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Everything you always wanted to know about Norman Britain but were afraid to ask,
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This review is from: The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 (Paperback)
I am jointly reviewing Frank Barlow's The Feudal Kingdom of England and Robert Bartlett's England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings. They deal with the same period, they are remarkably complementary, and I highly recommend reading them together.
Barlow's book, first published in 1955, takes a traditional approach and reviews the events of the Norman and early Angevin period chronologically. Bartlett's, benefiting from recent research, offers a more static but broader picture of the period's trends and features. To the newcomer (as I was) or, I think, to someone with basic knowledge of 12th century England, the combination will be as instructive as it is exciting to read.
The Feudal Kingdom of England recounts the main political events from the Norman invasion to the forced grant of the Magna Carta by king John. Barlow tells the drama of the conquest, the tales of dynastic intrigue, the blow-by-blow of three-sided feuding between king, church and baronage in sometimes gory, sometimes inspiring detail. Some stories simply need to be given chronologically, which Bartlett doesn't do: the manoeuvrings of William's sons, the dispute between Becket and Henry II, Richard's crusade and capture, the crafty king John's miserable reign. Though the narrative remains central to it, the book also contains chapters on aristocratic society, the church, and the English towns and countryside. In fact, it begins with an overview of England under Edward the Confessor which is invaluable for understanding change in post-invasion England.
Bartlett's England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings paints a multi-faceted panorama of 12th and early 13th century England. It is equally awesome in breadth and depth. And it is free of the typical fault of medieval history, in which 90% of space is devoted to the doings of 10% of the population. Bartlett devotes more than half his book to ordinary people's lives, urban and rural: their work, their habitat, their relationship to the lords, their money problems, their beliefs. He offers fascinating information on perceptions of the world, how the day was spent and divided, on marriage, manners and pastimes, even on sex. His section on culture and language isn't the boring recital one often finds, but is lively and relevant to the rest of the book. He describes the church at all levels, not just that of the bishopric, and from both the institutional and the spiritual perspective. He makes the best use of available data to discuss economic developments, themselves key to some of the period's political events (e.g. late 12th century inflation and the disasters of John's reign). And of course, Bartlett describes government and political patterns, only not in sequence.
These two books are complementary in other ways. Where Barlow tends to use original words, Bartlett prefers their more explicit equivalents (for example danegeld in one book is called a land tax in the other). If you only have time to read one, I would probably recommend The Feudal Kingdom of England, as it will leave you with the period's basic milestones. Still, it would be a shame to miss the fun of Bartlett's big canvas.