New Book | Hadrian’s Wall: A Life

Posted in books by Editor on January 7, 2013

From Oxford University Press:

Richard Hingley, Hadrian’s Wall: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 416 pages, ISBN: 978-0199641413, $150.

HWCover1In Hadrian’s Wall: A Life, Richard Hingley addresses the post-Roman history of this world-famous ancient monument. Constructed on the orders of the emperor Hadrian during the 120s AD, the Wall was maintained for almost three centuries before ceasing to operate as a Roman frontier during the fifth century. The scale and complexity of Hadrian’s Wall makes it one of the most important ancient monuments in the British Isles. It is the most well-preserved of the frontier works that once defined the Roman Empire.

While the Wall is famous as a Roman construct, its monumental physical structure did not suddenly cease to exist in the fifth century. This volume explores the after-life of Hadrian’s Wall and considers the ways it has been imagined, represented, and researched from the sixth century to the internet. The sixteen chapters, illustrated with over 100 images, show the changing manner in which the Wall has been conceived and the significant role it has played in imagining the identity of the English, including its appropriation as symbolic boundary between England and
Scotland. Hingley discusses the transforming political, cultural, and religious significance of the Wall during this entire period and addresses the ways in which scholars and artists have been inspired by the monument over the years.

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From Christopher Catling’s review, “Vandals and Hanoverians,” for TLS (14 December 2012): 27.

. . . in Gildas [writing around 540], the Wall is explicitly about “them and us” – civilization versus beastly paganism. The Wall is a genetic and cultural boundary, an idea that Hingley shows to be surprisingly long-lived: it recurs in nineteenth-century historical paintings of the Wall’s construction destined for the walls of the Houses of Parliament, in the illustrations to Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), and even in a cartoon published in The Times in 1997 referring to the devolution debate. Civilization versus beastly paganism The idea that there is something different (for which read hostile and culturally inferior) about the people who live north of Hadrian’s Wall recurs every time political relations between the English and the Scottish come to the fore. . . .

Scotland really did turn hostile with the Jacobite uprisings of 1715. There was much talk about building a new Hadrian’s Wall, as roads, bridges and garrisons were constructed between 1725 and 1737 to militarize the Borders and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. One result was the first accurate mapping of the Wall and its associated landscapes, undertaken by military surveyors; another was the use of the Wall as a quarry for road stone and the construction of a military road right on top of the eastern section of the Wall, from Newcastle to Sewingshields.

The antiquary William Stukeley was horrified by this act of desecration. Lobbying the Princess of Wales, he asked her to be his patron and champion in the work of protecting “this most noble, most magnificent work from further ruin, not from enemies, but from more than Gothic workmen, quite thoughtless and regardless of this greatest wonder, not of Brittain only, but of Europe.” Now, for the first time in the history of the Wall, it was the English who were cast in the role of the barbarians; Hanoverian military engineers were no better than the Goths and Vandals who had sacked Rome. . .

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For the Wall’s ongoing influence, we can also add The Game of Thrones, as George R. R. Martin acknowledged in 2000 (as quoted in The Guardian). Hadrian’s Wall as civilization’s boundary will presumably be with us for a long time.

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