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Historical contexts

The Normans feature prominently in two models which explain the development of western Europe between c.1050 and 1200. Normans established themselves across Europe and maintained links with each other which covered the continent. They thus exemplify the expansionist movements of people which built networks which 'Europeanised' Europe for the first time.

Norman states in England and Sicily were, by western standards, unusually centralised, providing examples of the growth in the centre's ability to intervene in the localities, which, combined with the development of shared national consciousness, produced distinct 'nation-states'. The potential contradictions between the two foci of political affiliation - the diasporic community of the Norman world and the individual states within it - have at present been under-examined. Most scholars' geographic specialisms have encouraged a stress on the development of individual states and an understanding that 'assimilation' (and hence lack of a broader, well-defined Normannitas) was key to such development. The alternative explanations, namely that diasporic links might account for local variations and hence the forms of emerging states, or that links continued but played an as yet poorly understood political role, have not been seriously tested. Doing so within a project composed of four scholars with various regional interests will offer a fresh understanding of the Norman world as a whole, a means of reconciling two potentially discordant understandings of European history, new insights into medieval state-formation, and a historical perspective on modern diasporic communities' roles within states.

In contemporary historiography the gens Normannorum was memorialised to construct an image of a commonality of Norman identity, and of a unitary Norman world (e.g., Amatus of Montecassino; Orderic Vitalis). These descriptions disguise the diversity of Norman experience and practice, and in particular the very different political systems which emerged in the crusader states, in Sicily, on the southern Italian peninsula, and in northern England and southern Scotland.

Norman expansion into Mediterranean and 'Celtic' areas is now understood as a process in which accommodation was in practice reached with once competing local elites. Traditional étatist orthodoxies are now likewise contested by new narratives, which stress that the centre-periphery relationship was marked by negotiation with local interests, and produced not legally and institutionally homogenous states but polities in which local identities operated politically.

Both strands have come together in a series of studies of the medieval frontier, which have conceptualised frontiers as culturally and institutionally fluid zones where cross-border identities were often more important than relationships with a distant centre. There is, though, no consensus as to the modalities of assimilation: viz. how far identities rested on the adoption of existing local customs by incoming elites, as opposed to indigenous acceptance of novel cultural norms. Nor, as yet, have 'new' taxonomies of Norman states - their 'alternative nodal points', their 'multiplex nature', and their 'plurality and overlapping context' - been fully registered and tested. The same applies to how far identities were tied to specific 'frontier' locations and contingencies, on the one hand, and to Normandy or the wider diaspora, on the other.

This project's contribution to this debate is to clarify the balance between continuity and change, institutionally and culturally, in areas 'conquered' by the Normans, and the contribution of the 'conquerors' and the 'conquered' to regional identities which continue to the present day. The very diversity of Norman experience also provides an opportunity to explore how far variegated forms of cultural difference affected the process of state-formation. The project likewise examined how far the propagation or idea of shared Normannitas shaped the particular forms of four different states in British contexts and the Norman Mediterranean.

The unique value of the Norman world as a focus of study lies in the nature of Norman expansion. In contrast to many areas, where expansion at the frontier was driven by individuals who had links to the centre that later claimed their conquests, Norman expansion in the Mediterranean saw the emergence of new polities to which Norman dukes had no claim, while control of Norman activity in middle Britain was contested between the English and Scottish crowns. Yet what prosopographical work has been done suggests that links between diasporic Normans existed throughout the period. The material and ideological resources with which Norman elites acted were thus determined not only by the relationship between the centre and the locality in which they operated, but also by their ability to exploit resources in Normandy and links across the Norman world.

The fluidity of political institutions, and cross-cultural encounters, at the Norman periphery in turn offered opportunities to develop novel means of gaining political advantage. The formation of institutions and identities at the Norman 'edge' was potentially thus not only a result of the interplay between a metropolitan centre and locality, but the outcome of individuals' differing abilities to exploit local, central and 'Norman-European' resources. This process needs to be examined within a framework that accepts that local variations of Normannitas were possible and that personal links existed across the Norman world, yet without necessarily arguing that either fact makes the Norman world an essential primary focus of socio-political affiliation. Despite the importance to European history of understanding all three levels of activity in this way, the breadth of such a study has placed it beyond the scope of any individual scholar, and makes a collaborative project essential.

A collaborative explanation of the political formation of the states of the Norman world, which takes into account recent work on state-formation and European identities, is thus long overdue. Such a project offers rich opportunities to understand medieval Norman communities and politics, the expansion of medieval Europe, and how modern diasporic communities might be placed in historical context.

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