Hugh Thomas

title.none: Chibnall, The Debate on the Norman Conquest (Thomas)

identifier.other: baj9928.0003.011 00.03.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Hugh Thomas , University of Miami,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Chibnall, Marjorie. The Debate on the Norman Conquest. New York: Manchester University Press, 1999. Pp. viii, 167. $79.95. ISBN: 0-719-04912-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.03.11

Chibnall, Marjorie. The Debate on the Norman Conquest. New York: Manchester University Press, 1999. Pp. viii, 167. $79.95. ISBN: 0-719-04912-1.

Reviewed by:

Hugh Thomas
University of Miami

This short work on historical views of the Norman Conquest is part of a series of books surveying the historiography of famous historical events such as the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Holocaust. As befits a medievalist, Chibnall takes the long view of historiography, beginning with works produced in William the Conqueror's lifetime. Roughly the first half of her book is arranged chronologically and covers the historiography of the Norman Conquest up to the middle of the twentieth century, with chapters on the Middle Ages, the early modern period, the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the nineteenth century, and the early twentieth century. The second half is arranged topically and focuses on debates of the last four decades, a period in which scholarship on the Norman Conquest, as on every subject, has exploded. Each chapter covers a pair of subjects; feudalism and lordship, law and the family, empire and colonization, peoples and frontiers, and the church and the economy. She ends with a brief postscript, which is partly a salutary reminder of the importance to historians of local studies and other disciplines, and partly an attack on post-modernism. Chibnall sees the loose groups of theories and ideas labeled 'post-modernism' as largely wrongheaded. Where it is not wrongheaded, in her view, she argues that it is not as new as it claims to be. I am not sure what her target is here, since as far as I can tell the influence of post-modernism on historians of the Anglo-Norman period is practically nonexistent, but perhaps her attack serves as a general comment on today's intellectual climate from someone who has been part of the scholarly world for more than sixty years.

Summing up more than 900 years of historiography on so popular a subject as the Norman Conquest in approximately 160 pages is a daunting task, but given the constraints it seems to me that Chibnall has done an admirable job. Basically this work is an overview. Chibnall makes no major new historiographic arguments, though the work is filled, as one would expect of a book written by one of the leading practitioners in the field, with incisive commentary. The author focuses not just on the narrow effects of the conquest itself, but on the period as a whole, a wise choice since it has long been clear that these effects cannot be seen in isolation from other forces of change in the period. She introduces a wide range of writers and scholars, provides clear and succinct summaries of the key debates, and gives a good overall picture of where the Anglo-Norman field stands at the moment. In reviewing the historiography, she pays sharp attention to events and movements that have influenced how historians have treated the conquest, ranging from the politics of the seventeenth century, to the women's movement of the twentieth century. In all this, Chibnall shows a generous spirit, not hesitating to criticize work with which she disagrees, but in a moderate tone, and with allowance made for the obstacles and gaps in knowledge that historians of earlier generations faced. For the most part, she emphasizes consensus, trying to show how different arguments can be drawn together. Her approach makes a welcome change from some of the ferocious and at times sterile and trivial debates of the past, particularly between those historians who felt particular attachment to either the Normans or the English. It does seem to me that as a result she sometimes gives an impression of greater current agreement than exists on some hotly debated issues. Despite this, the reader will find a wise and sensible overview of historical thinking on the conquest, old and new.

Inevitably, in a short work covering such a large body of material, there will be issues to which one could argue more attention should have been paid. For instance, given that this is about the historiography of a military conquest, I might have expected more than two pages on military history. Others will no doubt wish for more attention to other topics, or for more nuance in the necessarily brief presentation of complex arguments. Though I especially liked the chapters covering the historiography between the twelfth century and the twentieth, partly because there was more that was new to me than in other sections, it could be argued that it would have been better to devote more time to current scholarship. But differences of agreement about priorities are inevitable, and I cannot point to any major issue that did not receive some attention.

Given the vast material on the period, there were also inevitably some gaps in the scholarship discussed. For instance, in the first chapter, Chibnall's notes provide information on a number of recent works on eleventh- and twelfth-century historians, but ignore books such as Nancy Partner's, Serious Entertainments (1977) [[1]]; Jean Blacker's, The Faces of Time (1994) [[2]]; Monika Otter's, Inventiones: Fiction and Referentiality in Twelfth-Century English Historical Writing (1996) [[3]]; and Leah Shopkow's, History and Community (1997). While some of these are written by literary specialists, and none focus entirely on the conquest, they do deal with some of the important early historians of the Norman invasion, and reference to them might be useful for readers. In notes on a section about the tendency for some aristocratic Norman families to shift their focus to England, she ignores what seems to me the most important recent work on the subject, namely David Crouch's article, "Normans and Anglo-Normans: A Divided Aristocracy?" (1994) [[5]]. No doubt some works were left out because they did not fit into particular notes, but this brings up the major shortcoming of the book, namely the lack of a bibliography at the end. Many readers will come to this work in search of further reading, and a bibliography, particularly one divided topically, could have greatly increased the practical usefulness of the book. I am not sure whether the absence of a bibliography was the decision of the author or the series editor, but in any case it was a mistake.

Despite this last criticism, this is a very useful book, which after all is the major criterion by which one should view a synthesis of this sort. For whom will this book be most useful? Historians of the Anglo-Norman period will benefit from Chibnall's commentary, and perhaps from summaries of issues with which they are less familiar. Historians focusing on other areas of medieval or English history will find the work valuable for writing and revising lectures on the Norman Conquest, and scholars in other disciplines interested in the Anglo-Norman period will find it an invaluable guide to the period's historiography. But the work will be most useful for students. Though few instructors outside England are likely to assign this to an undergraduate class, it might make a good reading for a specialized senior seminar. It would also make a great resource for students beginning a research paper on some aspect of the Norman Conquest, because it will introduce them to key issues and important sources, and direct them to the best secondary work in the field. Any graduate student beginning work in Anglo-Norman history or nearby fields would find this book a good starting point, and ones in other fields of Medieval History would find it very helpful in preparing for comprehensive exams. To sum up, we should be thankful to Marjorie Chibnall for producing this extremely useful overview of the historiography of the Norman Conquest.


1. Nancy F. Partner, Serious Entertainments: The Writing of History in Twelfth-Century England (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977).

2. Jean Blacker, The Faces of Time: Portrayal of the Past in Old French and Latin Historical Narrative of the Anglo-Norman Regnum (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994).

3. Monika Otter, Inventiones: Fiction and Referentiality in Twelfth-Century English Historical Writing (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

4. Leah Shopkow, History and Community: Norman Historical Writing in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1997).

5. David Crouch, "Normans and Anglo-Normans: A Divided Aristocracy?" in England and Normandy in the Middle Ages, David Bates and Anne Curry, eds., (London: Hambledon, 1994), 51- 67.