Continuity or change? Rethinking the Norman conquest

Continuity or change?: Rethinking the Norman Conquest

Continuity, or change? This simple question is at the heart of much modern research. Researchers are constantly asking themselves: To what extent is the phenomenon I am studying a continuation of previous circumstances? To what extent does this phenomenon represent a departure from that which came before? These questions have been particularly prominent in scholarship on the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. For generations, scholars have debated whether William the Conqueror’s accession to the throne was a seismic rupture in English history, or just one of many disruptive events that occurred in eleventh-century England, or somewhere in between those two extremes.

Interpretations of the Norman Conquest vary widely, yet they almost always rely on shared assumptions about the nature of historical continuity. Most modern scholars accept the premise that continuity and change are opposing forces in a zero-sum game, in which any amount of change diminishes the continuity of a phenomenon, and vice versa. While many scholars have demonstrated that different aspects of English culture changed in different ways and at different rates after the Norman Conquest, they still implicitly embrace the notion that continuity and change sit at opposite ends of a spectrum.

Must continuity and change exist in this either/or binary? Or are there other ways of understanding history? My recent book, Literary Variety and the Writing of History in Britain’s Long Twelfth Century, looks beyond the modern question of “continuity, or change?”, and instead explores how twelfth-century British historians conceptualized these concepts. Modern researchers have often relied on twelfth-century histories when studying the effects of the Norman Conquest because these texts were among the first to grapple explicitly and extensively with the questions of continuity and change in post-Conquest Britain. But they have often assumed that medieval historians conceptualized historical continuity and discontinuity in the same way that we moderns do.

My book, however, demonstrates that classical and medieval rhetoric played an influential role in shaping historians’ perceptions of continuity and change. In particular, the concept of literary variety (Latin varietas) offered a useful framework for reflecting on the nature of discontinuity. Rhetoricians instructed writers to inject a certain amount of formal variety into their writing, to keep readers’ interest, but even more importantly, to make it easier for readers to see the bigger picture. Imagine a grassy meadow: it is an object of natural beauty, but it offers a single type of view. Now imagine that grassy meadow speckled with flowers: suddenly, every angle offers a new spectacle, and the meadow seems much larger because of the multitudes of flowers it contains. The same principle underlies classical and medieval rhetoricians’ understanding of literary variety (and indeed, many writers used flower-bedecked meadows as a metaphor for literary variety). For them, varying the forms of a text—perhaps shifting from verse to prose, or from one organizational structure to another—was aesthetically pleasing and, crucially, a way of helping audiences appreciate the whole narrative of a text.

For twelfth-century historians in Britain, this principle offered an avenue for thinking about historical continuity and change. Varietas rests on the notion that uniformity and variety are not at odds, but rather work together to create a harmonious whole. The medieval historians I examine in Literary Variety and the Writing of History in Britain’s Long Twelfth Century adopt a similar mindset. They change their literary forms when describing out-of-the-ordinary historical events, such as the reign of an especially successful king (such as Alfred or Arthur) or a change in dynastic lines (as occurred after the Norman Conquest). In doing so, however, they do not aim to foreground historical change instead of historical continuity; rather, they are helping audiences understand how various pieces of historical knowledge come together to create a single historical narrative.

Of course, all of the writers I examine—William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Laӡamon, and Robert Mannyng—develop their own unique approach to literary variety. As I discuss in my book, there is much variety in their practice of varietas. Yet each of these writers offers valuable insights into medieval conceptualizations of history. Understanding their perspectives can help us grow our own ways of thinking about continuity and change in history.

JACQUELINE M. BUREK is Assistant Professor of Medieval Literature in the English Department at George Mason University.  Her book Literary Variety and the Writing of History in Britain’s Long Twelfth Century is out now as part of the York Medieval Press series Writing History in the Middle Ages.

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