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Marc Morris' The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England (2012) is an absorbing book, demonstrating how the "new set of [Norman] attitudes and morals, which impinged on everything from warfare to politics to religion to law, . . . altered what it meant to be English." Morris begins with a concise overview of Anglo-Saxon history in England and of Norman history in Normandy up to the time of the conquest, introducing key cultural factors (including English ships, earls, and political murders, Norman castles, counts, and religious reforms, and chaotic succession conflicts in both lands) and figures (including AEthelred the Ill-Advised, King Canute, Emma, wife to both kings, Earl Godwine, Edward the Confessor, Robert Duke of Normandy, and his son William the Bastard). Morris sets up the context of William's conquest (including fraught matters like whether Edward had really named him his heir and whether Harold had really later confirmed it), then depicts the famous battle (including fraught matters like whether the Normans fled in route or in ruse, pulling the English out of their impregnable shield wall to chase them, and whether Harold was killed by a chance arrow to the eye or hacked apart by a death squad). He then covers the aftermath of the battle, when William struggled to solidify and legitimize his reign in the face of numerous rebellions and invasions, and the aftermath of the conquest, balancing the positive actions and effects of Norman rule (the end of the slave trade and political murder system and the dawn of a new age of architecture, etc.) with the negative ones (the removal of the "middle class," the Harrying of the North, and the consolidation of land in the hands of a small and powerful aristocracy, etc.). Finally, although the Anglo-Saxon tree of England fell, its deep roots never died, and the tree survived by becoming a hybrid with rising Anglo-Norman sap, as exemplified by modern English.
Throughout, Morris is open about the many insoluble questions caused by the limited, compromised, contradictory, and biased sources (one of which is "a horrendous Frankenstein's monster of a text, stitched together from bits and pieces of other chronicles, wrenched from their original texts"). Indeed, his book is nearly as much about the writing as the making of history, for he effectively works into it his historical sources, letting us know where the old quasi-historians were coming from when they wrote their chronicles. He does interesting things with the Bayeux Tapestry, more a long embroidered picture book than a tapestry, positing a likely candidate for its commission, marveling at its miraculous survival through the centuries, demonstrating the ambiguity of its images and words, and using it to supplement information from other sources. In short, he discloses the biases and limitations of each of his sources, sets them up against one another, and explains why one version is more likely than another, or how we may usefully combine two versions to get a composite "truth," and so on, as when he concludes a "debate" with the following sharp comment: "For once, William of Poitiers appears to have given us the unvarnished truth."
The book is never dull. Everywhere Morris conveys his enthusiasm for his material: "Against such nonsense we also have the magnificent testimony of the Bayeux Tapestry, almost certainly commissioned by Odo himself, which shows the bellicose bishop charging into battle on a black horse, rallying the Normans at the crucial moment. Whatever reservations others may have had about his behaviour, Odo clearly had no problems with the dual nature of his role."
Morris' chapters on the post-battle era of painful adjustment, as Normans steadily replaced Anglo-Saxons in nearly all positions of power, tried to reshape English culture in their own Norman image, replaced English with Latin as the language for official documents, and officially recognized their radical redistribution of land via the Domesday Book, are fascinating. And throughout Morris sprinkles "juicy bits," information that illuminates and stimulates, like the nickname William gave his eldest son Robert (with whom he literally came to blows in internecine battles for Normandy), translated into English as "Shorty-Pants." And like William's funeral, when his body was so fat and bloated that as it was being jammed into his stone sarcophagus, his bowels burst, and "No amount of frankincense and spices could hide the resultant stench, and the clergy therefore raced through the rest of the funeral rite before rushing back to their houses." Ah, indeed, as William's biographer Orderic Vitalis put it, "death deals with rich and poor alike."
About the reader, Frazer Douglas, I do sympathize with the reviewer who gave him two stars and said, "He has a pleasing enough voice but he reads the entire book in the same monotone sing-song." Douglas does tend to insert his own brief pauses so as to emphasize certain words, nearly making a rhythm that's not always in Morris' text: "Our [brief pause] first instinct might be to [brief pause] believe [brief pause] Poitiers." But once you get used to his manner, he's quite pleasing to listen to, and I really like his reading of quotations from Morris' old sources, because he enjoys imbuing the old historians with a dusty and biased enthusiasm, as when he reads this line from The Life of King Edward: "He lived in the squalor of the world like an angel."
Finally, Morris' material is of such great interest and is so tightly and spicily written that I bet that most people interested in the history of England and France would enjoy his book.
12 of 12 people found this review helpful
I thought this was an excellent book. Many reviews comment on the narration. I had no problem with the narration. I thought that the narrator's style was a bit unusual but it was still enjoyable.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
What did you like best about The Norman Conquest? What did you like least?
The book takes in the whole scope of history from Viking raids before the millennium through to life under the Normans after the invasion. If you are looking for an in depth account of the battle of Hastings itself you may be disappointed. The battle is just one relatively small part of the narrative.
The only negative regarding the book is that I think it tries to cover too much, especially in the first half. Names and dates are rattled off with little to flesh out the story or people involved.
Regarding the narration, I can only agree with other reviewers. Frazer Douglas sounds like an intelligent guy, so it's extraordinary that he manages to mangle the pronunciation of so many familiar English and French place names. He also speaks as though there is, a, comma, after, every, single, word. When he quotes from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle or some other historical text, which he does frequently, he slips into tones of whispered sincerity that sounds like an impersonation of David Attenborough nearing a family of mountain gorillas, which is amusing, but annoying.
Still, if you want an overview of the history of the times it's pretty good.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
Would you consider the audio edition of The Norman Conquest to be better than the print version?
This is an excellent overview of the Norman Conquest, from it's pre-history in the early 11th Century to it's lasting legacy through British History. Morris will be criticised for being pro-Norman, but he does illustrate quite convincingly that Harold's claim to the throne was less than dubious. He's certainly no Norman apologist when it comes to the Harrying of the North and their ruthless political (if not literal) decapitation of the Saxon nobility.
What Morris does manage to do is to incorporate the source material effectively into the narrative. As such, he provides an insight into the way that Historian's handle the contemporaneous accounts of the Conquest whilst turning their author's into characters in their own right.
What did you like about the performance? What did you dislike?
Frazer Douglas' reading is slightly odd. He has a tendency to ponderous hesitancy and some of his pronunciation of place names is irritating (his rendering of Ely, the Cambridgeshire town, as EE-LIE rather than EE-LEE was particularly poor). Also, his adoption of a 'posh vicar' voice when quoting from the original source material grated after a while.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful