Adventures in Bookland: Anglo-Saxon England by F.M. Stenton
For decades if you asked a serious historian a question about Anglo-Saxon England the answer would be, “I’ll look in my Stenton.” Even today, more than half a century after the book was first published, people still look to Frank Stenton’s work for an overview of England between the Romans leaving and the Normans arriving (and it’s pretty good on the Conquest too). So, the question is, what makes a book definitive? There have been any number of books published on Anglo-Saxon England since this one came out (and it sometimes feels like I’ve read most of them), so what makes this one stand out?
Well, for one thing, Anglo-Saxon England might have been the book for which that over-used review adjective, ‘magisterial’, was coined. Every sentence, phrase, thought breathes the considered thought of a lifetime’s engagement with the past. Combine that with the fluid, clear prose in which Stenton writes, and you have two of the elements that make a book definitive in its subject area. Professionally, Frank Stenton was also acknowledged by his peers as one of the pre-eminent Anglo-Saxonists of his era, alongside Dorothy Whitelock, and thus his book became required reading on every undergraduate course in Anglo-Saxon. These three legs make up the tripod of the definitive text. Even with all the findings of half a century of archaeology, Stenton’s book remains on the reading list of every undergraduate course and deservedly so. Nowadays, I would combine it with reading The Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas Higham and Martin Ryan, but Stenton remains the gold standard of Anglo-Saxon scholarship.