Pagan Britain by Ronald Hutton – Review

This 400-page survey of pre-Christian belief in the British Isles is not just an assessment of the historical and archaeological evidence but also an appraisal of historiography, cultural history, sociology, anthropology, and folklore. Hutton sets himself a significant task of charting such vast and ambiguous terrain, which could not be achieved without considerable depth of reading, research and expertise that the endnotes attest to.

Hutton leads with a sceptical, evidence-based approach to the subject, which barely ever wavers. Despite this – and considering how easily it could have gone the other way – I don’t think I’ve read a history written with such sensitivity and generosity to both its subject and the wider context of its study. Much space is dedicated to the contributors of historical knowledge from a wide field, including a roll-call of professional scholars from across the decades, but also to amateur enthusiasts, and writers who have approached the source material from different perspectives entirely – such as the earth mysteries movement of the 1970s.

The author’s emphasis on a “plurality of interpretation” as opposed to any singular hypothesis is admirable, and given that the scarcity of evidence allows for little certainty in any one argument, is sensible. This approach welcomes a multiplicity of views on a broad spectrum of likelihood, which, at times, falls somewhat short – occasionally Hutton comes across as a little too doubtful of reasonably evidenced arguments, or overly tolerant of leftfield perspectives which – in my view – don’t necessarily deserve the attention given to them.

Yale University Press

In general, however, this approach works, and the wide range of views considered forms a fascinating historiography and cultural history, deserving of a book in itself. We see, for example, shifts in perspectives from Victorian preoccupations with race and colonisation through to late 20th – and early 21st-century preoccupations with identity politics – and the corresponding emphases that emerge in contemporary historical and archaeological interpretation.

I really enjoy ambitious books like this that attempt to examine themes across large swathes of time, and it was useful for me in other ways in that it helped re-plot a few blind spots in my own historical knowledge. The division of prehistory and history as not just a fixed point in time but a concept that could expand and retract with colonisation and the spread of literacy and belief was fascinating to consider. So too was the brief overview of the Dark Ages in Britain and the emergence of medieval kingdoms where religion – pagan or Christian – took something of a backseat to the power struggles at play.

Perhaps the book’s main weakness is the sheer enormity of its scope. It seems much more could be said or considered in light of the various arguments presented, and some chapters tread lightly over material which may deserve more consideration than has been allowed. Yet this is a survey, and the sheer amount of ground covered – not to mention the timespan – is impressive. The extensive endnotes also provide plentiful jumping-off points for the inquisitive reader.

Where Hutton’s approach falls down slightly is in his latter chapter, which considers pagan legacies. Here, more than a few popular assumptions around pagan ‘survivals’ are given just treatment, in tune with the book’s overall sceptical interrogation of the evidence. Yet, towards the end, this tone perplexedly shifts, with a couple of claims that don’t feel particularly substantiated. For example, a brief section on fairy lore states plainly that this is a pagan survival, without the consideration of argument and interpretation that previous sections were lavished with. Had the author run out of time, or words, by this point? The remainder of this chapter, and the abrupt conclusion, both feel rather rushed.

However, these last few pages are largely an exception to the otherwise excellent study on display here. One last word for Hutton’s writing style, which is eminently concise and accessible, occasionally veering into the rare but welcome poetic description – a self-indulgence, perhaps, of the author’s open permission to imagine a world largely lost to us. This, and the earlier point around shifting historiographical zeitgeists, underlines something I’ve long thought myself: of the need to distance ourselves from the concerns of our own time and to dare to imagine a world where the whole breadth of life – whether experienced as belief, memory, environment, or society – operated within vastly different priorities and motivations.

Rating: 5/5

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