The Northern Danelaw: its Social Structure, c.800-1100. By D. M. Hadley. Studies in the Early History of Britain. Leicester University Press (London and New York). 2000. x + 374 pp. £55.00.
In recent years the Northern Danelaw has become an adventure playground for historians of pre-Conquest societies. Once upon a time we were taught that the distinctive characteristics of England north of the Welland attested the settlement of a free Danish army in the late ninth century. But this was a certainty that dissolved with the identification of features in the area of earlier societies and places. And so the real fun began. The North is rich in playthings - extensive parishes, intercommoning, above all manors and sokes - so you too can reconstruct an early Saxon multiple estate which, if it contains an archaeological site of the right date, 'is almost certainly Roman in origin'.
A wapentake is as good as a Poor Law district to a blind man, so it is timely that a critical mind has applied itself to problems that are not so easy of solution. Dawn Hadley has no truck with lazy assumptions of continuity. She is aware that the materials of historical geography are manifestations of personal relationships, and they are therefore subject to the myriad of influences that change through time. Parish boundaries, for example, are not set in stone but only remained static as long as they suited a purpose. Hadley demonstrates that they could and did change, so what they represent now is different from what they represented a thousand years ago. There is much rethinking of basic concepts of this kind, and she is at pains to demonstrate that our sources for the Danelaw, first and foremost Domesday Book, can only tell us about the period that produced them.
What, then, of the impact of the Danes on this society, the starting point of her inquiry? At the outset Hadley concludes from a brief excursus into different regions in Europe that variation in social structure is a given; there does not have to be a single reason. In an exemplary discussion of ethnicity, she goes on to show that the terms of the debate are largely illusory: the society of the Danelaw developed its own dynamics that are Danelaw rather than Danish. All of this is very welcome, but we are left with the impression that variation is its own explanation. A wider discussion might, for example, have explored the effect of political relations - with Wessex, Mercia, England - on Danelaw society and broached solutions. Was the militarization of society, so characteristic of southern England in the late tenth and eleventh centuries, discouraged in a region of uncertain loyalties and interests?
That, however, is perhaps another book. Hadley has written a work that will justly be read with Stenton's Types of Manorial Structure in the Northern Danelaw. Indispensable for any one interested in northern society in the pre-Conquest period, it will also be salutary for any historian interested in early societies generally. Multiple estate fabricators beware! Playtime is over.
University of Sheffield David Roffe.