31 August 2015

Razumov & the Ile Rousseau

“… Write, he had said. I must write – I must, indeed! I shall write – never fear. Certainly. That’s why I am here. And for the future I shall have something to write about.”
            He was exciting himself by this mental soliloquy. But the idea of writing evoked the thought of a place to write in, of shelter, or privacy, and naturally of his lodgings, mingled with a distaste for the necessary exertion of getting there, with a mistrust as of some hostile influence awaiting him within those odious four walls.
            “Suppose one of these revolutionists,” he asked himself, “were to take a fancy to call on me while I am writing?” The mere prospect of such an interruption made him shudder. […] “I wish I were in the middle of some field miles away from everywhere,” he thought.
            He had unconsciously turned to the left once more and now was aware of being on a bridge again. This one was much narrower than the other, and instead of being straight, made a sort of elbow or angle. At the point of that angle a short arm joined it to a hexagonal islet with a soil of gravel and its shores faced with dressed stone, a perfection of puerile neatness. A couple of tall poplars and a few other trees stood grouped on the clean, dark gravel, and under them a few garden benches and a bronze effigy of Jean Jacques Rousseau seated on its pedestal. […] He had found precisely what he needed. If solitude could ever be secured in the open air in the middle of a town, he would have it there on this absurd island, together with the faculty of watching the only approach.”


I was running late when I caught my train from Martigny. The journey to Geneva, with some very beautiful views for most of the way along the coast of Lake Leman, would take almost 2 hours. As the train pulled out of the station I worked out that I had two possible options. I could get off the train one stop early and attempt to make my way there on foot. Or I could go straight to the airport and leave my bag in the left luggage whilst I made a dash into town and back in a taxi. As I didn’t know the streets of Geneva, and I had no map of the place with me, I decided to hang the expense and go with option two. Trundling a suitcase blind through bustling streets, navigating purely by luck and vague inklings didn’t seem the sensible choice given that I had a flight to catch. Besides, there seemed something wholly appropriate about hurriedly stuffing my suitcase into a coin operated locker at the airport and then hailing a taxi.
“Where to?” the taxi driver asked, in French.
Île Rousseau, s’il vous plait,” I replied.
In my mind, I like to imagine the taxi pulling away and me casting a glance out of the back window, just to check I wasn’t being shadowed. But in reality the taxi driver wasn’t Swiss and had to get out a map for me to point out where I wanted to go. He seemed a little bemused.
“Oui” – Non! ... Je suis une spy!! ... Allez, Île Rousseau – Tout suite!
To be fair though, the taxi ride did feel a little like a chase scene in a spy movie as it was pretty much a swift almost straight descent through the streets of Geneva to the lake front. And as the taxi pulled round into a little street overlooking the water I looked out of the window to see I was about to step out of the car at the entrance to a very plush hotel. I paid the driver and he very helpfully explained where to go to find a taxi rank to get back to the airport.
“Merci beacoup.”
I got out of the taxi and the hotel doormen looked momentarily bemused.
“Bonjour,” I hailed them with a big smile and then, as the taxi sped away, I turned and walked purposefully in the other direction. 


Crossing the street I could see the little island ahead of me. It wasn’t at all how I’d imagined it, although it fitted the description in Joseph Conrad’s novel exactly. Two angled foot bridges meet in the middle of the river channel and at the apex a short bridge lead across to the tiny little island. Just as Conrad describes, its sides are made of dressed stone, there are a few tall trees under which are some benches, the ground is mostly gravel, and there is a refreshment kiosk. A road bridge passes close by on the far side of the island, beyond which stretches the vast expanse of the lake. The only things which seem to be different were the modern modes of conveyance zipping noisily across the road bridge in each direction, and, of course, the enormous jet of water spouting out of the lake, which an hour or so later I could clearly see out of my aeroplane’s window as I soared into the clear blue sky. The bustle of people on the island was perhaps a contrast to the scene in the book too. I doubt Mr Razumov would get the peace enough to scribble his secret notes there today, although I could well imagine two spies making a secret rendezvous here, strolling about and talking in hushed tones, their conversation masked by the rushing sound of the wind passing through the leaves of the tall Italian poplars and the weeping willows.

As I’d sat on the train, watching the shimmering blue of the lake and the white misty wall of mountains on the far shore passing by, I’d been reminded of another passage in a different book which I’d also read along time ago. This one was by Jean Jacques Rousseau himself. It was the distant sight of a boat across the water which had prompted its recall.

“My morning exercise and its attendant good humour made it very pleasant to take a rest at dinner-time, but when the meal went on too long and fine weather called me, I could not wait till the others had finished, and leaving them at table I would make my escape and install myself alone in a boat, which I would row out into the middle of the lake when it was calm; and there, stretching out full-length in the boat and turning my eyes skyward, I let myself float and drift wherever the water took me, often for several hours on end, plunged in a host of vague yet delightful reveries, which though they had no distinct or permanent subject, were still in my eyes infinitely preferred to all that I had found most sweet in the so-called pleasures of life. Often reminded by the declining sun that it was time to return home, I found myself so far from the island that I was forced to row with all my might in order to arrive before nightfall.”

It wasn’t until I returned home and looked up the passage once again that I realised he hadn’t actually been writing about his native Lake Geneva, but a different lake – Lake Biel (or Bienne) – further north, where he had lived for a time. Rousseau’s name is rightly celebrated in Geneva now, perhaps the city’s most famous ‘citoyen’ even – but the fact his brooding bronze effigy sits alone isolated on a little island maybe says something about the contemporary esteem he was once held in by his fellow Genevans during his own lifetime. His final resting place is in the suitably august crypt of the Pantheon in Paris. He had lived out his last years in exile in France and died there in 1778. The statue on the island in Geneva was erected in 1834. Sitting on the train I was sure most people here would know who Jean Jacques Rousseau was, but how many people I wondered would recall the enigmatic Monsieur Razumov? An intense, and darkly introspective Russian student, sat scribbling away in the shadow of that monument. Not many I suspect, and not least because he never existed – or at least, he has only ever existed in the mind’s eye of his creator, Joseph Conrad, and the many devotees of Conrad’s novels, particularly those who have read and enjoyed Under Western Eyes, his tale of exiled Russian revolutionaries in Switzerland.


I suspect I’m not the only person who has ever made a pilgrimage to that spot for Joseph Conrad’s sake, rather than for Jean Jacques Rousseau’s; but it did seem a trifle mad to do so in a slim spare hour before catching a flight. I couldn’t not though. I’d passed through Geneva three times that year already, once by road and now three times by rail, but there hadn’t been time before to make this little detour. I’m very glad I did though, because Under Western Eyes is a very special book for me. I’m sure we all have them. They are that one book – usually a novel, often read early on in our lives – which really connects with us. There maybe many other books which speak to us just as clearly in later years, but there’s something very special and absolutely unrepeatable about that first novel which sucks us so completely into its world that it changes us and informs our outlook on life forever thereafter. Under Western Eyes was that book for me. Its characters and events seemed so real and so vivid that I could picture them; and then, to find that this place too, was real, surprisingly only reinforced the imagined reality. I could picture Razumov sitting there, scribbling his informer’s notes, as if they were memories of my own, of events which I had witnessed for myself even.

I remember when I first read that part of the book I promised myself that one day I would visit this spot. I was 15 at the time, and almost 25 years later I’d kept my promise. Every 10 years I re-read Under Western Eyes. It’s interesting to see how the book transforms each time I read it, reflecting on it at different points in my own life, the story seems to change ever so slightly as I get older. I see things I’d missed before, or find I’ve remembered certain details incorrectly, or even added elements in my mind. Certain stories do that – they live within us as much as they live within the covers of their books. I’ve now read it three times straight, and I’ve dipped into it countless times. I’ve read many critiques of it too. But it’s not simply this book alone; if you like one novel by Joseph Conrad you tend to like them all – confirmed Conraddicts, in that sense, are no different from the devotees of Dickens, or Austen acolytes, or whichever writer you care to name.

One of the reasons why this book may have connected with me though may in fact have been the thought of this place itself – the Île Rousseau. This thought struck me, oddly enough, remembering that passage of Rousseau’s as I sat on the train looking out over the waters of the lake – thinking about Rousseau’s notions of escape, the need to be alone – how we each need to seek our own solitude sometimes. Like Razumov sitting scribbling here on the Île Rousseau; like Rousseau himself drifting with his idle thoughts in his rowing boat on Lake Biel. Wherever I’ve lived I’ve always found a spot I like to go to, simply to sit and think, or to sit and read. It’s usually a pleasant place with a nice view, often somewhere out in the open. Where I grew up it was a hilltop overlooking a grassy field not far from my school; when I lived in Stoke Newington it was a particular bench by one of the ponds in the local park; and, when I lived in Tokyo, studying Japanese, it was a particular grassy spot in Shinjuku Gyoen, beneath the swirling cherry blossom in Spring. Wherever I go, I realised as I sat in another taxi racing me back to Geneva Airport, even if I’m only there for a short time, I tend to find my own Île Rousseau.


Click on the old images for links to their on-line sources. All other images are by taken by me in 2014.

24 August 2015

Martigny: One Town, Two Seasons

In 2014 I made two trips to Switzerland, where I worked on an exhibition hosted by the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny. The first trip I made was in the winter, returning for my second trip there in the summer. It was wonderful to see the contrast in the seasons in this Alpine town. When not working on the exhibition we explored Martigny and the surrounding valleys and mountains. In the winter we headed up to Trient and Finhaut to catch a glimpse of Mont Blanc and the Trient Glacier, finding ourselves lost amongst the thickest snowdrifts I’ve ever seen. We also explored Saint-Maurice, and motored along the shores of Lake Geneva to Lausanne via Montreux and the beautiful Château de Chillon (see here). This is also the region of Switzerland which is famous for the St Bernard mountain rescue dogs, and Martigny has a wonderful museum and shelter dedicated to these dogs too. In the summer we went to see the lake at Champex-Lac, and ate its famous speciality, Trout Meunière, caught fresh that morning from the lake. The Valais region is a beautiful part of Switzerland. We were made very welcome there by our very generous host, and everywhere we went – with our stumbling attempts at recalling our long forgotten French lessons from our school days – everyone we met was very friendly and kind. And the food and wine of the region were well worth writing home about too.

I also enjoyed wandering around Martigny itself, exploring the market square, the Roman amphitheatre, climbing the tower of La Bâtiaz, and strolling back to our hotel along the River Drance. In doing so I tried to take some photos which echoed the same views which J.M.W. Turner had sketched when he’d visited the town in 1802 (see here). Taking photos which match old views like this, either from sketches, paintings, or from old black and white photographs is something I am very keen on, like history repeating itself, perhaps – but it’s not often that I’ve thought of echoing my own photos. Yet whilst strolling along the River Drance on a wonderfully warm summer's day it struck me that I still had the photos I’d taken whilst walking the same path back in the deep cold of winter stored on my camera, and so, out of curiosity to see how much the place had changed with the turning of the seasons, and to see how closely I could find the self-same spots where I had stood to take those photos with the exact same camera, I set about echoing my own journey of a few months previous. What follows is a photo album of images created by me of one place at two points in time in the same year – a small exercise in a personal micro-history repeating itself.

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Other posts on my travels in Switzerland:

An Album of Photos of my Travels in Switzerland

 This newsreel from 1933 about climbing the Great St Bernard Pass and the region's famous mountain rescue dogs has a brief glimpse of Martigny (at 0.28).  

Motor Racing in Switzerland (1934) - Montreux Grand Prix. The Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny has a fantastic collection of vintage cars.


17 August 2015

Walking with Mr Turner in Martigny

In 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte crossed the Great St Bernard Pass with his 40,000 strong army. A heroic feat which certainly appealed to the contemporary Romantic imagination of the time. Like Hannibal and Charlemagne before him, he was a modern embodiment of ‘a superhuman power pitted against the supernatural terrain.’ The feat, and the man himself, were immortalised in Jacques-Louis David’s contemporary portrait – Napoleon on the St Bernard Pass.

Yet only two years later, in 1802 – during the brief Peace of Amiens – a different painter actually made the same mountain crossing for himself. Only 27 years old at the time, but already at the top of his profession and widely regarded as the most outstanding British landscape painter of his generation, J.M.W. Turner was travelling on his first tour of continental Europe. In later years, unlike his contemporary countryman, the landscape painter John Constable, who never left Britain at all, Turner became a frequent traveller in Europe. Despite a poor aptitude for foreign languages Turner’s confidence was ever undaunted. His first tour, travelling in style in the company of an aristocratic patron, must have set the pattern – even though subsequent trips were made alone and as cheaply as possible. Turner’s unabashed adventurousness was perhaps matched only by his natural curiosity and his artistic acuity – the body of works he created whilst on this first Alpine tour is regarded by critics as peerless. 


According to David Blayney Brown, “No painter before Turner, and none since, has so truly grasped the wilderness and grandeur of the mountains, their beauty, their savagery and their tragic loneliness. And here, of course, he left the Grand Tourists far behind. They had hurried through the Alps to acquire polish and sample the pleasures of Italy, but for Turner they were an education in themselves, confirming – if confirmation were needed – his commitment to the art of landscape, and raising his conception and techniques to new heights.”


It’s thought that Turner probably saw a version of Jacques-Louis David’s epic portrait of Napoleon sat astride his rearing steed atop the St Bernard Pass when passing through Paris. And it is certainly appealing to speculate, as Blayney Brown does, that in retracing the same arduous mountain crossing, Turner “… doubtless heard local stories from the guide of the real details of the 1800 crossing – how Napoleon had based himself in Martigny directing supplies before rejoining his men, or sent the monks at the Great St Bernard hospice rations to feed the troops when they arrived – and as he scrambled over the pass, would have realised the extent of David’s flattery and fiction. Did he, as he passed through Bourg-Saint-Pierre on his descent through the Val d’Etremont towards Martigny, learn how a peasant from the village had guided Napoleon over the pass, on a mule and in the rear of his army – so different from the heroics of David’s canvas? It would take ten years, a snowstorm in Yorkshire and the hubris of Napoleon’s Russian campaign before Turner felt able to deflate such myth-making in the greatest of his Swiss pictures, ‘Snowstorm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps,’ reducing the ancient Carthaginian to whom Napoleon was often compared to invisibility in an apocalyptic mountain blizzard.”


Snowstorm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, 1812

I like this notion of the very ordinary Mr Turner as the leveller of tyrants. Deftly underlining the genuine measure of man against the reality of nature and the power of the elements, grounded in his deeper, practical understanding and his geographical knowledge of the locale. This is informed, and intellectually expressed, anti-propaganda of the subtlest order. That said, though, it’s interesting to note another painter, Paul Delaroche,  whom I very much admire, was later commissioned to paint a more realistic scene depicting the crossing. This version, clearly echoing David’s, was not meant to be demeaning, however, as Delaroche apparently admired Napoleon.

Last year I visited Martigny twice, in winter and in summer. It is a small town, which dates back to at least the Roman era (when it was known as Octodurus or Octodurum), tucked away in a steep sided valley a short distance from the far eastern end of Lake Geneva, not far from Mont Blanc – an ancient crossroads town with roads leading off to Italy and France, as well as other parts of Switzerland. I was working at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, an art gallery whose grounds incorporate several Roman ruins amidst a fine collection of modern art sculptures. 

A little way down the road stands the remains of a very fine Roman amphitheatre. Overlooking the town is La Bâtiaz, a small fort with a high tower, which gives commanding views along the valley whose slopes are covered with terraces laced with carefully cultivated vines. The wines of the Valais region are, in my carefully considered (and equally savoured) opinion, one the best little known secrets of Europe. Martigny is very proud of its heritage – and certainly of its connections to famous artists such as Turner, plus poets and writers, like the Shelleys and Lord Byron, who all passed through here; perhaps unsurprisingly, though, less mention seems to be made of his nibs, ‘Old Bony’ – Napoleon Bonaparte.


In 1999 the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, in collaboration with the Tate Gallery in Britain, hosted a wonderful exhibition, titled: Turner et les Alpes. It was a real pleasure to leaf through the catalogue for this exhibition, and to compare it to the vistas which greeted you whilst walking around the town, almost as it were as if one was peering over Turner’s shoulder in some places – seeing him sketch out the scene in one of his sketchbooks, which were later worked up into finished watercolours – like a window into his past.


Further Reading:

David Blayney Brown, Turner et les Alpes, 1802 (Fondation Pierre Gianadda, 1999)

David Hill, Turner in the Alps: The Journey through France & Switzerland in 1802 (George Phillip, 1992)

All images of artworks, The Tate Gallery, London; except the two paintings of Napoleon, Wikimedia (click on images for more info). Photographs of Martigny by me, 2014.

You might also like to read Alex Cochrane's article on Charles Dickens' visit to the Great Saint Bernard Hospice in 1846 - "Dickens: The Frozen Dead and a Macabre Swiss Mortuary" 

10 August 2015

The Battle of Maldon

On 10th August 991 AD a large party of Viking raiders landed on a small island in the River Blackwater, a little way downstream from the old town of Maldon in Essex. The Vikings were met here by a small force of Saxon soldiers, who prevented them making their way across a narrow causeway connecting the island to the mainland. 

On a very sunny Saturday last month I went in search of this battleground. The island and the causeway, which is exposed at low tide, still exist today. The battle was immortalised in one of the most famous poems of the period. The survival of the poem is just as interesting as the battle itself. It wasn’t a major military confrontation by any means. It was, however, a tenacious defence – perhaps even one with David and Goliath-like odds. Such Viking raids occurred often along the east coast of Britain around this time. However, the Viking raids were not necessarily always violent confrontations, sometimes the raiders simply made demands for loot, or ‘tribute’, as they called it. Hence it was easier for the Saxons to pay up and then watch the Vikings sail away. But this policy of passive appeasement eventually came to be a massive drain on the population. In time, it also fostered amongst some of the local lords a growing sense of injury to Saxon martial honour. Such were the factors, perhaps, that on this particular occasion – Bryhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex, decided to make a stand. As the poem recounts, hearing the Vikings’ demand for tribute spoken by a herald sent forward from their party, Bryhtnoth gave a firm and resolute reply:

“’Hearest ‘ou, seaman, what this folk sayeth?
Spears shall be all the tribute they send you,
Viper-stained spears and the swords of forebears,
Such a haul of harness as shall hardly profit you.

Spokesman for scavengers, go speak this back again,
Bear your tribe a bitterer tale:
That there stands here ‘mid his men not the meanest of Earls,
Pledged to fight in this land’s defence,
The land of Aethelred, my liege lord,
Its soil, its folk. In this fight the heathen
Shall fall. It would be a shame for your trouble
If you should with our silver away to ship
Without fight offered. It is a fair step hither:
You have come a long way into our land.

But English silver is not so softly won:
First iron and edge shall make arbitrement,
Harsh war-trial, ere we yield tribute.’”

The poem, which is sadly missing its first and last verses, is now thought by scholars to be one of the finest examples of Old English poetry – the translator of my particular copy even holds it to be a better poem than the far more famous Beowulf. The distinctive cadence of these Saxon poems is particularly striking. It may well be due to a drop of Anglo-Saxon blood in my veins which stirs an affinity in me for their lyrical and alliterative language. Originally thought to have been composed in an oral tradition it is known that The Battle of Maldon was eventually written down, and thus better safeguarded for posterity – but only just. That original late 11th Century manuscript, thought to have been written by a scribe from the Monastery of Worcester, was later a part of the library of Sir Richard Cotton, but was lost in the fire which consumed Ashburnham House in 1731. Fortunately, the verses had been transcribed, by John Elphinstone, the keeper of the library, hence whilst the earliest manuscript was lost the words of the poem survived. 

The battle was perhaps not a particularly significant one, although it is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, hence we know it did take place and the people described in the poem are readily identifiable historical persons. But what perhaps makes the poem stand out, as Michael Alexander describes it, is that: “The author obviously knew the men and the place concerned, and may well have been a participant. His tone is aristocratic; there is no reason to suppose that he was not a member of the Earl’s comitatus of hearth- and shoulder-companions.” Certainly, the battle is very vividly recounted and described in the poem – it’s easy to imagine, or tempting to assume, that this might well be a firsthand account composed by one who was there, by one who knows. This immediacy was one of the things which struck me so deeply when I first read the poem, but it was only one of the motivating factors which made me want to find the battleground and see the site for myself.

Another aspect which drew me to this poem was the place itself. For when I first read the poem I already had a vicarious personal connection to the area. Even though I’d never been there I’d worked on an curatorial project which was connected to Maldon, and to the rivers of the Blackwater and the Crouch in particular. Some fifteen years or so ago now, I spent a very long summer working on sorting, identifying, and cataloguing an extensive collection of prehistoric stone tools (or ‘lithics’) which had been collected along the banks of these two rivers by a couple of local archaeologists, Steven W. Vincent and William H. George, who conducted an extensive field-walking survey here in the 1970s. The collection (Ex-Passmore Edwards, now in the British Museum) consists entirely of Mesolithic (9000-4000 BC) and Neolithic (4000-2000 BC) flint tools, many of them very tiny blades, scrapers, and microliths, as well as cores, and the more readily recognisable flint arrowheads. It is a remarkable collection built up over several years, and also, I should imagine, many, many miles of traipsing through the mudflats of each river at low tide. 


Examples of lithics typology, showing microliths, scrapers, blades and a burin (n.b. - not the Vincent & George Collection)

I’d previously done quite a bit of archaeological field-walking myself (in Northamptonshire), hence I could readily identify with the almost addictive attraction it holds. There’s nothing quite like walking solitary across a vast expanse of freshly ploughed field after a shower of rain, mud-caking to your boots like a proper clod-hopper, with your eyes cast down; scanning the turned folds and glistening scatters of broken earth, and spotting a hand-worked flint gleaming in the fresh light. There’s something indescribably marvellous in crouching down and picking up the tiny little implement, turning it in your fingers and looking at it up close – simply knowing, that in that very moment, you are almost definitely the first human being to pick that object up in a couple of thousand years, who actually knows what it genuinely is. It’s not a random stone or pebble. It is a tool, perhaps one of the earliest forms of technology. It was made by another human hand, by one of your oldest ancestors perhaps, and they’d made it purposefully to use in hunting (arrowhead, microlith), or in preparing animal carcasses and skins (blade, scraper), or they’d carried it as a reserve supply from camp to camp (a core, from which they could strike further blades). It is a magic feeling, especially if you are out alone, in the freshest air and sunshine after a summer rain shower, with the rich scent of the earth and the whispering sound of the wind sifting through tall trees, far from any built up area – you really feel an ancient connection to the land. It is a magic moment for sure.

Hence, in some senses, it is that moment of connection; in reading the poem and somehow sensing its immediacy – that feeling of the past flaring back up into life, like a flint spark igniting a flame. That sense of history coming alive in your hands, this is what draws me to the study of the past more than anything else. I suppose there is a very vital sense of exhilaration which comes in that fleeting moment of genuine empathy, when we connect with what has gone before. There are so many ways in which to find that connection, I know I’ve written of some of these before – such as, seeing the decorative trace of a thin cord of rope which has been pressed into the wet clay wall of a Neolithic urn, the urn then baked preserves the imprint of that perishable organic creation and makes it last for several thousand years; or the imprint of a thumb in the same clay sherd, in which you can see the very whorl of the fingerprint of the potter, again several thousand years or more, long since passed away. Even human remains themselves – there’s something viscerally true about looking into the face of an ancient human skull; but, I find it far more amazing, if it’s possible to see inside the skull, to look at the endocast (or the ‘imprint’) of the brain on the inner skull wall and then to think of the breathing, thinking, talking person who once lived their unique life so long ago. It’s not so much macabre, for me at least, as marvellous. What must those eyes have seen? What must this person have thought, felt, and witnessed in their lifetime which was just as real, vital, and singular, yet just as socially rich and connected as my own? – How can we ever truly know?

Well, even though it is from a much later period, a text – like The Battle of Maldon – can bring us part way closer to this end. By going to Maldon I felt like I was making a closer connection for myself. I’d read the poem so many times already, I’d studied maps and commentaries about the battle and the poem. Was it a heroic poem, commemorating those who had valiantly fought, or was it a tale of vainglory and folly? – Presumably it was in the interests of fair play that Bryhtnoth magnanimously withdrew his small force of men from the ‘bridgehead’ of the causeway and let the Vikings cross so that they might set up their ‘shield-wall’ along the level salt-flat so that battle could properly be joined according to the norms of the time, according to the established ‘rules of engagement’, if you like – But how to interpret this act? The Saxons were clearly vastly outnumbered, and they knew it.

‘The ground is cleared for you: come quickly to us,
Gather to battle. God alone knows
Who shall carry the wielding of this waste ground’

When the two sides finally clashed and the battle commenced, it was undoubtedly hard fought by both sides, but ultimately, the Saxons were routed. The Battle of Maldon was in fact a massacre. There is a key Saxon word in the poem which gives translators not a little interpretative difficulty. The word is ofermōd – literally meaning, ‘over-heart’ or ‘having too much heart’ (in Swedish övermod, or in German übermut, meaning both ‘hubris’ and ‘recklessness’). In this sense then, are we meant to read the poem as a paean to a patriotic hero, or as an elegy to the sin of overreaching pride? 

J.R.R. Tolkien apparently favoured the latter interpretation. As for me, walking the earth bank of the sea wall and standing at the ‘bridgehead’ of the causeway itself, then submerged beneath the tide, with the sound of the water calmly lapping at my feet, I couldn’t tell for sure. Watching the huge Thames sail barges and old fishing smacks gliding by, it’s hard to imagine back to a time even more remote. But essentially this place was in some senses no different then than it is now. The land behind me, beyond the empty green fields and meadows, inhabited by people simply wanting to get on with their lives, but harassed by marauding raiders making random incursions which periodically turned their world totally upside down. The fear and apprehension must have been great, or the weariness and affront perhaps even greater, such that one day they decided: ‘Not this time. This time we make a stand.’


It is perhaps a testimony to the significance of that particular act – simply that it was recorded and continues to be remembered to this day. Like so much of history, it can mean whatever we choose to interpret it to mean. As a story of national resilience, foreshadowing Winston Churchill’s famous speech: “We shall fight on the beaches …” – A story of heroic emulation, goading and galvanising us together into a shared sense of community, or as a parable against foolhardy pride and folly, it can connect us to the past in so many different ways. Some of these ways might perhaps be more nuanced and personal to us as we set out in search of tangible traces of that past for ourselves. Finding those connections may simply be the real reward in itself. For me, this is the joy of ‘doing’ history. As heirs to this past, it is up to us to keep these memories alive. It’s important to remember, to recount what is said to have happened, and to think about it. To feel that the past was something genuinely real – something which was once lived.

Further Reading

On The Battle of Maldon:

Michael Alexander (trans.), The Earliest English Poems (Penguin, 1992)

Hans Erik Andersen, ‘The Battle of Maldon’: The Meaning, Dating and Historicity of an Old English Poem (University of Copenhagen Press, 1991)

Mary R. Bowman, ‘Refining the Gold: Tolkien, The Battle of Maldon, and the Northern Theory of Courage’ in Tolkien Studies, Vol. 7 (2010), pp. 91-115

George Clark, ‘The Battle of Maldon: A Heroic Poem’ in Speculum Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jan., 1968), pp. 52-71

Janet Cooper (ed.), The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact (The Hambledon Press, 1993)

Helmut Gneuss, ‘The Battle of Maldon 89: Byrhtnod’s “Ofermod” Once Again’ in Studies in Philology, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Apr., 1976), pp. 117-137

Seamus Heaney (trans.), Beowulf (Faber & Faber, 1999)

Edward B. Irving, Jr., ‘The Heroic Style in “The Battle of Maldon”’ in Studies in Philology, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Jul., 1968), pp. 457-467

Eric John, ‘War and Society in the Tenth Century: The Maldon Campaign’ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 27 (1977), pp. 173-195

E.D. Laborde, ‘The Site of the Battle of Maldon’ in The English Historical Review, Vol. 40, No. 158 (Apr., 1925), pp. 117-137

George R. Petty, Jr., & Susan Petty, ‘Geology and the Battle of Maldon’ in Speculum, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Jul., 1976), pp. 435-446

Fred C. Robinson, ‘Some Aspects of the “Maldon” Poet’s Artistry’ in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 75, No. 1/2 (Jan-Apr., 1976), pp. 25-40

There are a number of articles and commentaries about the Battle of Maldon on the web – one of the most interesting is this post by Eleanor Parker on her blog A Clerk of Oxford. Plus this slightly different interpretation of The Battle of Maldon poem (re-enacted by Lego figures) is quite good too!

On British Prehistory & Lithics Studies:

Timothy Darvill, Prehistoric Britain (Routledge, 2010)

R.M. Jacobi, ‘Britain Inside and Outside Mesolithic Europe’ in Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, Vol. 42 (1976), pp. 67-84

I.H. Longworth, Prehistoric Britain (British Museum Press, 1986)

M.W. Petts & R.M. Jacobi, ‘Some Aspects of Change in Flaked Stone Industries of the Mesolithic and Neolithic in Southern Britain’ in Journal of Archaeological Sciences, Vol. 6 (1979), pp. 163-177

Schnapp, Alain (trans. Ian Kinnes & Gillian Varndell), The Discovery of the Past (Abrams, 1997)

Steven W. Vincent & William H. George, Some Mesolithic Sites along the Rivers Blackwater and Crouch, Essex (Privately published, 1980)

John Wymer, Mesolithic Britain (Shire Publications, 1991)

I learnt much of what I know about lithic typologies from Dr Roger Jacobi, whom I was very fortunate enough to have worked closely alongside for several years. Another mentor of mine in Prehistoric archaeology was Dr Ian Kinnes. Both of whom very sadly passed away a few years ago. I’m really pleased to see that Roger’s archive has been preserved and is now in the process of being digitised for the use of other scholars.