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Response to Review no. 527

Even though it is conventional, let me begin by thanking Dr Burt for a thoughtful and charitable review. I am glad that she considers my book to be important and that she found it illuminating, not just of the Bigods themselves but of wider questions on thirteenth-century politics and government. These are very generous comments and are very much appreciated.

In response, I begin with what Dr Burt feels are the books limitations, as she lists them. The question as to what extent one should acknowledge one’s debts seems apt for a book on the thirteenth-century earls of Norfolk. Like Edward I, Dr Burt would have me acknowledge debts that stretch back over several generations. Like any self-respecting member of the Bigod family, I must respond, with due deference, by querying the extent of my liability. As Dr Burt makes clear in her preface, all studies of the late medieval aristocracy written since the Second World War stand in a tradition that can be seen to begin with K. B. MacFarlane, and I am very gratified that she is inclined to place my book in that tradition. Since, however, she has done so in spite of my failure to name MacFarlane in my preface, I wonder just how serious an omission it is, and how useful it would have been for other readers had I begun (as so many first authors do) by discussing historiographical tradition rather than (as I elected to do) cracking on with the story of the Bigods. Similarly, I wonder how useful it would have been for me to name-check Lewis Namier, bearing in mind I have never read any of his work.

As my bracketed comments indicate, this is an editorial decision based on style and that question of ‘usefulness’. Learned readers like Dr Burt, I assumed, would have no difficulty in identifying the learned foundations on which my book rests. Other readers – and academics must surely hope that there are some folks out there who take an interest in what we do – might very well have been persuaded to put the book down and never pick it up again.

Each to his own, therefore: I think there is sufficient historiographical discussion as it stands, Dr Burt feels that the book would have benefited from more throughout. I would, however, contest her assertion that ‘vital questions’ have been left unaddressed during the course of the narrative, since some of the questions she lists plainly have been tackled. The answers to ‘How, for instance, have Roger III and Roger IV have been seen by historians, particularly in 1258–67 and 1297–1301?’ can be found on pp. 59, 76–79 and 173–4, where the opinions of Treharne, Jacob and (let the record note) MacFarlane are all discussed and dissected. Indeed, Dr Burt’s ability to recognise that my work ‘is at odds with that of some other historians of the period’ may in part be attributable to the fact that the contrary opinions of Michael Prestwich (the historian she intends by this comment) are discussed on pp. 159–60.

It was necessary to name Michael Prestwich at this point because, in his biography of Edward I, he makes very specific assertions about the behaviour of the last Bigod earl based on a reading of evidence culled from the records of the Exchequer. As such, his comments required tackling head-on and, through a much closer and more considered reading of a great deal more evidence than Prestwich could afford, I was able to show that his conclusions are almost certainly wrong. Here, in other words, was an occasion when historiographical discussion seemed entirely appropriate. But such direct confrontation is not always necessary, nor necessarily desirable. Personally I always try to avoid it, or at least relegate it to a comparative footnote (see, for example, the questioning of the established orthodoxies of Prestwich, Maddicott, Stacey and others in the footnotes to pp. 13, 16, 23, 28, 70, 81, 83, 107, 117, 130, 172). The omissions that Dr Burt considers a failing are therefore a deliberate and conscious decision about how best to present one’s own findings. It would have been possible to wheel out any number of venerable Aunt Sallys (e.g. Bishop Stubbs and J. E. Morris, p. 185n) for some easy target practice. But, when a publisher’s word limit is so strict, why waste valuable ammunition? As I state in the book’s preface, my intention was to deal with the Bigods as I found them, rather than to launch assaults on existing positions.

With these last comments in mind, I hope that the above does not seem like a disproportionate response. I am sure that there are many questions that the book has left unanswered, and many other avenues that could have been usefully explored. However, I take comfort from the fact that the sins identified in the above review are ones of omission and not of commission. To conclude as I began, I wish to thank Dr Burt for what is, in overall terms, an overwhelmingly generous review. To her, much more than to Lewis Namier, I am truly indebted.