Stephen Pollington has been writing books on Anglo-Saxon England for two decades. His many published titles include works on the Old English language, military culture, healing and herblore, runes and feasting in the ‘meadhall’. He has recorded a double CD of readings in Old English.
He grew up in south Essex before most of it was engulfed by London, and developed a keen sense of historical awareness from an early age. Baptized in the tiny church at Thundersley, in which his parents were married, he soon began to delve into the history, culture and traditions of the early English. ‘Thundersley’ is plausibly derived from OE þunres leah, ‘thunder’s clearing’, a reference to the pre-Christian god Þunor. The church stands on a high point, a spur from the Rayleigh Hills which overlooks both the valley of the Crouch and the lower Thames. An ancient yew – its trunk split and hollowed so as to form a niche – stood in the church grounds, in which he once sheltered from a rainstorm. Living on the edge of the woodlands of Thundersley Common and Shrieking Boy Woods, Stephen felt an affinity with the landscape and its changing faces, and with the story of human involvement in moulding the natural world.
Personal circumstances prevented him from pursuing an academic career, but long hours of informal study acquainted him with much of the literature of northern Europe. Tuition in Old English and Old Norse being both beyond his means and almost inaccessible, he devoted long hours to acquiring a reading knowledge of both languages while working and raising a young family. His occasional contributions to magazines were well received and in 1989 he approached Blandford with the outline of a book-length treatment of the poem The Battle of Maldon, which would soon reach its thousand-year anniversary. While the book was only moderately successful, exposure to the world of print media opened new possibilities.
He has lectured widely on aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture since 1991, from local history to the details of verse metre, from theories of the origins of the Germanic runes to the handling of Anglo-Saxon weaponry.
Stephen has contributed to a number of television and radio programmes, and was script advisor to the ground-breaking “1000 AD”, in which dramatic dialogue was spoken entirely in Old English and Old Norse.
He provided the Old English voice-over for the acclaimed series of television programmes ‘Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons presented by Michael Wood.
He was invited to contribute to the “Oxford Companion to Military History” (2003) and “Medieval Warfare: An Encyclopedia” (forthcoming, 2009).
Stephen lives in Essex with his wife and three of his sons.
In January 2011 Stephen was admitted to the Company of Arts Scholars, Dealers and Collectors.
The Warrior’s Way – England in the Viking Age. This was Stephen’s first book-length work, looking at the English experience in the later Viking age. It focuses on the events at Maldon, Essex, in 991 AD and features a full translation of the Old English text. Published by Blandford in 1989, it is now out-of-print but can be found in the second-hand market. Having been invited to deliver the lecture at the annual gathering of Þa Engliscan Gesiþas in 1991, held at Colchester to honour Byrhtnoþ the English leader at Maldon, Stephen was approached by Runetree Press to publish the text, which was called “Heart Shall Be the Keener”: the Argument of Courage in Maldon and appeared in Greenwood and Pollington’s Maldon 991-1991 : Reflections on a Battle in 1991. It was from this connection with Maldon that Stephen’s association with the newly-founded Anglo-Saxon Books came about.
The needs of the student of Old English who wished to compose original texts were then unmet, since there was no easily available Modern to Old English dictionary. After a long period of development, Stephen approached Anglo-Saxon Books in 1992 with plans for such a dictionary and the result was Wordcraft which appeared in 1993.
Invitations to give entry-level lectures soon began to arrive, and two of these were later developed into short, inexpensive and informative books. A brief overview of OE language was expanded in to the 1994 An Introduction to the Old English Language and Its Literature subsequently expanded in 1996. A second talk on the English runic tradition was published as Rudiments of Runelore, now in its 3rd edition (2008).
Returning to the military theme developed in studying the Battle of Maldon poem, Stephen began to work on The English Warrior, which appeared in 1996. The book was designed not to be a mere list of battles but to focus on less obvious aspects of military life in the early mediaeval period including warrior cults and details of the weaponry in use. With new translations from Old English and Old Norse, the book was an instant success with military historians and re-enactors.
Meanwhile, the need for a simple beginner’s guide to Old English was becoming apparent. In helping Dr Macrae-Gibson in administering the postal course Learning Old English, Stephen had become increasingly aware that many people struggle with the terminology of language study; in order to avoid this unnecessary burden, the book First Steps in Old English: An Easy to Follow Language Course for the Beginner was designed to provide only as much information as would be necessary for the student to understand the text before him; all the philological material was kept in appendices for those who want it. The course has been issued in several editions, and has been conducted as a correspondence course (more often by email than post in the 21st century).
Stephen took over the editorship of the magazine Wiðowinde in 1995 which involved a considerable diversion of effort. With deadlines to meet and a full-time job to perform, book production slowed. During this period, the research was conducted for Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing which finally appeared in 2001. Aside from translations of the three key OE texts, the book also explores the botanical traditions of the Anglo-Saxons, aspects of healing and plant-lore and the place of the healer within early English society.
Readings of OE texts were a common request, so in 1997 an audio cassette Aergeweorc: Old English Verse and Prose was produced which included some of the more popular material.
While The English Warrior had been well received, it was apparent that there was more to the life of the Anglo-Saxon warrior than merely fighting: recognition of public service on and off the battlefield was central to the concept of the ‘hall’ and the rituals which took place there. Taking as his base the sections of Beowulf which deal with such formal, public ceremonies, Stephen produced The Mead Hall: The Feasting Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England in 2003 which encompasses themes of warrior-culture, political power, feasting, entertainment and social cohesion. Elements of the text have subsequently formed the basis for recreations of Anglo-Saxon social and religious events.
Audio-cassettes having become obsolescent, in 2007 a double CD was produced, called Old English Poems, Prose and Lessons: Anglo-Saxon Language, which included all the material on Ærgeweorc supplemented with some new recordings and a pronunciation guide.
From conversations with visitors at sites such as Sutton Hoo and West Stow, it was evident that public perceptions of the Anglo-Saxon and early mediaeval periods were poor and ill-informed. In order to remedy this, a short text in question-and-answer format was developed into a full ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ treatment of the period, published in early 2008 as Anglo-Saxon FAQs which is an inexpensive beginner’s guide to the period.
Research into Anglo-Saxon material culture for the book Wayland’s Work, published spring 2010, involved considerable investigation of the richer burials of Anglo-Saxon England, which provided the materials for Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds: Princely Burials in the 6th and 7th Centuries published in late 2008.
In summer 2011 the results of a decade of studying the remains of pre-Christian religion in Anglo-Saxon England will be published under the title The Elder Gods: The Otherworld in Early England.
A paper based on Stephen’s keynote speech at the Cambridge conference ‘Medieval Feasting, Hospitality and Gift-Exchange’ in August 2009 was published as ‘The Mead-Hall Community’ in Journal of Medieval History Volume 37, Issue 1, March 2011.
Stephen worked on a project for Tamworth Borough Council connected to their hosting the Staffordshire Hoard.