The Bookshelf: Wordsmiths and Warriors.

Oxford University Press has sent me a review copy of David Crystal’s new book, Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain, of which the publishers say “David and Hilary Crystal take us on a journey through Britain to discover the people who gave our language its colour and character; Saxon invaders, medieval scholars, poets, reformers, dictionary writers. Part travelogue, part history, this beautifully illustrated book is full of unexpected delights.” They’re not kidding about “beautifully illustrated” — David’s wife Hilary took the color photographs that illustrate every chapter (there are also lots of black-and-white historical ones), and just opening the book randomly gives your eyes something to delight in (and makes you want to visit the place forthwith). It’s informed, of course, by Crystal’s deep knowledge of English and its history, but there’s plenty of random tidbits and surprising sidelights (for instance, the chapter on Hampton Court Palace includes a box with a long quote from Jerome K. Jerome). If you’re currently looking for a Christmas present for someone with an interest in English and its history, you might want to consider this gorgeous book.


  1. The Dark Ages for Britain were marked by invasions by German and Irish barbarians. I sometimes wonder whether one reason for using “Saxon” is to soften that blunt truth.

  2. Since Saxon is etymologically ‘knife-man’, I don’t know how much it softens it.

  3. …and the Saxons came from what is now Germany, and were themselves one of many Germanic tribes living in the area and one of several to invade Britain, and modern Germany has 3 states with the word “Saxony” in their name. And I’ve never heard anything to suggest the Saxons were any more civilised than any of their Germanic cousins or their Celtic neighbours. And considering how much of early English literature was borrowed from the Vikings (Beowulf) and the Celts (King Arthur), I find myseld wondering just who were the barbarians…

  4. modern Germany has 3 states with the word “Saxony” in their name.

    2 (two): Sachsen-Anhalt and Sachsen.

  5. Sorry, 3 (three) includining Niedersachsen. I put it down to my ignorance of geography.

  6. Trond Engen says

    If I understand it correctly, Niedersachsen is the original Sachsen, and the name was transferred southeast by dynastic expansion and contraction. I know two ON names for German-speaking lands, Saxland in the north and Frankland around the Rhine. The eastern regions were Slavic and sorted under Vendland.

  7. Trond: it’s strange that I forgot Niedersachsen and overlooked it on the map, given that I’ve been there dozens of times, and even worked for 6 months on an IT project just outside of Hannover. One poor reason was that I made my comment just after waking up.

    But the mistake, before I noticed it, led me to learn a bit about what you just mentioned. Since Sachsen and Sachsen-Anhalt are far inland, I wondered why Sachsen would bother to invade the British isles. The Krautopedia article on Sachsen says:

    Als Sachsen wird heute ein Gebiet an der oberen Mittelelbe, in der südlichen Lausitz und im Erzgebirge bezeichnet. Historisch ist es aber losgelöst vom Stammesherzogtum Sachsen, dem Siedlungsraum der Sachsen in Norddeutschland.

  8. “Since Saxon is etymologically ‘knife-man’, I don’t know how much it softens it.” It softens it for people who don’t know that.

    “I find myseld wondering just who were the barbarians…”: the Romano-Britons probably had little difficulty in that matter.

  9. Indeed. Here’s Tolkien from “English and Welsh”:

    Between the speakers of British [i.e. Welsh] and English there was naturally hostility (especially on the British side); and when men are hostile the language of their enemies may share their hatred, On the defending side, to the hatred of cruel invaders and robbers was added, no doubt, contempt for barbarians from beyond the pale of Rome, and detestation of heathens unbaptized. The Saxons were a scourge of God, devils allowed to torment the Britons for their sins. Sentiments hardly less hostile were felt by the later baptized English for the heathen Danes. The invective of Wulfstan of York against the new scourge is much like that of Gildas against the Saxons: naturally, since Wulfstan had read Gildas and cites him.

    So we see that barbarian is a relative term, and one century’s barbarians are the next century’s civilization. In Lest Darkness Fall, de Camp puts these words into the mouth of the Princess Mathaswentha, when the 20th-century hero tells her he sees signs of a fall of civilization:

    Really? That’s a strange thing to say. Of course, my own people, and barbarians like the Franks, have occupied most of the Western Empire. But they’re not a danger to civilization. They protect it from the real wild men like the Bulgarian Huns and the Slavs. I can’t think of a time when our western culture was more secure.

    The year is 536, and Belisarius is well on his way….

  10. And don’t forget Cyril M. Kornbluth’s “The Only Thing We Learn.”

  11. marie-lucie says

    JC, thank you for the quotation. Looking up Mathasuntha led me to the novel and to L. Sprague de Camp, whose name I had seen before but never in a context that told me anything about him. Judging from his Wikipedia page, he sounds amazing!

  12. I’ve referred to Lest Darkness Fall, from which that quotation comes, several times here. Quotation (also about barbarians) plus ensuing discussion, more discussion of the book in the same post including something about Gothic, all the Gothic in the book, a dirty joke in the book (not explicit), my limerick based on it, and others’ commentary on the limerick. I discussed de Camp’s purely historical novels, too.

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