Saturday 24 June 2017

MEDIEVAL BRITAIN C.1000-1500 By David Crouch. An overview by Elizabeth Chadwick

The other day a signed copy of this beautiful book landed on my desk, courtesy of David Crouch, professor of medieval history at the University of Hull.
I think I have most of Professor Crouch's works on my book shelf.  The first one I bought was his biography of William Marshal (now recently in its third and updated edition) and I have since added many more.  David Crouch has an easy, conversational writing style that at the same time remains erudite.  He knows his history and does not suffer fools gladly.  He also has a dry and sometimes mischievous sense of humour.  For example, one of his sub-chapter headings is playfully titled 'One King to Rule Them All.'

This most recent work features the striking jewelled crown of Ann of Bohemia (or possibly Edward III)  on the  cover. museum information here.

The book itself (in my opinion) is aimed in the direction of history students finishing their secondary education and looking to take a degree in Medieval history, and perhaps new undergranduates who need to get themselves up to speed on the subject it matter.  It will also suit curious and switched on members of the general public who enjoy reading historical non fiction.  In content the work is a broad overview of Britain between the years mentioned in the title. Some reigns are covered in more depth than others.  Readers seeking a full analysis of the reigns of Richard the Lionheart or Henry IV will not find them, for example, whereas the reigns of John and Richard II receive more attention by contrast. Professor Crouch explains that he has been "deliberately selective, focusing on those events  which span the centuries and have a broader significance for Medieval life.'  Personally I would like to have seen Professor Crouch air his views in these areas, but I understand the constraints of word count, and also that the main narrative of the subject matter has to be kept on track.

The work is arranged in three major parts.

The Empire of Britain
Living in Medieval Britain
The Great Divorce.

Each part is then divided by clearly delineated large sub-headings with an overview.   The Empire of Britain for example has the headings 'A Century of Conquest 1000-1100' and 'Francophone Britain 1100-1217.'
Living in Medieval Britain has clearly numbered sub-headings dealing with - among others - monarchy, language, the state, the church, establishing the church, life experience, Material Britain.  Part 3 looks at redefining Britain, Scotland between 1306 and 1513, and dynastic struggles.  

All of these larger sub-heading sections are further divided up into concise but informative essays on particular subjects, all clearly numbered in progression.  So, for example,  Life Experience, number 9 in the progression begins with an overview. It's followed by a headed section on The Expectations on Women,  then the same for men. The Shape of the Family, Ancestry and Kingship,  Family Love,  Marriage, Sex outside Marriage, Sexuality, The Tyranny of Normalcy, The Widow, Medieval Childhood,  Life Expectancy,  Anxiety and Disease, Mortality Crises, Ageing.  Each section is discussed with examples cited from primary sources.

The end of each of these numbered sections features a post script and suggestions for key texts to be read as well as further reading. Also some end notes on quotations in the essays.  

It's all very clearly laid out and excellent for absorbing, not so much in bitesize chunks, as in satisfying but not over-filling small meals. 

The work is illustrated throughout with black and white photographs and maps.  There is a handy timeline at the front of the book to keep the reader on track with who was who and what was happening at a given time.  There is also a useful glossary at the end. 

Every part of the British Isles is covered and discussed both separately and in connection with the individual nations and territories. Again, not in great depth, but sufficient unto a clear overview leading to further investigation. 

I would recommend this work as a great addition to the bookshelf if you are in any way interested in Medieval history. It is lucid and set out in a way that makes the content easy to absorb. It's highly readable and occasionally raises a smile.  It also might challenge various mainstream preconceptions. Readers interested in the fine details of a specific reign may not find them here beyond the broadest brush strokes, but that is not what this book is about or intended for. Its aim is to point out the general trends taking place over time and to act as a launchpad into further reading.

Definitely recommended. 


mnbookcritic said...

Thank you! This definitely on my to-be-acquired list now.

Stephanie said...

Okay you sold me! Thanks for the review!