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Williams. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, 3. Cambridge University
Press, 1990. Pp. xv, 448. £ 40.00.
Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge inform us in their editorial preface to this series
that it is their 'intention to encourage the publication of original scholarship which
advances our understanding of the field through interdisciplinary approaches'. Patrick
Sims-Williams, in his introduction and conclusion to this volume, provides an
apologia for what he describes as 'the English tradition of interdisciplinary regional
studies' applied in his case to two seventh- and eighth-century Anglo-Saxon
kingdoms. The territories studied are those of the Hwicce and the Magonsaetan, which
were approximately coextensive with the later medieval dioceses of Worcester and
Hereford respectively. The use of the interdisciplinary approach is to be welcomed
in principle. The combined resources of history, archaeology, literature and other
ancillary disciplines are essential for the recovery of the fullest possible understanding
of early medieval peoples. The problem with this book is that the region chosen for
study is too small, too poorly documented and too lacking in cultural definition. The
book might more honestly be entitled Studies relating to the Hwicce and Magonscetan:
two sub-kingdoms in south-west Mercia, for it only deals with a fraction of what by
any standards-Anglo-Saxon or other-can be called 'Western England'. This study
excludes even the Wreocensaetan (northern neighbours of the Magonsaetan located in
parts of Shropshire), as well as north-west Mercia, covering modern Cheshire and
On the author's own admission, the Hwicce and Magonsaetan are so poorly
documented that we do not know precisely when in the seventh century they were
converted to Christianity or by whom, and by the eighth century, when records begin
to promise a fuller picture, both sub-kingdoms were subsumed into the greater
Mercian realm, thereby losing whatever fragile political identity they may have
previously possessed. It is difficult to speak meaningfully about such tribal or quasi-
tribal territories without constant reference to the kings who ruled them, but the early
political demise of those rulers has meant that their royal pedigrees have not been
preserved in the eighth-century Anglian collection of genealogies. This precludes all
knowledge of their tribal or dynastic polity-crucial for the definition of what Sims-
Williams refers to elsewhere as a 'discrete people' in the early Middle Ages. Political
weakness and the geographical isolation of south-west Mercia from centres enjoying
the patronage of powerful overlords in Mercia proper, Wessex and Northumbria, has
sealed the fate of the Hwicce and Magonsaetan for the modern historian as that of
essentially prehistoric and proto-historic peoples. Not even the happy chance of the
survival of a relative abundance of early.charters in the Worcester archive can offset
that stark fact. For this reason, too, as Sims-Williams is aware, Bede had very little
knowledge of the Hwicce or the Magonsaetan, but this does not deter the author of
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