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Your Family Tree magazine, August 2011
Last year the well-known historian Michael Wood gained attention for his TV series The Story of England, which explored one Leicestershire village down the ages as a microcosm of English history. It was a great idea - but James Brown can lay a much earlier claim to a similar concept.
Back in 1989 he published Gamlingay, a book about the village between Bedford and Cambridge where he grew up - the result of 14 years' painstaking research. Over 20 years later, his modest note at the beginning of this new volume acknowledges how the work is never done, as in those intervening years, more information came to light, and more records became widely available. This therefore is a completely new attempt to document 750 years of life in an English village.
The result is fascinating, and should inspire local historians everywhere. Brown - a designer and illustrator by trade, who doesn't claim to be a historian - has wisely learned what to put in and what to leave out. The book represents only the tip of the iceberg, and is all the more readable as a result.
The story begins back in 1279, thanks to the Hundred Rolls, which fortuitously survive, rather like a detailed update of Domesday Book. Brown quickly builds up a lively picture of medieval life, and here the book is reminiscent of Ian Mortimer's fantastic bestseller The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England.
As you might expect, the book follows a chronological path, but this is far from a 'and then... and then...' approach - each chapter has a theme which provides insight into rural life in different eras, and the lives of many intriguing individuals. Gamlingay hasn't made any great mark on history, but that doesn't mean its people haven't been interesting. As Brown notes, all of us have the same preoccupations in life, but circumstances have changed and how people respond to them is of great interest.
Family historians will also be grateful for the index of names it the back. This is an impressive book and testament to what an enthusiast can achieve.