Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Normans in the North

From what I have read, historians of the Norman Conquest fall into two camps when thinking about the Harrying of the North. Firstly, there are the minimalists, who minimize the damage done to northern society, peasants, agriculture, and so on. They argue that while something clearly happened, and what happened did shock the contemporary chroniclers, it was only a little out of the ordinary and the region quickly recovered its balance, with increased attention from Norman (colonizing) lords. Thus, by the time we get to the Domesday Inquest of 1086 the signs of the Harrying are few and far between and the extensive ‘waste’ recorded in Yorkshire (Domesday Book does not extend further north) arises from other causes, principally the ignorance of the new landowners.

On the other side of the coin, as it were, are the maximalists, those who believe that William’s activities based on York in the winter of 1069-70 seriously damaged northern society, leading to a famine and the practical breakdown of agriculture and population. Into this void, new Norman lords came and the extent of recovery by 1086 is a function of how much attention these new lords gave to their estates. If that was little, then the manors laid waste in the Harrying remained waste in 1086.

At the maximalist end of the spectrum is this book:

Kapelle, W. E. (1979). The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and its Transformation, 1000 - 1135. London: Croom Helm.

As you might note, it is a fairly elderly tome, but interesting none the less. It is also, of course, about far more than the Norman Conquest and its effects on the north, but Kapelle is among the historians who think that the Harrying more or less destroyed northern society, caused starvation, and the forced integration of the north into the rest of England.

I am not expert enough to comment on the overall text, but it is interesting. Kapelle re-interprets some of the events of the earlier Eleventh Century as expressions of the relative independence of the northern regions – today’s Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham, Northumberland and Cumbria and Westmoreland. The assorted feuds and murders which happened (quite frequently) in the north are not dismissed as just what the barbarian northerners did, but as calculated assassinations to preserve the independence of the north from encroaching Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish kings.

Kapelle argues that as the likelihood is that the geld returns recorded in Domesday Book were probably taken from an Anglo-Danish geld list held in York, the north was relatively lightly taxed by comparison with southern regions. Thus the arrival of southern nobles as Earls was unpopular, as they brought with them increased tax demands. This may or may not be true – given that Domesday Book records the number of geladable carucates, which were fiscal rather than real units of land (a carucate is a ‘ploughland’, but the round numbers which occur suggest that it was a top-down system, not one related to actual land) it is a bit difficult to tell. Certainly further south the hide (the southern measure of fiscal land) was more heavily taxed per unit, but it is unclear if that was a function of lighter taxation or land which was simply less good, or less exploited, for agricultural purposes.

Still, if we take Kapelle seriously, we do have to engage with his argument that William’s army in 1069 – 70 could destroy most of northern society from Durham to York. This is beset with problems, I suspect. We do not really know how much damage an army of a few thousand horsemen could do to a region in winter. The Chroniclers claim that they did huge damage; many recent historians cannot see how that damage could have been inflicted. The Chroniclers also say that William pursued the remaining rebels deep into the wilds of (probably) Teesdale and there took their submission. Could he do that while, at the same time, destroying all the land? It is, at best, unclear.

Kapelle is at his best when discussing the uncomfortable strategic situation of the north. If Cumbria was held by the Scots, which it was until the reign of William II, then the Scots could raid across the Pennine passes and there was not much that anyone could do about it. This also (quite likely) happened in 1070 when Malcolm Canmore ravaged Cleveland. In turn, William (the Conqueror) started to apportion land to his highest nobles to create castleries blocking these passes, such as Richmond and Pontefract. In 1072 William also invaded Scotland and came to an agreement with Malcolm, but it was up to Rufus to establish something that looks vaguely like the modern frontier.

Another interesting aspect of the book is the discussion of the Norman nobles who took land in the north. Initially, Kapelle argues, they were William’s closest allies from eastern Normandy, who were used to eating wheat bread. They were not interested in the higher lands of the north, where only oats and rye would reliably grow. Later on, in the reign of Henry I, the higher ground was divided up between ‘new men’, Henry I’s closest confidants, who came from western Normandy, where Henry’s power base was, and who were used (as the land there is poorer, apparently) to rye and oats.

Furthermore, Kepelle suggests, and I am not sure if this is an academic jest or not, that the eastern Normans came originally from lowland Yorkshire and so ate wheat and were before that from Denmark, where wheat was the staple bread. The Vikings from Norway, however, had colonized the western parts of Britain and ate rye and oats, and then colonized western Normandy, and hence returned to western, upland England (and, in due course, in fact, Scotland) where oats and rye were grown.

In the end, then, the whole of the Norman Conquest and the upheavals it caused, depends mostly on which sort of grain crop could be grown. I am not sure if the uncouthness of rye bread eaters as opposed to the civilized culture or wheat bread made that much of a difference, or even existed, but we do seem to be back to a long, long Viking Civil war.

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