Saturday, 18 April 2020

Skiing Off Piste

One of the things I have, from time to time, tried to do here is to suggest that historical wargaming, as a hobby, is partly formed by history, particularly that amateur kind of reading books and pontificating about battles, campaigns and personalities. Few wargamers, I would warrant, would fail to have an opinion bout General Patton, or The Hundred Days, or how Alexander conquered the world. I may have even mentioned one or two of these topics here.

Nevertheless, a bit of reading of secondary sources, maybe watching a documentary or two or, in cases of accessible battlefields, a potter around a few non-descript fields and a visitor centre usually constitutes what passes for research in the wargame world. I can only surmise, from the mountains of Osprey and similar sorts of books that are now available that either publishing military history is a lot more popular than it used to be, or a lot cheaper. I have, after all, reviewed a few books on obscure topics here myself.

Historical wargaming, however, is not disjoint from other bits of history. Obviously, at least according to some, war is the development of politics ‘by other means’. Armies, as the ‘new’ military history observes, reflect the societies from which they spring and to which they are accountable. What is going on in a society, what people do, what their outlook on life and the world is, matters to an army.

I have, recently, started a new sort of project. It is not really aimed at anything in particular, and is not, probably, going to emerge either into the light of day (except, perhaps, here) or, likely be the subject of my next army. It is a bit far off my track for that. Nevertheless, I hope it might engage someone who is thinking a bit more deeply about how the past might have worked.

The starting point of the project was, as many such things are, a fairly simple question: what was the ‘Harrying of the North’ and what effect did it have, I suppose, specifically, on the North Riding of Yorkshire? I imagine that most reader will know what the harrying was – the destruction by William (the First / the Conqueror / the Bastard) of rebellion in the northern parts of the kingdom in 1069/70. Conventional historiography points to a level of devastation of the land that caused a great deal of depopulation, famine and general mayhem.

The first thing to do, of course, in a project of this nature, is to try to grasp the narrative flow of history. A problem with much contemporary academic history is that it ignores, or assumes knowledge of, the story. Popular history is much better – the writers of popular histories (and even semi-academic histories) tend to be much more aware that ordinary people, those without academic pretensions or without specialist knowledge, need a narrative to hang stuff on.

Fortunately, the trusty Postscript books catalogue arrived at about the time of pondering, and yielded up its goodies in a few days. Specifically, I got my hands on:

Cole, T., The Norman Conquest: William the Conqueror's Subjugation of England (Stroud: Amberley, 2016).

As I mentioned, this is not a particularly academic book, but it is reasonably recent and it tells a narrative of how the events unfolded.  It does a great deal more than that, in fact, unravelling the story back to the 950’s and pushing it through to the death of William (the Conqueror / Bastard / I – take your pick) in 1087.

Now I happen to be aware that there is some revisionism around regarding the Harrying of the North, and I was interested in how Cole handled it. Something over twenty years ago the destruction of the northern counties, specifically North Yorkshire and Durham, was questioned in academic historiography. Before that, so far as I know, people had taken the chroniclers who said that there was no-one living between York and Durham and the Domesday Book’s assertions that may manors were ‘waste’ pretty well at face value.

William’s problem in 1069 was that York kept being attacked by ‘rebels’ supported by Danish fleets. The Danes lurked in north Lincolnshire and the rebels in Holderness, apparently out of William’s reach. He negotiated the disappearance of the Danish fleet, possibly by using a large bribe and then set about destroying the north. Cole quotes Vegetius that destroying the enemy by famine, raids and terror was better than by battle and argues that this is what Bill the Bastard did. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Oderic Vitalis the whole region was devastated, stores of food and farming implements destroyed and famine set in (Cole p. 210-1). Seventeen years later whole areas of the north were either excluded from Domesday totally (Northumberland and Durham) or had large areas recorded as waste.

That is the ‘traditional’ historiographic story, but as ever, there are some doubts when the details are examined. For example, some parts of the North Riding of Yorkshire are not waste in Domesday, and actually have a higher taxable value than in the reign of Edward. Further, exactly what Domesday means by ‘waste’ is disputed; it could simply mean ‘not taxed’. County Durham and Northumberland were, possibly, outwith William’s domain at the time as well – the ownership of those counties could well have been with the Scottish crown, and was disputed for the next few hundred years. Further, detailed work on churches in the North Riding suggests that stonework was introduced at them in the eleventh century, which is not something areas of a destitute waste would be doing – stone working is expensive.

As a final thought, exactly how much damage could a smallish medieval army do in a month or two in an unknown country? Medieval armies were, of course, well known for doing the destruction thing, but villages a mile or two off the road, down obscure tracks or in dark woods or on moorland would be more likely to escape devastation. Further, some of the lands had been gifted to William’s companions. Would they really want their lands destroyed? Even if they did not know where they were, they might have looked a bit huffily at the reduction of income.

And anyway, how long of relative peace does it take for a medieval society to recover from the passage of a hostile army? Is seventeen years long enough? Breaking ploughs is one thing, but surely a medieval plough doesn’t take that long to make.


  1. I have no expertise in this (or anything really) but just thinking through what might be involved here. I can’t see much could be done to make the land infertile (salting it would take enormous quantities of a valuable commodity and in that period I doubt there was much reclaimed coastal land to flood. Breaking tools would help slow down recovery a bit.

    Burning orchards and uprooting fruit trees would have a longer term effect, so a bit of a longer term effect on people’s health too maybe. And less alcohol to drink water with!

    Destruction and theft of livestock would I imagine be something easier to achieve. Less milk and cheese for the masses and meat for the nobs.

    The more intensively farmed land would likely be within a short distance of the roads. We now farm land that would not have been considered viable or worth the effort 1000 years ago. So a bigger proportion of productive land would be affected.

    So there’s probably a severe famine for the mass of people for a year or two until crops can be resown and regrown depending on which season the destruction was done. Fewer surviving folk (I’m confused by all the different levels of ‘workers’ in feudal times) would have meant less of an absolute surplus in subsequent years until a new generation grew up.

    I bet it would be this destruction of surplus that had the big immediate effect on rebellious nobles/warriors, and smaller surpluses in subsequent years on ‘taxable’ yields. I dare say it’s the impact on elites that drew the comments about long-term devastation. Similar to the tales of the Saxons wiping out the previous inhabitants of Albion - wiping out the old warrior elite maybe.

    1. I'm not an expert either, but I suspect all of these are possible, at least in a more localised way than massed devastation.The destruction was in winter, so crops in the fields would be untouched as there weren't any, but seed for the coming season could have been affected.

      Livestock would be vulnerable, I suppose, at it would have be on the infields in winter, but you can drive livestock into the hills or woods quite quickly.

      All of this is quite plausible, but I'm still not sure that a smallish medieval army in the area for 2 months could really destroy hundreds of manors, villages and so on. Or even if the leaders thereof would have regarded it as a great idea given the rebellion had been put down.

      Yes, wiping out the old elite (or displacing them, at least; most of the southern English elite seem to have died at Hastings, hence not much resistance) would be of the most interest. Peasants dying of starvation not so much so for the chroniclers, I guess.