Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

The Normans

If you were a Norman warlord you were always bargaining with your gods. When Rollo first Duke of Normandy was on his death bed he had 100 men decapitated- as a way of making it up to Odin for having- for political reasons- converted to Christianity. His successors built churches and monasteries for similar reasons. William the Conqueror, for instance, refused to bury the Saxon dead on the battlefield of Hastings, then had a fit of remorse and put up an abbey, with its high altar on the very spot where king Harold had died.

I get these facts- or legends or rumours- from Professor Robert Bartlett's new series about the Normans- and what they did for us. It's a low-key series- a glum looking middle-aged man walking round wintry fields and abbeys- and  all the better for not trying too hard.

I used to detest the Normans- a patriotic aversion based on the propaganda I imbibed in childhood which characterised the Normans as "them" and the Saxons as "us".  But, actually, the Normans are "us" as well- and one of the things that markeed them out as a people was the ease and generosity with which they merged with the native populations of the territories they took. Within a generation or two of settling in France they were Frenchmen and within a generation or two of settling in England they were English. Whatever else can be urged against them, they had open minds.

And how can you hate people who produced such great art? All that churchbuilding- and every one a masterpiece- or if not exactly a masterpiece at least honestly and decently made. I find their architecture- the so-called Romanesque- uniquely satisfying. Norman architecture can soar, but never denies- as the later gothic sometimes did- the weight and mass of stone. And then there's the Bayeux tapestry- the world's greatest comic strip.  Professor Bartlett lingered on it, using it to tell the story of Duke William's invasion. It's smaller in scale than I had imagined- a strip of linen narrow enough for a needlewoman to drape over her knees whilst stitching.  For a piece of propaganda- commissioned we believe by William's half brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux- it's remarkably even-handed. Harold is not monstered but shown as heroic, the brutality of the invaders- all that burning and laying waste- is not evaded and the battle scenes are the most honest depiction of warfare outside of the 20th century. A hard-headed people, but- like I said-  generous and open minded too.
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