Posts Tagged ‘Normans’

Week Four: What’s in a Name?

Not much of Norman Oswestry survives as bricks and mortar – but you can still find traces of it in unexpected places around the town. The FitzAlans were Oswestry’s “First Family” – generations of ambitious, clever survivors, determined at first to make the most of their post-Conquest manorial holdings; determined as the decades passed to hang on to that power. Even choosing the wrong side during the Anarchy of the twelfth century, and backing the Empress Matilda over her rival Stephen, didn’t dent their ambition.

Like all powerful families, however, their power did eventually fade – lack of male rivals ended the Fitzalan line in favour of the Howard, and more profitable estates elsewhere removed the family from Oswestry to Shrawardine, Holt, Clun and (eventually) Arundel – much to the benefit of the town. As local Oswestry historian, John Pryce-Jones puts it: “… reduced levels of manorial supervision provided the leading citizens of Oswestry to extend their own influence over the running of the town, and to develop the independent spirit which has characterised local civic affairs down the centuries…”. In other words, although they built the original Oswestry Castle, and gave it it’s original charters, perhaps the best things the FitzAlans ever did for Oswestry was leave it alone!

However, the FitzAlan name survives in the name of FitzAlan Road – a tiny reminder of the determined, canny (and quite possibly, ruthless) family that gave Oswestry its head start. There are lots of roads in Oswestry with historical stories behind them – you could do a whole series of heritage comics just on road names!


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Look and Learn! A Norman Knight.

Look and Learn! A Norman Knight.

2013 ended with a couple of interesting, last-minute commissions. Top of the bill was a set of illustrations about the Normans and the Domesday book, for a site-based interpretation project down in Sussex. The brief stated that the artwork should be “in the style of old Look and Learn illustrations”.

Look and Learn – there’s a name to conjure with! It had a house style all its own: dramatic, inventive, colourful (metaphorically, given that much of it was in black and white). I don’t think there’s any publication that comes close nowadays to duplicating its compact, rapid-fire approach to information. The artwork came from that school of art-illustration that was virtually ubiquitous in magazine publication before the blanket advent of photography. It’s glorious stuff: a heady cocktail of high drama and visual immediacy that blew anything in the classroom out of the water. I may have learned history and archaeology in the classroom, but I was hooked on it by the illustrations in publications like Look and Learn.

I’m not the only one to lament the passing of that school of information art-illustration. I know Kelvin Wilson has long argued for the return of drama to archaeological reconstruction – prompted in no small part by the example offered by Look and Learn. And Dr. Ian Horton has also suggested that the passing of the Look and Learn model marks a significant change in our general attitude towards informational graphics in education.

When I got the brief for the Norman illustrations, I pulled out my own dog-eared and worn copies of Look and Learn to see what it was that made their style. Beyond the fondly-remembered drama and excitement, what struck me most was the human content of each illustration. Whether it was Wild West wagon trains, the Great Wall of China, or Sputnik, every illustration had a person-based frame of reference. It might have been people in there for scale, they might have been part of an action scene, or they might have been there in the background, but nine times out of ten, that human element was there. It took me back to arguments I made years ago about the need for people in archaeological reconstructions – that this human dimension grounds the images, taking the images of ancient structures and artefacts out of the realm of the remote, the mysterious, the alien and the unknowable.

It’s this human dimension which I think embodies the Look and Learn approach: their illustrations – sometimes, arguably, overly-dramatic or misleadingly exciting – nevertheless cannot be of anything other than depictions of the human experience of the past. What we see in those illustrations is a past of people, not a past of objects and events. It’s this “peopled” and “experienced” past that I’ve tried to suggest in this illustration: a past where a person and the objects around them reflect their own life histories. A past where your sword is chipped, and your shield is battered, your belt-leather worn and scratched, your mail-shirt bulky and folding uncomfortably at the ankles, a past where the hem of your surcoat is invariably stained with mud.

I’ve only dipped my toe into Look and Learn as a genre. As both an approach and a technique, their house style is representative of an argument I think still might need to be made in archaeological visuals: that however much we don’t know about the past, we can still say for certain that people experienced it.

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