Linda Mitchell

title.none: Brown, English Castles (Linda Mitchell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0602.016 06.02.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Linda Mitchell, Alfred University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Brown, R. Allen. Allen Brown's English Castles, New Edition. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xiii, 190. ISBN: 29.95 1-84383-069-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.02.16

Brown, R. Allen. Allen Brown's English Castles, New Edition. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xiii, 190. ISBN: 29.95 1-84383-069-8.

Reviewed by:

Linda Mitchell
Alfred University

This is a reprint of a classic in castle studies, first published in 1954 and then revised by the author in 1977 in light of new interest in medieval archaeology especially in the U.K. Allen Brown, whose expertise in all things Anglo-Norman can scarcely be surpassed, presented this work for both students of history and architecture and the well-versed layperson interested in medieval castles. Although now superseded to a large extent by extensive--indeed comprehensive--studies in castles and castle-building, it is likely that this field would still be in its infancy were it not for Allen Brown.

Since this work has a well-deserved reputation as a classic, I have not spent much time evaluating this book in comparison to more recent and more sophisticated studies, although I shall mention some rather obvious differences at the end. Indeed, it is not entirely clear why Boydell decided to reissue the book with such fanfare (it was prominently displayed, for example, at the Boydell table at last year's International Medieval Congress at WMU, Kalamazoo). Certainly, the publisher must have received requests for its reissue, but most university libraries undoubtedly own both the original and the revised edition, the latter of which is virtually identical to the present volume. Thankfully, the editors saw fit, however, to bring the bibliography up to more current levels by including a "Further Reading" section of works published since 1976. This was a very good idea, since the secondary works mentioned in the notes are largely of negligible importance to the modern- day student of castle studies, and instructors using this book would have been hard-pressed to provide their students with adequate supplemental reading without it.

Allen Brown divides his work into two general parts, although they are not so identified in the Table of Contents: a general history of castle-building from its origins on the continent to the decline of castle-building in the later fifteenth century (or, perhaps more accurately, the conversion of many castles into less fortified baronial residences), followed by a study of the construction and uses of castles in the twelfth to fifteenth centuries in England and Wales. The first section is amply illustrated with diagrams and photographs, to which the second section often refers. The placement of these images is a bit idiosyncratic, with diagrams not always connecting visually to text that refers to them and the photographs acting as a break between the two thematic sections of the book, but the reader can usually find what she is looking for reasonably efficiently.

The first thematic section is probably the most useful to historians of medieval Britain who are looking for a general introduction to the development of castles in England and Wales. Allen Brown's survey is heavy on royal castles, but his thesis that baronial castles were erected for identical reasons and using identical rationales as to their style and aspect serves him well: he demonstrates clearly that the only major difference between royal and baronial castles, especially those enlarged or erected in the thirteenth century, was size. And even here, he shows that, sometimes, baronial castles rivaled royal ones even in size, as Caerphilly and Chepstow both demonstrate.

Allen Brown admits that he is ignoring castles in Ireland and Scotland in this work, and did not attempt to add any material on them even in his revised edition, when the study of Irish castles was commencing. This is understandable, given the amazing abundance of castles that appear in England and Wales and the strong correlation between castle-building in the Welsh Marches and building in Ireland (since the same barons were building in both places at once). Nevertheless, it would have been nice to read at least some reference to the great fortifications of Trim (built by the Lacy lords of Meath and Ewyas) or Limerick (built by King John and Henry III) as they related to Ludlow (also built by the Lacys) or Dover or any other of John's major castle projects. The reader who is conversant in the history of castle-building in Ireland can, however, use this book to extrapolate when discussing the connections between castles on that island and those in the English kingdom.

The second section, on the social, political, and military uses of castles, although useful as a starting point, has now been more or less superseded by even the most popular studies of "Life in a Medieval Castle" (to use the title of a work published by the Gieses). Thus, its utility is probably negligible beyond assisting the beginning student of castle studies. Nevertheless, as Jonathan Coad's preface to this edition mentions, Allen Brown's comfort in the public records and in chronicle sources was so superior to that of most popular historians that he engaged in his discussion on a different level, including extensive translations of descriptions of castles and life in them. This meant that the authors who followed him benefited significantly from his expertise and their own works' superiority to his in this context is the direct result.

The age of this book, and the fact that Allen Brown might have revised his technical descriptions in the 1970s in light of new research, but left his 1950s-era social historical analyses largely intact, does become apparent particularly in the second section. Despite his claim that most of the new material in the second edition occurred in the latter section, Allen Brown might have rewritten it in light of the scholarship of historians such as Georges Duby, but his conclusions hearken back more to the period between 1960 and 1976 rather than looking ahead to the more radical re-evaluations that occurred thereafter. Although I cannot fault him for being a man of his era, nevertheless some of the information and discussion in these chapters can lead modern-day students astray, and so would need to be supplemented by more current work. His quibbles with terminology--he dislikes archaeological and architectural terms such as "shell keep"--are irrelevant to today's historical milieu, since we have become comfortable with the idea that terminology can be diverse and still understandable. Moreover, his use of highly technical terms such as "machiolation" (a term that drives my students wild since it means simply a way of building in stone that results in a varied façade instead of a smooth one and seems needlessly obscure to them) rather obviates his prejudices: terms that were common in his own education are fine; neologisms are not. In addition, issues that are of tremendous interest to students and historians today, such as when fireplaces and chimneys, glass windows, and garderobes were introduced into medieval dwellings, gets little mention. Allen Brown talks about the existence of "fireplaces" as early as 1100 but he does not describe them or mention the existence of chimneys, which suggests that he might not have been aware of the lateness of that particular technological advance in home comfort. Thus, his fireplaces might in fact have been semi-enclosed hearths that have since been more accurately identified. He mentions that Henry III ordered painted glass to be inserted in the windows of rooms intended for his bride, Eleanor of Provence, but does not discuss how revolutionary such a move must have been, since wicker and wooden screens much more typically covered most domestic windows until the fifteenth century. Domestic arrangements, such as the contents of kitchens and the kinds of outbuildings typical to medieval castles, are also lightly covered, unlike fortifications, which receive extensive and detailed discussion. Finally, the fact that women not only lived in castles, but also controlled them, defended them, and built and improved them, is scarcely mentioned at all. As an example: when Allen Brown discusses the improvements to Goodrich Castle, Gloucestershire, he assumes that these were completed by Aymer de Valence when in reality they were likely completed by his mother, Joan, who had inherited the castle-- along with the earldom of Pembroke--from her uncle Walter le Marshal. Goodrich was Joan's favored dwelling and she did not turn it over to her son when her husband, William de Valence, died (as she did with the Pembroke properties--she also retained the lordship of Wexford in Ireland). Aymer had to wait until Joan's death in 1307 before he could become lord of Goodrich. This blindness as to the contributions of women in building and maintaining castles is so typical of historical studies completed before 1980 that it almost doesn't bear mentioning, but in this context--especially since this reprint is being marketed as the perfect introduction to castle studies--it is important to note where an instructor must supplement the information found between these covers.

To conclude: it is nice that Boydell decided to reprint Allen Brown's classic study of English and Welsh castles and to produce it in a reasonably priced paperback edition. Given the abundance of more recent studies available to the student and professional, however, I would not rush out to get this one unless your college library doesn't own a copy or you want to complete your own personal collection of books on castles.