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13.10.15, Oksanen, Flanders and the Anglo-Norman World, 1066-1216

13.10.15, Oksanen, Flanders and the Anglo-Norman World, 1066-1216

Specialists in medieval Flemish, English and French history should welcome Eljas Oksanen's book. By studying the relationships between the county of Flanders and the kingdom of England, and, to a much lesser extent, Flanders and the duchy of Normandy in the period between the Norman Conquest and the dismemberment of the Angevin empire, Oksanen sheds valuable new light on a topic that has not received focused attention in recent scholarship. [1]

Oksanen cites two frames of reference for the book. First, he claims that Flanders was at both the core and the periphery of northwestern Europe between 1066 and 1216. The county was at the center of a trading network stretching across France, England, Germany and Scandinavia, but politically, it operated on the borders of these states. However, he quickly sloughs off this frame in favor of a second that puts Flanders at both the core and periphery of the Anglo- Norman world. Flanders lay outside the territories of the Anglo-Norman rulers, but its Channel coastline gave it easy access to the heart of the Anglo-Norman realm: the county was "a potential chink in the realm's armour" (53). If anything unites the two frames, it is the author's claim that after 1204, when the French king Philip II seized control of most of the continental Angevin empire from the English king John I, the "international" power of the Flemish counts quickly declined.

In Chapter 1, "Power and Politics in Flanders and the Anglo-Norman Regnum," Oksanen uses political narratives to define the two poles of the world he surveys. He traces the rise of Flanders as a nearly independent "territorial principality" and its counts' accumulation of "regalian" powers from the late ninth century. To this, he adds a parallel and sometimes intersecting narrative of the Anglo-Norman world, which he casts as a regnum, a realm ruled by one family but not politically or socially united. He also calls attention to two elements--a series of Anglo-Flemish treaties and the Anglo-Norman practice of granting money fiefs--that figure prominently in subsequent chapters. Overall, the chapter emphasizes the huge amount of wealth and power that controlling both Normandy and England gave the Anglo-Norman rulers.

Chapter 2, "Military Treaties and Diplomatic Culture," is about the ruling stratum in both England and Flanders. It examines the central role a series of treaties between the kings of England and the counts of Flanders played in diplomatic relations. At the heart of these treaties lay money fiefs: the English kings paid the Flemish counts a sum of money each year for the right to call up anywhere from 500 to 1000 mounted Flemish knights. The author notes that most other scholars have viewed the first few treaties as part of a political context in which the king was trying to deny his enemies (especially the king of France) Flemish military aid. Oksanen counters "the procurement of military assistance [for the king of England] was always their primary purpose" (59). After considering what the treaties concluded in 1101 and 1110 tell us about the conduct and organization of warfare in the early twelfth century, he turns his attention to the treaty King Henry II made with Count Thierry in 1163. He argues that the outdated terms of this treaty only make sense if we view it as primarily symbolic. Where other scholars have placed it in the context of feudalism (Thierry did homage to Henry), Oksanen sees it as a ritualistic affirmation designed to perpetuate a traditional Anglo-Flemish relationship into a new generation (the treaty consistently references both rulers' heirs).

In Chapter 3, "Anglo-Flemish Diplomacy," the author concentrates on the elites who represented rulers in diplomatic meetings. In the twelfth century, ambassadors gained the authority to negotiate on behalf of their lords rather than just deliver messages. Oksanen states that they formed what Robin Frame calls an "aristocratic nexus," a network of elites with "international" interests. He tries to identify its members by tracing money fiefs that kings of England dispensed to Flemish barons. (These grants were separate from those to the Flemish counts.) He also identifies individuals and families who held land in both Flanders and England. In addition, he disagrees with the existing scholarly consensus, and at the same time, differentiates the purposes of grants to the Flemish counts discussed above and grants to barons. While Bryce Lyon discussed grants to barons as a means to secure military aid, Oksanen thinks they were primarily political in nature. He also discusses the technicalities of how the money for the fiefs was collected.

Chapter 4, "Tournament in Anglo-Flemish Society," argues that a regional military and aristocratic culture developed on both sides of the Channel in the twelfth century. Tournaments served as venues for the propagation and development of aristocratic values among a military elite. Elites attended because they could network: lords wanted to attract knights to their households and knights hoped to come to the attention of a wealthy lord. Armies could also practice warfare in a relatively safe environment. In addition, Oksanen points out that most of the great tournaments were staged in border areas, allowing princes to develop bonds with their more distant subjects. Most interestingly, he sees the tournament as a specifically aristocratic, not royal, phenomenon. Usually, kings did not take part.

Chapter 5, "The Politics of Cross-Channel Commerce," considers the mercantile and industrial stratum in both Flemish and English society. In the twelfth century, Flanders was the most densely populated area of western Europe. For such a small territory, it contained an astonishing number of towns (at least seven) with populations in the tens of thousands. Much of its prosperity depended on the trade and manufacture of woolen cloth. Because a significant portion of the raw wool came from England, Flemish trade promoted other sorts of ties to the Anglo-Norman world. Here, Oksanen disputes Gaston Dept's claim from the 1920s that the kings of England exercised a significant amount of control over the economic policies of Flemish towns via control over the English wool trade.

Chapters 6 and 7, "Flemish Immigration to England" and "Social Identity and the Image of Flemings in England," both deal with Flemings in England, the former with Flemish immigration to the kingdom and the latter with perceptions of the Flemish as Flemish rather than French. Oksanen painstakingly combs through administrative evidence like the Domesday Book to locate the landholdings of Flemish magnates in England. He presents his findings in maps that show clear distributional patterns. Finally, in the last chapter, he argues that by the beginning of the thirteenth century, there was a combined Norman French and English culture that had grown up alongside a new Flemish identity. He uses "literary" evidence to trace the development of views on Flemings as a separate category of people.

Again, this is a book for specialists. Oksanen achieves a notable economy in his writing by focusing intensely on the technicalities of the primary sources and relegating the scholarly debates that they complicate to brief notices and footnotes. Readers without prior familiarity with the scholarly contexts for his various arguments will find the arguments difficult to assess, but specialists should mostly be able to discern their significance. At times, however, this historiographic frugality can be excessive. For example, Oksanen evaluates the treaties of 1101 and 1110 from a pragmatic viewpoint as tools for placing military aid at the disposal of English rulers. Although he points to a certain "photo-op" symbolic character associated with the treaties, it is their literal terms that count. However, in his analysis of the treaty of 1163, the literal terms seem to him anachronistic and illogical, so he shifts his focus to the treaty's symbolic value. His approach here owes much to the "performative turn," especially Gerd Althoff's arguments concerning how political norms manifest themselves in rules (Spielregeln) governing public interactions. While Oksanen provides several citations to works that adopt performative approaches, he provides little justification for beginning his analyses in the literal mode. His method actually seems to clash with Althoff's view that all public communication throughout the Middle Ages was ritualistic. Oksanen also ignores the controversial status of the performative turn, especially the debate between Philippe Buc and Geoffrey Koziol about our ability to discern the meanings of ritual.

Superficially, Oksanen's book falls into a tradition of examining cross-Channel relations pioneered by Wilhelm Levison and continued by, among others, Philip Grierson and Veronica Ortenberg. [2] But, Oksanen has larger ambitions: his goal is deconstruction. In the introduction, Oksanen cites the tendency of many (earlier?) histories to be organized along nationalist lines in order to tell the stories of modern states. He declares that his study does not fit this pattern, and that "rather than reinforce narratives based on the modern concept of 'state' [he] therefore hope[s] to provide an international and interregional point of view with which to consider the history of north-western Europe" (2). He wants to, and does, prove that relationships within different social strata crossed the Channel, blurring the lines and definitions of states. He does not, however, attempt to define a larger entity, either an Anglo-Norman-Flemish region between or comprising the two states or a system of international relations. Nor does he direct readers with comparisons (e.g., between Flemish landholding in England and Flemish landholding in other states, or between Flemish and Scandinavian landholding in England).

In the absence of an overarching framework, his chapters read as a series of focused arguments with admirable attention to detail. This is not a problem for the arguments themselves, but it makes them available for integration into the very statist historiographies he claims to eschew. Many scholars will find his chapters a convincing elaboration of a traditional statist meta-narrative stemming from, among others, Jan Dhondt. The narrative begins before the period covered here, when territorial princes like the Flemish counts "usurped" regalian powers as the Carolingian monarchy weakened. During the period discussed in the book, their own barons and lesser feudal entities in turn, challenged these princes until the rise of strong national monarchies arrested the devolution of power. In fact, one could just as easily say that the decline of the Flemish counts' power was due to the rising power of the French national kings as to the dismemberment of the Anglo-Norman realm. One might also note that because some of the great Belgian historians and their students--among others, Henri Pirenne, François-Louis Ganshof, Dhondt, Lyon and David Nicholas--fashioned this meta-narrative, it is difficult to escape the nationalist frame. Many other scholars will view the arguments in light of debates about the Anglo-Norman world, perhaps reading the title as Flanders in the Anglo-Norman World. In either case, scholars can thank Oksanen for his many perceptive observations, the result of much toil.



1. See, for example, Christopher Harper-Bill and Elisabeth Van Houts (eds.), A Companion to the Anglo-Norman World (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2003), mentions Flanders and the Flemish in various places, but does not contain a chapter devoted to Anglo-Norman relations with the county.

2. Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946); Philip Grierson, "The Relations between England and Flanders before the Norman Conquest," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th ser. 23 (1941): 71-112; Veronica Ortenberg, The English Church and the Continent in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries: Cultural, Spiritual, and Artistic Exchanges (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).