Empires of the Normans: Makers of Europe, Conquerors of Asia by Levi Roach - review by Nicholas Vincent

Nicholas Vincent

Who Did They Think They Were?

Empires of the Normans: Makers of Europe, Conquerors of Asia


John Murray 302pp £25

As a distinct political entity, Normandy is first supposed to have entered history in the year 911. A Viking enclave around the mouth of the River Seine, effectively abandoned by the Frankish king Charles the Simple, was now guaranteed a degree of independence under its Scandinavian war chief Rollo. Three hundred years and many conquests later, at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, the Normans were still demanding first place in any line of attack. ‘Kind hearts are more than coronets,/And simple faith than Norman blood,’ as Tennyson reminded his proud if fictitious Lady Clara Vere de Vere in a poem published in 1842. But Tennyson himself sprang from a family never entirely convinced by such sentiments. Why else did his socially pretentious uncle buy up property in the village of Aincourt, east of the Seine, and begin calling himself not just plain Charles Tennyson but ‘Charles Tennyson d’Eyncourt’? Certainly, many writers, from Dudo of Saint-Quentin in the 1010s through to a host of professional or not so professional historians in more recent times, have assumed that the Normans of the Middle Ages were in some way ‘different’, ‘fated’, endowed with extraordinary powers, or the objects of some sort of medieval ‘manifest destiny’. Hence what is reputed to have been the first set of questions ever posed to students reading for the Oxford University course in history, back in the 1870s: ‘Who were the Normans? Where did they come from, and what did they do?’

Levi Roach’s new study, very much a professional enterprise, answers all three parts of that particular question. Norman conquests were not just of European but of truly intercontinental significance, stretching from Normandy itself into Brittany, Maine and other parts of northern France, and thereafter into Sicily, Naples, North

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