12.01.06, Crouch, The English Aristocracy

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Hugh M. Thomas

The Medieval Review 12.01.06

Crouch, David. The English Aristocracy, 1070-1272: A Social Transformation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Pp. xviii, 352. ISBN: 978-0-300-11455-3.

Reviewed by:
Hugh M. Thomas
University of Miami

For nearly thirty years, David Crouch has been publishing important books and articles on the English and, to a lesser degree, the French aristocracies of the central Middle Ages. This book is clearly intended as a synthesis of his views on developments within the English aristocracy from the Norman Conquest to the accession of Edward I. On some topics, he only briefly summarizes previous findings, referring the reader back to his earlier works, but in most cases he presents new ideas or builds on previous work to provide further refinements of existing arguments. Naturally, Crouch also builds on the work of other scholars. In his last major work, The Birth of Nobility: Constructing Aristocracy in England and France, 900-1300, Crouch focused heavily on tracing the historiography of various issues concerning the secular elites and waded gleefully into debates, making his strong opinions clear. In this work, Crouch is less inclined to outline the debates (though they can be unearthed in the references) than simply to express his own views. Despite the fact that this is a synthetic work, even the scholar familiar with Crouch's earlier work will find much to profit from here. Readers who are less familiar with the subject will find a stimulating introduction to key aspects of aristocratic life in the period, though they should be aware that this work is not a summary of consensus thinking on the topic but an overview of the opinions of one very important scholar in the field. In many areas, Crouch's views represent or have contributed to the consensus, but this is not true for all of the subjects here.

The richness of this work defies easy summary, but an overview of the chapters can give an idea of the important themes. In his first chapter, Crouch traces knighthood as a social category in England. Among other things he argues that although the Normans introduced knighthood to England, a large percentage of knights were probably of Anglo-Saxon descent, a suggestion that I find highly unlikely on the basis of my own work, though it should be noted that the evidence is tricky and other specialists might agree with Crouch. In this chapter he also discusses the rise of knights as leaders in local communities and describes the well-known decline of the numbers of knights in the thirteenth century. In the second chapter, he studies the factors that encouraged a military culture among the elites despite the fact that England was a relatively peaceful country. Though he does not believe that the introduction of knight service after the Norman Conquest ever had any real military function outside of castle guard duty, he does suggest that it helped support the idea of military service among the aristocracy. He also argues that noble mesnies and tournaments fostered this military culture. In the third chapter, Crouch provides a very useful overview of the development of earls, barons, bannerets, knights, and squires as distinctive and self- conscious groups within the aristocracy.

In the following two chapters, Crouch traces the growth of the idea that magnates should have a say in royal government. In doing so, he consciously rejects traditional approaches concerning the development of parliament, saying that in attempting to trace its origins, historians have tried to "make an institution out of a reflex" (65). In a bold and intriguing approach, he tries to reframe the whole debate, speaking in terms of conciliarism rather than the origins of parliament, and trying to trace consultation in intellectual and political rather than institutional terms. In this context, it is a pity that John Maddicott's The Origins of the English Parliament, 924-1327 came out too late for Crouch to respond to. Among various developments he sees as important to the growth of conciliarism were Henry I's coronation charter, Magna Carta, and the development of the concept of the peerage, which was already found in the twelfth century and had become well established by the 1250s.

In chapters six and seven, Crouch addresses what he calls local violence, which seems to be violence aimed at regional control, and personal violence, which involves violence emerging mainly out of emotional rather than political concerns. Aristocrats on the Continent used violence as a tool to gain local domination, and Crouch believes English aristocrats did too. He also argues, however, that the efforts of magnates to bring peace in Stephen's reign ushered in a period, lasting until the revolts at the end of Johns reign, in which such practices were frowned upon, and aristocrats shifted to using courts more frequently. He also asks if gentry violence of the sort that characterized the later Middle Ages was found in this period, and suggests that it was, a finding very much supported by my own work. As for personal violence, Crouch addresses the debate of whether medieval people, and particularly aristocrats, were more violent than modern ones. He comes away with a mixed verdict, with some evidence for an aristocratic affinity for violence, but also some interesting indications that aristocrats did not celebrate violence quite as much as we tend to assume they did.

Chapter eight concerns the attempts of nobles, despite the scattered nature of aristocratic landholding in England, to build up local areas of control as much as possible like the compact lordships common on the Continent. Crouch first explores the machinations of individual families to build up local power, drawing in some cases on his own earlier work on these lineages. He then turns to methods of organizing patronage. Though he is one of several scholars who have undermined the importance historians had placed on the honor since Stenton's time, Crouch acknowledges that it was an influential institution, even while tracing its weaknesses and decline. He then goes on to look at early affinities, once again drawing on some of his important earlier work. In chapter nine, Crouch turns to seigneurial courts, ranging from great honorial to minor manorial ones, arguing for their robust importance. He disputes the traditional view that Henry II's judicial reforms were directed against such courts, instead suggesting that Henry saw them as part of the overall system that was under his jurisdiction. Although Crouch acknowledges that in the thirteenth century seigneurial courts tended primarily to hear less important cases, he stresses that they were still very much part of the judicial landscape and indicates that they were important in providing revenue and prestige to lords. In the tenth chapter, Crouch explores the efforts of aristocrats, inspired by the county of Chester and powerful lordships in Normandy and on the Welsh Marches, to defend and maintain liberties, areas in which they could control criminal justice with only limited interference from the royal government. Rights to exercise criminal justice, including the death penalty, were important for defining the French nobility, and Crouch argues that they were also important in this respect in England.

Where many historians would focus on chivalry, Crouch explores the topic of conduct, which forms the subject of his eleventh chapter. Crouch argues that before the late twelfth century, one cannot speak of chivalry, which he states appears first in its sense as a code of behavior in the work of Chretien de Troyes. For Crouch, what had existed before was a noble habitus, which chivalry then encoded. Crouch also distinguishes between chivalry and courtliness, the latter of which he sees as connected to a career path at court which was open to clerics as well as secular aristocrats. Much of the chapter, however, is devoted to how chivalry came into being and at the end Crouch suggests that Henry II's court might have been the "petri dish" in which chivalry mutated out of a "fusion of the courtly and military skills of its inhabitants" (206). In chapter twelve, Crouch turns to gender, dealing with masculinity as well as the place of women in aristocratic society. He argues for thinking in terms of habitus rather than patriarchy on the grounds that habitus moves beyond simply focusing on power and can incorporate the flexibility of gender relations. My own view is that power mattered tremendously and that patriarchy must remain a fundamental concept, but nonetheless I also find Crouch's approach to gender through habitus a useful one, and I also think he is right to point to the penalties men as well as women often paid for not living up to gender expectations. Within this chapter, he deals with a variety of topics, such as the nature of gender roles in the period, the ways in which women acted as bridges between families, and the labeling of marriages of aristocratic women to men of lesser status as disparaging. In the last chapter, Crouch surveys the important topic of aristocratic piety in the period, providing a useful overview of religious practices ranging from founding monasteries and chantries to commissioning books of hours in order to take up regular spiritual devotions.

I have indicated a few of my own points of agreement or disagreement with Crouchs conclusions, and have also noted a couple of places where his views are unconventional. No doubt some of the arguments in this work will provoke further debate, as good, stimulating scholarship should. At the end of his introduction, Crouch expresses the hope that this will be his final word on the subject, but suggests he will not "get away with it so easily" (xviii). Hopefully, he will indeed not get away with it, for if he does produce more work on the aristocracy in the central Middle Ages, it will be all to the good. Nonetheless, this is an important summation of Crouch's impressive body of work on English aristocrats from the reign of William the Conqueror through that of Henry III.

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Author Biography

Hugh M. Thomas

University of Miami