Wednesday, 23 August 2000

Nigel Saul: The Batsford Companion to Medieval England (1983)

Edition: Batsford, 1983
Review number: 584

The introduction seems to imply that this book is aimed somewhere between those with an amateur and those with a professional interest in medieval history. This turns out to be a bit of a problem, and it becomes clear that Saul is not really sure at what level to pitch his writing to hit his target.

The articles are a little haphazard, though the criterion for what is to be covered seems to be related to what might be useful to, say, a local historian trying to make sense of what a church or a charter can tell them of the past of their own area. Thus, the kinds of things that are covered include government and law (terms which might be mentioned in documents such as "advowson"), and artefacts (coins, architecture and so on).

The book could have done with more cross references - the reader is unlikely to look under "government" if they are interested in Chancery, and Chancery has no article of its own. The coverage of some of the articles is rather idiosyncratic; the article on "government" already mentioned concentrates almost exclusively on finance, for example, which is not the only concern even of a medieval national government. (It has nothing to say about local government whatsoever.) There is a pro-clerical bias - quite minor English clerical figures are given articles, while the only non-royal nobleman to get one is Richard Neville Earl of Warwick (the "Kingmaker"). More about England's foreign affairs might have been interesting; information on this subject is mostly to be found in the articles on individual kings, other than the three specific articles on Scotland, Wales and the Hundred Years' War.

The book is rather slovenly produced, even having pages of different coloured paper. Proof reading seems to have been almost non-existent; one man has his name given differently in the title and the body of the article about him.

Though there is much in the book to criticise, most of the problems stem from the task Saul has set himself. Each of the long articles has to summarise material that could easily fill a book of its own, and in many cases the interested reader would want to consult such a book. (The coverage of archaeological subjects is of necessity too sketchy to allow a reader to perform a task like identifying a coin, for example.) This is provided for by the bibliography which accompanies each article, one of the best features of the book for a reader with access to a good library. As an encyclopaedia of the period, The Batsford Companion to Medieval England could be greatly improved, but it does contain much of interest.

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