: 1066. Der Kampf um Englands Krone. München 2016 : C.H. Beck Verlag, ISBN 978-3-406-69750-0 432 S. € 24,95

: 1066. Englands Eroberung durch die Normannen. München 2016 : C.H. Beck Verlag, ISBN 978-3-406-69844-6 128 S. € 8,95

Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Benjamin Pohl, Department of History, University of Bristol

The year 2016 witnessed the nine hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Norman Conquest of England, or rather of the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, a historical event that over the course of nine and a half centuries has become firmly embedded within the British collective psyche and cultural memory. The tradition of both scholarly and non-scholarly literature dedicated to the Norman Conquest and its legacy is long and diverse, ranging from critical studies and nuanced re-appraisals of the surviving primary sources to the unapologetically nationalist and evidence-defying narratives of the nineteenth century that promoted Anglo-Saxon emancipation from the so-called ‘Norman Yoke’.

On this side of the English Channel (read: in the UK), the anniversary of Duke William II of Normandy’s successful crossing in September 1066 that two and a half weeks later culminated in his famous battle against Harold Godwinson was marked by several academic publications. Most notably, these included David Bates’ new critical biography “William the Conqueror”1, which supersedes David Douglas’ volume published under a similar title in 19642, as well as Leonie Hicks’ “A Short History of the Normans”.3 Whilst Bates’ biography of the Conqueror symbolises an academic lifetime achievement, comprising more than six hundred pages and addressing itself, first and foremost, to a specialist audience, Hicks’ shorter, yet just as important, book of just under three hundred pages is primarily aimed at those who are less familiar with the Normans and their impact on the history of Europe and the British Isles, thereby greatly enhancing its usability in university classrooms and undergraduate curricula. Between Bates, Hicks and several others whose works are not referred to explicitly here, British academia has certainly paid fitting tribute to the nine hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Norman Conquest.

When turning our view across the Channel, to Germany, there are two equally commendable titles, both published in 2016 and dedicated expressis verbis to the ‘epochal year’ (“Epochenjahr”) of 1066. One is Jörg Peltzer’s “1066: Der Kampf um Englands Krone”, and the other Dominik Waßenhoven’s “1066: Englands Eroberung durch die Normannen”, both produced by the Munich-based publisher C. H. Beck. Similar in a sense to their British counterparts, these two monographs are of unequal length. Peltzer’s book fills just shy of four hundred and fifty pages, making it more than three times as long as Waßenhoven’s short monograph. Both books are addressed – and, in Peltzer’s case, even dedicated explicitly – to a wider, non-specialist readership, the ‘interested lay person’ (“interessierten Laien”; p. 12). Rather than addressing each book separately, the following review will assess them in tandem.

Both volumes are carefully produced and of good material quality, and they offer the reader a wide range of visual aides-mémoires such as maps, charts, genealogies and black and white illustrations. Besides a few minor editorial slips that do not detract from the generally very pleasant reading experience – for example, the inconsistent spelling of personal and/or place names (e.g., ‘Edward/Eduard’, ‘Bec/Le Bec’), some subheadings (pp. 294, 297 and 305) and a rather obvious typo in an Old English quotation (p. 314) –, the lack of an index rerum (“Sachregister”) presents a more serious issue with regard to Peltzer’s book, the length and detail of which would have justified, or indeed necessitated, more than just a personal (“Personen-”) and geographical index (“Ortsregister”).

In terms of their structural organisation, the two authors have chosen fairly similar approaches. Following an introduction that presents and briefly contextualises some of the key primary sources (pp. 7–14), Waßenhoven turns to discussing a selection of historical events and developments that, either directly or indirectly, contributed to the Norman Conquest of 1066. This discussion starts around the turn of the first millennium, with occasional references to the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries. Whilst Chapter One focuses primarily on the political and/or dynastic constellations between Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians and Normans (“Angelsachsen, Norweger und Normannen”; pp. 15–42), which are discussed in some detail, Waßenhoven occasionally interweaves subtle references to cultural and socio-political discourses into his analysis. This refreshing wider analytical angle is paralleled, and expanded further, in the opening chapters of Peltzer’s book. In his introduction (pp. 13–26), Peltzer devotes a commendable amount of space to discussing both the chief primary sources and the main trends (and debates) in existing scholarship. He demonstrates an impressive awareness not only of the respective German and Anglophone scholarly traditions (which in the past have not always been marked by frequent exchange and mutual recognition), but also of the important contributions made by French and Scandinavian scholarship. As Peltzer himself points out, his book does not aim at synthesising or harmonising artificially the often divergent or contradictory perspectives found in the sources and existing literature, for example, with regard to the conflicting accounts of the Battle at Stamford Bridge found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Scandinavian sagas (“[M]an ist gut beraten, beide Narrationen […] nicht in ein Bild zu zwängen”, p. 219). In this regard, Peltzer’s bibliographical and methodological focus is slightly wider, and perhaps a little more nuanced, than that of Waßenhoven’s book. Of course, we should take into account the fact that the space and word count allocated to such methodological and historiographical negotiations in Waßenhoven’s monograph, as well as in many other titles published in the series C. H. Beck Wissen, is rather limited.

Like Waßenhoven, Peltzer also appends to his introduction an analysis of the period c.1000–1066. This is split into several thematic chapters (pp. 27–209) that discuss, in chronological order, the respective family backgrounds of William and Harold, Harold’s expedition to Normandy, the rivalries between Harold and his brother Tostig, as well as William’s preparations for his Channel-crossing in the autumn of 1066. Throughout these chapters, Peltzer shows an impressive command of both the wider subject and more intricate questions, allowing him to tease out important details without ever losing sight of the bigger picture. Amongst the few contestable aspects of Peltzer’s otherwise highly compelling and thorough analysis are his discussion of early Norman marriage customs versus partnerships de more danico, which is couched in terms a little too brief and general to be meaningful, and his emphasis on William’s illegitimate birth and its perception by the young duke’s contemporaries (pp. 94–96), which seems slightly at odds with more recent reassessments of William’s childhood and youth by scholars such as Bates and others. Rather than referring to William’s illegitimate birth as ‘no fundamental obstacle’ (“kein grundsätzliches Hindernis”; p. 95) for his succession to Normandy’s ducal throne in 1035, it might be more accurate to say that, as far as William’s contemporaries were concerned, this did not really form an obstacle at all (rather unlike the young duke’s minority, which several eleventh-century chroniclers viewed with the utmost suspicion). I also remain unconvinced by Peltzer’s use of the so-called Ermenfrid Penitential (an ordinance composed by a papal legate of Alexander II shortly after the Battle of Hastings) as evidence to suggest that William’s campaign cannot have enjoyed papal support, or at best tacit approval (pp. 168–70). The fact that William and his soldiers were expected to do penance for the bloodshed at Hastings, which was deemed extreme even by contemporary standards, is perfectly in line with later eleventh-century customs, and as such does not, to my mind, negate the otherwise strong evidence that scholars have presented in favour of William’s having enjoyed the support of both Alexander II and, to a degree, Gregory VII.4 Apart from these very specific points of disagreement, which are extremely few and far between, I consider Peltzer’s argument compelling and well-reasoned, especially in the three final chapters (pp. 247–327) that provide the bridge between the account of the Battle of Hastings and the end of the book. It is no secret that previous studies of the Battle of Hastings have often had a tendency to overindulge in detailed discussions of military tactics, battle formations or the soldiers’ weaponry and equipment, thereby running the risk of losing themselves in minutiae that are of little interest to anyone but the keenest military historians or enthusiasts. Peltzer is not guilty of this, as he keeps his chapter dedicated to the momentous military encounter on 14 October 1066 mercifully short and concise (pp. 225–46, several of these pages are taken up by illustrations).

Waßenhoven’s book promotes an equally succinct approach in dealing with the Battle of Hastings, which he discusses in conjunction with the Battles of Fulford and Stamford Bridge. Instead of being treated separately, these three battles are set in direct context with each other and summarised under the appealing heading ‘Five Kings and Three Battles’ (“Fünf Könige und drei Schlachten – die Eroberung”, pp. 42–70). Like Peltzer, Waßenhoven then moves on quickly to a discussion of the Conquest’s immediate aftermath by analysing the main period(s) of Anglo-Saxon resistance, different interpretations of William’s legitimacy as seen by his contemporaries and, in his final chapter, the mid- and long-term effects of the Normans’ rule on medieval England’s culture and society. Given their limited length, some of these chapters are impressively dense and packed with much important information, which certainly is no mean feat for anyone operating under such a restrictive word count. Waßenhoven’s great achievement, in this particular context, is his success in presenting an analysis that is, by necessity, selective, but which does not leave the reader under the unsatisfying impression that relevant material has been omitted. The only point where this virtue of concision might have been taken a little too far concerns the book’s final pages (pp. 113–17), which Waßenhoven reserves for the complex subject of language and identity (“Sprache und Identität”), followed by a brief closing discussion of the epochal character (or not?) of the year 1066 in historical perspective (“1066 – Ein Epochenjahr?”). The question of ‘Norman identity’ (normanitas) in particular enjoys such a long-standing and, in many ways, controversial tradition of historical scholarship that any attempt to deal with it in just under two pages is optimistic at best. In order to do justice to this crucial element in the history (and historiography) of the Norman Conquest, significantly more time and space would have been required. As it stands, this sub-chapter probably poses more questions than it manages to answer.

As in Peltzer’s case, however, this contained criticism should not detract from the fact that Waßenhoven’s book works beautifully in the way in which its argument unfolds, as well as in guiding its readers so as to allow them to navigate confidently and competently through many of the key events and developments of the period both before and after 1066. The chapter on William’s legitimacy and Harold’s alleged usurpation (pp. 91–105) in particular evidences Waßenhoven’s talent for uniting various different strands of argument without resorting to overgeneralisation or artificial levelling. This is something that scholars have not always found easy to achieve in the past, and Waßenhoven’s monograph certainly raises the bar here. Similar qualities are also to be found in the final three chapters of Peltzer’s book. Amongst these, the chapter on William’s coronation (pp. 247–54) and that entitled ‘After the Battle is before the Terror’ (“Nach der Schlacht ist vor dem Terror (1066–87)”, pp. 255–84) stand out as particular highlights. It is here that Peltzer’s argument develops its full momentum, showcasing the author’s in-depth understanding of the mechanisms and dynamics of medieval government and representation. Despite being aimed primarily at a wider audience of interested non-academics, the arguments that Peltzer presents magisterially in these chapters will be instructive to many academic readers, too.

In sum, both Peltzer and Waßenhoven have succeeded in producing well-informed, up-to-date discussions of the Norman Conquest of 1066 and its relevance both in the Middle Ages and beyond. Both books successfully address their target audience(s), the interested public, at the same time as offering detailed arguments that are grounded firmly in current academic discourse and meticulous primary source analysis. In fact, I would readily recommend both books to academic audiences, too, and most certainly to students of (Anglo-)Norman history at university level. It is probably fair to say that neither of the two books can claim to be ‘revolutionary’ in the sense of offering a drastic revision of the established scholarly consensus and communis opinio. But then again, this was never their aim. Rather, they both attempt, and deliver, a structured, systematic and, not least, highly readable introduction to the subject that will benefit both academics and non-academics. Being written in German, neither of the two monographs is very likely to find its primary audience amongst students in the UK. This is a shame, given that their authors’ perspectives on the Norman Conquest – which are more international than they are specifically German – would make for an excellent addition to the UK’s current undergraduate reading lists. Indeed, Peltzer and Waßenhoven’s books would sit very comfortably alongside the recent book-length publications by UK-based historians. In a year when the British government and parts of its electorate opted to declare themselves ‘outside of Europe’, it is a great pleasure, and indeed relief, to see two German scholars making such significant, nuanced and well-researched contributions to our knowledge and understanding of a historical event that has shaped, and continues to shape, both British and European history and memory.

1 David Bates, William the Conqueror, London 2016.
2 David Douglas, William the Conqueror. The Norman Impact upon England, London 1964.
3 Leonie Hicks, A Short History of the Normans, London 2016.
4 Elisabeth van Houts, The Norman Conquest through European Eyes, in: English Historical Review 110 (1995), pp. 832–853, here pp. 850–52.

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