Book Review: Cnut the Great
by Timothy Bolton
Yale University Press, 2017
Timothy Bolton’s The Empire of Cnut the Great came out in nearly a decade ago and was an intensely scholarly and fairly pricey monograph. Readers interested in the subject, to put it mildly, might well have missed it. Much less so his new book, Cnut the Great, which is published by Yale University Press as part of their ongoing English Monarchs Series, priced at a scandalous-but-still-at-least-theoretically-affordable $40, and will likely take its place on library shelves across the country as the newest and by far the best general-interest biography of Cnut.
Bolton is very aware of the perils of general-interest biography, a type of historical investigation that’s sometimes met with disdain in academic circles in no small part because so many general-interest biographies are forced by the marketplace to claim certainties where sources – especially scanty sources – would warrant only speculation (“this is not a genre to work in lightly,” as he puts it). The sources for Cnut’s own life, Bolton readily acknowledges, are open to plenty of speculation and could result in what he describes as a kind of choose-your-own adventure pile of pussyfooting. In Cnut the Great, he marshals a greater array of sources, and uses them with more energetic creativity, than any previous writer on this king has done, and he welcomes reader participation in a way that’s so encouraging as to be downright heartwarming: “Readers,” he writes, should “follow these arguments and statements, entering into their own discourse with the writer and the subject, sifting and weighing the evidence for themselves (and as a student of medieval manuscripts with a fascination for scribal practices and marginalia myself, I hope they will then fill the margins of the following pages with their own scribbled observations, thereby entering into a form of discourse with my text).”
Cnut came to the English throne in 1016 upon the death of King Edmund Ironside, who’d only just managed to take back a foothold of the kingdom upon the unexpected death of its late conqueror, King Forkbeard (a fascinating figure who’s about as likely to get his own entry in the Yale English Monarchs series as I am), Cnut’s father, who’d driven Ironside’s father, Æthelred the Unready, into temporary exile in 1013 and enjoyed his new kingdom for a little over a month before dying in early February of 1014.
Even such an abbreviated account should make it obvious that Cnut’s time was intensely complicated, and in the hands of many a biographer (particularly one who’d already perpetrated an abstruse monograph on the same subject) those complications would lead to bloat and padding, and Bolton avoids these pitfalls with a grace that’s typical of this Yale series. He presents his readers with the whole course of Cnut’s eventful life and cautions them against the handy simplifications that have dogged historical accounts of this figure, and some of the reasons for those simplifications:
It should be noted that the impression of barbarity and ‘otherness’ lingers around Scandinavians from Cnut’s time and before, most probably perpetuated by the horrors of viking raiding, or accounts of it, as well as by the fact that the Scandinavians up to the eleventh century existed without substantially literate or bureaucratic societies and had so recently been Christianized.
Bolton challenges the characterizations that have drifted into almost every account of Cnut, things like him being an unrefined pagan barbarian who was both refined and semi-converted by his Court Christians, or like him being largely indifferent to the Scandinavian portion of what eventually became his vast realm. Bolton is a strong and rigorous reader of the array of sources he consults, and the Cnut he constructs from those sources is a far more complicated and satisfying player on a far broader international scale. This is a Cnut who weighs things with the nicety of a chess player, a sharp observer of the other players, someone who regularly gauged the value of appearances – perhaps more surely than his later chroniclers, as Bolton points out, for instance, in connection with the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II in Rome at Easter, 1027:
It should be noted at this juncture that the background to Cnut’s invitation to the imperial coronation has often been ignored in modern scholarship, beyond the observation that in 1027 Cnut was approaching the height of his military and economic power, and was an attractive ally for Conrad. Modern historians (including myself) have usually approached the subject of Cnut’s attendance at this event in near isolation, without consideration of any further factors that led up to his special role in these proceedings. The result is that Cnut is usually portrayed as a passive figure, whom Conrad sought out as a potential ally, with Cnut only taking an active role in negotiations after he had arrived. I suspect this is wrong, and Cnut’s interactions with western France point to a different dynamic between Cnut and Conrad.
It should be noted that Bolton occasionally slips into semi-academic throat-clearing repetitions, but that, too, is endemic to a long series of scholarly biographies – and it hardly matters in the case of a book as consistently fascinating as Cnut the Great. In fact, considering that Cnut reigned for nearly 20 years, most readers of this book will wish the book went on a good deal longer than its 200 pages.