Since the days of William Stubbs's Constitutional History of England (1874-78) and J. H. Round's magisterial Geoffrey de Mandeville: A Study of the Anarchy (1892) there has been a vigorous and ongoing scholarly debate regarding the relative lawlessness of King Stephen's reign in English history. Was this a period of uniquely destructive anarchy when nobles and combatants mercilessly pillaged the countryside, law and order collapsed, and "Christ and his saints slept" (to quote the Peterborough continuator of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)? Or, was this a protracted civil war that, while fiercely contested in parts of the country, overall saw the continuation of trends seen before the conflict? Does the answer lie somewhere in between? In this volume from the Exeter Studies in Medieval Europe series, archaeologists Oliver Creighton and Duncan Wright bring together an impressive array of interdisciplinary evidence to both illuminate our understanding of this period, and to better discover the answer to the above questions. Overall, they succeed most admirably on the first point, and offer useful correctives and suggestions on how to address the latter.
Creighton and Wright structure the book around thematic treatments of various types of material culture from Stephen's reign, bookended by broader narrative discussions of the conflict. In chapter 1, which serves as the introduction to the book, the authors make plain their intention of holistically approaching the warfare of Stephen's reign by marrying conventional military history with discussions of its symbolic and psychological elements, as well as taking the traditional documentary and written sources and fleshing them out with material evidence. They provide a good overview of the historiography of the period, including the first use of the phrase "the Anarchy" by Stubbs and subsequent development by Round, to give a solid foundation for later debates over the nature of the period.
Chapter 2 provides a chronological overview of Anglo-Norman England with a focus on its origins in the Norman Conquest of 1066. The authors discuss the aristocratic nature of the conquest and the physical results (including town building, demographic shifts, and the importation of "continental" styles of religion and architecture), and while this chapter does not break new historiographical ground, it is well-written, concise, and provides a useful framework for the later chapters. The chapter ends with a good chronology of Stephen's reign and an insightful discussion on the nature of the Anarchy: was it truly anarchic, a civil war, a series of personal disputes, a series of territorial conflicts, or a combination of all of the above?
Chapter 3 begins the thematic chapters by examining battles and sieges. The authors seek to use archaeological evidence to help differentiate among the various forms of combat, such as pitched battles, sieges, and "depopulations." The chapter, amply provided with valuable maps, follows established historiography that shows that the warfare of Stephen's reign did not differ appreciably from that of the Anglo-Norman period in that it was based around sieges rather than pitched battles, though the authors do note that in the sheer number of sieges, this period far outstripped its predecessors. Siege works and siege castles were built on a massive scale, and thus they generated a great deal more material evidence. The chapter also contains a case-study of Wallingford, an Angevin stronghold often contested but never taken by the royalists, and in this case-study the authors show how archaeology can work alongside narrative accounts to build a broader and deeper image of historical events.
The discussion of warfare transitions into a treatment of castle architecture in chapter 4, replete with excellent images and diagrams. Castles were focal points in the war as they often translated into the control of territory, and according to contemporary chroniclers (who saw castles as the cause of conflict, not just a symptom), they were symbols of tyranny, disorder, and oppression. The authors want to reassess this focus on castles as inherently military structures in favor of examining them holistically; this includes castles built to avoid being brought into the conflict, and the use of castles as political centers and as "icons of seigneurial authority" (81). This is a welcome approach, though they overstate the strength of the military reductionist view among modern scholars, many of whom have long argued that castles were far more than military (or even political) structures. Abigail Wheatley's conclusions on the cultural understanding of castles by contemporaries (The Idea of the Castle in Medieval England, Woodbridge, 2004), would have been a welcome inclusion in the discussion.
This chapter does show the possibilities, but also the challenges, with bringing material evidence to bear on historical narratives. As Creighton and Wright point out, referring to a structure as a "castle" during the Anarchy could mean a variety of things, and we need to disaggregate these structures into more accurate sub-types: pre-existing fortified sites, those built as part of a campaign, those built to participate in a siege, those built for exercising lordship, fortified monasteries, etc. Our primary narrative sources, the medieval chroniclers, often did not distinguish among these various types, and while archaeology can therefore help, many of the de novo castles of the Anarchy were only around for a brief period of time, thereby making it very difficult to separate pre-and-post-Anarchy castles from the whole.
Chapter 5 examines coins, pottery, sculpture, and other funerary materials. With the exception of the coinage, most of the rest of the evidence from this chapter could not be definitively dated to the period of King Stephen's reign, so the conclusions drawn had to be measured. Still, the authors do an exceptional job using the evidence to corroborate our understanding of events from narrative sources, as well as bring out new findings. The coinage evidence, for instance, reinforces what we know about the contours of lordship during the Anarchy: the western and southwestern parts of England after 1141 were heavily Angevin and the midlands saw largely autonomous lords. The evidence of pottery shows a variety of regional patterns, but also the emergence of centers of pottery production towards the end of the twelfth century, which speaks to an economic boom and improved market networks. This finding dovetails nicely with what is seen within the evidence of material culture in general, which shows no decline in production during Stephen's reign, and even (perhaps) more experimentation and innovation during this period than was seen before or after.
Chapter 6 focuses on arms armor, and military apparel, looking at how the evolution of arms and armor was linked to an expression of knightly identity. The accoutrements of warfare both equipped fighting men and expressed their membership in an elite socio-cultural group within medieval society. These are extremely interesting questions, and the authors do a very good job offering suggestions, despite the limitations of dating materials to a twenty-year period. They examine sword design, for instance, but their conclusions are tempered by the fact that sword design is hard to pin down outside of a one hundred-year period. Still, what they do show is that while knighthood itself was changing dramatically in the twelfth century, the weapons of knighthood were largely static.
The effect of the warfare on the church is the subject of chapter 7, with a look at how the Anarchy affected patronage and the building of religious spaces, plus the use of religious spaces as fortifications. Religious houses were often founded near to the site of the noble patron's caput, or near to deactivated castles, perhaps as mechanisms of peace. The Cistercian order expanded dramatically during this period, mostly due to support from the Angevins, though with some royalist patronage. Overall, there was a rapid expansion in ecclesiastical sites during the mid-twelfth century, and only a relative few were militarized (itself not a new phenomenon). As with the previous chapters, the authors note the difficulty in dating developments at church sites to 1135-1154, but they give a good overview of the use of churches as fortifications from around the period.
The Anarchy was more important to the church because of the rise in the number of ecclesiastical foundations and how patronage worked, rather than the relatively modest militarization of holy sites. Our narrative sources, often monks, wrote extensively about the depredations inflicted on monasteries, which has tended to give us an outsized view of the destruction of such locations. The authors see the targeting of churches as a "paradox" in this period, due to a growing "chivalric" awareness among knights. While there was definitely a significant amount of knightly debate on the nature of chivalric culture, the historiographical foundation for this chapter is a bit dated, and could have benefited from bringing in more recent treatments of the interaction of knights and religion (Richard Kaeuper's 2009 book Holy Warriors, for instance).
The final thematic chapter, chapter 8, examines towns, villages, and the countryside. This is among the most difficult chapters for the authors, due to the problems of archaeologically dating changes to towns and villages, which are even less tangible than those for castles. There is a fruitful discussion of town fortifications, and the recognition that the Anarchy did not seem to change urban trends already in motion (the rise of London and decline of Winchester, for instance). While archaeological evidence of destruction in the countryside is hard to prove, it is likely that chroniclers weren't far off in asserting that the war was deeply destructive, especially in the Thames valley and West Country.
Chapter 9 serves as a case-study of the Isle of Ely. The region of Ely was the target of three known campaigns during the Anarchy (by Stephen , Earl Gilbert of Pembroke , and Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex [1143/44]). This makes it a good subject for seeing how the war affected a very often contested region, albeit one that saw more combat than most places in England (which allows us to see the archaeology at work more easily). The general approach taken by the authors is to give a mix of narratives of the campaigns with what archaeology can uncover about the events and locations. This is most evident in the discussion of Burwell castle-- an unfinished campaign castle from 1144 and the location of Geoffrey de Mandeville's death-- which includes valuable imagery, narrative, and survey data tied together nicely to show a truly three-dimensional image of the site.
The final chapter serves as a conclusion that reiterates major points but also advances them forward. Creighton and Wright recognize that opinion of how "anarchic" the Anarchy was has been a pendulum between maximalist and minimalist interpretations, and that it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future (though there is value in the fact that the phrase "the Anarchy" differentiates it from the English Civil War of the seventeenth century). They see the period of the Anarchy as the period of major "Normanisation" of England, with much of what we ascribe to the Norman Conquest in terms of changes to England actually solidified between 1130 and 1150. The authors argue that this was not so much an age of anarchy, but rather of transition.
The conclusion also allows a discussion of the role of archaeology, and the authors show that it can flesh out and enhance existing narratives, but it can also "open up fresh angles of enquiry and bring new understandings to the period" (280). This is very true, though also frustrating, since the chief drawback of the book is the fact that it is focused on such a brief period of time that the abilities of archaeology to so finely date things are often lacking. Still, the material evidence that the book brings out from twelfth-century England is fascinating and valuable. Even where it cannot definitely be dated to the period of Stephen's reign, it certainly shows the broader material milieu within which the conflict was fought, and thus valuably serves to advance our understanding of the Anarchy.