Book Comments – Edward James and Wendy Davies. Books I Should Have Read Before Now

06 Jun

When I was beginning my Kalamazoo write-ups I looked for things to read that I would be interested in, but something that wouldn’t tax me too much because of how much time I knew I’d have to put into those. I wanted books that I’d be able to “just read” rather than study, think about new concepts, take bunches of notes on, etc. Also something I wouldn’t feel the urge to comment on, or write a review for.

I picked out two books I’d been aware of for a long time but had never purchased because I was involved in my own form of age discrimination. Then I bought them, as well as a few others, at a/two used bookseller(s) at Kalamazoo for a substantial discount. Both were clean hardcovers, showing just normal reading wear – no highlighting or markings on the pages. After reading them I feel compelled to at least comment on them – and I’m going to resist the urge to do complete reviews.

Edward James’ The Franks (Blackwell, 1988) shows up whenever people start talking about reading materials for Late Antiquity, particularly for the Franks and Gaul. By the time I was aware of it, having figured out what I was interested in, it was 2000, I’d read Wood, Geary, and was into more specialized stuff – detailed books, reading Early Medieval Europe, etc. James was old – over 10 years – and even though I continued to see it footnoted in new books and articles, I didn’t feel an urge to get it.

Wendy Davies’ Small Worlds: The Village Community in Early Medieval Brittany (University of California, 1988) suffered even more severely as not only was it older, but it was beyond the period I was most interested in.

My goal of using these for “light medieval reading” met with mixed results. James fit my preconception – very good book (better than I’d expected, actually) but most of the concepts were familiar to me and many had benefited from more recent publications, including some by Dr. James himself. Using my usual note taking system I ended up with 9 distinct notes, less than a third of a page. However it is interesting how well the concepts discussed in it have held up over time and how, for the most part, this book has not been contradicted, but “fleshed out” by more recent work. I think it remains valuable and is a new “first book on the Franks” that I’ll recommend. It’s very readable, interesting, and has a bunch of utility for someone just getting started. What makes this book a true, undiscovered treasure for me is the prodigious use James makes of charts, diagrams and images which are very helpful in illustrating his concepts. I regret my hubris in thinking this book had little to teach me ten years or so ago – I should have read it when I decided what I was really interested in. My loss.

Davies is an entirely different story. On finishing this I find myself with the urge to write a full-bore review, which I am determined to resist. There do not appear to be a lot of good, accessible reviews out there on it which adds to this impetus – however, unfortunately, this book appears to no longer be in print. If I thought writing a review would inspire a re-issue, possibly in a paperback edition accessible to those with a smaller budget (that thought would be hubris indeed), I would. This is an extremely good book. 1

I need to give yet another shout-out to Jonathan Jarrett – I seem to do that a lot but that’s just how this blogging thing has worked out. I’d had this book wishlisted for a long time but he brought it back to my attention in a comment he made in my World Lit Only by Fire Review. I have no idea if I’d have picked it up at Kalamazoo without his bringing it back to a more prominent part of my brain. Once again, thank you Jonathan.

Small Worlds is absolutely filled with information. Davies examined surviving documentation from 9th century Brittany, particularly charter evidence from the monastery of Redon, and uses it to reconstruct various aspects of life in Brittany – including a great deal of information on peasant life. She augments this with extensive figures and tables. For example, Table 13 on page 200 lists the documentary evidence for all of the annual rents due to the monastery of Redon which range from straight cash payments to one listed as, “2 big sheep, 2 small sheep(value 3d each), 1 pig(value 12d), 1-1/2m wheat, 1m rye, 6m oats, manaheda”.

I can get enthusiastic about this book and it’s a shame it’s not still in print (used copies should be available). This is another example of the kind of detailed, precise information I love – I don’t care if it is 22 years old. And in covering a small geographic region, I’m not aware of anything which has replaced it for information on Medieval Brittany.

In contrast to James, this was not “light reading.” I took extensive notes – 2 full pages and 34 notations, some covering multiple pages. This for a book that is 213 pages long (not counting the forward and bibliography).

To summarize, both of these books have continued value – and I should have read them long ago. The Franks has become my new “first book to recommend” to someone just getting started on the Franks for its readability and quality. And Small Worlds has become an unqualified recommendation, period – a book filled with quality, well documented information. And her books on Medieval Wales have just moved up on my “books I should get” food chain.

NOTE: I anticipate being less active with this blog over the next 3 months. June-August is always a busy time in my real job and, because of weather and having to do some things around home, personally. I generally change my reading habits during this period too – I look for less specialized books because I may have several days running where I don’t find time to read and that’s a poor way to read a complex academic book. I expect to be able to jump back in sometime in September though. I’m hoping to be able to post something at least weekly in the meantime but no guarantees and I absolutely don’t want to “post just to post.”

1 The best review I’ve found is from 1990 by William Chester Jordan in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 20, 469-471.

Davies, Wendy, Small Worlds: The Village Community in Early Medieval Brittany. Berkely: University of California Press, (1988). Pp. 227, xi. ISBN: 0-520-06483-6.

James, Edward, The Franks. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., (1988). Pp. 265, xii. ISBN: 0-631-14872-8.


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10 responses to “Book Comments – Edward James and Wendy Davies. Books I Should Have Read Before Now

  1. Steve Muhlberger

    June 6, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    I have always been impressed by Edward James — he always is worth reading. Davies' edited collection on dispute settlement in the early MA was fabulous, so back when my research interest was earlier I ordered Small Worlds for the Univ. library — and never got around to reading it. Gotta read that unloved book soon.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    June 6, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    James has the added benefit of being a fiction author. I think that has to help his prose. I was impressed with his most recent book, Europe's Barbarians. Some day I hope to be able to really look into the information that he, Guy Halsall, Peter Heather and Walter Goffart have recently published on ethnogenesis and do a detailed summary – something where I really examine their use of evidence. I'm not sure if it's something I'd post or just do for myself but it would be nice to figure out what I think on that.

  3. theswain

    June 6, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    I think you should write up an HA Forum piece on these two books: a retrospective review of 20 year old good ones. Always good to bring older but still useful books back to people's consciousness.

  4. Medieval History Geek

    June 6, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Shoot me an e-mail with what you have in mind. The only problem is Davies being OOP – hate to advertise something too much that people can't get.

  5. Medieval History Geek

    June 6, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    You'll laugh but I just realized that HA HAS a blog – looks like a damn good one too. I always went to the site just to read the pub.

  6. Jonathan Jarrett

    June 6, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    Drat! If I'd realised there was a copy of Small Worlds there I would completely have had it, I don't own a copy (yet). But it would probably just have been one of the several books I almost tried to buy before I saw a sticker with your name on it adorning them… Dog-eat-dog world out there! For Prof. Muhlberger's reference, I entirely endorse what Curt says here, it's a fascinating book and it massively underpins my own research methods and approach. Thankyou for the shout-out, Curt, I am about to return the favour.

  7. Medieval History Geek

    June 7, 2010 at 12:14 am

    I try to get to the book exhibit as early as I possibly can – no telling who might grab that one copy Cambridge decided to bring of Farming in the First Millennium AD: British Agriculture between Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror. I very frequently miss the first session because I'm too caught up in trying to do my part to support the publishing industry. Personally, I think getting there the day before should have a benefit – open the Exhibit Hall from 6-9 Wednesday evening and skip the Director's Reception – I know that wine's tough to pass up, but I believe I would be able to contain my disappointment.Actually the wine, while still pretty mediocre, is several grades above what it was 10 years or so ago when I believe it would have made a pretty fair furniture polish.

  8. Jonathan Jarrett

    June 7, 2010 at 8:43 am

    Yeah, I was prepared by Internet reports for terrible wine and got merely indifferent stuff. So that was a relief.The book title also sounds interesting. I guess you and I are likely to wind up competing for the peasant/agricultural stuff wherever we cross paths. Well, there's enough to go round at least!

  9. Medieval History Geek

    June 7, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Too bad you're on the wrong side of the ocean. Or maybe you're on the right side – that's technically correct, looking at a map, and probably in many other ways, including using boiling water for tea. I have friends who've tried to get me drinking tea rather than coffee but I haven't taken to it – maybe it's my non-use of boiling water.Yeesh – the day hasn't even started and I'm on tangents. I'm teaching a bunch of 10-12 year-olds digital mapping as part of a summer outreach program this week. If I don't get my brain appropriately compartmentalized this may not go well. Anyway, I'm a pretty free booklender as long as I think I'm getting 'em back. I have one book I lent about 3 years ago that hasn't returned which I think I'll have to consider a gift.Going back to Dr. Muhlberger's comment, the Davies and Fouracre books, The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe and Property and Power in the Early Middle Ages both look like books I need to get sooner rather than later.Of course I have the 60 I bought at Congress, including a few I evidently "robbed" from Jonathan (It's a competitive old world out there – and we Americans appear to be particularly proficient at honing our competitiveness) which I need to get through – I really need to curb my acquisition compulsion for a while. See book, want book, must have book, buy book.


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