Hollow Places

Hollow Places (William Collins 2019) is both the piercing dissection of a folktale and a thrilling rummage through the thickets of the English imagination. Christopher Hadley’s debut work of book-length non-fiction ostensibly concerns the story of how Piers Shonks slew a dragon, how that dragon dwelt in a cavern beneath a yew tree, and how Shonks was buried in the parish church of St Mary at Brent Pelham in Hertfordshire.

In the same way, however, that Jaws isn’t really a film about a shark, Hollow Places isn’t really a book about a dragon-slayer. Rather it is a book about how stories become knit into place-names and landmarks and the identity of communities; in the process it unearths myriad details of lost folk life – of rural work and tithes and festivals and the heroic, often unsung, labour of individual collectors and antiquarians (one of my favourite nuggets of information was that much of the work of recording English field names – before their loss to the hedgerow grubbing scourge of agribusiness and the collective forgetting brought on by urbanisation and consumer capitalism – was pioneered by a man named John Field).

In fluid and satisfying prose, Hadley succeeds in transforming a literally parochial subject into a means of illuminating the tangled roots of story-telling and lost rural life. It is a reminder that to study folklore is to study the way that people construct meaning and a sense of belonging in the world around them: there are few subjects more compelling.

The paperback edition of Hollow Places is out on on 6 August 2020.

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Black Lives Matter

Like so many others, I found the murder of George Floyd – and many of the events that followed –  intensely distressing. As well as sadness, I have felt an anger that is difficult to express and a demoralizing sense of impotence. As a medievalist, however, I have also felt a sense of responsibility.

The Middle Ages – and in particular the Viking Age (and the history of early medieval northern Europe more generally) – are at the heart of white supremacy. It is the period from which white supremacists draw sustenance in their imagery and in their fantastical notions of social idealism and unfettered masculinity.

This is apparent in obvious ways, with Nazis (both original and neo) and modern racist groups like the Soldiers of Odin explicitly drawing on the symbols, names and stories of the Viking Age to promote their vile agenda. More insidious, and shockingly widespread, is the casual racism of re-enactment and ‘pagan’ internet forums, of bands who claim to be ‘non-political’ whilst using white power symbols in their artwork and fascist quotes in their lyrics, of Viking-themed businesses who only ever use white models to promote themselves, in sloppy talk of northern European ancestry and heritage as unsubtle code for ‘white pride’.

Academic study of the period has its own racist legacy. Its historiography, its assumptions, its lines of enquiry, its terminology and its overwhelmingly white body of students, teachers and researchers have created an environment that invariably reflect Eurocentric white concerns and answer Eurocentric white questions. Efforts to counter these issues have led to inexplicable resistance within established academia .

In my own writing about the Vikings I have tried to address aspects of this. Challenging the way that ethnicity is used and imagined in relation to the Vikings and the other people with whom they shared their world was one of the key themes that informed the writing of Viking Britain. It was my hope that the book would help steer those with a passing interest towards a healthier and more accurate impression of the period and challenge those with preconceived ideas to think again. I also hoped it would trigger the few white supremacists who bothered to read it – a goal which I’m happy to say it achieved.

In hindsight I don’t think I made the case as strongly as I could have done. I should have been more  direct, more challenging of white myths, less concerned about backlash. I intend to be more forceful about these issues in future and more intent than ever on reclaiming the period from bigots.

Aside from my own private support for the Black Lives Matter movement, I have 10 signed copies of the paperback edition of Viking Britain that I am offering for sale directly from me for £10 each (+ £1.50 UK postage). All proceeds will be donated to the Black Curriculum project: just drop me a line here.

Otherwise I encourage everyone to browse this list of resources and ways to contribute.