"The Norman Conquest is an historical event which is a part of the identity of the English and British but, it would seem, with some ambivalence of feeling in national memory, and this is what makes it interesting" (viii). So Siobhan Brownlie says in the introduction to this book, pretty well summing up the purpose of her study. It lies at the intersection of two disparate areas of investigation: memory studies, whose theory and practice are primarily a matter of the current generation, and the historiography of the Norman Conquest, which stretches back to late eleventh- and early twelfth-century narratives of the coming of the Normans to England. In the latter of these I can claim some expertise: in the former, I am a rank amateur. Therefore, this review will concentrate on the book's contributions to the historiography of the Conquest.
Brownlie's study aims to do a number of things: to explain how theoretical studies of memory and studies that have been applied to other events in other periods can be applied to a topic such as the Norman Conquest; to look at various ways in which the Norman Conquest has been remembered and mis-remembered in Britain over the course of nine and a half centuries; and to look in detail at current "memories" and "myths" of the Conquest as expressed in newspapers, in a survey of popular knowledge of the event and in various other modern media (television documentaries, reenactments, touristic publications, etc.). It is primarily an exercise in the history of modern popular culture--its larger context is "the social function of memory and myths" (viii)--rather than a scholarly disquisition on historiography from the eleventh century onwards; but Brownlie has read widely both in memory studies (so far as I can tell) and in the historiography of the Conquest and provides a number of insights that will be of use to medieval historians.
Brownlie claims that her study is original especially in two ways: first, most previous studies of memory have concentrated on events in the eighteenth century or later; and, second, that she uses a different set of sources as her primary evidence for her conclusions. This evidence consists of two surveys that she undertook: one was a keyword search for all references to the Conquest and several related terms in the online versions of ten newspapers, ranging from "serious press" to "tabloids," in the period between July 2005 and July 2008; she notes that, while all these papers describe themselves as British, "the online versions are in fact London-based" (17). She found 807 such references. In the course of the book she quotes quite a few of these, which range from the mundane to the touristic to the well informed to the utterly hilarious.
The other survey, which she designed, was administered in September 2010 by a professional online survey organization to 2179 British individuals (again mostly English). It asked various questions about the respondents' knowledge of the Conquest and about how much they care about it. These two surveys are supplemented by her own visits to various reenactments, by documentaries on the Conquest or the Normans, and by a miscellaneous collection of other modern references to the Conquest that, in one way or another, indicate modern British attitudes to the event. "In sum, I ask whether memory of the distant past, specifically of the Norman Conquest, matters today, and I conclude that it does, sometimes in surprising ways" (ix).
In general, over the course of its ten chapters, the book moves from theories of memory to "memories and myths" of the Conquest, though every chapter except the first ("Memory and Method")--which is on theory and on the design of the two surveys--contains some results specific to the Norman Conquest. Chapter 2 ("Knowledge, Symbolization and Tradition") argues on the basis of examples from both the newspapers and the online survey that "the Conquest serves both as a symbol for national insular security (as well as insecurity), and as a semiotic sign for foundation and for respected roots and evolving tradition" (43). Chapter 3 ("Multiple Remediation") surveys the earliest written accounts of the Conquest and their use in modern accounts, documentaries and newspaper references. Chapter 4 is on "Presentism and Multidirectionality": presentism refers to ways in which references to the Conquest are used to describe modern events, sports contests for example, or Anglo-French relations; multidirectionality, to how the events of 1066 are utilized in popular references to other events in the British past, often also in the Anglo-French context. Chapter 5 ("Affective Mobility") attempts to assess modern British feelings about the Conquest and to compare them to medieval attitudes.
The next three chapters look in some detail at various common tropes about the Conquest. Chapter 6 ("Mythologization: A Founding Myth") defines "myth" in this context as "a narrative with some verifiable historical actuality, a story based on a famous event or situation which takes on 'larger than life' features such as great fame, symbolism or possible exaggeration" (95). It then considers a number of such myths about the Conquest, such as the story that Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye and, especially, the story of Harold's oath to support William's claim to the throne. Chapter 7 ("A Time-Honoured Myth") is on the trope of the "Norman Yoke" in English memory; I found it a particularly insightful analysis, stressing the complexity of the subject and the political utility at different times of its various strands. Chapter 8 ("Contradictory Myths") studies the ways in which the Normans can and have been portrayed as French or not French or, surprisingly, as British.
The last two chapters take up wider considerations. Chapter 9 ("Memorial and Mythic Functions"), based mostly on newspaper references, attempts to contribute to "recent debates on the construction of Britishness" by "investigat[ing] the group identity of the British in relation to the memory of the Conquest" (153). Finally, chapter 10 ("Significance of Distant Memory") is "particularly interested in the potential impact of memory of a distant event...on intercultural relations, both international and intra-national" (173). It concludes, "Myths of the Conquest circulating in contemporary life do signal internal divisions...which [are] evoked in relation to social class distinctions, and in subtle ways the myths may feed into oppressive discourse within society concerning the foreign." Nonetheless, "[o]verall the main force of memories of the Norman Conquest is towards unity in promoting British identity through shared cultural knowledge and positive attitudes regarding heritage" (192).
What can a medieval historian learn from this book? For one thing, I was intrigued by the method and many of the results and can imagine similar interesting studies of modern memories and myths of other major medieval events. According to Brownlie, the only comparable studies of the pre-modern world have been of ancient Israel. Magna Carta, anyone? I also find that I am much more attuned to casual references to medieval events in popular media, and less scornful of them, than I was before I read Brownlie's book. As I have already mentioned, some of the newspaper references to the Conquest are hilarious--I am happy to have read the book for these bits alone. And just to keep us historians humble, some of the results, especially of the online survey of individuals, seem quite surprising. Only 48% of those surveyed regard the Norman Conquest as "very important" in British history. Even when the English respondents alone are counted, the percentage rises only to 52%. What? What? So much for those of us who think the Conquest made all the difference to English history and contributed much to European (and eventually world) history for all time!
Occasionally, Browlie is capable of stating the obvious. I presume, for example, that even a theorist of memory who has no knowledge of events around the English Channel in 1066 does not really need to be told that "writings on the Norman Conquest are highly dependent on early written sources" (13); and even I, no expert in memory theory, do not need to be told that, "the term 'mythologization' means the process of something becoming a myth" (95). Since Brownlie is not an expert in medieval culture, there are some solecisms: trial by battle was not a "legal punishment" (27, emphasis added), for example. These are comfortingly few, however.