Monday, 9 November 1998

Arthur Bryant: Set in a Silver Sea (1984)

Edition: Collins, 1984
Review number: 161

In his introduction to Set in a Silver Sea, Arthur Bryant says that he believes that each generation needs its own popular history, a book based on recent scholarship to help people understand the past and its particular relationship to the times. In particular, the general histories available before the eighties were still very concerned with political history, ignoring the social and economic history that has proved so important in academic history over the last fifty years or so. In some ways, Arthur Bryant was ideally placed to write such a history of England, having recently completed a large multi-volume academic history of the country, which he drew on for Set in a Silver Sea.

The fact the Bryant was retired when he began to write Set in a Silver Sea has both positive and negative consequences for the book, at least as it affected me while I read it. After a long and illustrious career as a historian, he could certainly speak from a position of knowledge. But as an old age pensioner, could he really be said to be writing for the generation of the eighties? I would consider myself to have passed my formative years in the eighties, and I must be over forty years younger than Bryant. My perspective on history is certainly somewhat different, at least a few steps further removed from the chivalric adventures that filled histories of the middle ages written in the nineteenth century.

And that brings me to another problem; this history, ostensibly covering the period from the earliest prehistoric settlements to the end of the fourteenth century, is really a history of the middle ages. The whole period up to the reign of Alfred, thousands of years, is covered in forty pages; the five hundred years of the middle ages from that date takes the remaining four hundred or so. If Bryant was uninterested in the earlier period, it would perhaps be helpful to say so; if this is meant to be a general history, a more general coverage is necessary. That is not to say that the history of the five hundred year period which takes up the major part of the book is not excellent; Bryant succeeds in giving an insight into the medieval mind which does not usually come through in this sort of work.

No comments: