A swift and, by necessity, highly speculative account of a some murders between 1016 and 1074 that reveal much about 11th-century English politics, religion, codes of honor, and kingship.
British scholar Fletcher (The Barbarian Conversion, 1998, etc.) returns to his beloved early medieval period to pursue a story that first attracted his attention at age 14. He acknowledges that the documentary evidence is wispy, stating at one point that what we know of one character could fit on a postcard and in another comparing his chronology to a “leaky vessel on a sea of speculation,” but like all effective historians he can infer much from little. The region he brings to life is Northumberland, near Scotland (whose forces sallied south from time to time on raiding expeditions) and far enough from London that its inhabitants were occasionally resistant to such expressions of central authority as taxation. England had long been victimized by raids and occupations of varying durations, from the Romans and Vikings (meaning “sea raider,” Fletcher reminds) through the Angles/Saxons/Jutes to the Danes and Normans. “Wealth attracts predators,” the author declares; he proceeds to show how that fundamental attraction created bright splashes of blood across the countryside. The first murder occurred at Wiheal, where the unarmed Earl Uhtred of Northumbria was about to submit to the Danish invader Canute, but instead was slaughtered along with 40 of his important (and also unarmed) supporters by a rival named Thurbrand. A feud ensued, with sons and grandsons exchanging eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth in a variety of murder that their culture sanctioned—almost demanded, in fact—to satisfy family honor. Fletcher also explores the role played by the church and the nearly invisible histories of contemporary women, offering as well brief glimpses of the historical Macbeth.
Graceful examination of the intricate tapestry of a culture so distant in time and temperament as to be virtually extraterrestrial. (8 pp. b&w photos, 7 maps, 9 genealogical tables)