What’s on : Lectures

The Material Culture of the Norman Conquest of the North

13 Nov 2018
Start time
7:30 PM
Tempest Anderson Hall
Dr Aleksandra McClain, University of York
The Material Culture of the Norman Conquest of the North

Event Information

The Material Culture of the Norman Conquest of the North

Dr Aleksandra McClain, University of York

The Norman Conquest is arguably the most famous event in medieval English history, but apart from castles, the material dimensions of the Conquest have rarely formed a part of our common understanding of the period. However, new scholarship is starting to uncover some of the distinctive material signatures of the coming of the Normans to England, and also the areas of life where continuity was seen as valuable or even necessary. This talk will explore the material culture of the 11th and 12th centuries in northern England, where the story of the Conquest has traditionally been about one-sided Norman imposition, highlighted particularly by the Harrying of the North. It will emphasize the potential of material culture to introduce more complex and nuanced narratives to the story of the Normans in the North, and the importance of taking archaeological evidence into account in order to fully understand why the Conquest happened as it did.

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Member’s report

The contemporary documentary record of the Norman Conquest is problematic. Authors variously over- and under-played the effects of the Harrying of the North. The number of coin hoards found in Yorkshire, a cash economy, suggests the severe reality of the event felt by their owners, but, for example, Domesday Book and the architectural record offer different perspectives.

In supposedly empty villages, churches were rebuilt and political considerations may have led local Norman lords to accommodate local traditions. This is seen in churches in Hornby and West Hauxwell in the Honour of Richmond, which are both in the Saxon tradition, whereas at Danby Wiske, where popular support mattered less to the patron, the church is Norman.

In pottery, in funerary monuments the picture is also more nuanced. Pottery styles changed as Norman cuisine brought dietary changes, while the Normans happily adopted funerary monuments from the native population.

Interdisciplinary studies including archaeology and dental and bone pathology suggest the Harrying of the North was partly myth, and not necessarily the total, long-lasting, disaster usually portrayed.

So, rather than just the 1066 battle and subsequent repressive actions, it seems the Conquest was a long transitional process, and in general there were some benefits – cultural, culinary, social and linguistic.

Carole Smith