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Castles and the Children of Alfred
By Bob Hamilton
Assemblage, Issue 5 (2000)
Introduction: Do not be sidetracked by this title, which is simply that of the dissertation behind this paper’s proposal. My starting point was The Early Norman Castles of the British Isles (Armitage, 1912), a formidable book by a formidable woman. Seen by some as final settlement of the long, acrimonious debate over who built the first English castles, its continuing prominence – more than fifty years after publication it was still described as the only substantial book on Norman castles – is less a monument to its achievement than a testimony to the dearth of research.
My research into the English Castle Debate went beyond Armitage’s book, encompassing her sources and notebooks as well as other publications by her and her contemporaries. The dissertation (which deliberately avoided trying to settle the question) exposed frailties in her arguments and evidence and challenged the impartiality of her research.
I do not want to fan the flames of the English Castle Debate, encapsulated by Thompson as “to an outsider like a dispute between the deaf and the blind”. Nor do I intend to get embroiled in issues of 11th century ethnicity. One conclusion of the dissertation was that Armitage’s Victorian mindset affected her impartiality. My contention is that her fudging of the evidence to support her conclusions is not unique.
In any field of research a few pieces of work attain ‘tablets of stone’ status. Archaeological dates and sequences are routinely reviewed in the light of improved radiocarbon and dendrochronological techniques, and the labels ‘earliest’, ‘oldest’ etc. regularly reassigned in the wake of subsequent discoveries. Meanwhile little thought is given to the actual evidence behind some works that are cited (or recited) like some sort of mantra. Such works do get re-examined as preludes to disagreements or pieces intended to take the original conclusions forward. Unfortunately, this consists of reviewing the finished work in isolation, which is analogous to a law court ruling on the basis of only the defence or prosecution case. Inevitably the author has not only selected which evidence is to be used but also chosen how it is to be presented. A comprehensive review requires all the evidence, including the background and mindset of the author.