As a unified, organised state England has a very long history indeed - more than a thousand years of continuous existence, so far. This, writes James Campbell, is the defining contrast between England and the other great European states. Despite some redrawing of county boundaries in 1974, most of the administrative geography of England remains today much as it was in the tenth and 11th centuries. No other European country can point to anything like this. Though the country was conquered by Duke William of Normandy in 1066 the structures of the English state survived - and if the main point of governmental institutions is to perpetuate themselves, then those which the Anglo-Saxons founded have been remarkably successful. The six centuries of Anglo-Saxon rule witnessed more than just the emergence of a stable political system, however. This long period saw the English language firmly established, so firmly indeed that the centuries of dominance by a French-speaking Úlite after 1066 proved, in the end, to be insufficient to root it out. It also saw the establishment of Christianity in England. This made little difference to men's moral values: but in other ways it involved a radical cultural transformation. It meant, for example, the coming of the book and of building in stone. As Patrick Wormald suggests, these are changes the significance of which should be understood by an age which has itself seen the advent of the microchip and pre-stressed concrete. In government, in art and in literature the Anglo-Saxons showed astonishingly creative aptitudes. For anyone who wishes to understand the broad sweep of English history, Anglo-Saxon society is an important and fascinating subject. And Campbell's is an important and fascinating book. It is also a finely produced and, at times, a very beautiful book.
LRB 17 November 1983 | PDF Download