Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Guy Halsall on the Staffordshire Hoard

My memory is not what it once was, but I don't recall commenting on this presentation on the Staffordshire Hoard. Guy Halsall, the speaker on this occasion, is a careful historian of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, and has written a brilliant book on early medieval warfare, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West 450-900.  This talk gives you an idea how well he handles the sparse and difficult evidence of the early medieval period.  I recommend you read the whole thing.
The Hoard also speaks to the nature of warfare itself. In Warfare and Society I argued, against a common view which claims that sieges were the main means of deciding the outcome of warfare, that the period 450-900 was one when pitched battles were unusually common. I drew attention not just to the frequency with which battles are mentioned in narrative sources but also to the need to see warfare in a broader, socio-economic context. There were factors concerning social structure and the élite’s dependence upon the army and military affairs for its legitimacy that pushed towards more frequent battlefield confrontation.  Moreover, highly-developed fortification is notably absent between the Roman Empire’s fragmentation and the ninth century; siege-warfare was not the elaborate science it would be later. This is not surprising. Settlements, other than monasteries perhaps, were not the foci for wealth that they would become. If loot and booty oiled the cogs of early medieval politics, which they did, though not to the extent that is often surmised, it was not going to be yielded through the seizure of sixth- to eighth-century towns.

The best way to make a significant profit from warfare was to defeat the enemy army in battle, because early medieval armies took their wealth with them. More and more the lesson is underlined that, particularly in the immediately post-imperial centuries, people wore their wealth, and that was nowhere truer than with warriors, except that they also rode theirs.  The price of a warhorse remained fairly (if you’ll excuse the pun) stable at about 10 solidi across western Europe between 450 and 900. It’s difficult to know what that really meant, the solidus usually being a somewhat abstract unit of account; suffice it to say that people swapped reasonably sized parcels of land for horses. These were then given lavishly decorated harnesses, bits, bridles and saddles – some of this seems to be represented in the Hoard. This, it’s worth pointing out, was a hugely risky investment; horses die distressingly easily on campaign. Looting the average Anglo-Saxon village – as we currently understand it – was not going to recoup such a loss.

An early medieval warrior’s own accoutrements didn’t cost a year’s income from a whole village, as sometimes claimed, but they certainly didn’t come cheap. They were adorned and decorated as much as possible. The sometimes-seen notion that things like the Sutton Hoo helmet represent ‘parade armour’ is misconceived. The early medieval warrior was a frightening and imposing, a glittering and plumed figure. I don’t doubt that in their own way these were every bit the dangerous strutting dandies that were their descendants in the Hussar regiments of a millennium later. The Staffordshire Hoard’s items emphasise this; the almost casual gilding and ornamentation of just about every object or surface that could be so decorated. The Hoard fascinates, it intrigues, but it does not surprise me.

What is maybe more important, following my earlier numbers game, is just how much of the surplus from the agriculture of earlier Anglo-Saxon England was being – excuse the pun – ploughed into the dandification of warriors. When you think of that, the lack of impressive settlements, say, becomes easier to understand. It also confirms the wealth of Mercia. We ought not to be surprised about where the biggest find of Anglo-Saxon gold was located.

Battles were a huge risk – early medieval people knew that – but if you won the rewards were enormous. Taking an enemy army’s horses, let alone its weaponry and armour, would represent a major windfall.

Those who know my work on Charny's Questions may get a laugh from this early appearance of "who gets the horse?"

Image:  Helmet cheek-piece from the Hoard.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:36 pm

    Was not the "hundred" the minimum number required to outfit a man at arms, horse, and provision him and his commitas?
    Or is this sort of an urban legend?