on 15 October 2010
Michael Wood never disappoints. Once again his cocktail of popularist history with a scholarly twist works magic. If you are following the TV series on BBC4 (should be on BBC1) you will love the book. Yes, pictures help a lot but the book is much, much better. Most people would be surprised how little text you can actually get into an hour's TV, the detail is in the pages not on the screen. This is an excellent book which utilises all the modern techniques available to the archaeologist and the historian, from field-walking and metal detection to dendrochronology and geo-phys. But, one should never underestimate Wood's own scholarship, he is a dedicated, trained historian and a good one. In brief, the book follows the lives of ordinary families of the Leicestershire village of Kibworth from Roman and Romano-British, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Norman, and so on, to the twentieth century. What shines through is the tenacity and vibrancy of the English peasantry, their successes and their failures, through famine, plague, war and heresy. Some familes, like the Polles, die off through lack of male issue, others, like the Coleman's are still to be found in the village today, direct descendents of those who ploughed the village fields 700 and more years ago. Yet, despite local particularism, what is seen in Kibworth is the same as can be seen in countless English villages, especially in the East Midlands, and in this sense the story of Kibworth is very much a microcosm of the story of England.
The only criticism one could make is that it does seem that once Wood gets past the Tudors he was under pressure to finish the book. The period 1700 - 2000 is in some ways scantily covered compared to earlier periods and, yet, this latter period has comparatively far more historical records available for study. I am sure, for example, that much more could be said about the 40 brave men who gave up their lives during the Great War of 1914-18 than is included in the book. Indeed, Wood himself admits that 19th/20th century Kibworth could produce a book in its own right. Maybe he will write it. Meantime, this present work is highly recommended.
on 28 September 2010
Having lived alongside the production of the BBC TV series with Michael Wood and his team, I was very apprehensive that the accompanying book could not paint the same picture. So much has been filmed in the 15 months, that the team have been putting together the TV production, that I felt the book would miss some of the intimacy of the interviews with local residents. With my local knowledge of the area, I can easily imagine the views and buildings described by Michael, but readers who do not know the area need not worry because Michael's writing style is as evocative as his visual presentation. And those intimate interviews have been transformed into stories through the ages of the three communities that make up the original parish of Kibworth - Kibworth Harcourt, Kibworth Beauchamp and Smeeton Westerby.
Michael has brought to life, in the written word, the full panoply of history of this small community in south Leicestershire through almost 2,000 years of English history. Of course, there are a few leaps of faith where a couple of facts have been joined up without perhaps having all the intervening pieces, but Michael admits this sometimes is necessary to cover the broader picture.
I thoroughly recommend this book which gives an enormous amount of factual detail intermingled with the thread of English history and how national, and even international, events had their effect on this small community. This is not a stuffy academic book, but a page turner as Michael guides the reader through the periods of history that made England what it is today.
There are some black and white photographs and some maps to help the reader visualise many of the places and characters that make up Kibworth's history - some of the characters became national figures as well.
Writing history must be a bit of a nightmare. If you call your book "The" history of England people will complain that there is no one story. If you base your book in a single part of England people will complain that the action took place elsewhere. If you base your book on the comings and goings of "everyday folk" people will claim that you have missed the subtle play of politics and power.
Well, Michael Woods has done all these things and still managed to write an engaging, and as far as I can see, illuminating history of England.
Based around Kibworth in Leicestershire the book travels from the earliest archaeological periods to the start of the 20th Century. Much of the material in this book is drawn from documents in "faded ink on crumpled vellum" drawn from the archives of Merton College.
The story Wood's tells ends abruptly at the start of the 20th Century, and I have to say I found this disappointing. I don't think that he is saying that the story of the development of "Englishness" ended at that time - or that everything that has come since is somehow the story of another, different England that is not rooted in the past. He acknowledges that the 20th Century would take another book, but I wonder if a little less detail elsewhere could have left space for more recent events. The post WW2 agricultural revolution and its impact on the nature of the English landscape and its economic function and the impact of modern commuter culture that renders "pretty" villages into nothing more than dormitories are largely absent. And what of the spirit of protest and non-conformist thinking - did that survive into the 20th Century, was it visible in the 1960's or 1980's, is it visible now? After reading this book I don't know the answer to these questions.
Nothing I have said here should be taken to mean that this is not a book that I did not enjoy, or would not recommend - far from it in fact. But in the end I may have liked a few less 17th wills and just a little more of the recent times.
I would recommend this book highly and suggest that it would be a very good read to accompany the more "sweeping" history of Simon Sharma that covers much of the same material. As a view from the fields of middle England I think this book would be hard to better - but I left it asking for just a little bit more.
on 1 November 2010
Michael Wood is, by a very long chalk, the best television historian: none of those ghastly "historical recreations" by bored looking actors in poor costumes but a serious look at the subject characterised by high communication skills. This was a brilliant television series which should be a model for looking at history in detail by focussing on a specific location: this book is a fitting follow-up - and much better for being a book rather than in some electronic form!
on 5 November 2010
Michael Wood is nothing short of a national treasure. While the accompanying television series was excellent, this book is if anything even better. I am particularly grateful he put as much emphasis on Kibworth in the Dark Ages as he did: absolutely fascinating stuff, told with much verve and panache.
on 8 April 2011
This is an extremely good read and takes the reader on a journey from the Iron Age through to Modern day but focused through the prism of the Leicestershire village of Kibworth. Written to tie in with the excellent TV series, it is true what the Kibworth resident has written insofar that the book lacks some of the detail of the TV programme. However, this was one of the best history programmes I have seen for years so the task of matching the televised experience was always going to be a tall order. The book certainly does not disappoint.
I will have to say that this is the second book of such nature that I have written and would also recommend the Hampshire County Council's publication about the historu of the village village of Ashley in the Test Valley which concerns itself with the agrandisement of the farms. A lot of the same ground is covered albeit Wood does not delve deeply in to the social issues of the early 18th Century as the other publication which recounts the social unrest of the Swing Riots. In this respect, the Wood book is somewhat more popularist but benefits from delving back into Saxon eras and the medieval period in the kind of detail that the likes of Simon Schama or Norman Davies were loathe to do in their similar ventures covering the wide range of English history. Whilst the Ashley book may therefore concern itself with the social unreset that followed the Napoleonic War, Wood instead focuses on the earlier rebellion of Simon De Monfort in the 13th Century which was the first time that the English people gained a collective, political conscience. Wood's work in the period is nothing short of exceptional - I have never seen everyday impact of this rebellion spelt out in this kind of detail and never appreciated how widespread the disatisfaction was with Henry III . For me, the fact that the era pre-1500 is covered in such depth is an added bonus as this is my main area of interest but it is fair to say that the 17th Century onwards is skated through pretty rapidly. Fans of more modern history may feel short-changed but Medieval history is rarely so vivid and personal as revealed by the records for Kibworth that the last 300 years are something of a disappointment afterwards. No other book that I have read quite makes Medieval life quite a real and immediate as this effort. The origin of place names and field systems is an are which fascinates me and Wood in particularly excellent in this respect too.
There are caveats, however. This book is unreservedly "popularist" and many instances abound whereby Wood makes statements or takes quotations without really doing into detail as to what his sources are. The other shortfall is that the records owned by Merton college have not been fully explored and time and time again I would have liked to have learned as much as possible about the medieval residents but felt denied by the fact the there was a treasure trove of information about this village of which the surface had only just been scratched.
All in all, this is a difficult book to put down. As an avid history reader, this book could have easily have been twice as thick with no compromise in the compelling nature of the text. I suppose a two volume edition would be difficult to sell but Wood has stumbled upon such a fascinating and comprehensive set of records detailing the history of one village that I was left continually wanting to learn more. In summary, a brilliant and enjoyable book that will appeal to historian and novice a like but the 400-odd pages sell the story slightly short. Needless to say, this book is highly recommended.
Michael Wood chose to base The Story of England on the village of Kibworth in Leicestershire. This was a wise choice (and obviously not random) as Kibworth’s geographical position in the centre of England meant that it was affected by most of the major historical influences such as the Romans, Angles and Saxons, the Danes and later the Normans. There were also many excellent written records – many kept by the scholars of Merton College who owned part of the land. It is so good to read a history of England that is not “Londoncentric” or centred on the monarchy.
In 400 pages he crams in an amazing amount of fascinating detail. However the section on the Victorians felt as if so much information was available the he was forced to carry out quite a bit of pruning. Many of the details of everyday village life in 1860s were taken from the writing of F.P. Woodford. At one point he wrote: “The time will come when the possession of great wealth will be looked upon not only as a disgrace but as a great crime.” Well, we are still waiting!
A very enjoyable read – and the photographs and maps were useful, too.
on 1 November 2010
Bought as a Christmas present for my mum but sneaked a little as well as watching the TV series which is excellent. The involvement of the current villagers with the lives of the ordinary people inhabiting the iconic moments of our history, all presented with Wood's compelling style, is a 10/10 winner.
This is a review of the original hardback edition. There are seventeen chapters sandwiched between an introduction and an epilogue. The book's halfway point, as with the accompanying TV series, is the thirteenth century, so Wood devotes much welcome time to the Dark Age, Anglo-Saxon, and medieval periods. There are thirty-nine plates and five maps.
All the plates are monochrome, so we do not get fully to appreciate the "golden ironstone" of St Wilfrid's church; the wide blue skies above the Gartree; or the colourful content of the medieval records. Alas, there is no sight in Wood's volume of Harry the Hayward's omen book - "the page for January has dark hooded figures spewing poisoned arrows"; there is no reproduction of the "two wonderful painted plans of 1609 and 1635 which depict all the village houses"; and none of the "beautiful map ... of the open fields of Harcourt", of which we catch glimpses in the TV series. Instead, the maps that are provided are poor, with many of the places mentioned in the text situated off the edges.
In his introduction Wood argues that ostensibly anywhere in England could have been chosen for his experiment of focussing on the history of one settlement to tell the story of a nation, but the richness of the Merton College documents allied to an industrial and not just agricultural past led to Wood's choice of Kibworth in Leicestershire. As Wood states in further support of his choice, as well as being geographically central, Kibworth nevertheless also lies "on a linguistic and cultural divide."
It is arguable whether Wood is right to state that, "The details of the [national] story will be different in each place, but it is the same story", but the argument would be more over what's missing from the Kibworth story rather than what it is in it. For instance, there was no local landowning abbey, so immediately there is a difference from the story of most other settlements in England. Moreover, Kibworth is close to Bosworth and Lutterworth, it experienced late enclosure of its open fields, and - perhaps, most importantly - it is so far from the sea. All of these (and more) make the juxtaposition of the Kibworth story and the English story problematical.
Nevertheless, Wood writes how "the local history of every county, parish and village has been more intensely cultivated here than anywhere in the world: in the belief that every place is its own version of the grand narrative, that every place is also part of the national story." He demonstrates this in the very first five pages of his own `grand narrative', walking to, through, and out of Kibworth, noting with his quick eye everything from 4000-year-old burial sites to the Kibworth Fish Bar and the Moka Coffee Shop, with all periods between.
As usual, the book of the TV series tells us so much more. For instance, he remarks that "no document has survived to tell us about the history of Mercian Kibworth", yet this does not stop him imaginatively constructing over several pages a guess at its creation and form. Equally, he touches on the Viking burial at nearby Repton over the border in Derbyshire. Wood's belief that the forging of the English character lies in such early times is manifested in his conclusion that, "The first three decades [of the tenth] century are among the most dramatic and action-packed in British history, out of which would appear a new social and political landscape" - of hundreds and shires, and of open fields - and where "class divisions were already strongly marked." It's a shame that Wood did not also set up a DNA project.
Wood's researches have uncovered some vitally important new information for the nation's story. For instance, "As a microcosm of the great pestilence, the story of Kibworth Harcourt in particular puts this great event in the sharpest focus: ... the death toll [of a massive seventy percent] is unsurpassed in any court roll so far examined in Britain for the Black Death." He also finds "perhaps, remarkably, the earliest English letter by an English peasant to survive."
Wood's story is very much a history from the point of view of `the ordinary man and woman' and how national events impinged on their lives, whether it be the Barons' Revolt or canal mania, Viking incursions or the enclosure of common fields. For example, Wood takes us through the Reformation using the wills of the villagers, and uses Sir Frederick Eden's 1797 survey of the poor for later times. In his epilogue, he points out how "one can always generalize about history; one can always tell it through the stories of kings and queens. But it is always by particularizing, by looking at it from the point of view of the ordinary people, that we begin to see the gradual development of society over time."
Wood provides over nine pages of suggestions for further reading. The index is good but not without problems. For example, Medbourne is mentioned correctly on four pages, incorrectly on one, and missed out altogether on two more. And it is the fear that Wood has been poorly served by his publisher that concludes my review. The book is a very good read, indeed worthy of many re-readings, and Wood is to be congratulated on the result of so much hard work delving into the archives and traipsing around the landscape, not that he would have found either task taxing! But if only the publisher had provided the colourful plates that Wood's colourful story demands; better maps; and a better cover - after only the first read of Wood's book, the lettering on the jacket is already half-disappeared.
on 12 November 2012
Ever wanted to view the history of England through the microcosm of one town? Go to any English town and you will find war memorials, churches, pubs etc, that all exude history from their concrete pores. Michael Wood has taken on the fascinating challenge of retelling the history of England but from the point of view of just one village.
That village is Kibworth, which sits in the middle of the country and so is ideally placed to get a flavour of momentous events from both the north and the south of the country.
So often in books, when we are told of the history of any country, we see the titanic forces that have shaped our cultures and national character. It is usually seen through the view of the major players, with a few anecdotes from eye witness proles of the time.
The interesting selling point of this book is that we get to see how the monumental and tumultuous events of history, influenced and shaped a single village. Giving national events a more human element, watching families, live and die and seeing through contemporary sources (including a lot of documents on vellum from Merton college), how they were impacted through the generations, seeing the whole scope of a village growing, or falling on hard times.
the beauty of using a single village as an explanation for what was happening in all the such places around England allows us to see how the country as a whole would be faring from the standard viewpoint of `just another village'.
There really is everything here from this history of the real people, from prehistory to the coming of the mighty Roman Empire etc. Kibworth being owned, the Black Death, the men who went to the first world war and the impact that had, right the way up to the modern day impact and globalisation that has changed the village life forever. All in all some 1600 years of history are squeezed into just 464 pages.
Admittedly the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries are more scant in their coverage than all the past centuries but then again, the closer you get to the modern day, the more people will be aware of and the copious sources that will be attributed to said centuries make it easy to get a clearer and more indepth picture elsewhere so I can't really complain. Also it has maps, I like maps.