A Monumental Mediaeval Muddle

By Tyerman, C. J. | The Spectator, March 26, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Monumental Mediaeval Muddle


Tyerman, C. J., The Spectator


A monumental mediaeval muddle THE HOLLOW CROWN: A HISTORY OF BRITAIN IN THE LATE MIDDLE AGES by Miri Rubin Allen Lane, £25, pp. 380, ISBN 071399066 £23 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

The history of England in the 14th and 15th centuries has traditionally been regarded either as a corrupt aftermath (as in 'Bastard Feudalism') or a confused prelude (as in the 'New Monarchy' of the Tudors). Its most vivid narrator remains Shakespeare who, perhaps surprisingly, supplies the title for this earnestly modern new account by Professor Miri Rubin of London University's Queen Mary College. As so often, tradition misleads. To these centuries belong the origins or establishment of such enduring features of national life as the collegiate universities of Oxford and Cambridge; Justices of the Peace; parliamentary scrutiny and audit of public finances; the legal profession; the Order of the Garter; printing; and English as the language of literature and government. These centuries saw the most radical demographic shift in recorded history, the Black Death and the subsequent outbreaks of plague killing up to half the population, the new circumstances of the rural economy leading to the slow demise of serfdom. The survivors produced lasting intellectual and religious diversity, some of it branded by conservative contemporaries as 'Lollardy', that survived the 16th-century Reformation, as well as the many striking physical monuments to spiritual hope and anxiety that punctuate the landscapes of the Cotswolds or East Anglia. Henry V, the most impressive monarch of the period, survived as a recognised icon of Englishness into the 20th century. The political society created by the permanency of public warfare with Scotland and France was prone to dramatic or sordid dislocation witnessed by the convulsions of the Peasants' Revolt or the so-called Wars of the Roses. The myth of England's inviolacy since 1066 was exposed by four successful invasions (1326, 1399, 1471, 1485). The English became notorious for killing their kings; five of them met violent deaths, five were deposed (one of them, Henry VI, twice). Yet the institutions of public life and private community that emerged formed the patterns of central and local government that survived to the Civil War, England's ancien régime.

Professor Rubin attempts to chart this society by using the widest lens, a method some academics call histoire totale. The political narrative is constantly interrupted by discussion of the physical, material and intellectual. The lives of men and women of all stations are presented at close quarters in a deft and erudite display of anecdote, statistics and detail. The richness and diversity of existence are particularly well caught in the descriptions of religious devotion and the experience of women, discriminated against but hardly passive. The dense picture of communities unnerved by plague but enjoying a better diet and drinking more ale, of farmers forced to diversify, of towns coping with self-government, of wide social and geographic mobility, of increased commercialisation is balanced by sympathetic and often vibrant portraits of individuals pitting their lives against hardship, faith, sex, neighbours, the law, opportunity, aspiration and the environment. The work is stuffed with arresting insights and incidents. …

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