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In the Land of Giants: A Journey Through the Dark Ages


In the Land of Giants: A Journey Through the Dark Ages

It is commonly known that the Dark Ages, or the medieval period, were not really so dark. In the roughly thousand or so years from 500 CE to 1500 CE, we see the marvelous expressions of the Romanesque and Gothic, the birth of Islam, the origins of modern medicine and chemistry, and the foundations of the face that Europe will wear in the following generations. Yet, there is a darkness to the era. Many people don’t know about the inventions and developments of the period, and much of the European history is known to us only through church and official documents and the ruins of once-great kings and churches.

To more fully engage, explore and understand the medieval period in Britain, archaeologist Max Adams set out on foot. He sought to visit the ruins, old sacred places and political strongholds of an age when Christianity was just taking root yet the older ways were far from gone. IN THE LAND OF GIANTS is his often dense, sometimes funny and generally compelling record of that journey.

"Shedding light on the British Dark Ages, IN THE LAND OF GIANTS is a challenging but worthwhile read."

Over a 17-month period, Adams made a series of 10 journeys as well as some smaller walks he labels “Interludes.” All told, he walked over 600 miles --- and that’s not counting the over 550 miles by boat and just over 600 miles on motorbike. Along the way, he saw, and recorded, not just the remains of churches and medieval settlements, but the landscape that inspired much of the identity of the inhabitants --- from the Welsh Marches to Cumbria, from Northumbria to Lindisfarne. Adams’ style is a bit rambling, but like the walking, there is a method to it, even when it encounters obstacles and changes direction or path.

As the book progresses, Adams seems to settle into a rhythm and thus readers can as well. Following hedgerows, Roman roads, highways and hiking trails, he encounters locals both hostile and friendly, braves many a rainstorm, enjoys much of the beauty he witnesses, and even helps a young shepherd who has lost some of his flock. Along the way, he explains place-names, history, archaeological methods, folktales and legends, and why some medieval saints were depicted carrying their own heads.

As interesting as each of the journeys and interludes are, and as fun as it is to read about someone undertaking such a vast and detailed tour, Adams actually has some bigger themes in mind. At the end of the book, after sections with titles such as “Looking for Giants,” “Heroes” and “Sense of Place,” he asks in his “Postscript,” “Who are the British?” It is an intriguing query at the end of a meaty book about the diversity of the British and the complexity of British medieval (and ancient, for that matter) history. The science of genetic geography, he relates, tells us much about who most people in Britain descended from (a small number of hunter-gatherers from the Mesolithic age). But later influxes and migrations of people --- Romans, Celts, Angles, Saxons and others --- altered the culture, linguistic traditions and sense of self, and created a diverse and rich civilization. The medieval period helped shape this civilization just as the realities of the UK today are the basis of the culture of tomorrow. Adams is great when introducing big ideas and allowing readers to make the small but essential connections between them.

Shedding light on the British Dark Ages, IN THE LAND OF GIANTS is a challenging but worthwhile read.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 21, 2016

In the Land of Giants: A Journey Through the Dark Ages
by Max Adams

  • Publication Date: December 12, 2017
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Pegasus Books
  • ISBN-10: 1681775530
  • ISBN-13: 9781681775531