Toby Martin: The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England (part 1)

Toby Martin 2015, The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England Toby Martin 2015, The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England

This is the definitive study of English cruciform brooches. Now and then a study comes along that is so comprehensive, and so well argued, that nobody will ever be likely to even try to eclipse it. It is my firm belief that future work on English cruciform brooches will strictly be footnotes to Toby Martin. He has collected and presented a huge material, asked interesting questions of it, and dealt with it competently using state-of-the-art methods. I'd be happy to hand this book as a model to any archaeologist anywhere who wants to produce a detailed study of an artefact group.

These brooches belong to the 5th and 6th centuries AD, or in Scandy terms of relative chronology, the Migration Period and Early Vendel Period. Every area around the North Sea (including western Sweden) has its regional varieties, yet they are similar enough that it is abundantly plain that contact between Scandyland and England was certainly not waiting for the Viking Period to begin. My own studies of the period have concentrated on the shores of the Baltic, and so I have never done much with cruciform brooches. I am happy to learn.

Still, I have a few nits to pick with Toby Martin's book. This is going to get technical, but he clearly cares about methodology, and so I'm pretty sure he'll be interested in the points I make. I'll cover chapters 1-3 here and then return to the book in a later blog entry. Chapters 4-7 deal with societal interpretations of the jewellery.

“The cruciform brooches in the grave from Alveston Manor … are exceptionally primitive for group 2 and therefore belong to the very earliest part of phase B, if not the latter end of phase A.” (pp. 114-115, my italics)

This is nonsense and a rare case of Toby Martin slipping into an ugly analytical error, viz typological idealism or reification of the phase. By this point in the book, he has spent endless care in defining brooch types and then dividing his type list into three chronological phases. We only know that there is a phase B, and which brooch types allow us to recognise it, because Toby Martin has done the work and told us so. By his own definition, no group 2 brooch can belong to phase A. It is logically impossible for Toby Martin to be unsure of which phase a group 2 brooch belongs to. After all, his types and phases do not exist outside his definitions. As he points out on p. 123, “The opening of phase C … defines the end of phase B”. He knows how this works.

“... some phase B cruciform brooches in at least the second quarter of the sixth century. There is one slight discrepancy in the decidedly primitive type 2.1.1 cruciform brooch from Eriswell grave 28 … This cruciform brooch, with its fully round top-knob, like the pair from Alveston Manor …, appears to straddle the group 1 and 2 divide.” (p. 118, my italics)

This again is typological idealism, reification of the type. Toby Martin isn't allowed to wonder like this if a well-preserved brooch belongs to group 1 or 2: he is the one who decides the rules for that. If he thinks this brooch is dodgy, then he needs to separate it out as an edge case, defining groups 1 and 2 in such a way that the Eriswell 28 brooch gains admittance to neither of them. He has chosen not to.

“These final, flat and exclusively bichrome cruciform brooches find no parallels whatsoever among Norwegian cruciform brooches … Perhaps the persistence of cruciform brooches in England was due to their becoming akin to the flatter, broader relief or square-headed brooches. The latest Norwegian cruciform brooches do not share these similarities and never tended toward such flat forms and in so doing, perhaps sealed their fate.” (p. 123, my italics)

Brooches do not make themselves, Toby Martin. The Norwegian brooches did not fail to jump aboard a new fashion for flatter brooches. What happened was that Norwegian people pondered the option of making flat cruciform brooches like their relatives in England wore, and decided, “No, fuck it, let's start making an entirely new class of brooches instead. After all, in Eastern Norway the Vendel Period is already starting.” You can't explain the end of a brooch series with reference to the brooches themselves failing to make a fashion jump.

I've called these points nitpicking, and that is what they are in the context of this enormous and enormously solid study. Let me end by emphasising again that Toby Martin should be a model for us all in how he deals with small finds!

Update 16 June 2016: And the review continues.

Martin, Toby F. 2015. The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon Studies 25. Boydell Press. Woodbridge. 338 pp. plus plates. ISBN 978-1-84383-993-4.

More like this

Toby Martin 2015, The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England Back around Christmas I reviewed the first three chapters of Toby Martin's big book about Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches. Those are the technical chapters dealing with typology and chronology, and I loved them. They are rock solid.…
The Detective: Jonathan L. Howard's second book about Johannes Cabal, the necromancer. Here are my best reads in English during 2016. My total was 42 books and 13 of them were e-books. Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year? The Detective. (Johannes Cabal #2.)…
I'm happy and relieved. A 73-page paper that I put a lot of work and travel into and submitted almost five years ago has finally been published. In his essays, Stephen Jay Gould often refers to his "technical work", which largely concerns Cerion land snails and is most likely not read by very many…
Skalk 2013:6 (December) has a nice piece about shell middens and Mesolithic oyster cooking, recalling a few points I made back on my first blog. You can't open a fresh oyster without a steel knife. But if you heat the oyster even just slightly, it opens. I was also interested to learn about a…