in the days of the 'Space Race' in the 1960s when the nation was encouraged to look to the future and ignore the past - Thunderbirds and Dr Who were the key items of children's TV viewing. History in school was used as a means of explaining how we got to where we are now, with the assumption that the future would be better, cleaner, healthier and more affluent. I am still waiting for my jet-powered skates and three-course meal in tablet form.
I always enjoyed formal lessons with a specific theme and I think they awoke in me an urge to share my own (flawed) understandings with others.

Image from

You obviously have an abiding love for the Anglo-Saxon period. It's perceived though as not 'popular' - do you think we English have a problem connecting with our past? (The Irish, Scots and Welsh don't feel the same - have we lost sight of our own heritage somehow?)

The Anglo-Saxon period gave rise to the modern nations: there was no 'king of all the English' before Athelstan in the mid 10th century. But you are right - it is no longer popular perhaps because the height of its popularity coincided with the period of Victoria and Albert. After the First World War, opinions of things 'German' nosedived, and after the Second World War the situation got a whole lot worse. The extent to which the historical 'Saxons' have anything to do with the more recent German political unit of the same name is usually ignored.

Palgrave's book was first published in 1831

I think we have been encouraged to downplay English history in favour of the inclusive term 'British' while simultaneously celebrating the Irish, Scots and Welsh. This leaves people confused at to where the English fit into this picture. Even the name 'Anglo-Saxon' creates the impression that these were a foreign people, not really 'English' at all.

You are fluent in Old English. How easy was it for you to find the resources you needed to study the language?

As a young man it was very difficult to find the resources, especially in a small market town. But I was always a bit of a language-nerd and haunter of the public library. I studied not just individual languages but began to see the relationships between them - in the way that even a basic knowledge of French can help you recognise words in Italian or Spanish, poulet and pollo for example.
In my early teens I acquired a second-hand book on Old Norse and began to study that language with great enthusiasm. Further purchases provided an insight into Old English. I bought a worn copy of Beowulf which someone had heavily annotated in pencil, and that set me off on a voyage of discovery from which I have never ceased.

How important do you think it is to keep the language 'alive'? Is it a difficult language to learn, in comparison, say, to learning Modern English as a foreign language?

It rather depends where you start from. If you are a native speaker of English, Dutch or German a lot of it is very familiar and things that are puzzling in modern English start to fall into place - the relationship between 'old' and 'elder', 'slow' and 'sloth' or 'steal' and 'stealth', for example. Most of the basics of Old English are still present in the modern language, despite the vast influx of Greek, Latin and French vocabulary. When Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the moon, his immortal words, 'One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind' are all taken directly from the language that King Alfred used in the 9th century.
Without a detailed understanding of its history, a full appreciation of the modern language is not possible. This applies as much to words introduced in relatively recent times as to those with roots stretching back millennia.
A few talented people who may have no formal training instinctively know which words fit together - we call them 'poets'.

This blogger used Sweet's when she was a student!

Are there any common misconceptions about the Anglo-Saxons which you'd like to take the opportunity to correct?

If you watch TV dramas, Hollywood films or other superficial forms of entertainment, you quickly find two standard stereotypes for the Anglo-Saxons. The first is of marauding warriors with no organisation or loyalty whose sole aim is to despoil and destroy. 
The second group are the downtrodden serfs who lost the battle of Hastings and are forever destined to be cannon-fodder for their social superiors. These 'Saxons' all wore brown sacks for clothing, lived in mud huts and were covered in soot, soil and sticky stuff and had only a rudimentary grasp of any skills or crafts.

Image from
Both these portrayals leave me exasperated because they are the inventions of lazy media people who are too self-obsessed to do any actual research - you know, reading a book or looking at some artefacts, or just asking someone who might know a little about the period.
Anyone who has seen even photographs of the best-known material - such as the finds from Sutton Hoo, the Staffordshire Hoard, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Alfred Jewel, the Franks Casket - cannot fail to be impressed by the quality of the workmanship and the skilful combination of a variety of materials into a unified and beautiful object. Then look at the range of books the Anglo-Saxons produced in their own language - everything from detailed laws and land charters to translations of Roman and Greek religious texts, chronicles, medical books, poetry, legends and rude jokes - they are all there.
Look at the garnet and gold wargear from the Staffordshire Hoard and explain to me in what sense this was 'the Dark Ages' - it was a Golden Age when some of the finest decorative items produced north of the Alps were put together. Bear in mind that Anglo-Saxon goldwork could not be replicated to anything like the same quality as the originals until the 19th century. No doubt I will get into trouble for saying this, but a lot of the allegedly superior Roman and medieval material looks pretty amateurish by comparison.

Gold belt buckle
The Sutton Hoo Gold belt buckle - image from the British Museum
Are there important lessons to be learned from studying the Anglo-Saxon period?

All history is important and should be instructive. The Anglo-Saxon period laid the foundations of our social structure, our language, our political organisations and to a large extent our identities. As with the language mentioned above, if you don't understand how modern counties came into being and what they replaced, you will never fully understand modern British political geography. A knowledge of the effects of the Norman invasion is no bad thing either, if you are interested in social structures and elitism.

Can you sum up why you love the Anglo-Saxon history, culture and language so much?

It is the beginning of so much that we take for granted: many of our warmest and most powerful words, our ideas about family and society, our regional identities, the framework by which our lives are lived. To me, that is endlessly fascinating.

Thanks to Stephen for his insights. To discover more about him and his work:

Wordcraft ~ The English Warrior ~ First Steps in Old English ~ Meadhall - Feasting Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England ~ Leechcraft - Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing ~ Rudiments of Runelore ~ Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds ~ Anglo-Saxon FAQs ~ Wayland's Work – Elder Gods – The Sutton Hoo Stone


  1. Great post Annie. Stephen is an inspiration and really knows his craft. Have shared it on Twitter.

    1. Thanks Elaine, and thanks for sharing. Glad you enjoyed it - Stephen's answers were so comprehensive and so insightful that it was a joy to post the interview :)

  2. Wonderful, so interesting. I really enjoyed it and it reminded me of history I'd forgotten. I love history but tend to stay in the Roman era I realise now. :)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Jane. All periods of history are equally valid - enjoy whichever bit you want to stay in :)