Sarah Rees Jones

title.none: Liddy and Britnell, eds., North-East England in the Later Middle Ages (Sarah Rees Jones)

identifier.other: baj9928.0606.014 06.06.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sarah Rees Jones, University of York,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Liddy, Christian D. and Ricahrd H. Britnell. North-East England in the Later Middle Ages. Regions and Regionalism in History. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell, 2005. Pp. xiii, 250. $90.00 1-84383-127-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.06.14

Liddy, Christian D. and Ricahrd H. Britnell. North-East England in the Later Middle Ages. Regions and Regionalism in History. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell, 2005. Pp. xiii, 250. $90.00 1-84383-127-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Sarah Rees Jones
University of York

The AHRC-funded Research Centre for North-East England History (NEEHI), based at the University of Durham, has been a major catalyst of research in recent years on the history of England's most northerly province. This volume of fifteen substantial research papers represents a selection of the proceedings of a conference held by the Centre in 2002, and includes contributions from a number of those engaged in research projects hosted by NEEHI. As Tony Pollard explains in his introduction to the volume, the theme of the conference was the identity of the North East as a region but the focus of the research papers in the volume is source driven, with a particular focus on the archives of the bishop and priory of Durham. Much of the volume thus focuses on the palatinate of Durham and the community of St. Cuthbert of Durham priory and their estates in the period between 1250 and 1500. This focus increases the coherence of the collection, opening up the cultural, economic, political and social history of the region in a range of papers which provide a model of collaborative research. Far from assuming an easy assertion of regional identity, the several contributions actually question and test the usefulness of such a concept.

Tony Pollard's introduction provides a useful guide to the historiography of the north-east and a subtle and well-argued interrogation of the idea of regional identity in addition to an overview of the genesis and scope of the volume. It is followed by three papers by Richard Lomas, Alastair Macdonald and Cynthia Neville exploring the significance of proximity to Scotland to the region's identity by examining the rhetorical construction, promotion and rejection of competing versions of regional identity through local saints' cults, estate formation, the writing of history and the use of law. The next two contributions by Andy King and Christian Liddy explore the formation of the local gentry in two case studies of the Gray and Pollard families. The operation of local courts, both secular and ecclesiastical, is the subject of the next three papers by Peter Larsen, Constance Fraser and Margaret Harvey. The emphasis of the volume then moves to economic and social history. Christine Newman and Miranda Threlfall-Holmes examine patterns of trade and the development of markets and towns, while Alan Piper discusses the issue of regional recruitment to the priory and the standard of living of its monks. The volume finishes with three inter-linked papers on the landscape and agricultural economy of the estates of the bishopric and priory of Durham by Ben Dodds, Simon Harris, Brian Roberts and Helen Dunsford. These last three papers also acknowledge the influence of Professor Richard Britnell, supervisor of the research out of which the papers by Dodds and Harris grew.

In a short review it is difficult to do full justice to the depth and interest of the research presented in this collection. If I comment on particular aspects of the volume at the expense of others this is emphatically not because of any order of merit in the papers. A number of the authors argue for the integration of north-eastern history into the meta-narratives of English and even European history in this period. Dodds and Harris both construct a view of the economic history of post-plague county Durham which locates it within wider trends of initial recovery after the first crisis of the Black Death followed by longer-term collapse of agricultural prices, a shift from arable to pasture and a declining ability of landlords to raise revenue from their tenants in the fifteenth century which is familiar from many studies of the English agricultural economy, particularly in regions remote from the metropolis of London. Similarly King and Liddy draw on the tradition of many earlier studies of English county gentry communities in their study of gentrification, which emphasises both royal service and canny investment in the steady accumulation of land as means of securing a family's fortunes. Piper's study can also be located in a recent historiography contradicting a notion of monastic decline on the eve of the Reformation and instead asserting the adaptability, vibrancy and continued enthusiasm for the community of Durham Priory, even in the face of declining economic resources. If historians working within a tradition of modern scholarship see ways in which the history of the north-east can and should be integrated into the history of England, a greater sense of resistance to inclusion in an idea of Englishness is present in those authors, such as Lomas, Macdonald and Neville, who are concerned with contemporary perceptions of the region. All three authors emphasise the difficulties and real hardships for local people as the English crown increasingly insisted on defining a border between England and Scotland and imposing English customs and identities on those living to the south of it. Macdonald even goes so far as to argue that a close reading of Hardyng's Chronicle suggests that local particularism was growing at the expense of national loyalty in the fifteenth century, as the problems caused by the arbitrary division of cross-border communities continued to be ignored by the crown. This difference of perspective introduces an interesting tension into the volume between easy acceptance of a tradition of English history by modern scholars, who are not self-consciously concerned with identity, and those of their subjects in the past who lacked the advantage of historical hindsight.

As Macdonald demonstrates, later medieval northerners were certainly cultivating a strong sense of their own history. In addition to their secular history, the life of St Cuthbert, patronal saint of Durham priory, might have provided another celebrated history. Despite the focus on the surviving archives of his community, the cult of Cuthbert is not much discussed in this volume, although it has been the focus of substantial work by Professor David Rollason, co-founder of NEEHI. Cuthbert was in fact revered throughout the north of England, in York Minster almost as much as in Durham, so that perhaps his cult could never be easily associated only with the palatinate. Perhaps, as Liddy tentatively but suggestively argues, really strong local identities take hold and find expression in comparatively small things, such as a local practice within the palatinate of Durham of holding land from the bishop by the symbolic tenure of a falchion (a curved sword), which over time was incorporated into the ritual of the installation of bishops of Durham and so became a proud traditional ritual kept alive and actively promoted by the county's early antiquarians. Another small but significant regional difference lay in the administrative procedures of local secular courts, the hallmotes, which, as Larson shows, were free to develop in distinctive and flexible ways to suit the needs of their clientele since the palatinate of Durham was never subjected to the formal procedures of public law operating in the English shires to its south. The success and continued evolution of these courts into the post-medieval period suggests that their distinctiveness, however utilitarian, may have also been associated with a sense of regional pride. Finally economic recession may itself have promoted a greater sense of regional identity in the fifteenth century. Threlfall Holmes shows how the economic hinterland of Durham was increasingly confined within the North East in the fifteenth century, using Newcastle, rather than greater towns further afield such as York, as its principal entrepot. Similarly Piper demonstrates that even though recession meant that the monks of Durham priory had to make economies in their standard of living and reduce their numbers from time to time, in general they had no problems in finding willing new recruits among the young men of the palatinate and between 1478 and 1519 the size of the community actually increased reinforcing the community's ties with its hinterland.

Even though Roberts, Dunsford and Harris demonstrate conclusively that the landscape of the palatinate encompassed several contrasting geographic regions, the impression that the institutions of the priory and bishopric themselves were at the heart of the region's identity culturally, economically and socially runs throughout the volume, and this cannot be entirely undermined by the timely reminder that it is the rich and well- preserved archives of those institutions which form the backbone of much of the new research here.

I am never enthusiastic about criticism which emphasises what is left out of a piece of work rather than focussing on what it contains. The one major omission, perhaps, is an exploration of the cultural identity of the north-east and in particular a study of the languages and literatures of the region. The isogloss which runs through the north of North Yorkshire and, even today, divides the distinctive dialects of Northumbria and lowland Scotland from more southerly forms of English, surely provides one of the most distinctive features of the region's identity and might well be explored in relation to the other issues treated in this volume. However let's hope that the magnificent success of this volume, the third in a series on Regions and Regionalism edited by the founders of the NEEHI, simply paves the way for further studies exploring these and other issues.

The far north of England is often under-represented in later medieval history. This volume of substantial research papers goes a very long way to redressing that problem. North-East England in the Later Middle Ages will stand as the reference point not only for all future work on this region, but also makes a major contribution to the history of England in the later middle ages.