Middle English Word of the Moment

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Three new facts for today

Well, now that everything is handed in, I have leisure to concentrate on my own projects, and simultaneously to be less concentrated - ie, read up on all those bits and pieces of English history that I'm not too familiar with. Such as... er... everything before 1066.

So, among other things, I'm reading Christopher Brook's From Alfred to Henry III, 871-1272 (Edinburgh: T. Nelson, 1961). It's latently patriotic in style, and mildly amusing in its assumptions about our views of English history - even I know that his attitude towards Vikings are out of date, and he's far too inclined to speculate on motives and call it fact - but informative enough, and covers the span broadly enough that it gives a sense of the whole 'story', which will let me jump in at any point with more detailed studies and not feel lost.

Here are the three interesting facts I've learned this morning, over coffee and Brook:

Cnut, the first Danish king of England, married the young widow of his conquered English predecessor. So, Havelok is actually utilising bits of history to weave its non-confrontational, non-invasive story of a Danish king of England. His own entry into England is not at the head of an army, but as a harmless child, and he is raised in England and therefore presumably has some legitimacy as an inhabitant. The waves of Danish invasion/settlement are replaced by an innocuous fisherman and his family fleeing from completely unwarranted oppression to help save the rightful king of Denmark, and they completely fail to slaughter anyone or even take anyone's land - instead, they quietly build their own little village on the coast and call it Grimsby. And the innocent, fair young woman with a claim to the throne of England is incorporated into the story's justification of his rule as well - only this is the new improved version, and instead of being a widow she is the rightful heir herself, wrongfully dispossessed, and therefore a) there is no other possible male heir who could more legitimately rule England than Havelok, b) England is being OPPRESSED by an EVIL EARL and must be saved and c) Havelok is honour-bound to help his wife to her rightful inheritance, and once there - well, honey, you don't want to have to actually manage the day-to-day RULING, do you? Let me take that off your hands for you.

"William had give [his invasion of England] a coat of respectability by winning papal support. He had claimed at Rome that England was rightly his, that Harold was a perjurer and usurper.... The idea was gaining ground in papal circles that even apparently aggressive wars, if fought in a just and holy cause, could be blessed...." (87) So the Norman invasion was, in a way, a forerunner of the Crusades? It seems odd to think of a Crusade against England, and naturally there would have been enough crucial differences in motivation, propaganda and the complicity of the army to not justify calling it one. But it does sound, from this description, rather like this and possibly other similar papally sanctioned campaigns laid the grounds for the Crusading mentality. I'm going to have to study the Crusades more closely too, aren't I?

"Like all English kings of the twelfth century, [Henry I] was a feudal king in a feudal age." (163) This, of course, is the most astonishing fact of all. Though it is closely followed by the assertion that William I "had nothing of chivalry in the modern sense" (155). I am deeply shocked. This implies that he had only eleventh-century chivalric ideas. How barbaric of him.

2 comments:

tenthmedieval said...

I've only just found this blog, via Stephanie Trigg's, and it's perhaps a bit rude of me to leap in and suggest reading, but this post sets my warning bells off, so I hope some suggestions will be OK.

Though very readable and widely available (still in print, I believe), Prof. Brooke's book is very old and quite old-fashioned. I wince when I find students reading it, but would have to admit that for the Anglo-Saxon period at least there is no simple narrative more modern as yet, although James Campbell (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons (London 1982) is what I'd hope to find my students using. For after the Conquest Michael Clanchy's England and its Rulers (1066-1307), 3rd edn. (Oxford 2006) would be a more modern textbook.

There is shedloads of stuff on the ideas of just war forerunning the Crusades; I would start with Jonathan Riley-Smith's The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (Cambridge 1986) if all you need is a grasp.

Hope this is helpful rather than patronising, or at least both rather than just the latter.

Ceirseach said...

Hi, and no - thank you! Reading suggestions are always much appreciated, especially now that I have time to actually do some. And yes, I confess that I spent quite a bit of time yesterday mocking certain turns of phrase or assumptions as to motive and character, not to mention his attempts to interpret everything through 'modern' morality. There are interesting facts to be gleaned, and I'm good at reading sceptically, but about halfway through the first chapter it became obvious that I was going to have to find another book that was a little more... well, just the occasional use of 'seems to have been' instead of 'was' would be reassuring!

So thank you - I shall hunt that one down.