Max Lieberman. The March of Wales: A Borderland of Medieval Britain 1067-1300. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008. viii + 146 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7083-2116-4; $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7083-2115-7.
Reviewed by David Crouch
Published on H-Albion (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Margaret McGlynn
The Limits of Border Studies
This is a difficult book to classify, for it fits easily neither the category of monograph nor textbook, and has some of the characteristics of both genres. Perhaps the best solution is to take it as a pair with, or perhaps a taster for, Dr. Lieberman’s forthcoming monograph, taken from his Oxford DPhil thesis, "The Medieval March of Wales: The Creation and Perception of a Frontier, 1066-1283," to be published in the series, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought. The book reviewed here is not so narrow a study. It provides a summary of scholarship on the development of the March of Wales and is keen to point out questions (though without necessarily resolving them) which are still to be settled by scholarship, such as the nature of colonization and the impact of a bureaucratic state on frontier communities. Its intention is to be comprehensive. The book first offers a chronological treatment of the development of the March, up to the extinction of the native dynasty of Gwynedd in 1283 and the absorption of its principality into the royal demesne. The next chapter looks at immigration and urbanization within the newly conquered lordships and the effect of constant warfare on their economies. The third chapter deals with ethnicity and its attendant features of language, law, and manners. It is the last two chapters which add something extra: a contextualization of the Welsh March in the setting first of the British Isles, and then in the much broader field of Europe. In all this Dr. Lieberman is following on in the wake of Sir Rees Davies, the director of his doctoral studies, whose abiding enthusiasm for the history of medieval Wales did not render him in the least parochial. It was he who did so much to make the idea of "British" studies as fashionable as it has been over the past two decades.
I want however to start with the final chapter of the book, where we find the influence of a different British scholar. A broad context of frontier studies is laid out for us in a thoughtful and engaging chapter. Dr. Lieberman focuses for comparison here on the Neumark of Brandenburg, a difficult area of study. It is a region which was fought over historiographically for well over a century by armies of scholars, in much the same way as it had been warred over by Slavonic and Germanic raiders and colonizers throughout the Middle Ages. The political and racial purposes of rival nineteenth- and twentieth-century German and Polish scholars to justify or contest the territorial ambitions of imperial Germany was the point at issue for earlier generations. Postwar scholarship may have been freed from that deterministic concern, but the scholars of a new Europe have been equally concerned to find in Brandenburg and its Neumark evidence of the sort of cultural transference and shifting identity which fits the “frontier thesis” based on the work of Frederick Jackson Turner, a thesis which envisions borders as zones of interaction, not lines on a map. Here Dr. Lieberman is treading close behind Robert Bartlett. In his Making of Europe (1993), Bartlett used the Germanic aristocratic colonization process east of the Oder to demonstrate how a European model of organization was imposed with the expanding lordship of a particular dynasty, but where Bartlett juxtaposed Albert the Bear of Brandenburg with John de Courcy of Ulster, Dr. Lieberman offers a comparison with the March of Wales. In terms of Germany he doesn’t go far beyond Bartlett and the literature he used. He even revisits the same case study of the rise of the von Wedel family. The shallowness of the synthesis here is a pity, as this is where the potential to offer larger insights is most obvious. Since Bartlett wrote there has been a lot of work on the area of Brandenburg and Pomerania, taking a wider Germano-Slavonic perspective, led by Jan M. Piskorski. But what Dr. Lieberman does do is reflect productively on how Bartlett’s thesis works in a broader survey of British borderlands, and introduce some criticism of the oversimplicity of Bartlett’s analysis from the British perspective. He attempts to set out the case for Anglicization, rather than Europeanization being the issue.
Reading backwards through the book in fact helps clarify where Dr. Lieberman is coming from, if you prefer working from the wider perspective to the particular. The penultimate chapter is a contextualization of the Welsh March in Great Britain, and here we encounter again the idea of Anglicization as a mechanism. It is here that he illustrates the pervasive power of the model of the English state to destabilize neighboring realms. He takes as his earliest example the ability of Mercia to organize under Offa and raise a massive frontier ditch to contain the Welsh middle kingdom, Powys. The famous dyke is taken as a lesson in how a centralizing powerful monarchy can influence less organized neighbors. Shires, hundreds, and hidation follow wherever English lordship intruded, as indeed they did elsewhere, in northern England and ultimately Ireland. Even where the colonizing lord was not the king, the apparatus of the English state was often adapted by him for his own use in his new lordship. Here the dominant influence is another Oxford scholar, James Campbell, and his thesis of the precocious nature of the pre-Conquest English state.
The remainder of the chapters--the first three in fact--are what we would expect. We have studies of ethnicity within the March, its economic development under the impulse of a colonizing aristocracy, and its political development. Here Dr. Lieberman is revisiting the ideas and conclusions of Rees Davies, and the nature of the book as a synthesis is most evident. It becomes much more obviously the textbook, seeking to explain themes in the light of current scholarship. Which really leads to the question one wants to ask about this book. For whom is it intended? It originated in a series of lectures to undergraduates at Oxford, but there are few universities outside Wales where the medieval Welsh March is routinely taught. I would hazard that not even all Welsh universities teach it. The book is accessible enough for sixth formers, but what A-level or baccalaureate course needs it? Though it may appeal to those studying the broader field of the medieval frontier, it would only be as ancillary reading. It lacks the thoroughness and intellectual independence to be a monograph. The reviewer is therefore bemused as to whom to recommend the book. I should certainly assure the potential reader that I got something out of it. The book has clarity and errors are rare. The standards of production of the University of Wales Press are high, and there are many useful maps. Whether or not I agreed with the overall thesis and emphasis of the book, it is full of telling details, some of them--those to do with the area of Dr. Lieberman’s area of doctoral study--unfamiliar.
. Accessible to the Anglophone in “The Medieval Colonization of Central Europe as a Problem of World History and Historiography,” German History, 22 (2004): 323-342.
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David Crouch. Review of Lieberman, Max, The March of Wales: A Borderland of Medieval Britain 1067-1300.
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