Christopher Tyerman's account of 162 lives from Norman and Angevin England stands in the best traditions of popular historical writing: fluent, widely read, up-to-date, provocative, engaging, fond of paradoxes and parallels, academically respectable but unburdened by scholarly clutter. What it is not, however, is a conventional biographical dictionary: the prose is too rich, the arrangement chronological rather than alphabetical, and without cross-references (though indexed). The best way to use the book is in fact to read it from cover to cover. The entries are sketches of their subjects' place in English history rather than compendia of facts, covering mostly political and constitutional developments, but with reference to spirituality, trade, learning, architecture, and other matters whenever the framework permits.
The subjects are well chosen and well arranged from that point of view. Retelling English history through cumulative biography is a bold narrative device that shifts the focus every few pages yet holds together a mass of plots and sub-plots. Individuals reappear in each other's biographies, just as they do in real life, often enough not appearing quite the same as they did when observed from their own perspective. In the background jostles a crowd of lesser figures (traceable through the index) who played a part in the lives and events of the great.
Without ever making the point directly, Tyerman indicates how far English history was formed by people who knew each other. Continuities across the generations between 1135 and 12 are shown in the experiences of William Marshal (1147-1219), who as a boy played soldiers with the kindly King Stephen, and as an old man stood guardian to the young Henry III. At the same time Tyerman charts the undercurrents of cultural change among the elite, from the raw world of the Conqueror to the polished courtliness of Henry III's times, brutal as politics were in both reigns.
The Europeanness of English history also comes out clearly, not just through familiar connections with Normandy and Anjou, but through the inclusion, for example, of Italian churchmen active in England, and of Englishmen whose careers were made elsewhere, like Pope Hadrian IV.
The biographies are never just about people. Through them Tyerman draws his readers into medieval habits of thought and deed: the many varieties of piety, knightly ideals, notions of kingship, the multifarious branches of higher learning that were known as "science", the bureaucratic methods of royal administrators. He has views, entertaining even when contestable, on all manner of topics, from the triumphant planning of the third crusade to the futility of attempts to expel prostitutes from Oxford.
Enjoyable above all, though, are Tyerman's trenchant character sketches: the precocious and spoilt Beaumont twins; smug Yorkshire Cistercians; Thomas Becket going to the bad only when promoted beyond his abilities; Henry III's love of presents and obsession with the poor.
This is a fresh way of presenting two centuries of English history, and both amateur and professional readers will be charmed and instructed by it.
C. P. Lewis is research fellow in history, University of Liverpool.
Who's Who in Early Medieval England (1066-12)
Author - Christopher Tyerman
ISBN - 0 85683 091 7 and 132 8
Publisher - Shepheard-Walwyn
Price - £.50 and £13.95
Pages - 424