"Plantagenet England 1225-1360" Michael Prestwich (Part 18)

In the final chapter of this book Prestwich draws together the ideas and themes he explored in the rest of the book and discusses what it meant to be English during this period (1225-1360). On the one hand England was a pretty cosmopolitan society - there were many leading figures in the government who weren't English born, and migrants with useful skills were encouraged (Flemish weavers during Edward III's reign, for instance). On the other hand there was a strong sense of an English identity. Foreigners apparently had a simple stereotype: Englishmen had tails and were usually drunk! The English themselves had a bit more of a nuanced view, although not necessarily more complimentary. The author of the Vita of Edward II for instance said that the English "excel other nations in three qualities, in pride, in craft and in perjury". The north/south divide is already evident during this time - southerners are considered more civilised. And there is still a sense of an ethnic divide between the aristocracy (of Norman descent) and commoners (of Saxon descent) but both are also considered English.

Language was important to both national identity and social status. There was a sense that English people should speak English - and Edward III used the idea that the French wanted to wipe out the use of English in England as a piece of propaganda to drum up popular support for his wars in France. But speaking French still marked one as part of the social elite. Prestwich discusses how this French is changing and becoming more English - by the end of the period it's generally a learnt language not a naturally acquired one, and the French definitely think that the English speakers of French don't speak it properly. Culturally England is still close to Northern France, but differences are beginning to emerge. The English literature of the period (whether written in English or French) has a distinctive voice, and has English heroes and covers themes & political concerns peculiar to England.

During this period English art & architecture also developed a distinct style. For most of the 13th Century Western European culture was dominated by the French styles of architecture, but by the late 13th Century the English Decorated style was developing. It was more exuberant, and featured more naturalistic carving & sculpture. Art in the form of paintings hasn't survived in particularly great numbers & Prestwich doesn't discuss how this compared to the previous French style. Illuminated manuscripts and embroidery (tapestry) do survive and display high quality work - some of it reflecting the new English Decorated style of the architecture.

The legal system was an important part of English identity. In border regions whose law you were subjected to was important - a lord who had both English and Welsh tenants in the Marches would be expected to deal with the two groups via their own law and their own courts. The legal system in England was distinctive in that it was not codified - it was a law based on litigation and precedents, and it was primarily learnt by attending courts. This was something that struck me in particular while I was reading this book - how much is known because the court records are preserved, and how often people took each other to court.

The mythology surrounding England's origins as a country had a couple of different (mutually contradictory strands) during this era. One strand emphasised King Arthur and the Britons, with an ultimate origin of the country in Brutus the Trojan who defeated giants in Albion and founded Britain. The other concentrated on the Anglo-Saxons and the uniting of their kingdoms, and appealed to the authority of Bede's history of the English.

The wars of the period helped to strengthen the sense of Englishness. In the case of the Anglo-Scottish wars there weren't particularly large cultural differences between the two sides, but propaganda (on both sides) still made the enemy out to be vicious barbarians coming to commit atrocities against civilised people. The Anglo-French wars are often held up as important in forging an sense of Englishness as distinct from the Norman culture that stretched across England and Northern France. However Prestwich thinks it wasn't that significant - he sees most of the national sentiments as being there already. And points out that Edward III would want to be careful about negative portrayals of the people he hoped to rule if he won.

The intellectual life of England was a significant part of the mainstream European intellectual culture. Oxford and Cambridge were two of the greatest universities of Europe in this period. Prestwich gives mini-biographies of a few of the intellectual elite - including Ockham of Ockham's Razor - and discusses briefly the controversy of the day: nominalism vs. realism. Slightly confusingly nominalism is the school of thought that the only real things are those that can be observed and tested, whereas realism holds that there are absolute realities which the actual objects can only be approximations of.

Prestwich concludes by looking at the large scale trends throughout the period that the book covers. In the 1220s England was politically unstable with a weak monarchy and factional rifts among the ruling elite. The country was also militarily weak, and had barely succeeded in keeping independent of French rule. In contrast, the economy was strong, the population was rising and the peasants were firmly under the thumb of the aristocracy. By the 1360s this was reversed - England was politically and militarily strong, but the economy and population had collapsed (particularly in the wake of the Black Death). The peasantry were more able to make their feelings known as labour was now scarce. One of the key developments of the era not touched on by my simplistic summary was the emergence of Parliament as a mechanism for the monarch to consult with not just the highest ranking nobles but also the community of the realm as a whole via representatives for each county.


And so I have finally finished this book - I was reading it for around 18 months in the end. Which is too long! And it was primarily because I wasn't very diligent at coming back to reading it. But also because writing the summaries takes time and so I don't tend to read much more till I'm caught up with that in case I get too far ahead of myself. On the other hand, writing the summaries means I've retained rather more of the information, so I think it's a net positive.

I enjoyed reading the book - I found Prestwich's style readable and at times humorous (in a dry academic fashion). When I've whittled down my to-be-read pile a bit I may look for some more of his books - I know he's written a biography of Edward I which would be interesting. It's part of a series of books from Yale University Press on English Monarchs, which may make for an interesting project once I've finished the New Oxford History of England series (of which the present book is part) in a decade or two!

Categories: