The Medieval Review 12.06.19

Crick, Julia and Elisabeth van Houts. A Social History of England, 900-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xv, 454. $99 hb. 978-0-521-88561-4. $39.99 pb. 978-0-521-71323-8.

Reviewed by:

Andrew Rabin
University of Louisville

A Social History of England, 900-1200, edited by Julia Crick and Elisabeth van Houts, is the second volume in this series to deal with the middle ages, although it covers an earlier chronological period. The methodology of the volume--as, indeed, of the series as a whole--is to replace conventional narrative history with chapters organized around focused discussions of individual themes or topics. In so doing, the editors hope to augment the traditional emphasis on high-status persons and communities with a perspective that more fully encompasses the diversity of early English society. At the same time, they also seek to substitute the complementary (or, at times, competing) voices of a diverse range of academics with different disciplinary backgrounds for the grand historical syntheses pursued by the scholars of a previous generation, such as Sir Frank Stenton or A. L. Poole. The advantages of such a methodology lie in its capacity to incorporate a range of approaches while avoiding the reductive and idiosyncratic tendencies that can accompany any attempt at a grand synthesis. On the other hand, the individual essay format necessarily limits the range of topics and depth of analysis available to contributors while reliance on such a diverse group of scholars risks substituting the idiosyncrasies of the many for the idiosyncrasies of the one. The cast of primarily British academics assembled by Crick and van Houts largely avoids the pitfalls of the collaborative approach; however, the limitations that the short-essay format places on the contributors does lead to shortcomings for the volume as a whole.

The principal themes covered by the volume are "Land use and people" (edited by Robin Fleming), "Authority and community" (edited by Bruce O'Brien), "Towns and their hinterlands" (edited by David Griffiths), "Invasion and migration" (edited by Elizabeth van Houts), "Religion and belief" (edited by Carl Watkins), and "Learning and training" (edited by Julia Crick). Under these larger headings are individual essays on such topics as "Order and justice" (by John Hudson, listed under "Authority and community"), "Mineral resources" (by Peter Claughton, listed under "Land use and people"), "Medical practice and theory" (by Carole Rawcliffe, under "Learning and training"), and "The Jews" (by Anna Sapir Abulafia, under "Invasion and Migration"). Given the eventfulness of the period between 900 and 1200 as well as the traditional disciplinary division between pre- and post-Conquest scholars, it is inevitable that essays should favor either the Anglo- Saxon or the Anglo-Norman period, predominantly the latter. Although the distinctions between English society before and after the Battle of Hastings have undoubtedly been overstated, several of the essays here risk focusing overmuch on one half of the period and then generalizing too easily about the other. To their credit, however, Crick and van Houts recognize the challenge that the Conquest poses as a disciplinary boundary and their approach to the volume as a whole-- as well as that of their subordinate editors to the individual sections--might best be understood as an attempt to realize the calls for a broader approach to medieval English historical study made by Patrick Wormald and others over the past thirty years. In this sense, the contributors at their most successful manage to demonstrate the ways in which English social practices at the beginning of the thirteenth century have a discernible, albeit not untroubled, ancestry in those of the tenth.

Although the volume has many pleasures (this reader particularly enjoyed Elaine Treharne's evocation of Archbishop Wulfstan squirreled away with his scribe in the archepiscopal palace at Sherburn-in-Elmet in North Yorkshire, adding notes to the York Gospels), the strongest sections are those grounded most firmly in physical evidence. Perhaps because physical evidence can be tracked more clearly in a short-form essay--or perhaps because the Domesday surveyors left such detailed records of their efforts--the contributions dealing with land use, population mobility, and urban development most explicitly illustrate the evolution of social practices over the period covered by the volume. Other highlights include Stephen Baxter's discussion of "Lordship and labor" and Crick's introductory essay to "Learning and training."

Perhaps the volume's greatest weakness is the lack of a more detailed bibliography. If the text is, as it claims, directed as much towards introductory students as towards advanced scholars, a far lengthier list of citations and recommendations for further reading would have been a great benefit. This observation raises the question of audience, an issue which came up repeatedly over the course of my reading. This volume, like many similar "handbooks," "guides," and "histories" recently published by academic presses, aims at an exceptionally broad readership: beginners in the field and those more advanced, specialists in the period and those in other disciplines seeking a ready reference, those seeking a scholarly synthesis and those seeking new research, and so forth. No single text could meet the expectations of such a broad audience, and one often senses the tension between the various competing readerly demands in the essays published here. For all of this volume's many qualities, I could not help but wish as I read it that publishers would place a moratorium on texts of this sort and instead devote more resources to publishing (at affordable prices!) original research in the form of monographs, scholarly editions, edited collections, conference proceedings, and-- that increasingly and unfairly neglected genre--Festschriften.