Monday, 3 November 2014

Guest Post by Kathryn Warner: Edward II's Rustic Pursuits

As a part of the blog tour for her newly published book Edward II: The Unconventional King, I am delighted to welcome to The Medieval World historian Kathryn Warner, with a guest post on Edward II's Rustic Pursuits.

There were certain outdoor pursuits which most royal and noble men of the Middle Ages enjoyed: jousting, hunting and hawking.  Participation in these activities was conventional and expected for men of a certain rank, but one king, however, preferred much more unusual hobbies.  He was Edward II.

"From his youth he devoted himself in private to the art of rowing and driving carts, of digging ditches and thatching houses, as was commonly said, and also with his companions at night to various works of ingenuity and skill, and to other pointless trivial occupations unsuitable for the son of a king," commented the Lanercost chronicler disapprovingly.  Edward II also loved building walls, swimming, rowing, hedging, working with wrought iron and shoeing horses, and not only did he enjoy such hobbies, he showed talent for them: the Scalacronica, a chronicle written by the son of a knight who had known Edward well, called him "very skilful in what he delighted to employ his hands upon."

Most unusually for the fourteenth century, Edward II loved being around water, swimming and rowing.  In February 1303 before his accession, when he was eighteen, he had to pay four shillings in compensation to his Fool Robert Bussard or Buffard, because the two men went swimming together in the Thames at Windsor and Robert was injured in some way by "the trick the prince [of Wales] played on him in the water."  In the autumn of 1315, Edward II spent a congenial month in the Fens with "a great company of common people," swimming and rowing on various lakes and waterways.  To us this may sound like a healthy and relaxing holiday, but Edward's contemporaries were baffled and offended, and the Westminster chronicler talked of his "silly company of swimmers" and his "childish frivolities," and sarcastically declared that the king had gone to the Fens so that "he might refresh his soul with many waters."

In June 1314, Edward II humiliatingly lost the battle of Bannockburn to Robert Bruce, king of Scotland.  A member of Edward's own household, Robert de Newington, was arrested for stating that nobody could have expected the king to win the battle when he spent all his time idling, digging and thatching. A clerk in Edward's service who wrote the Vita Edwardi Secundi (Life of Edward II) also wrote despairingly "If only he had given to arms the labour that he expended on rustic pursuits, he would have raised England aloft; his name would have resounded through the land." The king's willingness to "give himself up always to improper works and occupations" was deemed important enough to be mentioned at his deposition of January 1327 as one of the reasons for his unsuitability to be king, not only because such occupations were considered incompatible with his royal dignity, but because they led him "to neglect the business of his kingdom."

Some extant entries in Edward II's household accounts also provide a glimpse into his love of spending time with his common subjects and watching or taking part in their activities. In November 1322 near Doncaster, he stood by a river to watch ten fishermen fishing, shortly afterwards went to the forge at Temple Hirst in Yorkshire to chat to his blacksmith John Cole, and in May 1326 invited a group of shipwrights to stay with him at Kenilworth Castle. In August 1326, the king joined in when a group of men were hired to make hedges and a ditch in the park of Kenilworth Castle, and some weeks earlier had bought drinks for a group of men hired to clean the ditches around Edward's London manor of Burgundy "in the king's presence." There are many other such entries. All fourteenth-century chroniclers who describe Edward II's appearance comment on his enormous strength: "he was one of the strongest men in his realm"; "handsome in body and great of strength"; "tall and strong, a fine figure of a handsome man" and so on. Edward revelled in his strength and in his excellent health and fitness; he loved the outdoors and demanding physical exercise; he was as far removed from the caricatured feeble court fop he is depicted as in Braveheart and much modern fiction as any man possibly could be. Were he alive in our century, he would no doubt be admired as a king with the common touch and as an excellent role model to encourage his increasingly sedentary subjects to take up some exercise. Sadly for Edward II, he was born in the wrong era, and his favourite activities attracted little but bewildered and horrified contempt.

To find out more about Edward II  have a look at Kathryn's new book; a biography of this much maligned king.

History has not been overly kind to Edward; having been subject to cutting criticism throughout his reign, he garnered a particularly poor reputation in the many years that followed. Today he is typically remembered for his inadequacy as a king, likely homosexuality, and of course that red hot poker. In The Unconventional King, Kathryn sets out to right some of these wrongs regarding his reputation, and the rumours that have surrounded him for centuries. She achieves this with great success; the unconventional king with the myths around him cleared, emerges as a man in his own right with a captivating life story.

The book is meticulously researched, and this shines through in every chapter. It proves to be a fascinating read and makes a refreshing change to read about this king's virtues, as well as his weaknesses as a ruler. 

The book is available for purchase now directly from Amberley Publishing, or at Amazon UKAmazon USThe Book Depository, and The Guardian Bookshop.

ISBN: 9781445641201 
Format: Hardback; eBook.

Visit Kathryn's blog here:
She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Headless Bishop: The Life of Saint Denis

Detail of Saint Denis from The Crucifixion of the Parliament of Paris, c.1452, Paris, Musée du Louvre.
Today being 9 October makes this the feast day of the patron saint of Paris, Saint Denis (variations include: Denys, and the Latin form Dionysius). But who was he, and what has he done to deserve this day of celebration? Well, Saint Denis is one of my personal favourite saints, and his story and makes rather interesting reading ...

It's likely that Denis was born in Italy, but little else is known of his early life. He was one of a handful of bishops (including Rusticus and Eleutherius) that was sent by Pope Fabian to Gaul on an evangelical mission. The area had suffered greatly as a result of the Christian persecutions by the Roman Emperor Decius; these bishops were sent with the hope of restoring people's faith and allegiance to Christianity, which had been beginning to flourish there.

Missal of Saint Denis, c.1050 (Cod. Lat. 8878),
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
From Life and Miracles of St Denis, c.1317 (MS 2090-92),
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

The group made their way to the Roman city Lutetia (modern day Paris) and settled on
an island in the Seine (Île de la Cité) where they began preaching to the locals. The image above-left depicts Denis and his companions preaching to the people of Paris, it is from a 14C manuscript dedicated to his life. The preaching was quite a success for the group, however the local pagan priests were concerned by the number of conversions to Christianity. Denis and his companions were captured and tortured as a result. There are several accounts written at a later date of the extravagant tortures they had to endure, such as being scourged, racked, and thrown to wild beasts. However, in spite of his pain Denis refused to denounce Christianity and so it was decided that he, along with his loyal companions Rusticus and Eleutherius, would be sentenced to death by beheading. The c.1050 image above-right shows Christ blessing the trio in prison before their martyrdom.

Mural of Saint Denis picking up his decapitated head, at Place du Pantheon, Paris.
The three faithful Christians were taken to the highest hill in Paris (now known as Montmartre) to be beheaded. According to legend, Denis was so devout that even death would not stop him. He simply picked up his stray head and gave it a rinse in a nearby stream, then proceeded to walk for 6 miles whilst still carrying his head and preaching the word of God. In the place where he eventually collapsed and died a small shrine was built in his honour, later to be replaced by the Basilica of Saint Denis.

As well as being the patron saint of Paris (alongside Saint Genevieve), Saint Denis can be invoked to cure headaches. Imagery of him often depicts him as headless and carrying his own head. Here are some examples:

A headless Saint Denis at the left portal of the Notre Dame de Paris.
Statue of a headless Saint Denis at the Musée du Moyen Âge, Paris.
Denis holding the top of his severed head, from a Picture Bible (f.28v) c.1190.
Manuscript (76 F 5), Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.
Boucicaut Master, Saint Denis (fol. 31v), in Book of Hours (Ms. 2), c.1410-15.
The beheading of Saint Denis, from the tympanum of the north portal of the Basilica of Saint Denis.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Book Review: Defending the City of God, by Sharan Newman

Defending the City of God: A Medieval Queen, The First Crusades, and the Quest for Peace in Jerusalem

By Sharan Newman

Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
ISBN: 978-1137278654
Format: Hardcover; eBook

After the reconquest of Jerusalem in 1099 AD, the surviving crusaders had two choices: either return to Europe, or create a home in the Holy Land. A large number chose to stay and forge a new life in one of the newly established Crusader States. This book, written by Sharan Newman, focuses on these people, and in particular, the lives of the children that they raised there.  

Newman has chosen Queen Melisende of Jerusalem to represent the children of the first crusaders who were born and raised in the East. The queen’s parents were:  Morfia, an Eastern Christian and member of the Armenian nobility; and Baldwin of Le Bourq, a French crusader who settled in the Holy Land and was given the title of Count of Edessa, before eventually being elected King of Jerusalem in 1118. Newman frequently emphasises this to the reader throughout the text. She also highlights the fact that Melisende was born and raised in the Holy Land; it’s a good point that provides a fresh perspective, and something that can easily be forgotten when historians write of the ‘Franks’ in the Crusader States.

The lives of Melisende and her sisters are the backbone of this book, and the queen’s lifespan c.1105-61 AD provides a natural time frame. The chapters progress roughly chronologically, with a few deviations when necessary. They are divided according to significant events in the Latin States, or personal ones related to the lives of Melisende and her sisters. They also touch upon the impact of these events on the lives of the local population during this period. As a result of this the narrative is unsurprisingly required to flit from place to place, or between events. Inevitably this does hinder the flow of the book somewhat, and can make it a little confusing at times. However, Newman holds things together well by writing very clearly, and makes a confusing subject for those new to it less so as a result.

Chapter One sets the scene with a discussion chiefly of the first crusaders and those who settled afterwards, and an outline of recent events in the area. I thought it was excellent that Newman pointed out that there had been countless wars in the region between many different peoples; the crusaders were just another overlord in a long succession. She writes: ‘To the shepherds, farmers, and their families life didn't change much. There was a time of tumult, punctuated by terror, then a new master who wanted the same taxes.’ This touches upon recent lines of thought, but a footnote or comment upon other works was rather missed. Nonetheless, it was very encouraging to see it discussed as it is important in understanding the dynamics of the newly formed Latin States. The second chapter spends a good proportion discussing Melisende’s mother, Morfia. Very little has been written of her before, so this well-researched section makes particularly interesting reading. The following few chapters proceed with a narrative of Baldwin II’s role in political events between the states, and the constant struggle at the time to defend their borders. Throughout, Newman comments upon the daily lives of people living in Jerusalem in particular, and how the continuous struggles impacted upon them.

From Chapter Ten onwards the focus of the narrative shifts from Melisende’s parents to the soon-to-be queen, and her sisters. The future arrangement for Baldwin and Morfia’s four daughters (Melisende, Hodierna, Alice, and Yvette) are discussed, and with this comes the decision of Fulk V of Anjou for Melisende’s husband. An insightful contextual background of Fulk is provided, along with an account of the lengthy marriage discussions between him and Baldwin II. Throughout the following few chapters Newman discusses key events connected to Alice, and the rebellion and subsequent murder of Hugh of Jaffa, and how this impacted upon the dynamics between Fulk and Melisende. She rightly places a constant emphasis upon Melisende’s right to rule; the royal bloodline was through her and not her husband.

During the final three chapters the text shifts focus once more, this time to relations between the queen and her firstborn son Baldwin (III). Fulk had died unexpectedly in a hunting accident leaving Melisende with two sons, both of whom were under the age deemed fit to rule (15). Upon Baldwin II’s death, Melisende, her husband Fulk, and their son Baldwin were all named joint heirs to the throne. Therefore when Fulk died, technically Melisende and Baldwin III were equal rulers in the eyes of the law; with Melisende acting foremost due to Baldwin being under age. Newman comes at this situation with a refreshing argument. She frequently stresses Melisende’s right to rule once more, and reasons that the later power struggle between the queen and her son was more to do with his lack of apparent military ability, and therefore a concern for her kingdom, than a desire to cling on to power. The latter is something that has been argued with vigour by Hans E. Mayer in his article ‘Studies in the History of Queen Melisende of Jerusalem’.  Newman makes good use of both charter evidence and the chronicles (particularly William of Tyre), to make a convincing counter-argument to Mayer.

Newman uses a good mixture of the limited available sources, including Islamic accounts of events in addition to the much used Latin/French and Greek ones. I found it a slight shame that the final chapter dealt with a period much longer than the rest (1150-61). In my opinion, this was the period in Melisende’s life that was most relevant to one of the central proposed themes of the book; the suggestion that Melisende’s actions were based upon a belief that her son was not yet ready to rule alone. In addition to this, Newman wrote that she believed negative portrayals of Melisende were a result of what has been written about her by historians, and not by her contemporaries. The negative qualities written about her have been largely based upon her actions during the period of the final chapter, and so it might have been more satisfying if Newman had spent more time addressing events such as the following in greater detail: the civil war in the Kingdom of Jerusalem; and the arguable side-lining of Baldwin III through her second son Amalric’s inclusion in the charters at this time, and his appointment as Count of Jaffa. Despite this the book is very thorough in its detail and is written in a casual manner that is easy to read. Newman frequently raises minor points that really paint a vivid picture of the time in the reader’s mind; little details that humanise the people she is writing about. For example, when commenting upon the fall of Edessa she reminds the reader that this was Melisende’s childhood home. Whilst some of these details are merely speculative, some do have a sound basis and they provide good food for thought.

Overall, this is a thoroughly researched and clearly written book, and a much-needed recent contribution to the secondary works on Queen Melisende of Jerusalem.  It provides a refreshing perspective on the internal and external troubles of the Latin States in the early twelfth century, by considering how these struggles impacted upon its residents. A general reader with an interest in this period would find the book extremely insightful.