Ailsa Mainman
Blackthorn Press, £19.95
ISBN 978-1906259525
Review Ian Milsted

Ailsa Mainman’s Anglian York encapsulates the allure and the frustration of researching this period in the city. Following the near silence of the 5th and 6th centuries, York blossoms from the 600s in written sources, emerging as the ecclesiastical heart of Northumbria, the 8th-century home of Alcuin and his precious library, and finally the thriving, tempting, high-status target for the 9th-century Viking army. But, archaeologically, York from c.410 to c.850 remains highly fragmentary and elusive. Trying to align the physical evidence with the historical sources can feel like chasing shadows: it is difficult to conjure a city from dark earth.

Ailsa has produced the first comprehensive review of the historical and archaeological evidence for Eoforwic for 20 years, and presents an impressively coherent picture of current knowledge. Tackling York by area as much as by period or theme, this book envisages Eoforwic as a place rather than a collection of interesting curios. The evolution of the topography is underpinned by the author’s expert knowledge of the artefactual and structural evidence, presenting familiar material in the fresh light of new research and discoveries.

The key elements of Anglian York – its Minster, royal settlement, churches, and putative wic – are explored through a finely woven summary of recent landscape analysis, contemporary descriptions, and, crucially, clear archaeological analysis of material culture. The legacy of Roman Eboracum is clear in the surprisingly frequent instances of alterations to Roman buildings and streetscapes across the city, presented here as evidence for widespread Anglian adaptation and allowing for a more complete appreciation of the early medieval city as a real, growing place.

Much of this information has lain in archives for at least a generation, but – rarely published or made accessible – it has been difficult to appreciate in context. This is Mainman’s principal contribution. Even when she is discussing antiquarian and recently discovered funerary evidence, it is a living place that emerges most strongly, demanding investigation. Anglian York demonstrates the value of collating and sharing extensive fragmentary data, and mounts a challenge to extend this knowledge. The lost city of Eoforwic is waiting to be found.


This review appeared in CA 359To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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