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The World Before Domesday: The English Aristocracy, 871-1066.

The World Before Domesday

The English Aristocracy, 871-1066

Ann Willliams

Continuum 240pp 60.00 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 1847252395


Who were the gentry in England before Norman chevaliers became English knights? In this important new study, Ann Williams shows why and how the English aristocracy operated individually and as a community during the years before the Norman Conquest, addressing their ranks, occupations and their positions in society.

As the author of The English and the Norman Conquest (1995) and numerous studies on the interests of the great and the good of Anglo-Saxon England, Williams is amply qualified. While many historians have written about the politics and communities of late Anglo-Saxon England, few are able to breathe life into them with such a sense of easy familiarity. The pre-Conquest nobility are considered in terms of their status, their possessions, their families and political relations and, refreshingly, their leisurely occupations, looking rather like a knightly class in all but name (cniht, from which 'knight' derives, was after all an Old English word but, as Williams notes in passing, it meant 'young man, retainer').

Despite its subtitle, the book focuses much more on the years from the later tenth century to the Norman Conquest than it does on the first half-century or so of the emergence of a unified English state. We can hardly begrudge Williams that focus, however, as the source material is so much richer for the later part of the period covered by the book. She is particularly well equipped to read the evidence of pre-Conquest English landholdings from Domesday Book, but she also uses legal tracts, narrative sources, charter records, and, usefully, contextualises these with the recent work undertaken on the material culture of late Anglo-Saxon England, such as the metalwork, textiles and settlement archaeology. Such evidence convincingly fleshes out a picture of these people. A picture of courtiers and high aristocrats wearing 'ankle-length robes, caught up with a sash at the waist, and accompanied by a long cloak fastened with a brooch at neck or shoulder', following a fashion 'ultimately derived from the imperial court at Constantinople', is about as far from the image of raggedy down-to-earth 'Saxons' so beloved in the popular imagination as it is possible to be. And rightly so. This is, after all, a volume about conspicuous consumption and, in giving us a study focused on the preoccupations and lifestyles of the pre-Conquest aristocracy, Williams shows that they were easily the equals of the conquerors who came after them.

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Author:Lavelle, Ryan
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2009
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