Friday, 29 May 1998

Doris Mary Stenton: Engish Society in the Early Middle Ages (1066-1307) (1951)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 56

This book forms part of the excellent, though now rather outdated, Pelican History of England, and it shows both the merits of the series as a whole and the limitations of its approach. Each period possesses its own difficulties for historiographers; in the Middle Ages these are the paucity and one-sided nature of sources, and the alienness of the medieval mindset to modern Western Europeans. The statistical sources so important to the work of historians like Braudel are completely missing; it is thus difficult to check on economic and even on political statements in the sources which do exist. The clerical monopoly on literary endeavour also leads to bias, though I doubt that this is so much a problem as is somethimes thought - the number of clerics was sufficiently large to prevent them all being of one mind on issues such as the character of the king.

Stenton's book is intended for a popular readership, to such an extent that she was not allowed to include footnotes in early editions. This and the limitations of length, and her understanding of the period prevent the above from becoming too great a problem. Her concentration on social history - this is the only book in the series to have the word "Society" in its title - means that she can avoid the snap judgements on prominent figures common in such works and parodied by Sellars and Yeatman in 1066 and All That ("King John was a bad king.") It does mean that the paucity of resources becomes a problem; what can be said, for example, about changes in land ownership when one register was used as an authority on ownership throughout the period (the Domesday Book). The many excellencies in her treatment of the issues, particularly the growth of the state, are complemented by an attempt to understand the people from every walk of life from nobles to peasants. I look forward to re-reading the other books in the series.

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