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Out on the Edge

Terry Barry

Norman Expansion: Connections, Continuities and Contrasts, ed Keith J Stringer and Andrew Jotischky, Ashgate, 261 pp, £70, ISBN: 97409448389

The Normans were one of those phenomena that transformed the history of Europe and beyond in the early part of the Middle Ages. Countless books and articles have been written about them and still we are finding new ways to try to fully understand their impact. Indeed, their military successes in countries as diverse as England and Sicily tends to disguise those places where they were not successful, such as the very short length of their occupation in North Africa, from the late 1140s to the early 1160s. Indeed, this is one peripheral area that is not really covered in this book, probably because the settlement was comparatively so ephemeral. But speaking more generally, two centuries, the eleventh and twelfth, were those when Norman power and authority were at their height. Whether one likes them or not, these Normans cannot be ignored if we are to fully understand the history of Medieval Europe and beyond.

These issues are well analysed in this impressive new book, a series of essays largely derived from the 2011 UK Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project called “The Norman Edge” led by the two editors. The main aims of this project were to critically examine the prime characteristics of Norman expansion on the peripheries of Christian Europe. All but one of the ten chapters in the volume had been given at the twice-yearly symposia held under the auspices of this project. A real strength of this volume is the balance of both younger as well as more established scholars. These contributions also cover the wide geographical spread illustrative of the impressive reach of these Normans in the medieval world, with one paper covering Ireland in the West, another investigating the castles of the Latin East, and the rest discussing much of the geographical area between.

The first three chapters investigate the Normans in Scotland, with Stringer also examining their interaction with Northern England. In this important paper he reveals that many of the Norman settler families here still managed in the twelfth century to transcend ideas of loyalty and allegiance that were defined by the state. He also convincingly argues that many of these families still felt close to their original Norman roots, even as late as the first half of the fifteenth century.

Robin Frame is another of the established scholars in this collection, and he shows that the results of the Norman invasion of Ireland were very different for many complex reasons from all the other contributions. As he stresses in his paper, the “English” conquest was closely controlled by Westminster, so much so that it was also run on a day-to-day basis by nobles who were always part of or very close to the royal administration of the kingdom of England. Maybe this is why it was so comparatively successful and long-lasting. His chapter is complemented by the next author, Leonie Hicks’s, scholarly analysis of the Norman chronicles and their concept of the frontier.

There follow two contributions on acculturation in Norman Italy. The first, by Catherine Heygate, examined one hundred marriages involving Normans in the Mezzogiorno of Southern Italy. She shows that despite the broader context of cross-cultural interaction in the region, Norman first names might still often be chosen for sons, and especially the first born. A paper by Paul Oldfield investigates the impact of the Normans on urban settlements in southern Italy.

There follow three papers on aspects of the Latin East, including one by my young colleague Léan Ní Chléirigh on the vocabulary of Crusader identities in the contemporary chronicles of the First Crusade. She argues that by around 1100 Norman identity was on the wane among the Norman settlers of Southern Italy. Indeed, she concludes that the chronicler Ralph of Caen, the only known Norman, was the only one to regularly call Bohemond’s southern Italian forces as Norman. Of course, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Normans were constructing castles over much of the European continent as well as into the Latin East. Thus it is instructive to examine the reasons behind the construction of such defensive structures in all the areas they had conquered. It is quite remarkable how widespread these castles were, with earthwork forms such as the almost ubiquitous motte and bailey, to be found as far west as Ireland and as far south as the South of France and possibly as far as southern Italy and Sicily. The all-pervasive nature of these defensive edifices probably owed much to the feudal nature of Norman society generally. Obviously, as in all the many regions that they settled they were in a minority they required effective systems of defensive fortifications. Denys Pringle, in the second paper on the Latin East, critically analyses the role that castles and fortifications played in the frontier zones of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. He also attempts to reconstruct how medieval peoples perceived castles and frontiers in the Latin East, and suggests that castles or fortifications by themselves could not defend frontiers, and were never really intended to do so.

The final paper dealing with the East examines Norman Antioch after the death of Bohemond II in 1130. In a meticulous examination by Peter Edbury of the Assises d’Antioche, a law code that probably dates from 1219, he suggests that Norman influence may have continued in less obvious ways in the principality. For instance, there was the survival of Norman or Anglo-Norman customs of inheritance from earlier in Antioch’s history.

At the end of this collection the reader will have a much better idea of the complexities that made up the Norman identity in medieval Europe, and for this we must be grateful to the contributors to this fine volume. The Normans, like humanity itself, contained both great saints, like St Thomas Becket, as well as hardened military leaders like Bohemond of Taranto, or William the Conqueror. Without doubt, this volume has succeeded in its principal aim of critically examining the main Norman characteristics of their expansion of the peripheries of Western Christendom.

Professor Terry Barry is Associate Professor in the Department of Medieval History, and a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, where he specializes in teaching medieval archaeology.  His research interests centre on the medieval settlement archaeology of Ireland, Britain and Western Europe, particularly its castles and defensive earthworks.   He is the author of many articles and books, including The Archaeology of Medieval Ireland (Digitally Reprinted in 2004 for Routledge), and in 2000 he edited A History of Settlement in Ireland, also for Routledge.