Monday, September 12, 2016

Medieval Britain: A Very Short Introduction (A Review)

Another day, another Very Short Introduction (hereafter VSI). This time I have turned my eye toward the Medieval Britain VSI, as written by John Gillingham and Ralph A. Griffiths.

                Much like the numerous other VSIs I have read and reviewed, Medieval Britain performs it primary function—the dissemination of basic facts and knowledge about Britain in the Middle Ages—admirably: the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, and the various factions jockeying for the royal throne, especially during that ever important conflict known as The War of the Roses, are all considered in some passing details with additional information concerning the economics and daily life in this fascinating period of British history serving as an informational fulcrum. Honestly, I am not really sure of what else I can say, what should be said that I haven’t said before? Well, one thing…

                What I noticed with this VSI, perhaps due to its original publication history taking place during the Cold War, is a marked increase in apparently anachronistic superimpositions. What I mean by this is that there is many aspects of this VSI that sound… ‘Off,’ when you muse on the passage for some time.

                I will be curt and to the point: there is a lot of conservative pandering in this installment. Numerous passages have this tendency to speak of the medieval economy, wages, class struggle, and inequality between the sexes as though the laws which governed those periods are the same as today; when the text speaks of how female bear-trappers earned more than their male counterparts, emphasizing the point with an exclamation point, or of how the text focuses in on market laws and logic, as if Ayn Rand’s philosophy concerning the Free Market was inviolable throughout history—something you can glean in any period without fail, the text operates less as an introduction and more as a piece of historical revisionism.

                To be clear, I am not implying that the information contained in the introduction is wrong, per se, just that it is presented through what is, at the least, an odd compositional style, and at the most, a reactionary ideological lens. Many snippets of information tend to be presented as though they are in dialog with modernity: while it is obvious that the past is always in dialog with modernity, since history is sediment, the text appears to have ahistorical Libertarian leanings when it comes to how such historical minutia is shown. For a history text, this is odd; but it is done, in my belief, because during the time of the original version’s publication—The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain (1984)—of course the Cold War and progressive-liberal struggle against communism would taint scholasticism. Even though it is not overwhelming in its persuasiveness, one can clearly detect the bias voice of the counter-revolutionary. Though, perhaps I am reading too much into what is a mere stylistic difference.

                In the end, the Medieval Britain VSI is another fine and brief piece for any newcomer to consume. Since it is part of a larger textual corpus which was disambiguated from the original illustrated mother text, I would recommend reading this installment after the previous installments, but it is possible to read this one separate from the preceding installments without losing a great deal of comprehension. As it stands, the Medieval Britain VSI stands as a fine introductory primer to any Undergraduate library.

Medieval Britain: A Very Short Introduction
John Gillingham & Ralph A. Griffiths
177 pages. Published by Oxford University Press. $11.95 (Paperback). 2000.

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