The Power of Place – Rulers and their Palaces,
Landscapes, Cities, and Holy Places
By David Rollason
Princeton University Press – £37.95
A book that essentially explores the very nature of power; but not from the premise one might initially and immediately surmise as being hinged upon greed, death and destruction – but rather, power through that of kings, assorted popes and emperors.
Indeed, David Rollason does a whole lot more than merely grapple with the prism of power’s trajectory.
From cities to palaces, from landscapes to holy shrines, from burial places to naturally, inauguration and archaeological sites, The Power of Place is a wide-open geographical canvas. Not only does it start at the first century and ultimately reach the sixteenth, it ranges across the whole of Europe – from Prague to Palermo, Seville to the Oslo Fjords. And it does so by way of a culmination of varying disciplines that is admittedly anchored in archaeology, although the book as a whole, is (also) made up of historical and literary studies, architecture, landscape and the history of art.
Along the way, Rollason delves deep into the actual analytical development of power, and everything that that might entail.
In the book’s wide-ranging Introduction for example, he writes: ”The book’s practical aim is to provide a sort of handbook to how sites created or modified by rulers can yield essentially historical conclusions about the nature of their power, or at least about the power they were claiming to possess. It guides readers around the sites in question, or sometimes around the artistic and literary representations of such sites in as hands-on a way as is possible without actually taking readers in person to these places. The book attempts to draw to the attention of readers the individual features of these sites, always striving to extract from them the historical conclusions about rulers’ power which they might be perceived as offering. It supports descriptions of the sites with as lavish a collection of photographs and diagrams as has been possible. These are often labelled, and always fully captioned, so that they are an essential part of the fabric of the book.”
To be sure, the centre of this work consists of twenty-four pages of high-quality, colour plates, whilst throughout its 390 pages (not including a List of Illustrations, Research and Reading, References, Illustration Credits and Index), there is an abundance of black and white photographs, reproductions and diagrams, all of which, as the author has written, is fully described and captioned.
Moreover, one of the aspects I found most interesting, was chapter six (‘Cities, Planning, and Power’), which, from the ground up, alerts the reader to the degree with which power, planning and a lot of the development thereof, has always quintessentially been combined throughout the ages. In this particular instance, be it The Palace of the Normans in Palermo (Sicily), The Simwell Tower in Nuremberg (Germany), The Royal Palace and St. Vitus’s Cathedral in Prague (The Czech Republic), The Alhambra in Granada (Spain), or indeed or the White Tower section of the actual Tower of London.
Rollason – who is professor emeritus of history at the University of Durham and whose previous books include Early Medieval Europe 300-1050: The Birth of Western Society and Northumbria 500-1100: Creation and Destruction of a Kingdom – fundamentally addresses as much at the outset of the chpter: ”For a city to have been planned in a consistent, regular way, perhaps with a rectangular grid layout of streets, must always have been a means of conveying a message relating to the power of the individual responsible for the planning. Where that was the ruler, then the message pertained to his efficacy in achieving the planning in question and the power that had made it possible for him to secure its execution. Regularity of the plan, however, may not have been the only means by which cities could convey messages of power. The relative heights of the different elements in them – where, for example, the ruler’s palace was at the highest point of the city – could equally have conveyed a message of power, relating to the ruler’s hierarchical dominance over his subjects in the lowest part of the city. The choice of site for the city could then have been of particular importance when it came to siting its various elements in relation to one another.”
I would access The Power of Place – Rulers and their Palaces, Landscapes, Cities, and Holy Places as essentially being something of a work of love. A work that is as equally inviting as it is interesting, ambitious as it is appealing, persuasive as it is at times perplexing.
Exceedingly well put together, it is, as fellow professor emeritus of history at Newcastle University, R. I. Moore has since described it: ”A work of considerable learning and precise scholarship, The Power of Place demonstrates how rulers supported and extended power through the places from which they exercised it. I know of no other book that brings together this topic in such a comprehensive, systematic way. The book’s breadth, accessibility, and illustrations make it attractive to a wide audience.”