Top positive review
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Still the reference and the starting point...
on 30 July 2012
This is an old book - it was first published in 1964 under the title "William the Conqueror - the Norman impact upon England" - but it has stood the test of time. Since its publication, there have been numerous biographies of William the Conqueror in both English and French. Many of these are very good. Some are excellent. This one is outstanding and all of the following books on William have been inspired by it to some extent.
There are several elements that make this book outstanding.
The first is the depiction of William's character and outstanding personality. This exceptional warlord was both unsympathetic and "unlovable", as Douglas puts it so well. He was arrogant, brutal and cruel, possibly even more than the average warrior and warlord of his time. He was also very talented, hugely energetic and had a will of iron forged during his early years when he had to fight so hard for his survival.
The second point is that, however unlovable he might have been, his achievements are astonishing. These include not only the Conquest itself, but also his survival against both his unruly and warlike vassals (and kin) and against the king of France before the Conquest and the more than twenty years that he spent defending his Duchy of Normandy and putting down rebellions in his Kingdom of England. Douglas also shows that William was a very capable - if harsh - ruler, in addition to being a very competent soldier. The ways, means and efficiency that he used and displayed to govern England are also one of his achievements, as Douglas shows so well by making use of all the available documentary sources.
The third major strongpoint that underpins the whole book is the top quality of David Douglas' research blended with a fantastic story that is told soberly. This is a scholarly book of the highest calibre but it is neither dull nor convoluted, despite its size (over 400 pages when counting the annexes).
Another huge quality of this book is to acknowledge that the transformation that occurred "cannot be referred simply to a single personality." Although this might have become obvious by 2012, it was not necessarily the case in 1964. Moreover, the consequences that Douglas has drawn from this statement have been far reaching. Whole fields of studies have been opened up by a couple of generations of historians inspired by this book.
One of these is the study of Normandy and of England before 1066. Another has been the series of biographies on William's lieutenants (including his wife Mathilda and Lanfranc) and contemporaries. A third, related to the books published by David Douglas on the Norman Achievement, has been the study of "Norman Identity", and what happened to it. A fourth has been the rediscovery of the years that followed 1066 in England, through another host of books. A fifth field has focused on the means and ways through which the Norman warrior aristocracy established its domination, including numerous studies on Norman warfare and Norman castles. There are probably others as well that I have not mentioned.
With all this going for it, and although this book is almost half a century old, there is little wonder that it remains THE reference and the starting point for most areas of Anglo-Norman studies. Needless to say, it is still very much worth five stars.