Sharon D. Michalove

title.none: Britnell, The Closing of the Middle Ages? (Michalove)

identifier.other: baj9928.9807.014 98.07.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sharon D. Michalove, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Britnell, Richard. The Closing of the Middle Ages? England, 1471-1529. A History of Medieval Britain. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997. Pp. xii, 286. $24.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-631-20540-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.07.14

Britnell, Richard. The Closing of the Middle Ages? England, 1471-1529. A History of Medieval Britain. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997. Pp. xii, 286. $24.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-631-20540-3.

Reviewed by:

Sharon D. Michalove
University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana

Richard Britnell's The Closing of the Middle Ages? England, 1471-1529 is an entry in Blackwell's series on the history of the Middle Ages. As a book presumably intended for an audience of undergraduates and interested generalists, it fulfills its role to present the "latest scholarship with clear, accessible writing." As a synthetic study of a period in English history that can be said to lie uneasily between the Middle Ages and the early modern period, Britnell gives the reader clear, but brief exposition rather than new insights.

The dates chosen by the author are almost exactly congruent with the life of Thomas Wolsey, who is used as a sort of linchpin to hold the book together. Britnell argues that Wolsey would not have known, first hand, the economic and political turmoil of the mid-fifteenth century, nor would he live to see the consequences of Henry VIII's demand for divorce from Katherine of Aragon. He also would not see the change from economic decline to economic recovery. This gives the author his reasoning for choosing this particular slice of English history. However, someone born in 1472 would be familiar with the happenings of earlier in the century through the memories of his or her elders, just as those of us born after the Second World War are familiar with the vicissitudes of the depression and the experience of war through the recollections of our own families. All this aside, the period from the beginning of Edward IV's second reign to the fall of Wolsey is a convenient and eventful era that can be looked at profitably by the student of English history, since chronological divisions are necessarily artificial in any case.

Britnell divides his book into four parts. He first looks at the role of monarchy, then the political infrastructure in the court and the counties. Then follow disquisitions on ideas of an English nation, the church and the law. Finally, the author takes up his own particular specialty, economics. This topical approach has both advantages and disadvantages. By dealing with topics serially, Britnell can synthesize without having to deal with putting the politics, social trends, and economics together--which could be difficult to do neatly. On the other hand, by divorcing himself from chronology except in terms of the boundary of the study, the author must repeat some political facts in various places in order to provide a context for economic and social discussion. He also must try to explain continuity and change in a time period that is to a great extent divorced from the origins and the results of the materials that he is covering.

The book deals with the actual political aspects of 1471 to 1529 fairly briefly in order to be able to spend an equal amount of time on the other areas that he wishes to discuss. This is understandable although perhaps a bit too cursory for someone not familiar with the period. After all, if Henry VI and Edward V are included, this fifty-eight years saw six kings (one uncrowned) and three usurpations--a fairly momentous and complicated train of events. In a bit over fifty pages Britnell tries to summarize both domestic political events and the very complicated foreign relations of the period in order to give context to the rest of the book. This is a valiant if not entirely successful effort. While political history may no longer be the linchpin of a thorough study of history, trying to understand the essentials of the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII, and Henry VIII in terms of how they saw kingship and how they dealt with the constantly changing state of play in France, Spain, the papacy as well as in the troublesome border areas with Scotland and Wales (not to mention the tenuous but important important position of Ireland) does have an impact on various issues dealt with elsewhere in the book.

The second part of the book deals with the court and the counties--the subject of a great deal of writing over the past twenty years or so. Following the lead of early modern historians, county studies have become an important part of the discussion of how authority worked in late fifteenth and early sixteenth century England. The king's servants, as powers in their own right in the counties, could tie the court and the country together in the king's interest. These same servants, as seen in for example in the rebellions against Richard III, could also wreak havoc on the orderly administration of the king's authority by using their retainers to support an alternative candidate to the throne. Court factionalism could be another issue in undermining the king's authority. Another difficulty that kings could face was in the inequitable distribution of spoils after a usurpation. Britnell points this out in Richard III's favoritism toward northerners during his short reign and Henry VII's difficulties in the southwest when he gave a great deal of the power in that area to Giles Daubeney, one of his supporters in exile.

In dealing with the church, the idea of nationality, and the law, again Britnell has a great deal to synthesize. He needs to discuss the events leading up to the Reformation without too thorough a discussion of whether the reform was imposed from the top or whether it tapped a seething discontent from below. Trying to discuss the physical aspects of churches, church education, and the relationship of the church with the government of realm is really more than such a slim chapter can handle. While Britnell refers to the debates currently in progress on the state of mind of the ordinary people toward the church, in the end he does not come to any conclusion about whether reform was a popular movement or merely a royal convenience that was resented by most of the country.

Nationhood, too, is left in some doubt. Britnell does argue that the English did think of themselves as something different from the continentals and from the Welsh, Irish, and Scots. On the other hand, he also admits that a great deal that is thought of as "English" develops from external influences, using Caxton's printing of classical texts and foreign authors in preference to English ones, the influence of the French rhetorical tradition on Skelton, and the fact that Thomas More wrote his Utopia in Latin as example of the complexity of issues of national identity.

Interestingly, in his discussion of the law Britnell begins with a paradox. He states that educational privilege--the fact that they were educated--is what gives the clergy separate status. He then goes on to state that legal education is what defines the status of the gentry and aristocracy. He continues "Together with Christian teaching it formed a sophisticated world of thought and practice common to men in public life . . . " (167). Therefore, we can discover much of use in a discussion of law in the shaping of English society, as long as we ignore Britnell's argument that only the clergy were educated. His distinctions of the lawlessness of the government changing after 1485 to a more legalistic approach to disposing of "enemies of the state" may be change more apparent than real.

The last section of the book is where Britnell's interest really lies and he spends a fair amount of time on the economics of the period. While discussions of labor and the market economy is important, especially on the state's reliance on the cloth and wool trades in terms of government finance, Britnell occasionally goes into too much detail without enough explanation. In his discussion of the cloth trade, for example, Britnell mentions many different types of cloth that were produced. While this might be of interest to the specialist reader, the general readers for whom the book is intended will not know the difference among bastards, kendals, packing whites, rays, says, and vesses. If all this distinction is so important, then the terms should have been defined.

Before concluding, I would like to make a few comments on the sources and errors in the book. There are actually not all that many typographical errors in the book, so they do not mar the overall impressions of the reader. However, there were a few careless errors, such as identifying Sir William Stanley as Henry Tudor's stepfather and stating that Richard, duke of York, was tried by his peers in 1483. In addition, since the book is supposed to lead readers to recent scholarship, I was surprised by the omission of Michael Hick's Bastard Feudalism and especially that of Helen Jewell's The North-South Divide: The Origins of Northern Consciousness in England, since Britnell devoted relatively extensive discussion to the tensions between the north and the south during the period.

After covering all these topics in fairly brief form, Britnell concludes that the period is really marked more by continuity than change. He admits that how the period is conceived depends on which aspects are emphasized and that beginnings and endings can be seen in various political aspects and certainly in the relationship of the church and the state. And this conclusion points out the inherent problem with synthetic studies such as this. Covering this many aspects of a society in a topical manner over a period of time that is just narrow enough to exclude the genesis and results of various political, social, and economic events is bound to skew the vision. On the other hand, as a basis for enabling students to delve deeper into the period, Britnell's book is an adequate introduction.