August 18th, 2010

never there

The Normans; Domesday

Moved TV night to Tuesday this week because there was (apparently) football on the telly which my fellow zombie hunters would be watching & that's not the case tonight. It also meant we got 3 programmes watched, instead of the usual two. We're still trying to watch HD stuff to clear off some space on the magic box, so this week we watched some of the programmes in the current Norman history season on the BBC - the first two episodes of The Normans (the third one doesn't air till tonight) and Domesday (which is about the Domesday Book).

First off a bit of muttering about the filming/"cinematography" of these (in scare quotes coz I'm not sure if it's the right word for what I mean). Both programmes & a few other recent ones seem to do this weird filter thing on landscape shots where they darken the top of shot (unevenly, too), and I can only assume it's supposed to be aesthetically pleasing somehow. I don't like it much :/ And what's with all the shots of random modern streets when we're talking about something historical? In Domesday the guy was telling us about taxation in Norman England and we were getting footage of bus windscreens in London & the driver waving at someone as he did. I mean, wtf? I fully accept that I'm not the target audience they have in mind - as I would be perfectly happy if it was an actual lecture, with a chap showing slides as he talked, I'm there for the content. But can they not get more relevant footage rather than presenter walking through crowded street, camera lingering on traffic?

Anyway. Rant aside, the actual content (and most of the footage) was interesting for all three things that we watched :) The Normans is presented by Professor Robert Bartlett - who presented Inside the Medieval Mind that we watched at some point last year (I think, I can't find write ups, so it must've been before Jan this year?). He does a good line in dramatic speech, so the swooping camera angles & portentous music worked well with his presentation. The first of the two programmes covered the history of the Normans before 1066 & then the conquest of England, the second programme looked at post-conquest England (up to about the time of the Domesday Book) and the different patterns of interaction of the Normans with Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The Normans were originally Vikings, who settled in northern France & agreed to protect the King of France from other marauding Viking bands and convert to Christianity in return for the land that is now Normandy. Over time they intermarried into the French people living there & became the Normans, rather than being Viking rulers of French people. They took the social structure & so on from their French subjects & adapted their fighting techniques to land war by becoming very cavalry dependent - by training knights (which Bartlett was keen to point out doesn't really mean the sort of fair flower of chivalry that the word conjures up now, but more brutal thugs on horseback). They also embraced their new Christian faith & built abbeys etc for God (and to do penance for things they shouldn't've done - for instance the Pope said William the Conqueror shouldn't marry his (William's) not-very-close cousin, so they got married anyway and built a couple of abbeys to say sorry). Then came the conquest of England - I'd not really realised that England was such a prize, but Bartlet pointed out that it was a rich and united kingdom, with a great deal of infrastructure etc designed to collect the taxes & govern the country well. So if you could become king, it was all already set up to make you wealthy, not necessarily the case in medieval Europe. All the stuff about the conquest was stuff I already knew (but interesting anyway) - Harald maybe ceding his claim to William (if you believe William), but then becoming king anyway after Edward the Confessor's death. Invasion from the north (which Harald successfully defended) leaving the defenders tired when William landed. Harald dies in battle (at Battle) and William now rules England.

The second programme picked up there & spent the first half hour or so explaining how this lead to a complete replacement of the elite in England - William and his Norman nobles took over the bulk of the land and positions of power in England. Partly because a large number of the English elite had died in the battle in 1066, also because what insurrections there were were brutally put down by William (like the Harrying of the North, where a great swathe of northern England was torched and their livestock killed, leading to famine, after a rebellion). But the Normans continued to intermarry into their subject families & over time it became impossible to say they were Norman as opposed to English. And this affected the language of the country - with Norman names (like William, Robert, Gerald) becoming popular, and a lot of French derived words becoming part of the English language. Like pork (french derived) instead of pig (anglo-saxon) - the common theme for food being when it was lower status (for instance in a field, covered in dung) it was referred to by an English word, but once it was cooked & on the table it was referred to by a French, high status, word. The second half of the programme looked at the Norman expansion into the rest of Britain & Ireland, and how this has really set up the politics of the four countries that continue into the modern day. In Scotland the monarch invited the Normans in, granted the lords lands, and managed to retain an identity as a separate sovereign country - and again the Normans intermarried & became part of the country. But Wales & Ireland were invaded by the Normans who held themselves separate. Particularly obviously (and obnoxiously) in Ireland where the native Irish were portrayed as un-educated, brutish savages. Bartlett made the point that this was really the first English colony, and you can see the first signs of how the European colonisers were to treat the peoples in the countries they colonised.

We followed up these two programmes with Domesday, presented by Stephen Baxter (a medieval historian, and not the sci-fi author). He looked at how the Domesday book information was gathered & presented, and speculated on the actual purpose of it. In 1086 William ordered the recording of the whole of the Kingdom of England - who owned the land, who had owned it in 1066, who lived on the land (just the men) and what was their status (free/villan/serf etc), what the land was used for, what livestock was on it, what resources did it have (like ploughs, mills, fisheries). This massive bureaucratic exercise was conducted in 6 months & presented in 8 bound books to the King (one per area of the country & a summary of the whole lot). Public inquests were held in every town, and the landowners had to provide their documentation of ownership (if they had any) and present witnesses to their claims. Once it was written down in Domesday it was held to be legally binding and so people went to great lengths to prove (or fake) their claims. The programme also showed us how the parchment it was written on was made (which was neat, I'd not seen it done before), and how the eventual summary book was organised - with its indexes and abbreviations. Baxter then moved on to the purpose of the data - it has generally been regarded as being designed to help with tax collection (and to see if there were places where more taxes could be collected) but Baxter suggests that it's not organised properly for this purpose. I found his argument for this as presented in the programme rather weak - but take that with a pinch of salt: a) what do I know? b) I'm sure it was heavily simplified for the TV. His proposal is that the information was actually used to shift to & reinforce the notion that the nobles owned their land because the king had given it to them. So the monarch was the "real" owner and what he had given you, he could take away - and very efficiently too, here it was all written down.