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4.0 out of 5 stars Land and leisure before the Normans, 1 Mar. 2014
This review is from: The World Before Domesday: The English Aristocracy 871-1066 (Paperback)
I am no expert on the social and economic history of pre-conquest England, but I would like to commend a new book by Ann Williams, a well-known Anglo-Saxon historian, on the English aristocracy in the last two centuries or so before 1066.

Williams bases most of the book on the evidence of Domesday itself, charters, wills, and other surviving legal documents for the ownership of land and the interrelationships, based on family connections and lordship, between members of the aristocracy of Anglo-Saxon England. The first few chapters are rather heavy going for the non-specialist, since the evidence for different kinds of landed estate (scattered and centralized) and different levels of landed wealth within the aristocracy (from ealdormen/earls at the top to lesser thegns at the bottom) is set out in minute detail, with many original observations about the patterns of land-ownership and local dynasties and alliances which emerge, particularly for Kent, Somerset, and other areas of Wessex and eastern England (there being much less evidence available for the north). For readers who like to understand the evidence on which a historical reconstruction is based, the book is made more difficult by the use of end-notes, which are often very lengthy, rather than footnotes.

In the later chapters the focus changes slightly, from ownership of land to outlook and lifestyle, with consideration given to aristocratic residences and other buildings, to weapons and warfare, and to diet, recreations (mainly hunting and hawking), and ostentatious living. These chapters are more likely to be of interest to readers with a general attraction to social and cultural history. Some attention is given to archaeological and literary sources as well as to wills and other documents, and not all of the evidence cited comes from the period embraced by the title (though earlier evidence is, in general, sparse).

Williams argues that the pre-conquest period saw an increase in the wealth of lesser thegns (the beneficiaries of their lords' grants of land and other bequests) and the growth of trade and towns which enabled landowners to exploit their land more effectively and to obtain manufactured and imported luxuries. Decorated weapons and clothing of the highest quality may no longer have been the exclusive possession of the very rich. But of course the gap between the average thegn and the immensely wealthy earl or member of the royal family remained vast. Like other recent authors, Williams also questions the sharp dichotomy between pre- and post-Conquest England: aristocratic residences may have changed less as a result of the coming of the Normans than is sometimes thought, while there is some evidence that permanent deerparks and similar aristocratic recreational luxuries, once believed to be exclusively post-Conquest, may go back to earlier times.

There is little in this book about agriculture or the exploitation of the land (rather than its ownership) as such, and comparatively little about aristocratic government and politics, education, or attitudes to the Church (though bishops feature frequently in their capacity as landowners). These subjects have been covered in other, more general social histories of Anglo-Saxon England. Williams writes to convey the ethos of what in later history have come to be called 'county communities' of gentry, consisting of local landowners and the king's representatives in the shires. She almost completely eschews attempts at quantitative analysis of social conditions or trends: this is a book of painstaking reconstruction, based mainly on close observation of the personal data which survive, of the society inhabited by the few thousand larger landowning families of pre-Conquest England. Unusually for a modern historical book, there are no illustrations.
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The World Before Domesday: The English Aristocracy 871-1066
The World Before Domesday: The English Aristocracy 871-1066 by Ann Williams (Paperback - 3 Nov. 2011)
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