Hugh Thomas

title.none: Harvey, Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Hugh Thomas)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.028 02.09.28

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Hugh Thomas, University of Miami,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Harvey, Barbara, ed. The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, 1066-c. 1280. Short Oxford History of the British Isles. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. xviii, 317. 16.95. ISBN: 0-19-873139-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.28

Harvey, Barbara, ed. The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, 1066-c. 1280. Short Oxford History of the British Isles. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. xviii, 317. 16.95. ISBN: 0-19-873139-6.

Reviewed by:

Hugh Thomas
University of Miami

To write a history by committee can be a risky endeavor, but I am pleased to say that in the volume under review, the method has succeeded admirably. Between them, the editor and six contributors have managed to cover a wide range of subjects and material with very little overlap, and no more gaps than one would expect in a short work covering over two centuries of the history of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. The contributors all cover their subjects clearly and concisely, acknowledging complexities, but not allowing the trees to obscure the forest. The authors dispense with much historiographic debate, expressing their own views unapologetically. Though one could inevitably take issue with some of their interpretations, all seemed to me reasonable ones in the light of current historiography. The book focuses more on important trends and patterns than on events and people. Though the latter make their appearance, the reader would be better advised to go to older histories of the respective lands for narrative histories. Some scholars might disagree with this approach, but I think it makes sense, in part because an intelligible narrative of the political history of Ireland or Wales alone, not to say all four lands, would exceed the limits of a short history. When trying to cram so much material into such a small space, trade-offs are necessary, and generally the editor and authors make the right ones. I did find the absence of footnotes for anything but direct quotations irksome, but this is clearly a work aimed at a wider audience, and I suppose that we must rely on the expertise of publishers when they claim that a plethora of footnotes deters people other than academicians from reading a work of history.

The volume begins with an introduction by Barbara Harvey that provides a setting for the chapters that follow. This includes, in time-honored British fashion, a discussion of the terrain, but also includes such less typical features as road and weather patterns. The first chapter, by Robin Frame, covers conquest and settlement, which are themes that resonate throughout the book. The chapter provides a very good summation of the burgeoning scholarship of the last few decades in this field. The second chapter, by David Bates, covers government and politics from 1066 to c. 1160. Here the shift from traditional narrative histories is most noticeable. Bates does a good job of setting out general patterns of governance and rulership, rather than providing a narrative overview. In the third chapter, Richard Britnell ably surveys three topics, namely lordship, community, and kinship. As one might expect, he highlights the impact of commercialization, an area in which his own scholarship has been important. Brian Golding provides a very good overview of "The Church and Christian Life," in the fourth chapter. In many ways Henrietta Leyser is faced with the hardest task in tackling the huge subject of culture. Rather than attempting a comprehensive overview, she follows various threads that focus heavily on interaction between different cultures, providing some interesting insights on the way. Henry Summerson, in chapter six, takes a more traditional approach than the other contributors in his discussion of politics and government from c. 1160-c. 1280. His chapter does center on kings and events, but he clearly describes key political shifts, and the interaction between different political units during the period. In the conclusion, Harvey returns, and focuses on the question of England's demographic, economic, and political dominance of the isles.

This work, and the series to which it belongs, exemplify an important recent historiographic shift, namely the increasing desire to study British history as a whole, rather than to focus on English history with occasional glances to "The Celtic Fringe." The preface by the general editor of the series, Paul Langford, is occupied with the problems and controversies created by a focus on the history of the British Isles (a term which arouses some resentment in Ireland), and indeed the volume in question brings to the fore the problems and opportunities of treating the archipelago as a historical unit. Bates is as much a historian of Normandy as of England, and he and several others quite rightly bring in Continental connections and influence, especially when discussing England. Indeed, in the early part of the period in question, England clearly had closer connections to Normandy than to Ireland and parts of Wales and Scotland, and throughout the period had strong political, cultural, and economic ties with various parts of France. In focusing on British history, the work thus favors certain connections at the expense of other equally important ones. Moreover, in the conclusion, Harvey asks if the British Isles possessed a history of their own in this period that amounted to more than the sum of the histories of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Her answer is no. Yet, though the British Isles do form something of an artificial historical unit in this period, I nonetheless found the endeavor useful. This was a crucial period for the development of English dominance in the isles, and the histories of the Scottish, Irish, and Welsh were all shaped by their reaction to the growing threat represented by English aggressiveness. Moreover, by looking at the British Isles as a unit, a comparative approach is built in, and the contributors took full advantage of this opportunity. From my perspective as a historian of England, the frequent infighting within Celtic ruling houses looks much less distinctive when placed side by side with the feuding between William the Conqueror's sons, the civil war of Stephen's reign, and the "dysfunctionality" of Henry II's family. On the other hand, the impact of inheritance customs that accorded limited rights to women in England but not elsewhere came much more sharply into focus. Even if one could argue that British history is artificial for this period, the consistent efforts of the contributors to cover the entire archipelago bring interesting perspectives and insights. All in all, I feel that the editor and contributors were presented with a challenging task, and that they fully rose to the occasion. I would recommend this book to anyone wishing a good introduction to British history between the late eleventh and late thirteenth centuries.