The author offers an ambitious study of the course of relations in the twelfth century between England (for which one can also read northwestern France for much of the period it studies), France and Scotland. The study therefore comprehends five reigns of English kings (two of them being the most historiographically complex in the Middle Ages), three French and four Scots. It also includes the collapse of the Angevin condominium, the rise of the Capetians and a period of radical state-building that transformed Gaelic Alba into something resembling the unitary kingdom of Scotland. The author does not explain what she means by "The Struggle for Power," but the bare historical summary above certainly shows that mighty power struggles were characteristic of the age. The year 1204 is a natural place to end the story, for as Dr. Pollock says, the three realms interacted on entirely different principles after King John was ousted from Normandy and the lands north of the Loire.
In such an enormous field of political and social change it is no easy thing to find a coherent focus in a study that embraces most of France and the British archipelago (apart from Ireland). Each of the realms has in the past been characterised by different stories. England has been seen as an emerging state whose wealth and the ambitions of its kings had a major impact on its nearest Continental neighbour, not to mention the non-English realms to the north and west. France is by contrast the story of a plucky and determined dynasty working against the odds to build a new kingdom out of the fragments of a collapsed Carolingian state. Scotland too is a story of unification but in a realm patched together from several peoples (including English and by the 1120s, French too) and a kingship which was not in the European mainstream. There have been good studies which explain the twelfth century as a titanic battle between personalities: Louis VI and Henry I, Louis VII and Henry II, Philip Augustus and John. In the other direction, studies have taken the century to be a prolonged duel over whether the Scots or English were to rule Northumbria.
Geoffrey Barrow's 1980 study of high medieval Scotland broke new ground in illustrating the Anglo-French penetration of Scotland by a new cadre of aristocrats invited north by King David I (1124-1153) and exploring their contribution to a transformation not just of Scotland but ultimately of the established Anglo-Gaelic elite, mormaers who dominated central Scotland, the original Alba. What Dr. Pollock attempts is something on a far grander scale, looking at the interaction of elites from the Auvergne north to the Mounth as a way, presumably, of approaching the dynamics of conflict. For, at a certain level, the French aristocracy operated transnationally. The number of greater and lesser families comprehended in such a study is considerable, however. Family-based studies have been successful, not least Daniel Power's massive and intellectually disciplined 2005 volume on the aristocracy of the Norman borders, and its interaction with the French across the frontier. The problem with them is that (even in the case of Power's study) the detail swamps any clarity of argument.
The large cast of characters is only one problem that the author has to deal with. Since so much depends in this study on family relationships it does not help that they are, for the most part, imperfectly known. So, many conclusions are no more than "possible" or at best "probable." At times an identity of name is taken as evidence of a family connection, a temptation that a more careful prosopographer would have resisted (cf. p. 79, Watteville; p. 106, Bourneville). The dominant mood in the author's verbs are conditional, and probability slides all too readily into established fact. A random example is pp. 86-87 where, since the Norman Robert de Brus had a lordship in Cleveland, and the earls of Brittany were also counts of Penthièvre, in the "midst" of which Brus held lands, this "probably" led to the marriage of Robert's granddaughter Agatha to Count Eudo's grandson. And his supposed place in "Anglo-Breton networks" (which is only "probable") then explains the family's political behaviour in Stephen's reign.
The author believes that family links were a powerful motivator in political action. It was incumbent on her therefore at some point to justify to us why this should be the case, but despite a section on Methodology she does not offer any rationale as to why this is so, it is simply assumed. Genealogical determinism cannot however be taken as a given in medieval politics. Though cousinship certainly did play a role in a society where the "parage" was a support to a man or woman in need of protection, pledges and job opportunities, it cannot be taken necessarily as a determinant of action. There are too many examples of cousins and brothers at odds with each other in the record to undermine such an assumption. One would also have expected a discussion of precisely what medieval family structures actually were, if they were so important, but none is offered. The author throughout portrays the twelfth-century family as an extended kin group in an almost nineteenth-century way (11). But current studies emphasise the prevalence of the nuclear family in the Britain and France of the time, with only the Gaelic and Celtic societies--where property was still held in common by the cenedl--as approximating the social solidarity she portrays, and in Wales such a degree of kinship was anything but affective, it fostered murderous internal competition not solidarity.
The argument of the book is thus difficult to follow and often disappears like water into dry sands. General digressions do not help the focus. For no reason at all the author takes a stab at the subject of swearing (224, n. 85). The author does at times seem to realise the problem, and the book is best when she deals with the key historical events, which have their own dynamic and add some discipline to the structure. The omnivorous enthusiasm for her subject is undeniable and she has things of interest to say. The treatments are sharpest when there is conflict, particularly conflict between the English and Scots, as in the 1130s and 1170s. The onus is unfortunately on the reader to sift through the text to find them, and readers should not have to do that.