Armstrong, England's northern frontier: conflict and local society in the fifteenth-century Scottish marches
Annotation author: Wiedmaier, Helen
Book author: Armstrong Jackson

Jackson Armstrong, England’s northern frontier: conflict and local society in the fifteenth-century Scottish marches (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Fourth Series 118), Cambridge 2020

In this book, Armstrong deals with England’s far north in the 15th century. This region had a reputation that differed significantly from the rest of England: It was considered peripheral and shaped by conflict. Armstrong examines this region more closely, questions the frontier concept and examines, among other things, how the local society governed itself and how conflict was managed. To do this, he traces the situation on the border: it was a region with many conflicts that were only interrupted by short, non-lasting phases of peace. For his investigation, he divides the book into three parts and eleven chapters. The first chapter is the introduction (p. 1-46), in which, in addition to a research overview, he explains in detail the concept of the book. He shows parallels between the language journalists use for rural Afghanistan and contemporary sources. It becomes clear that frontier societies over which a government has minimal control are portrayed similarly throughout history. Armstrong also points out that the English far north and English-Scottish marches as an area influenced by war or – a more modern view – violent conflict. But what is conflict? Armstrong defines that word and establishes it as an analytical category for further analysis. He also raises the problem of contemporary representation in the sources: English authors report very negatively about these tribes. They are considered fierce and unrest – a mixture of stereotypes and reality, as the frequent conflicts led to a society where looting and violence were normalized as part of everyday life.

These problems are taken up again in the following chapters, for example in the second chapter Frontiers and Borderlands (p. 49-73). Here Armstrong discusses the concept of England’s far north as frontier as well as the concept frontier and the application to England as well as showing the ambivalent characteristics. Is the region to be understood as a frontier or gateway? In the third chapter Earth & Stone (p. 74-106) Armstrong deals with two important topics which have been important for historical interpretations of the region: the first is the far north as an embattled frontier society, the second landscape and corresponding human activities such as settlement structures.

Chapter four, The Nobility, Gentry and Religious Houses (p. 109-118) gives an overview of the landowners of the northern marches and the influence that the violent conflicts had on these conditions of occupation. The author shows how the wars in the 14th century changed the existing ownership structure and created space for new rulers. Following this, chapter five Lordship, Kinship and the Last (p. 119-164) examines the local structures and the connection between strong kinship and weak government. In the sixth chapter, the Administration of Justice (p. 167-198), there follows a more detailed analysis of two primary systems: royal and border justice which regulates local conflict. The first by English common law, the second by Anglo-Scottish march law. In the following chapter, Patterns of Conflict (p. 199-241), Armstrong gives an overview of patterns of conflict by using method of quantitative analysis by having a look at the court evidence. The eight chapter, Cross-Border Conflicts (p. 242-269), examines behavior which was considered wrong or illicit, such as violating a truce or cooperation with the enemy. How were such conflicts dealt with? The ninth chapter, discord (p. 270-307), deals with conflict management and takes up previous chapters such as the one on justice and begins to pull the threads together. Chapter ten, Concord (p. 308-336), continues the discussion of the previous chapter and adds the element of compromise before the results are summarized in the last chapter (Conclusion, p. 337-345). This informative book is illustrated by numerous maps that help to understand developments in this region.

Everyone who is interested in this book can attend seminars about it to delve deeper into the subject. These are currently held by zoom and can be visited by anyone. An affiliation to the School of Advanced Study, University of London, which is hosting these seminars is not required.

The book is also interesting for all those who are not concerned with England’s borders, as concepts such as ‘frontier’ or ‘conflict’ are discussed extensively. What is war and how can this be demarcated from violent conflicts? What role do contemporary sources play in this? These are central questions that are relevant not only for all historians who deal with armed conflict, but also for doctoral candidates at the Graduate School 2304. Armstrong shows how such terminology and contested regions can be dealt with.