The launch of the 2018 Heritage Open Days in Winchester provided the opportunity for an evening of reflection between Winchester medievalists and the eminent historian and broadcaster, Professor Michael Wood. On the agenda were ‘Why do the Anglo-Saxons Matter?’ and ‘Extraordinary Women’.
The sell-out evening at the Winchester Discovery Centre lecture theatre featured the History Department’s early medieval historians Dr Ryan Lavelle and Dr Katherine Weikert, along with Professor Emerita Barbara Yorke. Ryan and Katherine give their thoughts…
Michael Wood opened proceedings with his thoughts on the long legacy of the Anglo-Saxon world, its cultural richness and its diversity. Since his BBC series, In Search of the Dark Ages hit TV screens in the late 1970s and 1980s, Michael has held a reputation for making the deep past come alive to an audience, and this was certainly apparent in the discussion. Equipped with his own deep knowledge of the period, Michael asked us about what makes us passionate about this period, drawing down to how this links to our research specialisms—for Ryan this is the way the landscape beneath of feet links to a dramatic historical record; for Katherine this is the way the stories of the period are told and retold, helping form the identities of generations during the medieval period across what is sometimes wrongly seen as a ‘dividing moment’ in 1066.
Linking with the Heritage Open Days’ theme of ‘Extraordinary Women’, we also nominated some favourites: Barbara suggested Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred and ruler of the midland kingdom of the Mercians until her death 1100 years ago in 918; Ryan ran through the twists and turns of the life of Emma of Normandy, who was married first to Æthelred ‘the Unready’ and later to Cnut ‘the Great’ (subject of Ryan’s new biography in the ‘Penguin Monarchs’ series), and who was the mother of two English kings in the 11th century; Katherine, whose interests in the ‘Anglo-Norman’ period will result soon in a new examination of the places of women and men in residences of the aristocracy, nominated one of the most important women of the 12th century, the ‘Empress’ Matilda, who drew on her links to the Anglo-Saxon royal family to emphasise her right to rule the English kingdom in a bloody civil war.
Though we had been more than a little nervous about the prospect of ‘chatting’ in front of a packed house with such a learned and well-respected host and in the company of the wonderful Barbara Yorke, the evening proved to be relaxed and enjoyable. We received great feedback from the audience who had been entertained but who had, we are told, also learned much about an early medieval period of English history. We learned much too, both about ways of thinking about history itself, and about the ways in which an expert such as Michael can make even obscure details accessible and enjoyable beyond the academy.