A tour of the historical literature which shaped the modern English presentation of the Norman Conquest.
Barber, R. Allen. The Norman Conquest and the Media. ANS. XXVI (2004):1-20.
In his article ‘The Norman Conquest and the Media,’ Allen Barber discusses the historical literature which developed and shaped the popular modern English presentation of the Norman Conquest. He presents this modern understanding in the form of a children’s rhyme from 1932, in which William the Conqueror is presented as a tyrant ‘hated and cursed’ (1) by the simple and subservient English.
Stemming from this modern depiction of the Norman Conquest in a children’s rhyme, Berber addresses the progress of the stereotype presented; the images contained in a simple poem demonstrate the popular understanding of the event, even if that presentation diverges from the historical record. Barber questions where this depiction arose from and how it developed. To this end, he addresses the historiography which promulgated the stereotype, ranging from the time of the conquest to as late as the twentieth century, in chronicles, verse, and prose. Barber divides his discussion of the literature into the presentations of the chroniclers, the legal radicals, and the novelists; each of these sections is then divided between those sources which present a generally positive interpretation of the conquest and those which demonstrate a fully negative presentation.
Among the chroniclers, Barber glosses over positive descriptions, such as William of Malmesbury, treating Henry of Huntingdon’s and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s scathing anti-Norman commentaries as the principle early sources for the creation of the negative stereotype. While he addresses the positive commentaries, his primary concern is the development of the anti-Norman mythos. Barber establishes Monmouth’s use of the term ‘yoke’ (4) as a description of Norman oppression, which he subsequently follows through the course of the accounts hostile towards William and the Normans.
After addressing the chroniclers, Barber illustrates the adoption and expansion of the negative stereotype through radical legal individuals and movements in the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. According to Barber, authors in these centuries continued to employ references to Monmouth’s ‘yoke,’ as in the case of the ‘perpetuall seruyle yoke’ of Richard Grafton in 1573 (9) and “the Norman yoke” of Christopher Hill in the early seventeenth century. Further, he provides examples of the expansion of the negative mythos to the usurpation of land and reduction of legal freedoms through William Tyndale in 1532. This continues through the radical anti-aristocrats of the seventeenth century and later, extending as far as Thomas Paine. (15)
Finally, Barber addresses two principle novelists after the turn of the eighteenth century, Sir Walter Scott and Rudyard Kipling, providing them as demonstrations of the cumulative development of the anti-Norman mythos. In the works of these authors, Barber highlights the cumulative presentation of tyrannical, base Normans depriving the Anglo-Saxon populace of ancient freedoms. In both of these, he presents a solidification of “Englishness” (18) which can also be seen in David Horwath’s 1066. It is in these novelists and his poetic opening that Barber links the elements of Norman tyranny, ancient liberty, and simple, yet noble, English nationalism. The progressional development of this myth filters through his discussion of the originating chronicles leading to the propaganda of the seventeenth century legal radicals.
This article, while explicitly dealing only with the popular historiography of the conquest, holds significance for understanding the ways in which we view historical events. Barber forces us to consider the basic origins behind our perspectives and to recognize the social and cultural prejudices within both literature and historical studies. To this end, the article is well-presented and progresses through Barber’s argument in a clear and concise manner. This article is primarily useful to those pursuing the historiography of the conquest, but also holds significance to individuals addressing the works of the early chronicles, granting recognition of the distribution and continuity of the terms and ideas they recorded.