The Lost Prince

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Monday, 24 January 2011

The Normans: Dan Snow v. Robert Bartlett

This is a review of Dan Snow's Norman Walks: Yorkshire - The Northern Abbeys and The Normans: Normans of the South by Professor Robert Bartlett.

As a first point of comparison I might talk about the choice of presenter. Dan Snow is a high profile presenter, not as high profile as Peter Snow, but still fairly high profile. He normally seems to do military history programmes, like recreations of the Battle of Trafalgar, and is seen quite a lot on the One Show doing short history exerpts. He has also had a first class degree from Oxford or Cambridge, one of those, which clearly makes him very clever, and has been to the University of York, another bonus! Robert Bartlett is Professor of Medieval History at St Andrew's University, and as an academic historian focusing on Europe perhaps has researched more of the documentary himself. However, his warts and his unhealthy physique leave something to be desired in his presenting style. We could have a long discussion about which is more reliable, but since this is not a discussion about a book on a shelf at Waterstone's versus a book out of York University library, this sort of discussion is pointless. When it comes to history programming, there is little point of difference on this score. I do not doubt that Dan Snow has done most of the work himself, but the moment I saw the programme on iPlayer, I clicked on it, this must show that automatically when selecting which programme to watch, I select one that has a recognisable presenter, rather than the one that sounds the most interesting.

Both programmes are very interesting. Norman Walks is a shorter programme, being half an hour to Bartlett's hour, and is more focused on abbeys, and how the Normans built them in areas where they could exploit natural resources, rather than a more broad all-encompassing story, like the one that Bartlett is trying to portray. It starts at York, with some very familiar views around York Minister and St Mary's Abbey. Then we head off to Rievaulx Abbey, and Helmsley, following Snow as he walks along the path that Normans would have walked along, and the camera allows us to soak in the stunning views. He even talks to some experts, about how the abbeys were made, why they were made, and why they were placed in their particular areas, and how the monks would have lived. Rievaulx Abbey remains one of my favourite places to visit in the North Yorks Moors. I am Chair of the Outdoor Society, which takes groups of students out on walks around Yorkshire, and one of the places we go to each summer is Rievaulx Abbey. It is one of my favourite walks because it offers a range of history, stunning woodland, hill landscape, and Yorkshire fields. 

The main point of his programme was how abbeys became and remain to this day a key element of the landscape, even if they are no longer a part of our culture, as they would have been in Norman times, they still dominate the landscape and remain a spectacular part of our cultural heritage and identity. They defined a period of immense piety and religious intensity in English history, and this is why the Dissolution of the monasteries happened.

The Normans of the South focuses on the international appeal of the Normans as opposed to the very English Normans which Dan Snow presents. It shows the Normans to be an early conquering force, who were an exemplar for medieval colonialism, while also fashioning early multiculturalism. He takes the Normas away from where we normally see them, either as part of our distinctly English history, or from Normandy. Instead, Bartlett focuses on the Normans in Southern Italy, showing how the Normans conquered across Europe and the Middle East, but one that has largely been misunderstood. 

The Crusades have a deep resonance in our society, with religious fundamentalism causing fear for Western governments, the Crusades remain a soar point. But Bartlett pits this view of the Normans as ruthless tyrants, trying to impose Christianity on unsuspecting Muslims, against the more positive view of them which he seems to be advocating as people promoting multiculturalism and fairness. He explores quite deeply about how one Norman King, King Roger, establishes a society in Siciliy, where Muslims and Christians live together in almost perfect harmony. He goes on to explore how the Normans helped to establish a multicutlural unit in Antioch. This is all serving to present a positive view of the Normans, one in which they are spreading ideas, science and technology across Europe and parts of Asia in a way that should be praised rather than slighted.

In order to present his points, Bartlett has used a number of varying camera angles to demonstrate the level of intensity, or to add drama, to what he is trying to illustrate. It is largely focused on the mosaics, the pictures and the stunning architecture left behind from this period which show how multicultural it was. These all serve to add interest, and to entertain by giving something nice to look at. The fact that it is focused on Italy, and Turkey rather than the cold depths of Yorkshire, has an uplifting effect on my post-Christmas winter blues, and shows the high level of work that has gone into making this programme fascinating and enjoyable.