January 13, 2010

Review: The Norman Conquest: A very short introduction

If you want to understand English history, you cannot get away from the Norman Conquest. Whether you look at the English Civil War and the great debates about whether the Conquest made Englishmen subject to Kings and not Parliaments, or to the nineteenth century and the great discoveries of historians like Edward Freeman and Frederick Maitland, you cannot escape the shadow of the Duke of Normandy. Tour the country and you will find that there is no ecclesiastical structure standing from the 11th Century that was not rebuilt in 1066. Admire the pattern of castles spread throughout the smiling hundreds of the south, the harsh lands of the northern wappentakes and even into Wales and Scotland and you are looking at a creation of the conqueror. Buy a piece of land in England and the chances are that you can trace who possessed it in 1086 when the great survey, Doomsday Book, was completed. Furthermore, you'll find quickly that there has never been a revolution in land holding in England like that of the period 1066-86 since: an entire landowning class was wiped out at one stroke of a Norman pen. Want to understand Shakespeare and you need to understand the medieval obsession with uniting the duchy of Normandy to the Kingdom of England- an obsession that lasted at least to Elizabeth I. Wherever you go in English history, you cannot escape the Conquest.

How can you understand the conquest? The best place to start is to understand, as George Garnett attempts to, the basis upon which William Duke of Normandy claimed the throne. In 1066 when Edward the Confessor died there was only one legitimate heir to the English throne- Edgar Atheling- who had been recalled with his father in 1057. Edgar had the best claim to be directly descendent from Cerdic and the House of Wessex who had ruled England, with interruptions, since Alfred. But Edgar did not get the throne. Instead something else happened- a powerful lord Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, seized the throne and was immediatly attacked, from the North by his brother Tostig and the Norwegian King Harald Hadrada and from the south by William Duke of Normandy. The two battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings decided that William would ascend to the throne. Garnett points out the key issue here is not merely that William seized the throne but his justification for so doing was that Edward had nominated him to the throne. William's publicists and propagandists sought to suggest that William had been granted the throne twice by Edward, once in 1052, and the second time when Edward had sent Harold to Normandy in 1065. By taking the throne Harold was an oathbreaker. This is a story that is present in no Anglo-Saxon account. Rather than reconciling the two sets of accounts- English and Norman- Garnett leaves us with the fact that they are incompatible and suggests that the important question is what claim William made.

William's claim meant that Harold was an illegitimate ruler of England. He did not exist. By the time of Doomsday Book, Harold was an unperson as King (he still existed as Earl of Wessex). William traced his position directly to the Confessor. The Confessor had granted him the whole of England, everything in it and crucially every piece of land. This meant that the Conqueror was able to grant out land to whom he wished- every piece of land in England was not owned, but owned as the King had granted. By 1086, Garnett suggests William had cemented this in four overlapping ways. Firstly when tenants in chief (including churchmen) died, their estates would remain vacant until their successors (whether by blood or by appointment in the Church) bought the right to succeed. Secondly they owed a standard knight service to the King of various men- normally in multiples of five- a number set when they were granted the land: the number of men bore no relation to the size of their estates but to the favour of the King. Thirdly the King asked all his tenants in chief and all their significant sub-tenants to Salisbury to sign an oath to him: there was no feudal pyramid in England, everyone owed their first duty to the King rather than their lord. Fourthly William wanted to know how much all his tenants in chief owned, so he compiled Doomsday Book to find out, to find out how much their successors should pay to succeed their fathers or predecessors as Abbot or Archbishop. All depended, according to Eadmer, a contemporary historian, on the nod of the King. These reforms changed the face of the English monarchy and set in train developments which led directly to the creation of Common Law and the signing of Magna Carta.

Garnett's radical interpretation of what 1066 means is not uncontested. Plenty of historians would disagree with the account that has just been given. As a former student of George's I am likely to agree with him. It has always struck me that one of the strongest points for George's claim about William's claim is that other people produced nomination stories when they claimed the English throne: there is a story in Adam of Bremen that suggests Svein of Denmark may have been promised the throne, no doubt had he obtained it we would have heard more about that. As to the nature of the conquest, again my reading of Maitland and Holt would suggest Garnett is right- I find the idea that this was a wrenching change more convincing than that there was an evolution. So much of the English nobility, almost all of it and (with two exceptions) all of the higher clergy before 1066, saw their careers end abruptly in 1066. The Conquest caused a caesura in English political life and compared to it most of the other revolutions in English history, perhaps even that of 1649, look tame. If I have criticisms of Garnett's study they are minor- can we really know that Eadmer was being ironic as much as Garnett suggests- or they reflect on a prose style that occasionally irritates.

This is though a fascinating book- Garnett provides people not merely with a good bibliography (incidentally for anyone interested in the period, do not be put off say that Maitland's Doomsday Book and Beyond was published in the 1890s, it is still one of the greatest history books ever written). It is provocative and lots of historians would take issue with it- but it is important and interesting. No short introduction of such a key period will be without critics: some will fade quickly from the memory, this one I suspect will remain.

January 12, 2010

Why Oliver Stone is wrong

Oliver Stone, director of JFK and Nixon, gave an interview to the historian Mark Carnes in the 1990s in which he argued that historians were not the appropriate guardians of historical truth. He rebuked the profession for not creating patterns between Kennedy's death, Luther King's death, Robert Kennedy's death and Nixon's fall, he rebuked the profession for not asking questions about suspicious looking moments on the Nixon tapes which might be tied, in his view to the Kennedy assacination, he rebuked historians for not attempting to put those facts into a larger pattern and seeing what he sees as truth. We should remember as we look at these ideas that Stone is in the business of making films and that everything he says might well be right if you are making an interesting three hour film and don't have to worry about the truth, but is it good history?

I am not sure that it is. Lets take the idea of patterns. Stone starts with patterns and declares that he fits facts into those patterns, he starts with what he knows- that Cuba might well have caused a military dictatorship in sixties america, and proceeds to intepret every fact in its light. That seems to me to be the wrong way round. It assumes a pattern which rests upon facts which themselves may be uncertain. One of the virtues of the way that we study history today is that most graduate students start by proving something small and move through their careers working on finite examples, and then write a general history once they have understood several small facts. Stone wants the big picture first: but of course that presumes two things. Firstly it presumes that the big picture is right: Stone's intuition may be incorrect. Secondly it assumes that every fact fits into a bigger picture- that Nixon must have been talking about Kennedy when he was talking about the 'bay of pigs thing' but of course he could have been talking about anything, we can't know that he was talking about Kennedy and we shouldn't automatically infer that he was.

Stone is right that there have been conspiracies in history- Julius Caesar was executed by a conspiracy of his former friends, Phillip of Macedon was killed in a similar way- but what is notable about all these conspiracies is how quickly they unravelled in chaos. Events, dear boy, events are always there to interrupt the best of human plans, Macmillan's logic goes for conspiracies as well as anything else. Politics is if it is nothing else complex- if John Kennedy had been killed by a vast conspiracy we would know about it by now. There may be secrets that have been taken to the grave- but we should be cautious about assuming there are just because the past is untidy. The last point to make against Stone is that history ultimately is fragmentary- people forget what they did yesterday (think of your own life, what were you doing at five o'clock this time last year?) and don't record everything they remember. A historical theory that does not have gaps is one that is probably not true- Stone's theories and patterns are too complete to work, history is always going to be imperfect, always going to be incomplete and it is best to be sceptical about grand designs.

Oliver Stone may be a good film maker, but as a historian he lacks scepticism and an awareness of that history ultimately fails to reconstruct the full story.

January 10, 2010

Fight Club

I thought of retitling this post, the film where Naomi Klein meets Ernst Rohm and discovers she quite likes him. In the end the simple film triumphs as a descriptive title and yet the point of the latter is important because it describes the message of this film to a tee. Fight Club is about two men. Edward Norton plays the narrator, a corporate slave who works in an office and is bombarded with the inane verbosity of pompous business language every day. He lives in an Ikea outfitted appartment, consumes his cafe latte at Starbucks and jets around the US examining car accidents. He meets on a flight his alter ego Tyler Durden who he discovers is a parttime everything. The narrators besetting disease insomnia until now has only been dealt with by attending endless therapy classes for diseases he doesn't have, with Tyler however he discovers a new passion, fighting. During the therapy sessions, he met a fellow disaster tourist Marla. The film considers the relationship of these three characters and their relationship to a third entity: together Tyler and the narrator turn their fights into a way of life, they begin fight club. Fight club is a place where men who feel emasculated during the day come together to fight after hours, its also a place where they plan random acts of terrorism- blowing up banks where credit card records are held, beating up the chief of police etc.

Some saw the inspiration for this as lying in a backlash against feminism- and there is something male about what the film describes and analyses. Actually I think the film is less about feminism- women are ignored more than they are described and the principal female character is as unhappy as all of the male characters- as it is about consumerism. Rather than associate the film with American beauty, we should associate it with Naomi Klein. The argument of the film is that consumer goods have rendered us unpersons- as Tyler tells the narrator, you are what you consume, you are not you. The film's argument revolves around the antithesis between civilisation and barbarism- the latter is authentic, the former inauthentic. The narrator's condition is a condition of late capitalism: he is a drone, working in an office all day on a job which is, to all intensive purposes, meaningless. The only meaning that work acquires in any of the character's lives is as a way of mocking authority- the most fulfilling experience is to piss in the mushroom soup at an important resturant. This is the blame of the big guy taken to its extreme.

The consequence of that is the development of a barbaric form of excess which allows characters to find fulfilment. Characters in the film find fulfilment in absorbing the grief of others (though even this has a fake societal edge to it), in committing suicide or in uniting to fight each other. The existential longing for meaning, for a life beyond consumer products, for no logo, ends up in fighting other people: rejection of Starbucks and embrace of blood are two halves of the same coin. Fight club takes on a life of its own swiftly and its rejection of consumerism becomes deeper and deeper, culminating in the most powerful anti-capitalist act- terrorism. The club becomes a neo-fascist organisation, rejecting the market, embracing violence, rejecting intelligence and discussion and democracy, embracing community and dictatorship. To enter the club requires endurance and denial of the self, to participate in modern society requires selfishness and flabbiness.

The film has an atmosphere and is well put together. The performances from Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter are all good and interesting- but its the point that reverbrates in your mind after you have seen it rather than anything else. The storyline does develop into silliness by the end but there are some fine directorial moments as well throughout the film. I'm not sure if the point of the film is ultimately to criticise anti-consumerism or to embrace it- I'm not sure that the film does have a positive point at all. What I take from it though is a conumdrum more than a point, the conumdrum is how we create lives of meaning within a consumer society without relapsing into barbarism. Its a conumdrum that is very old, going back at least to the eighteenth century if not before. The alternatives on the one side might seem unhealthy- consumerism leaves a person drained of that which makes them interesting- but the alternatives on the other, the radical individualism of revolution and community of totalitarian organisation are worse. Fight Club proposes no answers and fumbles a lot of the time- some of the violence is not really neccessary, the philosophical treatises are a bit Adrian Mole for my liking- but sometimes it gets the questions right.

Perhaps to truly appreciate this film though, you need to feel two things- you need to feel disillusioned and you need to feel that fighting gives you a rush. My real problem with the film is that I don't feel either particularly. I don't see consumerism as a great thing- but I do feel that there are ways of living in our world which don't have to involve it. I definitely don't see fighting as something to be rejoiced in and so I don't get the rush that Norton and Pitt's characters get throughout the film. As I cannot understand the film emotionally it remained for me a distant experience- despite the blood and guts, I felt apart from the film and never really absorbed into its world. Perhaps that is a failure on my part, but perhaps it is also a failure on the film's part: ultimately there may not be more to think about this film than that it is a cry of despair from a teenager, the world isn't fair! Tough it isn't, but fighting isn't going to help.