Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


The Norman Conquest

Marjorie Chibnall
The Debate on the Norman Conquest
Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1999, pp. 168, £12.99

ONE of the oldest radical ideas, in England anyway, is the claim that before 1066 Britain had been some sort of democratic or classless utopia, which was then destroyed by the Norman Conquest. In the seventeenth century, the Levellers and Diggers used this claim to argue that the property of the rich was no more ‘god-given’ than the poverty of the rest. Fifty years ago, Christopher Hill demonstrated that such ‘Norman Yoke’ myths had lasted from the fourteenth at least until the nineteenth century. The one demand of the Chartists in the 1840s that was never achieved was the campaign for annual parliaments. This idea was supposed to go back to Saxon precedent, but had actually entered into the radical dictionary through the ‘historical’ work of such eighteenth-century republicans as Major Cartwright.

Was there ever anything more than myth to this view? Chibnall’s book is an account of the different attempts made by historians to judge the Norman Conquest. One long-held view was that King William had been responsible for introducing ‘feudalism’. Historians used this latter word in a narrow sense, to refer simply to the social relationships between landowners. In the legal theory of the Middle Ages, the king supposedly owned the land, and the lords occupied it temporarily, offering military services (or taxation) in return for the temporary right of possession. Such a theory was criticised in the early 1990s by Susan Reynolds, who demonstrated that the relationships between members of the aristocracy were hardly changed by the Conquest. Different lords occupied the land before and after 1066, but the relationships between them were similar. Reynolds also made the case that such a legal definition of feudalism described little of what matters from the period. Far more important, she suggested, was the relationship between lord and peasant. No historian has recently suggested that class divisions began with the Conquest.

The most interesting chapters of this book are the early ones. In periods before the twentieth century, there was not quite the same professional barrier between historians and other writers as exists now. Novelists, pamphleteers and others offered their own grand theories as to what had gone wrong. My favourite villain is Thomas Carlyle, who complained that if the Saxons had indeed enjoyed an equal society, this showed how degenerate they were. Without the Norman Conquest, he wrote, the Saxons would have remained ‘a gluttonous race of Jutes and Angles, capable of no grand combinations; lumbering about in pot-bellied equanimity’. If only! The later chapters of Chibnall’s book suggest that with the increased specialisation of historical knowledge, such romantic accounts have been superseded. We have instead the micro-studies of linguists, philologists, numismatists and archaeologists, all divided into rival sub-disciplines, and protected by arcane and specialist jargon, whose main function is to shield the author from criticism. We know the Saxons differently, but do we understand them more?

Dave Renton

Updated by ETOL: 22.10.2011