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Response to Review no. 718

Well, so much for peer review.

Briefly, let’s deal with the errors that Mr Goldsmith has discovered in my text: writing the word ‘passion’ when I should have written ‘resurrection’ was indeed silly. But it is the only substantial error that he has spotted in a book of almost 500 pages. By contrast, he makes three howlers in his opening paragraph. Dafydd ap Gruffudd was not imprisoned in London after his capture in 1283, but at Rhuddlan, prior to his execution at Shrewsbury; this was not the first time the three-fold punishment for treason was exacted in England, simply the first time it had been applied to someone of such high status for political reasons. Lastly, the title of my book is not ‘a mighty and terrible king’, but ‘a Great and Terrible King’. At this point, I confess, an alarm went off in my head, warning me that this might not be the most careful and considered of reviews.

I am criticized because I say at one point that Edward I saw in the new century in January 1300. Well, maybe that’s a mistake too; but it hardly one that can be taken to signal an aberrant ‘attitude towards dating’ on my part. In the 13th century all manner of dating conventions were used, not just the two Mr Goldsmith is keen to show us he knows about. Matthew Paris began each new year of his Chronica Majora at Christmas; the Chronicle of the Mayor and Sheriffs of London at Michaelmas. Should one clarify the system being used at the foot of every page, perhaps, or provide a series of pull-out calendars so readers can make their own calculations?

Much of the rest of Mr Goldsmith’s review reads like a digest of the comments of other reviewers, and not just the man in the Daily Telegraph (whose three-word summary of Henry III as ‘pious but incompetent’, incidentally, sounds fine to me). Like Richard Barber in the Literary Review, Mr Goldsmith thinks that I have ‘overindulged’ myself in interpreting the evidence for Edward’s coin-clipping crackdown in 1279, when around 300 Jews were executed, more than 10 times the number of Christians. Never mind that Z. E. Rokeah, who found the unimpeachable evidence for the scale of the killing of Jews in 1279, concluded that ‘religious prejudice was the crucial factor in the degree of punishment.’(1) Clearly she, like me, is twisting her evidence to a sensationalist agenda.

I see I have been equally ‘indulgent’ in my treatment of King Arthur, having spent seven pages (yes, seven!) on the subject, which is apparently ‘unnecessary and excessive in the context of Edward’s life’. Really? Given that my major theme is the Anglicization of the British Isles in the High Middle Ages and the propaganda battles that Edward I waged against his Celtic neighbours, I would have thought that Arthur deserved at least this much space. (Somehow I can’t imagine Mr Goldsmith objecting had I devoted those seven pages to, say, Edward’s lawgiving, or the workings of the Exchequer.) The Arthur section sets up the necessary historical background to enable readers (as opposed to scholars like Mr Goldsmith, who of course know it all already) to make sense of Edward’s later use of Arthur in the final conquest of Wales and the war against Scotland. Amusingly, in spite of my ‘excessive’ treatment, Mr Goldsmith has managed to miss the point entirely, which is that, while we know that Geoffrey of Monmouth is a load of old nonsense, this was in no way clear to Edward I and his contemporaries. ‘To them, Arthur was a historical personage as real as Richard the Lionheart, William the Conqueror or Edward the Confessor’ (p. 162). Perhaps this was too opaque?

I fear I may have been equally confusing for Mr Goldsmith on a number of occasions, for it is quite remarkable how many times he contrives to miss my points altogether. ‘Above all, he was a man of violent passions’, he says of Edward: a view I contradict on pp. 368–9. ‘We hear how his youthful arrogance and self-confidence led him to reject the authority of his parents’. Not in my book you don’t: see the refutation of these earlier attitudes on p. 370.

It is Mr Goldsmith’s conclusion that I like best. Having already learned that my book ‘is more likely to embellish the bookshelves of the public library than the studies of academics’, and that ‘for [sic] the scholar’s viewpoint, the work adds little to Prestwich’s work’, I learn that ‘the scholar is likely to meet with disappointment’ when he turns to my bibliography and footnotes (for which, again, Mr Goldsmith has at least taken the trouble to do a page-count). He is not clear whether or not manuscripts were consulted, despite several references to original documents in the National Archives (I believe I could even produce witnesses who saw me working there on a number of separate occasions). I thank him for reminding me about the Memoranda and Liberate Rolls – I wonder if he has worked his way through both series, as I have? Naturally I am sorry to learn that even my bibliography is deficient because of a ‘lack of unpublished academic work’. (For the record, I cite R. Huscroft’s thesis on Robert Burnell and H. Wait’s thesis on Edward’s household.)

I feel I should explain, for the benefit of those who have not written a book, or indeed a doctoral thesis, how one goes about it. Briefly, one works from what is known to what is unknown. You assemble the evidence, iron out the inconsistencies, and look for discrepancies and holes. Only then, unless you have a lifetime to waste, do you interrogate the rolls in search of answers. The pitfalls of doing it the other way round are well illustrated by the case of the Winchester Round Table. Scholars, having rushed to the unpublished wardrobe accounts, decided it was made in 1290, and then marshalled other evidence to fit around this date. Had they taken the trouble to examine in the first instance the chronicles that were already in print, to see where Edward was and whom he was with, they probably would have assigned it the date of 1285, as I have done in a recent article.(2)

Theses, as genuine scholars readily appreciate, rarely contain discoveries that are ground-breaking enough to change greatly our understanding of any given topic. If they do, those discoveries will find their way into print in the form of books and articles within a year or two, and it is these that I have preferred to cite, rather than direct readers to the inaccessible dissertations that I read in the course of my research. Naturally, however, I should be grateful if Mr Goldsmith could alert me to ‘the new research that is being produced’ but has yet to be published which might have altered any of my conclusions.

All Mr Goldsmith has for me are platitudes and general pieties, delivered in a condescending and patronizing tone that would be hard to excuse in even the most senior and senile of academics. He has decided not to engage with my book on any level other than the superficial. This is either because, on the basis of its presentation (note the dyspeptic tone of ‘his agent and publishers’), he assumes the book itself is superficial. More likely, I suspect, is that Mr Goldsmith lacks the experience, knowledge and critical faculties that such a close engagement requires. In this sense, at least, he is right to say ‘whether this book makes a lasting contribution to the historiography of the thirteenth century remains to be seen’. So much, as I say, for peer review.

Notes

  1. R. Huscroft, Expulsion: England’s Jewish Solution (Stroud, 2006), p. 12.Back to (1)
  2. M. Morris, ‘King Edward I and the Knights of the Round Table’, Foundations of Medieval Scholarship: Records edited in honour of David Crook (York, 2008).Back to (2)