Valerie Ramseyer

title.none: Webber, Evolution of Norman Identity (Valerie Ramseyer)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.011 05.09.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Valerie Ramseyer, Wellesley College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Webber, Nick. The Evolution of Norman Identity, 911-1154. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005. Pp. xi,195. $90.00 (hb). ISBN: 1-84383-119-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.11

Webber, Nick. The Evolution of Norman Identity, 911-1154. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005. Pp. xi,195. $90.00 (hb). ISBN: 1-84383-119-8.

Reviewed by:

Valerie Ramseyer
Wellesley College

This book presents an examination of the "gens Normannorum" during the period of Norman settlement and conquest in France, England, and Italy. Based primarily on a close reading of chronicles, the author proposes to place his discussion of Norman "ethnicity" within the theoretical framework of identity theory current among social scientists today, while at the same time being careful to understand terms and ideas in the manner in which medieval people did. His goal in this book is thus twofold: to understand how "Normanitas" was transformed in Normandy, England, and southern Italy between 911 and 1154 and to demonstrate how theories about ethnic conflict can be utilized to gain a greater understanding of these transformations.

Webber begins his book with both a discussion of the meaning of "gens" in medieval texts and a summary of the ideas of various identity theorists working on contemporary issues of ethnicity and identity. From the very beginning, the author acknowledges the problem of defining terms such as "ethnicity" and "nation" in either a contemporary or a medieval context. He lists a variety of definitions for both concepts, and, given the large diversity of opinions, questions whether people are even talking about the same thing. Nonetheless, he believes that there is a general consensus regarding at least three aspects of ethnic identity: that it is prone to constant change, that it is not the only form of identity in a society, and that it is not necessarily the primary form of identity for an individual. He also believes, based on Herwig Wolfram's work, that the medieval concept of "gens" is similar to our modern idea of an "ethnie." In addition, he embraces the ideas of contemporary identity scholars who see identity not only as a complex process constantly in change, but also as one that is based on both subjective and objective criteria. As a result, the author divides his book into three timeframes--the Normans in Normandy, the Normans in southern Italy, and the Normans in England and Normandy after 1066--and differentiates between "internal" and "external" views of Norman ethnicity. Each section also contains a detailed description of the sources and authors under study.

In part I, Webber describes the ethnogenesis of the Normans in and around Rouen in the tenth century. In contrast to other medieval "gentes," who traced themselves back to a collective origin, internal sources emphasized the polyethnic nature of the "gens Normannorum," which was made up of different races unified around their leaders and the territory they controlled. These Norman chroniclers also saw military prowess and divine favor as the most important identifying features of this new "gens." The external sources, at least in the early part of the tenth century, utilized the term "Norman" in more negative terms, often times with overtones of barbarity and foreignness. They also did not distinguish between Normans and "Northmen," meaning Scandinavians who had settled in Normandy and those who lived elsewhere, as internal sources did. Furthermore, they did not view the Norman leaders as important for Norman identity, nor did they depict the Normans as conquerors or great warrior. By the late tenth century, however, after the Normans had allied with the Capetians and had begun to participate in Frankish politics, the Frankish sources showed less disdain for the Normans and their rulers, and by the eleventh century the Normans had become a comprehensive and quantifiable "gens." Moreover, the Frankish sources began to show an increasing 'alter-ascription' of what were 'ego-recognised' qualities, meaning that the qualities found in internal sources were now recognized in external sources: the Normans were seen as warriors worthy of respect and as a "most Christian" people.

According to the author, the relationship between Franks and Normans in this period fits well with models of ethnic minority situations. The Normans at first were judged negatively based on the Franks' own cultural framework, and early attempts by men such as William Longsword to cross the social barrier between the two ethnicities failed. Eventually, however, the Franks displayed a growing respect for the Normans, who were no longer regarded as an ethnic threat. At this point the Normans ceased being judged based on Frankish norms, but instead were seen as a "gens" in their own right.

In part II the author moves to the Norman conquest of southern Italy. Arriving as mercenaries and raiders before settling down and taking power, the Normans here to a large extent repeated the exploits of their northern brethren, only over a shorter time period. Nonetheless, the author believes that the identity construct of the Normans here was the most complicated of all due to the fact that they interacted with numerous groupings, each possessing their own identities and opinions about the Normans. As a result, models of minority interaction are less helpful in the case of the Normans in the south.

The Norman conquest of southern Italy was not a unified undertaking, but instead was carried out by various groups of Norman soldiers who established separate political units over the course of the eleventh century. Despite this fact, the author still believes the Normans were a unified "gens," due to their place of origin, their shared language, and their status as mercenaries and outsiders. According to the author, they brought a myth/symbol complex with them to Italy, and in both internal and external sources, writers used the term "Norman" to describe a group of people who were heir to a specific culture. Even after the foundation of two separate Norman Principalities, Aversa in 1030 and the county of Apulia in 1042, the author believes the Normans remained a single "gens," based on the same ideals of military prowess and conquest seen in Normandy. This unity is most clearly evidenced during the battle of Civitate, the great papal-Norman showdown of 1053, which the author describes as a conflict "instigated on an ethnic level" since "it was as a 'gens' that the Normans were threatened, and as a 'gens' that they responded. " (p. 65). In response, the various Norman camps suspended hostilities and confronted the threat in unison. The author also believes that internal sources from the eleventh century, such as Amatus of Montecassino, show that the Normans in southern Italy had a wider identity that encompassed Normans in other regions, including England and Spain.

In the twelfth century, the author believes that Norman identity split into two camps: one characteristic of the mainland and one of Sicily. In Sicily, the new Norman king Roger II moved toward racial unity and the creation of a new myth/symbol complex for leadership that was representative of all the cultures found on the island. On the mainland, the older view of "Normanitas" continued to hold force, with men such as Rainulf of Alife exhibiting the traditional characteristics of a Norman hero. As a result, the cultural symbols that defined the "gens Normannorum" in the eleventh century did not die; Roger may not have been a Norman king, but he did have Norman subjects. Nonetheless, the author believes that the Normans as a defined ethnic group disappear from the sources. Individuals such as Rainolf, although displaying "Norman" qualities, were never referred to as Normans.

External sources are more complicated to study in the case of southern Italy since they represent a wide variety of perspectives on the "gens Normannorum." The only commonality seems to be a universal dislike of the Normans. For French authors, the Normans were seen both as their own separate "gens" as well as part of a larger "gens Francorum," while for Greek authors the Normans were part of an even larger group of people, namely all those who lived north of the Alps. As a result, the Normans are not defined in Greek texts according to ethnic origin or affiliation. However, for Lombard authors, ethnicity is central to Norman identity. Thus, the author sees a disconnect between how the internal and external sources viewed the Normans, with the exception of an emphasis on military prowess which is found in many of the non-Norman chronicles. In the case of the Normans in Italy then, external groups did not validate Norman identity.

Part III examines England and Normandy from 1066 through the reign of King Stephen. In pre-conquest England, external sources viewed the Normans as a "gens" separate from the Franks, and generally portrayed them in a positive light. After 1066, sources such as the Anglo-Saxon chronicle predictably took on a more negative view toward Norman leaders, at least during the period of conquest itself. The internal sources not surprisingly emphasized the superior strength of the Normans, and the weakness and disloyalty of the English. Yet overall, the author sees no major change in the myth/symbol complex of "Normanitas" in the internal texts composed immediately after the conquest. He does, however, see a change in the identity of the "gens Normannorum" due to the conquest's success: Norman leaders are no longer viewed as just warriors, but as knights and powerful leaders who command loyalty.

With regard to external sources written about the conquest, the author discusses the debate over why the English referred to the Normans as "Franci," and not "Normanni." The two main arguments have been that they did so either in recognition of the non-Norman element of William's army, or because all the soldiers in his army spoke French. To this the authoradds two other possibilities: that the English wanted to distinguish the Normans from the earlier Vikings, or because the Normans were seen first and foremost as invaders, and their "gens" did not matter to the English.

For the twelfth century the author claims that it is no longer possible to separate the sources into "internal" and "external" categories because the gap between conquerors and conquered was disappearing. This does not mean that the writers were in the process of "becoming English," or that the "gens Normannorum" was being swallowed up by the "gens Anglorum." Writers could be English, Norman, or something of both, and a mixed-blood background did not create an identity crisis. For this reason the author sees a "tiered" model as more helpful, meaning a model based on the idea that personal identity is bound up in a variety of group identities, and that the different layers become more or less powerful depending on the circumstances. For example, in many sources, religious identity is much more important than ethnic identity, while in others territorial divisions were more meaningful. More importantly, the sources point to a transformation in the meaning of ethnicity. Rather than being based on descent, by the twelfth century ethnic identity was linked to the land that held an individual's allegiance and interest. To be English was thus defined as being "of England" and in support of its king. As a result, England and Normandy in the twelfth century, although politically united, became separate as far as identify was concerned. Moreover, the various groups of Normans found in Italy, France, and England were no longer seen as a single "gens." After 1154, when the Normans ceased to be conquerors, the "gens Normannorum" disappear from the historical record.

Overall Webber's book provides many interesting insights regarding the attitudes of chroniclers toward the "gens Normannorum" in various times and places. The author clearly has an in-depth knowledge of all the main chroniclers of the period, seen in his careful introductions to authors and sources found at the beginning of each section. The book also offers some useful comparisons between the Norman conquerors of England and those of southern Italy. In addition, the author is well acquainted with the secondary literature on Norman identity, at least as it relates to England, and he engages in some important debates current among Anglo-Norman historians regarding Norman and English identity. For southern Italy, however, Webber's knowledge of the secondary literature seems more limited. For example, he makes no reference to Joanna Drell's 2002 book, Kingship and Conquest: Family Strategies in the Principality of Salerno during the Norman Period (1077-1194), which talks extensively about Norman and Lombard identity in the twelfth century. He also completely ignores the debate among southern Italianists about the persistence or disappearance of ethnic distinctions between Lombards and Normans in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In addition, there is no discussion of secondary literature related to social and genealogical memory, which could have provided a different conceptual framework for the book. The almost exclusive reliance on chronicles also limits the discussion, and although I am sympathetic with the author's critique of using naming patterns to identify ethnicity, a careful examination of charters can nonetheless provide evidence for kinship relations and ancestral memory, which could shed light on many of the topics discussed in this book.

In addition, Webber approaches the medieval texts with what seem to be very specific ideas about the meaning of terms such as race and ethnicity, but without ever really defining precisely what these terms mean, in either a modern or medieval context. He simply says that he will use the terms "in the manner in which medieval people used them" (p. 9). Yet terms such as "gens" can and did have different meanings. For example, as Wolfram has pointed out, and as the author himself acknowledges, "gens" was used at times to refer to a host, and in the case of southern Italy, where the term was used for a group of warriors, perhaps this is closer to the meaning found in the chronicles. Moreover, there are times in the book when the author seems either puzzled or frustrated when a particular author seems uninterested in race or ethnicity. For example, he is perplexed when Falco of Benevento described certain men in a very Norman way, but neglected to call them Normans. Nonetheless, he insists on studying the meaning of "gens" in this chronicle, even while acknowledging that "it is difficult to study the perceptions of a 'gens'...if the existence of the 'gens,' and its membership, is either not acknowledged or assumed" (p. 97). I agree with the author that medieval historians should not avoid group terms, but shouldn't we be using the categories found in the sources, rather than imposing ones from outside? Finally, the book never demonstrated to me the usefulness of modern-day identity theory for studying medieval "gentes." Although the introduction includes a clear and succinct summary of the various models current among social scientists, the author himself rarely refers to these models during his analysis of the medieval texts, and even when he does, the result did not in my mind provide any additional insights. The situation of ethnic minorities in contemporary society is vastly different from that of the Normans in the Middle Ages, who entered England and Italy as conquerors and rulers. Both groups might seem a threat, and both groups may be"vulnerable," but for very different reasons.

Nonetheless, Webber's book provides a good introduction to various medieval perspectives on the Norman "gens," as well as insight into the difficult problem of studying the meaning of ethnicity in the medieval period.