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Response to Review no. 816

When Reviews in History kindly asked me to respond to Dr Archer’s review of the paperback version of A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages, I initially declined the invitation, believing that the book’s strengths had become well established amongst scholars in the field since its initial appearance in hardback in 2003. On reflection, as the volume represents not just my own work as editor and contributor but also that of 29 other scholars, I decided that it might be useful if I replied to some of Dr Archer’s criticisms.

Dr Archer seems to have four main criticisms. The first is my own light hand as an editor and the resulting lack of uniformity of presentation between the book’s 28 chapters; the second is that Judith Bennett’s survey of gender was a ‘token chapter’ on the subject and that key areas of women’s history, such as queenship and female patronage of the arts were omitted; the third is that other important subjects, such as piety needed ‘more space’; the fourth is that the book’s bibliography left out many important items and that the failure to revise the bibliography for the 2009 paperback edition means that it will soon become ‘rather dated’.

Firstly, since the Companion consists of 28 chapters which include almost 300,000 words of text, it seems unlikely that many people – apart from reviewers – will read the entire volume, certainly not in a single sitting. Rather the book is intended for readers seeking guidance on particular issues and advice on further reading or even where to go to find such advice. As a result, I did not feel, as editor, that the book’s chapters required an exact uniformity of presentation in their scholarly apparatus. However, as I explained in the ‘Introduction’ to the volume (p. xvii), a unified bibliography listing all the secondary sources noted in the book was given at the end of the volume whilst references in footnotes were given in full unless they appeared in the list of reading at the end of that chapter. Dr Archer complains that some contributors ‘have listed primary sources in their particular section which do not appear at the end’ in the ‘final bibliography of secondary works’ (emphases added). I imagine that most readers of her review will be able to see why this was the case. I certainly agree with Dr Archer that the book would have been improved by the inclusion of more maps and illustrations. The main obstacle here was the cost of producing a volume of this size. When it first appeared in hardback, the book was priced at £85 and even the paperback version costs £24.99. Adding extra illustrations would have added even further to the cost.

Fortunately, other reviewers were more appreciative of the editorial work which went into producing this massive volume. Thus David Palliser’s review claimed that ‘the publishers were fortunate to secure the services as editor of this volume of Rigby, an expert on later medieval England’. ‘No scholar, student or general reader approaching British middle ages for the first time … could ask for a better guide’ than this volume.(1) T. Beaumont Jones claimed that ‘Rigby is to be congratulated in bringing this project to print in a handsome, informative and scholarly volume’. It is a ‘major compilation’ which represents an ‘impressive historical achievement’.(2) B. Breslou saw the book as an ‘extremely important contribution to medieval British scholarship’. ‘Rigby has put together a distinguished group of scholars’ who have produced ‘an impressive collection of interpretive essays’ which are of particular interest to ‘serious scholars’ in the field.(3) T. Thornton saw the volume as ‘a very impressive product from an ambitious project’ whose contributors all write ‘with authority and ease’.(4) G. L. Harriss’s review explicitly noted that ‘understandably there was a diversity of treatment’ amongst the books individual chapters but that the result was nonetheless a series of ‘succinct and stimulating chapters, many of real intellectual distinction’.(5)

Secondly, as the author of works on Class, Status and Gender in late medieval England, on Society, Allegory and Gender in the poetry of Chaucer, on medieval defences of women and on ‘Gendering the Black Death’ (6), I was naturally rather disappointed that Dr Archer should refer to Judith Bennett’s chapter on gender in England as a ‘token’ presence within the Companion. Indeed, Dr Archer herself admits that ‘for the reader interested in the role of women in the later middle ages there is a lot of material buried in this volume’ even though the lack of a list of sub-headings in the book’s table of contents ‘makes this quite unobvious’. Fortunately, however, the book does provide a rather obvious means of accessing this ‘buried’ treasure: its index, whose entries reveal that 18 of the book’s 28 chapters deal with topics such as ‘masculinity’, ‘widows’ and ‘women’. Indeed, the review of the book by Chris Dyer explicitly noted that ‘as well as an essay on gender, extensive discussion of female piety and culture appears in five other essays’.(7)

Thirdly, Dr Archer criticised the lack of attention paid in the volume to specific aspects of gender history, such as queenship and women’s patronage of the arts, and also wished that more space had been devoted to other topics, such as piety – although she also refers to the book as being ‘comprehensive’ in its coverage. The problem here is that, as noted above, the book is already almost 600 pages (300,000 words) long, even excluding the bibliography of secondary works. It is difficult to see how the book could have discussed or offered more detail about every topic which Dr Archer suggests without it having becoming prohibitively expensive. Indeed, despite its length, it was difficult for any individual chapter of the book, which covers the history of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales over a 400-year time span, to explore any of its subject-matter in detail given that most only had 8,000 words to deal with their fields. Thus, just as Dr Archer, whose own publications have focused on women’ history, saw Judith Bennett’s chapter on gender as a token effort, so the review by Chris Dyer, who is based in a department of English local history, bemoaned the lack of attention paid to local and regional history.(8) The purpose of a ‘companion’ of this sort is to introduce readers to the topics which it discusses which means, unfortunately, that it is unlikely to satisfy specialists in any particular field who are likely to feel that their own interests have not received the exhaustive attention which they deserve.

Finally, Dr Archer complains about the omission of many items from the book’s bibliography and the failure to update the bibliography of the 2003 hardback volume in the 2009 paperback edition. The problem here is, of course, that the reading on the history of four countries for a period of four centuries is virtually endless and literally thousands of items were therefore excluded from the book’s composite bibliography which, as it was, came to 52 pages and listed almost 2,000 items. Other reviewers took a ‘glass half-full’ perspective on the book’s bibliographical guidance. F. Lachaud, for instance, praised its ‘bibliographies fournies’ and saw this ‘beau volume’ as providing ‘un riche instrument de travail pour l’étude de la période’ and ‘un guide précieux pur l’approche de développements les plus recents de l’historiographie des Britanniques’.(9) Again cost prevented the paperback version of the book from being updated so as to be a genuine second edition.

Given the amount of scholarship currently appearing on all aspects of medieval British history, virtually any general survey is likely to become rather dated within a short time. Nevertheless, since Dr Archer herself sees the Companion as offering ‘very good insight into the history of over a century of superb scholarship’, I hope that readers will continue to find much of value in the paperback version of the book even though it lacks reference to works which have appeared in the last six years. Certainly, this was the response of most of the reviewers of the original hardback edition, in addition to those noted above, such as Michael Prestwich, who described it as a ‘fine book’ with a ‘stellar cast of contributors’ all of whose chapters ‘are very useful; some are superb’ (10), Nigel Saul, who declared that this ‘admirably comprehensive’ volume was ‘warmly to be recommended’ to those seeking to deepen their knowledge of the period (11), and Rees Davies, who said that many of its chapters ‘should occupy a prominent place on our bibliographies hereafter, as among the better, most nuanced and thought-provoking introductions’ to medieval British and Irish historiography.(12) Naturally, as editor of the Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages, I am far from being disinterested in responding to Dr Archer’s criticisms. I hope that readers of Reviews in History will consult the Companion at first hand so as to judge for themselves what this volume achieves as a survey of its field which seeks to offer something of interest to both general readers and specialists alike.

Notes

  1. Economic History Review, 54 (2003), 789–90.Back to (1)
  2. Medieval Archaeology, 47 (2003), 383.Back to (2)
  3. Albion, 36 (2004), 94–5.Back to (3)
  4. Welsh History Review, 22 (2004), 372–3.Back to (4)
  5. English Historical Review, 119 (2004), 441–3.Back to (5)
  6. Stephen Rigby, English Society in the Later Middle Ages: Class, Status, and Gender (London, 1995); Chaucer in Context: Society, Allegory and Gender (Manchester, 1996); ‘Gendering the Black Death : women in later medieval England’, Gender and History, 12, 3 (2000), 745–54; ‘The Wife of Bath, Christine de Pizan and the medieval case for women’, Chaucer Review, 35 (2000), 133–65.Back to (6)
  7. Midland History, 28 (2003), 151–2.Back to (7)
  8. ibid, 152.Back to (8)
  9. Revue Historique, CCVI/2 (2004), 480–1.Back to (9)
  10. Continuity and Change, 18 (2003), 314–6.Back to (10)
  11. History, 88 (2003), 678–9.Back to (11)
  12. Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 54 (2003), 755.Back to (12)