Book Review: Beasts in Early Medieval England

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This is a review of Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia, a book edited by Michael D.J. Bintley and Thomas J.T. Williams.

These days in technologically advanced countries it’s possible to live an entire human life without ever thinking much about the natural world.

It was very different for the people of early medieval England. They lived in small wooden houses without electricity. Their food came directly from farming and most people were farm workers. Travelling was a slow process, by foot or by horse or by cart.

Life was slower. Animals and plants were nearer. The length of the day, the change of the seasons and the mood of the weather had an obvious, immediate impact on daily life.

For me it takes a conscious effort to imagine what it was like back then. And to imagine the sensations of living so close to the soil, surrounded by weather.

This closeness to nature meant that animals featured heavily in early medieval visual art, literature and culture. Representing Beasts is a collection of 11 academic essays by different scholars, examining aspects of this.

Among my favourite essays, John Baker and Della Hooke look at creature references in English place names and Michael D.J. Bintley tackles nature in Old English poetry.

Reading this book left me with two thoughts.

Firstly, place names were meaningful to Anglo-Saxons. The names gave information about aspects of nature in those places. And of course, other place names gave information about local families and about local deities.

What must it have been like to live in an England where place names spoke so clearly of nature, people and belief? Today our place names are so old that we have to check on Wikipedia to find out what they really mean!

Secondly, I realised that I have to read more Old English poetry to gain a better understanding of the early medieval relationship with nature.

Reading poems such as The Wanderer and The Seafarer helped me to think about how very cold it must’ve been to walk through the countryside or sail on the sea. Of course it’s still cold today, but we are insulated by modern transport and clothing.

Would I recommend this book to you?

I am new to Anglo-Saxon studies, so a lot of Representing Beasts went over the top of my head. The essays refer to things I haven’t read or seen.

This is a book for readers with a certain amount of prior knowledge, but it’s still an accessible read. Unlike some academic works, Representing Beasts doesn’t read like scholarly specialists writing solely for other scholarly specialists.

To me the book felt like people talking about friends I hadn’t met yet.

So would I recommend this book to you? Yes!

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