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The Normans in Europe: Architecture from Durham to Jerusalem – six online talks by John McNeill

posted on 28/07/23


The last 30 years have seen an upsurge of interest in ‘the Normans’, both as a people and a cultural phenomenon – perhaps the latest of the ‘tribal’ invaders to reshape settlement patterns in Europe and the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. Variously described as Norsemen, Vikings or Varangians, the peoples who were to become the gens normannorum had probably settled in Scandinavia by c.700. The eastern branch, based around Sigtuna and Gotland in modern-day Sweden, were important in the foundation of Kievan Rus and used the Dnipro to trade with the Black Sea area. The western branch colonised Iceland, famously sacked Lindisfarne in 793, and by the 830s and 840s had begun to found settlements in eastern England and north-western France. Recognised as de facto lords of the lower Seine valley in the early tenth century by the Carolingian king, Charles the Simple, these Nordic settlers gave their name to Normandy, converted to Christianity and by c.1050 had gained a reputation for ‘restlessness’ and military prowess.

This series discusses the material legacy of the Normans after they had established themselves in Normandy – particularly during the 11th and 12th centuries. Norman military conquest was invariably followed by investment in new building – in England after 1066, in southern Italy from the 1070s, in collaboration with other ‘Latins’ in the Holy Land after 1099. The cultural energy evident in these buildings is extraordinary.

They take place every Tuesday from 5th December to 23rd January (excluding 26th December and 2nd January) at 4.30pm (GMT) and, including Q&A, will probably last just under an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (19th March 2024).

Register for the webinar series for £75

The talks

1. The Normans (5th December 2023)

Who were the Normans? Is their reputation as violent raiders and pirates deserved? When did they turn their backs on the Nordic Gods? Our understanding of these people prior to their arrival in Normandy is very fragmentary. Their skill as shipbuilders and prowess in carving standing stones is evident, as is the poetic tradition embodied in Norse sagas, but the detail of Norse culture is hazy at best. By the mid-tenth century, the Norse in Normandy had certainly embraced Christianity, and by c.1000 they had become fully assimilated into the political structures of northern France. Strategies and skills first developed in Normandy, particularly in terms of the creation of new towns and the development of administrative centres, seem to have been crucial in assuring subsequent successes.

2. Castles (12th December 2023)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle drily records that the Normans were successful at the Battle of Hastings because they fought on horses and built castles. Indeed, horses and castles are among the dominant images one takes away from the Bayeux Tapestry. The potency of the castle as an instrument of war was a lesson the Normans learned from their neighbours to the south, the counts of Anjou, but it was also a type of building they raised to new levels of architectural sophistication – something for which evidence abounds in both England and Normandy.

3. Jumièges (19th December 2023)

Monumental, roofless, sun-bleached and spare – the ruins of the abbey of Jumièges survive as one of the seminal statements of mature Romanesque architecture in Normandy. Begun around 1040, and complete in most essentials by 1067, the principal monastic church – dedicated to Notre-Dame – embodied two of the characteristics that were to inform architecture in Normandy and England for the next century and beyond; an interest in raised and spacious galleries and a concern for architectural rhythm. Jumièges may have been the first ‘Norman’ building where these forms of architectural expression united.

4. Durham Cathedral (9th January 2024)

Durham’s reputation as the boldest – most memorable – Anglo-Norman building in England is difficult to challenge. Begun in 1093, the same decade that saw Anselm extend the earlier cathedral at Canterbury, Durham exploited the sculptural potential of thick walls to bring depth to Romanesque architecture. It also envelops its congregation entirely in stone – the first of the major churches in England to do this. The vaults that we now see over the nave, choir and transepts, however, date from slightly different periods and do not all seem to have been foreseen at the outset. This hesitancy seems at odds with the assurance and technical elan evident in the detailing of Durham more generally, and raises difficult questions as to how a late 11th-century cathedral was designed.

5. San Nicola at Bari (16th January 2024)

The Norman conquest of Apulia was eventually completed in 1071. The coastal ports here were populous, wealthy, and predominantly Greek-speaking – perfectly capable of supporting and sustaining a skilled workforce – and it is initially difficult to discern a shift in architectural style and practice. That changes with the arrival of the relics of Saint Nicholas at Bari in 1087, and the building of a new shrine church to house them. The new church was built with a crypt supported on a forest of reused marble columns, a grand transept in the manner of a Constantinian basilica in Rome and a three-storey elevation with a gallery. The gallery sits outside the Antique repertoire, and, as with the sculpture of the north nave portal (which perhaps depicts a scene from an Arthurian chanson de geste), may reflect Norman taste. Apulian Romanesque changes direction around this period, and throws out a series of inventive and highly differentiated buildings which reflect exposure to new artistic models and new patronal demands.

6. Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (23rd January 2024)

Although, strictly speaking, one should describe the 12th-century alterations to the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as north French in terms of their patronage and architectural inspiration, the Holy Sepulchre can stand proxy for Norman interests in the eastern Mediterranean. Robert Curthose, the then Duke of Normandy, was prominent in the First Crusade, even mortgaging the duchy to his brother, King William Rufus, to finance his participation. Bohemond captured Antioch, while his nephew, Tancred, carved out the principality of Galilee for himself. Dating back to the fourth century, the church of the Holy Sepulchre had been badly damaged on the orders of Caliph al-Hakim in 1009. Its remodelling and extension under the crusaders between c.1114 and the 1160s brought the architectural language of Normandy and Aquitaine to the holiest site in Christendom.

The speaker

John McNeill

Specialist in the Middle Ages and Renaissance – lectures for Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education. He is Honorary Secretary of the British Archaeological Association, for whom he has edited and contributed to collections of essays on medieval cloisters, chantries, Anjou, and King’s Lynn and the Fens. In 2010 he established a biennial series of international conferences on Romanesque visual culture. His most recent effort in this field – Romanesque Saints, Shrines, and Pilgrimage – was published in 2020. He is also author of the Blue Guides to both Normandy and the Loire Valley.

Register for the webinar series for £75

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