Normandy before 1066 front cover
  • PUBLISHER: Longmans
  • ISBN: 9781405100717 / 1405100710
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Normandy before 1066

Normandy before 1066 is one of these excellent books which are sadly out of print. First published in 1982, it tells the history of the Duchy of Normandy from 911, when Rollo’s war band of Vikings were settled in the county of Rouen, to just before 1066. David Bates, who was a pupil of Frank Barlow, has applied the same rigorous methods as his former master when analysing the Norman archives, many of which were unpublished at the time. The result is probably one of the only books in English that depicts and analyses the Normans and their Dukes before their conquest of England.
The book, however, has much more to offer. It shows to what extent Normandy was integrated into Northern Frankish France in the tenth and eleventh centuries, while also having original features that made it quite different from the other major principalities that surrounded it. Among the most interesting features is the ability of the various Dukes to accumulate power until the early eleventh century, while power was increasingly localized and fragmented earlier on in the other principalities, through the conquest and colonisation of western Normandy.
Another feature is to identify 1025-1050 as the key period of change in Norman society. The period covered the reign of a relatively weaker Duke and the minority of his “bastard” son (William). This is when the leading families started to build their own castles and fight their feuds, as ducal authority broke down. It is also during this period that succession by the eldest son and lignages (or noble “Houses”) started to become established, with younger relatives having to either fight or join the Church to make a living. The book also contains an excellent summary of the changes in social and economic conditions in Normandy, including those affecting the Church and towns.
As the book shows well, the first of William’s achievements was to survive and overcome this turmoil and the second was to restore ducal power. This took place to such an extent that, by 1066, Normandy was well organized, the Duke was rich and his reputation as a ruler and a war lord were sufficient to attract thousands of non-Norman warriors to his banners. The period of change and turmoil lead to the Norman migration to South Italy. The restoration of ducal power and its reorganisation were prerequisites for the Conquest of England.
Another merit of this book is to revisit what R.H.C. Davis termed `the Norman Myth” which presents the Normans as some sort of “chosen people” who were dominant by nature and had a rare talent for warfare. Both Charles Haskins and David Douglas (among others) were partial to this view, which is still shared by a number of historians. David Bates argues here that Norman expansion across Europe had more to do with context. However, some of his points were not entirely convincing. For instance, he states that only one late Norman source (Ordericus Vitalis) makes a case for Norman superiority. This is not quite correct. The pro-Norman sources for the Normans of Italy make precisely this kind of point, whether Amatus of Monte Cassino (a Lombard), William of Apulia or Geoffrey Malaterra. A related case which Bates does unfortunately not examine is that the Normans seem to have been rather skilful at propaganda.
Presenting your victories as the result of God’s will has always been a rather easy way to “legitimise” the successful use of force. This is something that the Norman war lords seem to have understood perhaps better than others…
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