The Norman conquest of the TV schedule

At last, a serious documentary puts those funny Frenchmen loathed by British schoolboys in historic perspective.

David Bowden

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It has become something of a cliché for media pundits to bemoan contemporary history programming for its use of flashy visuals, bombastic soundtracks and filmed reconstructions. It would be one of the first entries in ‘The Pseudo-Intellectual’s Guide to Dumbing Down in Popular Culture’ and it is based on a simple logic: clever people went to university and they read books, attend lectures and listen to Radio 4; thick people didn’t go to university and they spend their time cramming into blockbusters at the cinema and like big noises and shiny, shiny colours, like small children do. Ergo, documentaries which feature a donnish type intoning seriously to camera while occasionally reading a book are Serious Grown-Up History, while anything visual which grips your attention is Idiot TV for Apes.

This is a deeply dishonest critique. That isn’t to say that there isn’t dumbing down on TV or that contemporary adult programming isn’t absurdly under-resourced. Yet automatically to cheer don-led history shows while booing flashy-reconstruction history shows is as dislikeable, and broadly similar to, those trendy types obsessed with relevance and accessibility; it is just as obsessed with the format and presentation rather than the intellectual content. It is often based on little more than snobbery over the medium of television, ignoring the fact that TV is a visual medium with a language of its own and a sophisticated audience. Civilisation and The Ascent of Man and the like were great programming because they were intellectually rich and robustly researched programmes written from a position confidently asserting the progress of humanity, not just because Kenneth Clark was a suitably sonorous chap. Adam Curtis’s documentaries are flashy, sharply edited and packed with pop-culture references – yet these tools are deployed as aids to a confidently argued position that modern politics is crap and that we should understand why.

Into the minefield of history programming steps Robert Bartlett, Wardlaw professor of medieval history at the University of St Andrew’s, with a new BBC2 series, The Normans. It’s difficult to think of a historical period less fashionable than the Normans: devoid of the sex and intrigue of the Tudors or the ancient grandeur of the Romans, piously religious and unacceptably French conquerors of Britain, the Normans are the archetypal modern villains and passionately loathed by generations of British schoolchildren. The ‘ornamental’ medievalists were at the vanguard of then-education minister Charles Clarke’s populist attack in 2003 on education for its own sake as being a ‘bit dodgy’, and you can bet he pictured those funny-haired Frogs as his shock troops.

Partly in response to these populist attacks on their discipline, medieval historians have asserted themselves by tapping into whichever popular trend asserts their relevance. As my predecessor on these pages noted, we’ve seen the Dark Ages re-evaluated as proto-modernists living eco-friendly lifestyles in touch with the soil and the Vikings re-presented as misunderstood and overly-grouchy farmers. Some of these televised re-evaluations used string sections and computer graphics; some did not. But none can be classed as having much to do with actual history.

So what version did Professor Bartlett come up with for the first episode of The Normans, titled ‘The Men from the North’? There was certainly no Arcade Fire, Sigur Ros or Snow Patrol on the soundtrack, and no ‘traditional’ folksy music either, which was a good start. There were a few flashes of re-enactment, but of the ‘horse running through field’ and ‘arrows flying through the air’ variety, which were used simply to illustrate rather than to make us feel we were there. Bartlett generally does look like the sort of person more used to scrutinising medieval manuscripts and ruminating on the virtues of the Lollards than running around battlements, although they did occasionally resort to filming him by candlelight in draughty stone rooms.

What was actually most refreshing about Bartlett’s style, however, was his thesis: we should study the Normans because… well, they were of huge historical importance. It is important to know who they were, what they did and how they achieved their significance. The first episode focused on the development of the Normans from Viking invaders through to their conquests of much of France and England. He explained the barbaric infighting of the Norman elite not so we would understand William the Bastard’s psychological motivations (though he didn’t like people drawing particular attention to his name), but his desperate need to achieve political stability and legitimacy through expansion; in this respect, William’s thinking was similar to that of the Romans. Bartlett examined the competing claims to the English throne, and why it was contested (the advanced taxation system made it one of the wealthiest states in the world). Above all else, Norman success could be attributed to their advanced material development, both militarily but also in civil society. England was rich, but the Normans knew how to fight – and to govern.

They liked building things, apparently. They’d built two temporary castles within a fortnight of landing in England. What Bartlett urged the viewer to admire about the Normans was their relentless ambition to expand, conquer, build and shape their environment around them with such ferocity that their impact is still felt today. These were people who made history, he reminded us, while others were engaged in bloody sectarian and provincial infighting. He didn’t sugar-coat what making history meant in the Middle Ages: they may have taken a multicultural approach in adopting French legal and civil systems, but only out of ruthless political expediency; they brutally enforced their political rule. Yet from this, progress and civilisation developed: Bartlett rather neatly contrasted the Norman Conquest of England with the decimation of the Vikings at Stamford Bridge only days earlier.

Whether there are any lessons for today was something Bartlett didn’t comment on or imply. Of course, this was an impossibly potted overview of complex historical events, but it was a fascinating and engaging introduction to the Norman era and the forces which would give birth to the modern epoch. The strength of ‘The Men from the North’ wasn’t its method of presentation, but that it had the confidence to treat history as something simply worth knowing.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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