C. Hart, The Danelaw, The Hambledon Press, London, 1992. ISBN 1 85285 044 2, 702 pages + xviii, £49.00.
The Danelaw consists of twenty-four essays on the history of that part of England settled by the Danes in the ninth and tenth centuries. Half of the essays have appeared elsewhere in one form or another. They have been here revised, often cursorily, in the light of recent research, and the new material has been contrived to link them into a coherent whole. The area of the study is large, stretching from Essex to Yorkshire, and the chosen subjects address many of the general problems of pre-Conquest history, such as the origins of distinctive Danelaw institutions and their relationship to the hundreds of hidated England, as well as a number of matters of a more local nature. But by and large, the approach is strictly historical, with little acknowledgement of the archaeological and onomastic evidence, and no attempt has been made to cover all aspects of Danelaw society.
Within his areas of interest Dr Hart brings to bear some welcome commonsense to the study of a highly complex society. It is gratifying to see, for example, that he dismisses the simplistic interpretations of sokes which some schools of thought would have us believe are immutable fixtures of the tenurial landscape dating from the earliest archaeological site within their bounds. He rightly recognizes that sokes were vital institutions, subject to great change, and therefore Domesday forms are often poor indicators of origins. Much of his analysis, however, is founded in a belief in the essentially Viking nature of such Danelaw institutions. He argues that carucation and the wapentake pre-date the English reconquest of the early tenth century in the face of compelling evidence (not discussed) that both embody legal principles no earlier than the late tenth century. In consequence, his views of the functions and interrelationships of wapentakes, sokes, and the like are often anachronistic where not irrelevant.
Many of the local investigations, such as essays on the carucation of Lindsey and the origins of Lincolnshire, suffer from such preconceived ideas. It is in its studies of people rather than institutions that the book is at its best. The account of Ealdorman Athelstan 'Half King' is a classic of Anglo-Saxon prosopography, and the new study of Hereward the Wake ventures some interesting speculations on the social backgrounds of the fenland rebels in 1070. More in this vein would have been welcome. Thus, it is to be regretted that Dr Hart has not offered a more searching analysis of the political forces, and personalities where known, that shaped the Danelaw. The tensions between the Danes of Yorkshire and the Five Boroughs, for example, are not explored in any detail and yet they provided the dynamic of many a vital development in the East Midlands and the North between 850 and 1100.
All in all this book is highly idiosyncratic. It is not the work that will supersede the great monographs on the Danelaw by Stenton and Douglas. Nevertheless, there are moments of great insight and incisive analysis that anyone interested in the history of the Danelaw will not wish to ignore.