One of the things that I’ve learned as a result of my reading project is just how much excellent research has been undertaken about Anglo-Saxon England over the past several decades by historians and archaeologists. Their work to excavate sites, edit historical documents, and publish their results have done a lot to make possible many of the biographies that I have read for this site. Without their labors, there simply wouldn’t be as much to read about the kings of 10th and 11th century England that we have today.
Yet for all of the scarcity of biographies of Anglo-Saxon monarchs before then there were a few published before the recent research that make our relatively rich selection of choices possible. Among this scant handful is a biography of Cnut written by Laurence Marcellus Larson, a Norwegian-American historian who taught at the University of Illinois and who authored a range of books on U.S., British, and early Scandinavian history. His book was published in 1911 as part of a series entitled “Heroes of the Nation” that sought to tell the stories of “representative historical characters about whom have gathered the great traditions of the nations to which they belonged, and who have been accepted, in many instances, as types of the several National ideas.” Based on that description I was expecting that I what I was getting was a heroic celebration of Cnut; what I found instead was a book that provided an impressively well-developed description of his life and reign.
Larson begins his book with a chapter covering Cnut’s background and the Jelling dynasty. This was especially welcome for the information it provided on Sweyn Forkbeard, Cnut’s father and a king of England for whom biographical treatments are nonexistent. From there Larson moves on to discuss the two invasions by the Danes and Cnut’s conflict with Edmund Ironside, before settling into a narrative account of Cnut’s reign and the major events associated with it. His book made for a sharp contrast with the more recent biographies I read, as Larson provides a less analytical and more descriptive account than the authors of the other Cnut biographies. Larson’s approach may be a little old-fashioned academically speaking, but it did establish for me a sense of the timeline of Cnut’s reign more easily than did the others.
As I read it, though, I was struck by the sources Larson relied on for his details. As a scholar of early Scandinavia, Larson is well versed in the skaldic sources and other records of the period. What’s missing from his book is the archaeological evidence that might confirm, embellish, or qualify many of the details they contain. Larson is up front about the limits of his sources, and he frequently qualifies his statements about the facts because of them. Yet this judiciousness continually underscored for me how much more we know about Cnut’s times thanks to the scholarly labors undertaken in the century since Larson published his book, the fruits of which were evident throughout the other Cnut biographies I read.
Larson can hardly be faulted for not knowing what was at that time undiscovered, but it does point to the core limitation of his book. While still valuable for its narrative structure, particularly in terms of its coverage of Cnut’s forbearers, it can only give us a partial picture of what we know today about Cnut and the world in which he lived.