Well writing down my most influential top ten books relating to history and archaeology is obviously an opportunity for pretension. A chance to make myself look far more intellectual and interesting than I am, or could ever hope to be. However, I’m a realist. Those of you that know me would laugh in scorn if I listed anything to do with archaeological theory, or anything that even suggested I had a clear understanding of the current debates. Those who don’t know me would probably just laugh at the typo’s. As a result I have found myself being honest. It doesn’t happen often – and frankly you shouldn’t get used to the idea – but this list is simply a diverse collection of the books that I love, and hate, the most. They are the books that find their way on to my desk and bedside table on a regular basis and, in most cases, have been read and re-read. I’m sure that some people might expect there to be more of one type of book, or less of another, but these are the books that led me to where I am today – for good or ill. My only word of advice to potential readers would be – if you buy the Duffy – for God’s sake get the paperback.
1. English Medieval Graffiti – Violet Pritchard
This book was actually published in the year that I was pretty busy being born, so for most of you it probably counts as ancient history. Something to be bound in leather and gently caressed upon the bookshelf. The book too, if the feeling takes you. However, the book has weathered slightly better than I, and remains the only full length work on English medieval graffiti. It is flawed, as the author herself freely admits, but it forms the foundation of all the work on the subject currently being undertaken. A very dog eared copy tends to travel with me, in my graffiti bag swamped in torches, batteries, photo scales and odd bits of blue-tack. It is, at one and the same time, a gem and a curse.
2. The Stripping of the Altars – Eamon Duffy
Lots of books get described as monumental studies – but this really is the granddaddy of them all. Duffy’s analysis of the late medieval parish church, and the effect that the English reformation had on them, is just such a detailed piece of research, drawing upon thousands of documents and evidence of material culture, that it is difficult to think of any other book in the same area of study ever matching it. Of course it has its faults. Duffy has a ‘view’ that most certainly appears in the pages, and is difficult to ignore. However, this book is largely responsible for me now finding myself bogged down in the minutia of the medieval parish church. It was given to me as an engagement present by a family friend and has been a repeated visitor to my bedside table ever since. Probably hasn’t helped the marriage much – but the size of the book along makes it a useful place to rest a cup of tea and a full English breakfast.
3. Image and Devotion in Late Medieval England – Richard Marks
This book changed the way I looked at churches. Simple as that. Previously they had been artefacts; to be deconstructed and broken down in to their component pieces, dated, mused over and catalogued. No more than that. Marks’ book made me question my own views and look afresh at the material I was looking at. It added the ‘human’ element. For that I will be eternally grateful. I’ll leave it at that.
4. Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
If you haven’t got a copy – buy one now. It’s been around for… well, forever actually. Probably. I remember reading my grandmother’s copy as a young boy; a well thumbed, black cloth bound, post-war economy edition. I’m sure she only used it for help with the crossword clues, but to me it was a window into a different world. A world of myth and mythology that came as a blaze of light upon a young mind. The origins of words, phrases and concepts that make our world the one it is today – whether you acknowledge it or not. Over 19,000 entries including everything from the origins of the term ‘Happy Clappy’ to a summary of Gnosticism. Really useful for completing crosswords too (thanks Gran).
5. Religion and the Decline of Magic – Keith Thomas
I just LOVE this book. It’s like all the areas of history that interest me all rolled in to one! Another study of the late medieval and early modern church – but with a twist. Thomas takes you on a magically mystery tour of the late medieval/Tudor/Stuart world – looking at witchcraft, superstition, prophesy and religion. What the hell isn’t to like! A superbly referenced work that has stood the test of time. My own copy is now so dog eared that I keep thinking of buying a new one – but then look at all the underlining’s and marginalia in the old copy and can’t bear the thought of parting with it.
6. The Archaeology and Ritual of Magic – Ralph Merrifield
As Merrifield states in the preface to this 1987 work, “Ritual and magic were formerly part of everyday life, but by association with fantasy fiction and occultism they have now acquired an aura of sensationalism that has discouraged investigation”. By the time Merrifield was writing, and I was beginning my first forays into archaeology, the idea of looking at superstition, ritual and folklore was really not something that archaeology as a discipline encouraged. Any mention of folklore as an aid to interpretation was most definitely left for a late Friday night session in the pub. However, this book marked the beginning of a long overdue reassessment of the role of individual beliefs and superstitions and how they might be interpreted and represented in the archaeological record. For me it was an eye opening volume, that awakened my interest in the evolution of practice and belief throughout the centuries. It is now long overdue a follow up work, but the book still finds its way often on to my desk. For me this book was really the very first step on a journey.
7. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? – Martin Carver
Sutton Hoo is just a special place. An odd place. It has a magic all of its own. In terms of landscape it just feel oddly disjointed in its East Anglian setting. It sits above the river, staring out across the water and wet embankments, and feels more of Devon that it does of Suffolk. Perhaps that’s why East Anglians chose to bury their Kings there, and later execute their criminals in the same spot. If you ever wander across the site as the mist begins to rise above the river you will soon realise how detached from both time and space this place really is. I knew the site long before I knew it’s archaeological history. Oh, I knew it was the place of ship burials and gold – but didn’t really understand the archaeology. I didn’t understand just why the site was so special. Then I came across Martin Carver’s work in a 2nd hand bookshop whilst on a wet holiday upon Hadrian’s Wall (sorry Martin, didn’t pay full price) and read about the excavations of an Anglo-Saxon sacred site whilst surrounded by Roman imperialist rubble. It gave my imaginings substance, and added a solid underpinning of archaeology to a long held gut feeling. When I returned to the site a few months later it was with new eyes and new insights. And it is the feeling that a well written archaeology book, aimed at the great unwashed such as myself, will continue to inspire – I hope.
8. Beowulf – Seamus Heaney
I’ve always been fascinated by East Anglia and its Anglo-Saxon past, ever since I first saw pictures of the Sutton Hoo treasure in the BM. It struck me that here really was a history of the region that I had grown up in, walked across, and fallen in love with that I really knew far too little about. Growing up inside the borders of a kingdom that was a complete enigma to me. Several academic types had suggested to me that I should read this book, had to read it to understand the connections. Given that the original poem has nothing to do with East Anglia I rather rebelled against the idea, failing to see any connection whatsoever and bloody-mindedly ignored them. Then, undoubtedly in desperation, a friend dragged me in to a London bookshop, bought me a copy and thrust it in to my hands. She told me that, when I read the first section, I was to think of Sutton Hoo. I did… and won’t spoil it for you. The original A/S is largely beyond me these days, and I always sound like a drunken scouser when attempting the pronunciation, but Heaney’s translation/interpretation is spellbindingly readable. Buy a copy, take it to the beach and read it staring at the waves… then look for the burial mounds on the headland.
9. Pilgrim Badges – Brian Spencer
When I was a teenager I was very, very interested in pilgrim badges. They seemed to offer a route in to the medieval mind that a good deal of art history and archaeology simply didn’t offer. As a result, and always being a ‘crafty’ sort of person, I began to attempt making replica badges – in the hope, I suppose, that it might offer insights in some way. Brian Spencer encouraged me and, as ‘the’ authority on the subject, spent wayyyy too many hours on the phone to me discussing the iconography, technical details and symbolism. He was generous to a fault, even leaving his beloved garden and flowers for long discussions with a callow youth from the back of beyond. He had a passion for the subject that I shared, and still do, and it shone through in all his works. He WANTED people to understand why he thought these tiny and tinny artefacts were important, and I have always felt that his untimely death left a stunning book yet to be written. Every time I return to this book, looking for obscure references and inspiration, it open up new ideas to me. The marginalia of material culture – and a reminder of a friend and mentor to the gobby teenager I once was.
10. A Month in the Country – J.L Carr
And I DO know that this is just SO predictable, and probably seems too contrived, but I really love this book. It probably helps that it’s short and I have the attention span of a gnat… Seriously though, this is a gem of a book that I first read as a teenager and then returned to after getting ‘involved’ with medieval wall paintings. It has sod all really to do with archaeology, wall paintings or the medieval church – but it is a beautifully written work of lost opportunities, redemption and the salvaging of lives. So, I suppose, it does at least work as a metaphor for most archaeology… or is that just me?
Well there you have them. My ten desert island archaeology/heritage books. No archaeological theory – but at least I didn’t list Clan of the Cave Bear…
Matthew Champion is the Project Director for the Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Surveys