23rd June 2000 at 01:00
CONQUERING THE NORMANS HISTORY IN ACTION. Channel 4 Learning. Five 20 minute programmes available from Channel 4 Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ . Tel: 01926 436444. pound;19.99

Four reluctant history learners are taken prisoner on a visit to a Norman castle by William de Burgh. Two are held hostage while the others are sent out to complete a series of quests to "conquer the Normans". Each programme shows the importance of the interplay of primary and secondary sources, with the hostages frequently asked to find explanations and meanings from textbooks.

The "questors" have the best of it, visiting castles, weapon makers and specialists in Norman food. The programmes highlight the importance of the motte and bailey in the conquest of new land - quick to build, cheap and virtually impregnable, as a pupil discovers when trying to reach the top of the high mound. For the Normans warfare was a way of life, with superiority in weaponry and protection that made them so formidable in battle.

Another programme shows civil society settled under the Anglo Normans, with towns walled for the purpose of axation rather than defence. It explores the significance of coins and how they were made and explains how the Norman diet was enhanced by the importation of food and spices from different parts of Europe.

Underlying the themes there is a light-touch narrative starting with the two pupils visiting Falaise, where William's parents met by the pool. The series is set in Ireland and the roles of Dermot MacMurrough and Strongbow are explored. The decline of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland is set in the context of the Black Death, the ongoing hostility of many Irish and raids by Scots. The series takes us from the triumphalism of the 12th century to the defeatism 200 years later when Anglo-Norman influence was restricted to the Pale.

The Irish setting gives added value to this series as a learning resource. The storyline works well, helped by self-assured performances by the pupils who might have shown more grief when they learn that their captor had been starved to death in a Donegal dungeon after a family feud. The programmes move at a good pace and the location shots make compelling viewing.

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