Hugh M. Thomas. The Norman Conquest: England after William the Conqueror. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008. xxii + 179 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-3839-9; $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7425-3840-5.
Reviewed by David Crouch (Department of History, University of Hull)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2008)
After the Conquest
In some ways this is a very easy book to review. It sets out with the intention of being an accessible and comprehensive textbook guide to the history of England between 1066 and 1100 and succeeds admirably in being both. There are quite a few predecessors in the field, each with their own strengths. The most recent and most comparable is Brian Golding's Conquest and Colonisation: The Normans in Britain, 1066-1100, first published in 1994 and revised in 2001. Marjorie Chibnall's Debate on the Norman Conquest (1999) has also given the era a characteristically concise and analytical survey. Hugh M. Thomas's text book differs in being more self-consciously comprehensive in its approach. It aims to cover every historiographical aspect of the period following the conquest.
Thomas first engages with the defining event which gives the book its title. Part 1 deals with the Hastings campaign and its immediate aftermath, taking the story up to the mid 1070s. Part 2 moves on, dealing with "Consequences." Its treatment is divided into three broad themes: governance and landholding; economy and society; and culture. A conclusion sums up the impact of the events of 1066-70 for England. Each section engages with the principal secondary works on the area with which it is dealing. It should be noted that Professor Thomas has made every attempt to found his synthesis on as wide a spread of secondary works as he can. Since Anglo-Norman scholarship over the past thirty years has been so prolific, that involves no small amount of work, and indeed on subjects like Domesday Book the literature is almost unmanageable. The concision and comprehensibility that Professor Thomas achieves despite this is a high recommendation for the book.
A good measure of the quality of the book is the way it deals with particular issues. How is that paralleled by the process of synthesis of the views the literature contains? One of the most complex historiographical areas it considers is landlordship, which includes the military society that was based on land tenure and the social frameworks it comprised. Professor Thomas devotes an appropriately large amount of space to this area (pp. 67-84, 97-104). Here we find on the complex subject of the land transfer after 1066 a concise and fair summary of debate, with an indication by the author where he thinks the most likely explanation lies. References allow students to follow up the debate at their leisure (pp. 67-70, 90).
The broader subject of "Feudalism" causes more trepidation when it appears. The historiographical constructs that shelter under the umbrella of that word have caused huge confusion amongst historians for well over a century. But since the word is still used by historians (in whichever of the many senses it betokens) and since students will encounter it, Thomas valiantly closes with it, noting wryly as he does that "whenever the subject of feudalism comes up, the wise historian runs for cover" (p. 71). There is no doubt which side of the fence Thomas occupies when it comes to the use of the construct, but his summary of debate on it is concise and thorough, and can only assist students of the era. He locates and explains the usage as it has been employed by generations of Anglo-Norman historians, and then goes on to give his own interpretation of what he prefers to call "honorial" society (from the community of the "honor" formed by a lord, his tenants, and the court that linked them). His understanding represents the post-Stenton consensus on Anglo-Norman social structure that grew up amongst historians in the 1980s and 1990s. Honors were important for a few generations after 1066 but declined in influence by the later twelfth century. Henry II's interference with the administration of seigneurial justice undermined it and centralized justice on the king's courts. Magnate influence was founded on rather more mechanisms than landed patronage. "Feudal" armies were unreliable and inefficient. These are reasonable and defensible positions, though of course they will continue to be tested by historical debate, as indeed they should be.
There are limits to the book's comprehensiveness, as the author himself tells us (p. xxii). This is the story of the Normans and England, not the recently more fashionable and wider study of the Normans and the British Isles. Two pages deal with Scotland and Wales under the heading of "Foreign Relations" (pp. 62-63). There are by contrast fifteen pages dealing with English ethnicity, identity, and language (pp. 105-111, 131-138), perhaps not surprisingly given Professor Thomas's academic interests and publications (notably, The English and the Normans, 2003).
In other respects, more firm boundaries might have helped the reader. The one major structural fault of the book is that the author has no clear cut-off point in mind for his treatment. Part 2 is open-ended. Even the obvious buffer of 1204--when England and Normandy separated--is no barrier here. Some of the developments described are pursued into the reigns of Henry III (1216-72) and Edward I (1272-1307). As a result the reader is never sure how much weight to give to observations about the period after 1100, or how much the author regards the very important reign of Henry I (1100-35) as being molded by the aftermath of conquest. The author introduces some genealogical oddities as a result of his open time frame. Four Matildas were called queens of England between 1067 and 1152, all but one queens consort. Although it is not the general practice to number non-regnant queens, Anglo-Norman historians have recently begun to call the wife of the Conqueror, Matilda I; the first wife of Henry I, Matilda II; and the wife of Stephen, Matilda III. Matilda II's daughter is omitted as she was the Empress Matilda and aspired to be (and according to one school even succeeded in being) a queen regnant. The practice does get round the problem of confused identity, but Thomas numbers the empress as Matilda III and throws the whole thing back into confusion.
These are small quibbles, and overall one can approach Professor Thomas's syntheses with a high degree of confidence. This is a book intended for the undergraduate studying Norman England and amply meets his or her needs. There are very few noticeable errors, and certainly none which affect the sense or authority of the book. It is a valuable addition to the armory of the teacher of the history of Anglo-Norman England.
. The reference here is to the classic work of Sir Frank Stenton, The First Century of English Feudalism, 1066-1166, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960). For a summary of debate that has succeeded it: P. R. Coss, "From Feudalism to Bastard Feudalism," in Die Gegenwart des Feudalismus, ed. N. Fryde, P. Monnet, and O. G. Oexle, Veröffentlichungen des Max-Planck-Instituts für Geschichte, Band 173 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002), 79-108.
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David Crouch. Review of Thomas, Hugh M., The Norman Conquest: England after William the Conqueror.
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