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Response to Review of Cornwall, Connectivity and Identity in the Fourteenth Century

In responding to Dr Matt Raven’s review of Cornwall, Connectivity and Identity in the Fourteenth Century, I would first like to thank Dr Raven for both reading my book so closely and for writing such a comprehensive review. I do not have anything much to add to his comments about the book itself – his review is immensely thorough. In the cause of scholarly debate, however, I thought I would respond to some of the broader points that he felt my study raised about the history of later medieval England, Britain, and a wider Europe.

It is perhaps worth beginning with Dr Raven’s thoughts about the interconnected nature of warfare on land and warfare at sea in the middle ages. With its long coastland and its many resident gentlemen, Cornwall inevitably contributed to both these theatres of war throughout the 1300s and beyond. All the evidence points to this fact, from the naval pay rolls listing the hundreds of county ships that sailed in royal fleets through to the horse inventories recording the many Cornish knights who campaigned for the king. Dr Raven is surely right to emphasise the particular mobilisation of men and ships in the last quarter of the fourteenth century. It is in this period that the overlap of military personnel becomes most apparent, with many Cornish gentlemen serving the king at sea and these same folk mobilised at home to defend the county from enemy raiders. The evidence from Cornwall points to the fact that our understanding of this phase of the Hundred Years’ War – and of medieval warfare more generally – could be greatly enhanced by considered military service on land and at sea as an interlinked whole.

A word also ought to be said about Dr Raven’s kind comment that ‘Cornwall, Connectivity and Identity shows how interesting and important the model of the county study can still be’. It is true that county studies have been out of vogue for some time now, being eschewed in favour of social network theory or completely abandoned. Yet there is still merit in county studies – and the genre does have a future – for the simple reason that there was a great deal of activity going on at the shire level that is both well documented and well worth investigating. The truism also bears repeating that to understand the wider history of the realm it is essential to appreciate the diversity of its constituent parts. The structures of the county had a key role to play here, with shires serving as a units of collective government and grievance that bound their inhabitants both to each other and into the kingdom at large. While county sentiment was by means perfectly defined or definable, it should be placed in a whole hierarchy of solidarities ranging from sub-county localism through to larger regionalism and regnal solidarity itself. All these overlapping sentiments served to determine the intertwined political dynamics of both the localities and the kingdom. Perhaps, though, it is the nature of the questions asked of the ‘county’ that really determines the value of this avenue of investigation. Although I explored at length the forces that bound the residents of Cornwall together, in a sense I sought to turn the traditional county study on its head by placing connectivity and Cornwall’s place in a wider world at the very centre of my book. I tried to ask very big questions about the Cornish peninsula in particular and about the role of the county in later medieval life more generally.

Throughout my book I was conscious that later medieval Cornwall held a place in a world far wider than England. There is evidence that Cornishmen were active in the Papal Curia; that they served as judges in Ireland; that they enforced Edward II’s lordship in Aquitaine; and that they traded with folk from as far off as the Baltic and the Mediterranean. Dr Raven’s thoughts about framing the issue of Cornish connectivity in the even wider setting of the Plantagenet Empire have much merit. There are, however, a few caveats to this. For a start, there is a danger that the nomenclature of ‘the Plantagenet Empire’ – a term never employed by contemporaries – suggests a sense of imperial uniformity that simply did not exist amongst the diverse lordships over which the kings of England ruled. In comparing and contrasting these domains, there is also a danger that we simply entrench the idea that England, Wales, Aquitaine, and so on each formed coherent entities bound together under the rulership of the Plantagenets. Within each of these domains there was enormous diversity which should not be glossed over. Any project on this subject should also strive to avoid simply comparing secondary literatures: we need boots on the ground and researchers in the archives to properly understand this ‘empire’.

All that being so, there can be little doubt that a consistently comparative approach across a yet wider canvas would cast an even sharper light on the nature of Cornish integration into the kingdom and the Plantagenet polity at large. The idea of historical connectivity, developed by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell in their study of the Mediterranean and enthusiastically adopted and adapted by me, may well point to a new way of understanding the cohesive forces that bound the Plantagenet Empire itself together. With the king of England standing at the centre of the hub of all pan-empire interactions – albeit as king, duke, lord and so on of these varying lordships – the movement of people, goods, and ideas within and between these many domains must have helped to bind all these territories together and to the king himself, just as connectivity linked Cornwall closely to the rest of the kingdom. In the Cornish peninsula, the degree of overlap between the many different strands of connectivity – regnal, lordly, military, commercial, legal, ecclesiastical, and maritime – was quite remarkable, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It would be fascinating to explore whether or not this holds true across a wider Plantagenet polity and to consider the relative strength of the ties between the constituent parts of this sprawling empire. Within this new imperial historiography, a renewed focus on the maritime aspects of Plantagenet rulership would surely also be fruitful. Since every king from Edward I onwards asserted his lofty title as seignur le roi de la mare, in some sense the sea itself formed a watery Plantagenet domain that helped to bind together the family’s dynastic empire.

Perhaps by way of closing remarks, however, it is worth stating that in writing Cornwall, Connectivity and Identity I strove to produce something significantly beyond a narrow political history. In considering subjects as varied as identity, piracy, peoplehood, migration, Arthurian myths, and social and geographic mobility, I sought to engage with all these debated subjects and write an ‘in the round’ history of a particular place and its contacts with the wider world in the fourteenth century. I remain convinced that there is enormous value in detailed investigations of this sort, both because they tell you so much about the nature of the place under consideration and because the conclusions that they draw have far wider repercussions for our understanding of medieval life. If Cornwall, Connectivity and Identity goes some way to dispelling the idea that there was ever such a thing as a static, unchanging middle ages in the Cornish peninsula or anywhere else then I will be very pleased indeed.

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