Patrick Wormald

Patrick Wormald, the author of Bede and the Conversion of England and many other books, died in 2004.

‘You had your 1917 in 1066,’ a Russian diplomat was once said to have told his British counterpart. The ruling class of England, and much of the rest of Britain, was re-created by the Norman Conquest. Most of the nobly born have at one time or another sought to find progenitors among the Companions of the Conqueror, and the words ‘noble’, ‘gentle’ and...

The West dishes it out

Patrick Wormald, 24 February 1994

With the terminal decay of the Idea of Progress in both Whig and Marxist incarnations comes a growing recognition that much of what once seemed most characteristic of the modern world’s experience is not especially new. Europeans have been behaving in the same way for most of Europe’s existence. Europe’s Middle Ages, the label long attached by a quirk of historiographical circumstance to the era of its youth, are acquiring a ‘relevance’ that architects of the National Curriculum should find it increasingly hard to deny. Ordered governments with at least elements of state consciousness had been formed in parts of the West before 1000 – especially in England, where the proportion, though not of course the numbers, of those living in settlements sufficiently concentrated to warrant the name of ‘town’ was as high in 1086 as it was ever to be before the 18th century. From the 11th century onwards, the West witnessed explosions in its population, in the productivity of its cereal (though not pastoral) farmers, and of its textile (though not heavy) industry, in its literary and academic output, in the scale of its major buildings, and in the documentation generated by its bureaucrats, which were at least as spectacular in relation to preceding patterns as developments in the 16th century. In particular, the onset of the aggressive expansion which is Europe’s most fateful hallmark lies not in 1492 but in that period from 950 to 1350 which is the subject of Robert Bartlett’s remarkable book.’

Warrior Women

Patrick Wormald, 19 June 1986

I was recently quite shocked – though I’m not sure why – when a cherished colleague upheld the study of women’s history on the grounds that it was ‘fashionable’. Most historians respond to contemporary trends in their discipline, though without being so frank about it. Would I have been as disturbed if he had defended his researches on Medieval literacy in similar terms? I suspect myself of reacting not to his reason for endorsing the subject but to the subject itself. Should I therefore be branded with the infamous three initials applied to so many of my sex?’

Joseph Jobson

Patrick Wormald, 18 April 1985

Claude Lévi-Strauss and others have been in the habit of describing the expansion of European civilisation as an unmitigated catastrophe for the rest of mankind. It is arguable that not the least of its casualties has been the West’s sense of its own limitations. From the conquest of Mexico and Peru until 1941 (at the earliest), Europe’s onward march seemed unstoppable, fuelled as it was by a combination of immeasurably superior technology and an ineffable sense of cultural superiority. Even the Turk, who was obliterating a whole European army and hammering at the gates of Vienna just as Pizarro was butchering the Incas, was, by the 18th century, the Sick Man of Europe (the first of many), and could be rolled aside by the gallantry of Lawrence in the 20th. The events of the second half of the 20th century, especially those of the last decade, have been a salutary reminder that Western ascendancy was short as well as nasty and brutish. In particular, the West, with its own established religion in decay, has grossly underestimated Islam. From the death of Muhammad to the decline of the Ottomans, the most formidable military and economic power in the world was usually Islamic, and the Arabs did a much better job of preserving antique civilisation in the lands they conquered than did the German invaders of the Roman Empire: until the 19th century, it is likely that the incidence of literacy was far more widespread in Islamic than in Christian territory, and the standard of medical treatment far higher.

Robin’s Hoods

Patrick Wormald, 5 May 1983

It has been said of the early Christian Irish that they were very interested in their history, but preferred it in the form of fiction. If one English reaction to his observation is likely to be that things have not changed much in the Emerald Isle, another ought to be that their own self-satisfaction is misplaced. Of the ‘facts’ of early English history which Every Schoolboy Knows – Alfred and the Cakes, Canute and the Waves, Harold and the Arrow – only the last has any claim to be in a real sense true (and even that has only recently been rescued from understandable scepticism by painstaking scholarship). The legends discussed in these books concern Robin Hood, the early history of Glastonbury, and the meaning of the megaliths. Such material poses problems for the professional historian or archaeologist: is it worth the trouble to debunk what are, after all, fairly harmless stories? A society’s legends are arguably as much a part of its history as the actual events of its past: too dry-as-dust an approach risks isolating the scholar from the very audience that he or she is trying to convince. And what, to coin a phrase, is Truth? Two of these books are by modern scholars, the other by one of the greatest English Medieval historians. Two, though not unsympathetic to the importance of legends, are critical in their approach; the other, not the Medieval historian’s, seems to want to dispense altogether with the methods of modern scholarship.–


Stuart Airlie, 17 November 1983

Confronted with kings called Charles the Bald, Charles the Simple, Charles the Fat and Louis the Blind, and chroniclers like Notker the Stammerer, Benzo of Alba and Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, we...

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