Being Human is an annual festival in celebration of the humanities, organised by the School of Advanced Studies at the University of London. Exeter’s medieval studies community has a history of organising engaging events for this wonderful project, including last year’s memorable guided tour of Exeter Cathedral; sadly, however, events such as this were no longer viable in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This didn’t stop the organisers of the festival, however, who this year worked around the clock to put in place a virtual series of events that captured the breadth of humanities research up and down the UK. At the time of publication, the festival is still ongoing, and can be explored further on its website.
For us at ‘Learning French in Medieval England‘, the online format of this year’s event proved both a challenge and a unique opportunity. Having originally planned to run a workshop on our project in-person as part of the festival, we found ourselves having to reconsider the format and scale of what we were preparing at fairly short notice, as our venue shifted from Exeter Central Library to … well, Zoom. In-person interactivity was suddenly off the table, and our original plan of using paper slips to give attendees a chance to do digital editing for themselves – an idea adapted from Dr. Charlotte Tupman and Dr. Elizabeth Williamson’s introductory XML sessions in our Digital Humanities Lab – had to be replaced with a new format that would be suitable for audiences at a distance, and from across the world. Our challenge, in short, was to give our diverse audience members – many of whom had never seen a medieval manuscript before, let alone considered how one might be edited – an introduction to questions of medieval textuality, digital scholarship, and critical editing.
Our solution was to seek help from a certain well-known boy wizard. Specifically, we opened the workshop by giving participants a lightly-adapted version of the opening lines to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and asking them simply to copy it out by hand. What we didn’t tell them was that we had made a few subtle changes to the original text. Here’s our extract in full: how many can you spot? (Answers at the bottom of the page.)
Medievalists reading this page will likely have realised the point behind this exercise: the ‘errors’ that we introduced into the Harry Potter text in fact reflect many of the alterations that medieval texts underwent during the scribal copying process, from unwitting metathesis (alterations in word or letter order) to deliberate acts of editorial intervention. There was, of course, no single ‘right’ way for our participants to copy out the extract, and some participants retained the changes that we’d made, while others adapted them (most notably seen in the minority of participants who underlined the passage that was italicised) and others still simply ‘corrected’ them. In choosing a text that many audience members would be familiar with, we’d hoped to elicit precisely this range of responses, and we were thrilled to see how fascinated participants were as they came to realise the sheer range of decisions, both conscious and subconscious, that are made when copying a text by hand.
Of course, many of the key elements of our one-hour workshop didn’t require such a drastic degree of alteration for online delivery. Tom Hinton’s introduction to the editorial history of the Tretiz, and to critical editions more generally, provoked a great deal of interest, as did our joint exploration of how medieval manuscripts are represented in popular culture (via Disney films, Shrek, and notions of parody). Most excitingly, however, the online-only format allowed us to massively expand the capacity of the event, and we were delighted to welcome over eighty attendees from around the world. The event also generated a considerable amount of interest on Twitter, as you can see from the selection of Tweets provided below. A video recording of the event is available to watch in full on Vimeo.
Learning French in Medieval England is an AHRC-funded project at the University of Exeter’s Department of Modern Languages, and aims to produce the first digital critical edition of all extant manuscripts to Walter de Bibbesworth’s thirteenth-century rhyming French vocabulary, the Tretiz. More information about the project is available on its website and Twitter page; earlier blogs from project members are available here, here, here (external link), and here.
‘Alterations’ made to Harry Potter text
Full stop after ‘Mrs.’ removed, ‘Drive’ un-capitalised (l. 1); italics added to ‘thank you very much’ (ll. 2-3); ‘involved’ respelled to ‘invovled’, comma replaced with semicolon (l. 4); word order altered, with ‘just didn’t hold’ becoming ‘didn’t just hold’ (l. 5). Many other variants were also introduced, of course, most notably surrounding line-breaks (most did not respect line-breaks after ‘were’, ‘you’, and so on), the colour of the ‘ink’ (we’d chosen brown), and letter-forms (understandably, almost no-one attempted to replicate the distinctive shape of 16pt Arial).
Today, Tynemouth Priory looks a likely place for a haunting. The ruin stands tall and gaunt at the high point of the windswept Northumberland coastline. Advancing towards its hollow east end is a wave of weathered gravestones. There was no gothic cemetery outside when it was a living community of monks (Benedictine) but the medieval residents may well have felt a chill over the burials within. This monastic church carried the macabre distinction of being, for a time, the resting-place of two murder victims, both of them monarchs: Oswine of Deira (d. 651), in whose name the church was dedicated; and Malcolm III. king of Scots (d. 1093).These monks were the custodians of spilled blood and stolen lives.
Perhaps it is no surprise then to find that Tynemouth was the scene of a unique medieval ghost story, recounted only by the thirteenth-century chronicler, Matthew Paris (d. c. 1259). One night in 1224, a monk, Reimund, awoke in his bed to see an apparition of King John (r. 1199-1216) standing before him. He was dressed like a king, in a robe ‘commonly called imperial’, Matthew says. Recalling that the king was dead, Reimund asked him, lamely, how was it with him. Worse than any man, the monarch replied, explaining that his robe was of an unbearable weight – more than any man of the living world might lift – and its imperial glitter was in fact a perpetual fire. Yet, he confided, he trusted in God that he might be released from his suffering by the intercessions of his son, Henry, his alms giving and his reverence for Christian worship. He has shown himself and his awful suffering to deliver a message, through this monastic community, to his old partner-in-crime, Richard Marsh, bishop of Durham (d. 1226), a prelate, by no coincidence, who was the avowed enemy of the monks of Tynemouth. Richard must be warned that his own seat in hell had been prepared, and he would surely take it soon unless he change his shameful ways, and did penance. The ghost then offered two proofs of his identity, one for the monk in front of him and one to be presented to the bishop: first, he described a ring which the king had given to the priory as a votive offering; then he related an instance when the bishop had counselled him on how to cheat the Cistercians of their year crop of wool. Then, he disappears.
Warnings from the domain of dead to the living world were not uncommon in medieval dream visions but this encounter has the different characteristics of a classic ghost story. Reimund is awake, and the ghost of John steps into his world; he even closes the distance between them by speaking of objects and people on the monk’s own horizon. Six hundred years before the publication of Dickens’ Christmas Carol (1843) this ghostly John seems to anticipate the character of Jacob Marley. Like Marley, John is a soul in torment; he too carries the burden he made for himself, the robe he wove in life. Bishop Richard is his Scrooge, albeit his heart is black, not merely cold.
Beyond Matthew, there is no other telling of this ghost story. But it is not the only story of apparitions associated with King John and his death at Newark Castle (Notts.).
The chronicle compiled at Coggeshall Abbey (Essex) remembered that the night of the king’s death – 18-19 October 1216 – was haunting indeed. In the middle of the night there was such a shattering wind and storm that the townspeople feared that their houses would fall. Many spoke of the horrific and supernatural apparitions (horribiles et phantasticae visiones) that came to them. By implication at least, they were terrifying, for the chronicler would not say what they were (hic describere supersedimus).
John had been sick for some weeks before he died. He had been campaigning across the middle of the kingdom, through Suffolk and Norfolk into Lincolnshire, and it is possible he succumbed to dysentery, the soldier’s disease. Yet stories soon circulated of suspicious circumstances. Before the end of the thirteenth-century, an Anglo-Norman verse chronicle (now BL MS Cotton Vitellius A XIII) had taken up a tale of John’s death being the result of a poisoned draught he had been given at Swineshead Abbey, where one of the monks had been determined to end his oppressions of the church. Half a century later in his Polychronicon, Ranulf Higden (d. 1364) had worked the story into a vivid vignette. While John still lived a portent was spoken that he would meet his end at Swineshead. The king responded with an oath that he would retaliate if he lived another year and raise the price of bread from a halfpenny to twelvepence. A lay brother of the house mixed a poisonous brew and coaxed him into drinking it. Higden relished the tale but also held it at arm’s length, offering it to his reader only after he had recorded that the king had died from dysentery.
The macabre fascination with the dead King John was more than a literary trait. In 1239, scarcely a decade into his personal rule, his son Henry III went to his tomb at Worcester Cathedral to see the sarcophagus opened, to look in the face the father he had last seen as a boy of nine. Some 290 years later, the tomb was opened again, and the former Carmelite friar, Reformation provocateur and antiquarian, John Bale (1495-1563), described the sight in uncompromising detail in his commonplace book.
The encounter pressed on Bale’s imagination. In his play Kynge Johan, first written and performed around 1538, the eponymous subject is again represented as the victim of a conspiracy. Simon of Swynsett (i.e. Swineshead) offers him a ‘marvellous good pocyon…a better drink is not in Portugal or Spain’. At once the king is stricken, ‘my body me vexeth, I doubt much of a tympany’. John dies, declaring, ‘There is no malice to the malice of the clergy!’. Then, the final act of the play opens to the spectacle of a supernatural apparition, named as Imperyal Majestye. A spectre of John, or of England’s kingship itself? Whichever it is, he arrives to deliver judgment on the living. The persons of ‘Commynaltye’ and ‘Nobility’ are summoned, to know ‘Ye are much to blame’. ‘Thu playest such a wicked parte’, Majestye’s minister, Veryte, condemns them, warning ’…thy great parell and exceedynge ponnyshment’. He commands, ‘Bowe to Imperyall Majeste. Knele and axe pardon for yowr great enormyte’. Once again, John’s own death and his ghostly presence are pretexts for exposing the wickedness of the world.
The link between the legend of King John and ghostly apparitions was revived in the Victorian period. Martin Tupper (1810-89), philosopher and popular poet, created a new tale of a haunting in which John played a pivotal role. In his historical novel, Stephan Langton (1858), he narrated a story of the king’s abduction, abuse and murder of the daughter of a woodman living in the lee of the Surrey Downs south east of Guildford. John was said to have drowned the girl a spring-fed lake known as the Silent Pool. Ever after, her ghost may be seen at midnight rising from the middle of the pool. By the early 20th century, the Silent Pool had become a site of tourist interest.
King John’s reputation, the manner of his end and even his corrupted corpse have been an enduring source of inspiration for ghoulish reflections on life and death, good and evil, shaping the contemporary response to the traumas of his time, and still, post-medieval representations of that world.
David Bates, who received his PhD from the University of Exeter in 1970, has been awarded the prestigious Prix Syndicat national des Antiquaires du Livre d’Art 2020 for the book La Tapisserie de Bayeux published in 2019 and co-authored with the art historian Xavier Barral i Altet.
The book gained the prize against competition from twenty-three other books from all historical periods. In September 2018, the two authors were invited to submit a proposal for the book by the authorities in Bayeux responsible for the Tapestry to Citadelles & Mazenod who are widely regarded as the leading Art History publisher in France. The authors wrote independently within their fields of expertise, sometimes disagreeing, notably on the subjects of the date and commissioning of the Tapestry. The result is a lavishly illustrated volume containing the two authors’ commentaries accompanied by a magnificent half-size leporello reproduction of the Tapestry (i.e. a pull-out version folded concertina-style). However, such high-end production values come at a cost: the book is priced at €690.00 – making it more suited to institutional than personal budgets! Fortunately, a cheaper version of the commentaries is also available: it costs €29.00 and includes illustrations but not, alas, the leporello reproduction.
The book has a strong connection to David’s doctoral studies in Exeter. David’s PhD, completed under the supervision of Professor Frank Barlow, was a biography of Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the man widely regarded as being in some way ultimately responsible for commissioning the Tapestry. Since then, the Tapestry has been ever-present in David’s professional life, even though this is his first direct publication on the topic. The book required him to revisit subjects that interested him enormously when he worked on his thesis, namely, the nature of Odo’s wide-ranging intellectual patronage and his relations with the Kent churches, notably the abbey of St Augustine’s, Canterbury, the monastery where David and many others believe that the Tapestry was made.
David found writing the book on such a famous subject challenging, particularly given the huge literature published on the Tapestry and the broader issues of artistic creativity, historical accuracy, and authorial motivation. But it also revived memories of the excitement of doing the PhD, of the many people with whom David made contact when writing it, and of the many avenues opened up by studying Odo. Looking back on those times, David also remembers the help given to him by one of Frank Barlow’s earlier research students, Graham Duncombe, who studied the society of post-Conquest Kent, worked for the Victoria History of the Counties of England, and was tragically killed along with other members of the VCH staff in a car accident on the M2. It was Graham who also made many of the introductions that shaped David’s later career during his first prolonged period of work at the Institute of Historical Research, of which David was Director from 2003 to 2008.
The Centre for Medieval Studies sends it heartfelt congratulations to David and thanks him for sharing this good news with us – particularly welcome in these difficult times!
Five months on from our previous post, work has been proceeding apace at the ‘Learning French in Medieval England’ project — or, as literally no-one is calling it, ‘Tretiz Towers’. Our primary focus at the moment remains the work that we’re doing on the project’s central strand: namely, producing a digital edition of the Tretiz‘s 17 extant manuscripts. The days of Word documents, however, are thankfully behind us: thanks to the sterling work of Dr. Charlotte Tupman, the project’s TEI consultant, we’re now getting to grips with XML encoding, and ‘marking up’ our earlier transcriptions into a machine-readable format that will be both dynamic and easily-searchable. As we’ve become more familiar with the ins and outs of XML, we’ve been asked on several occasions to clarify how exactly this strange new language works, and to that end, we’ve produced a brief introduction to XML, with particular reference to our project, over on the Modern Languages and Cultures blog. Encoding is certainly a rewarding experience, and one that forces us to think critically about our editing philosophies and methodologies; when making text machine-readable, everything has to be justified, and sidestepping difficult questions simply isn’t an option. The real reward, though, will be seeing the edition in its finished form, and making the first of the many discoveries that we anticipate it to enable.
The project’s outreach and communication arm has also stepped up a gear over the past few months, with both Tom and I speaking at multiple events to academic audiences and the broader public. I kicked things off in May with a presentation at Academics in Quarantine, an online conference series, while Tom, fresh from an appearance on BBC Radio Devon, gave a fascinating talk on French in Medieval England as part of a round of public engagement events organised by the team at Agile Rabbit (available to watch online). More recently, Tom has also presented at the online Medieval French Seminar series organized by academics in the UK, where he explored questions of Latinity in the Tretiz, investigating links between Bibbesworth and Latin word-books and nominalia. We’ve also produced guest posts for various other outlets, with Tom investigating two British Library manuscripts of the text over on the Values of French project blog and Edward producing the introduction to XML mentioned at the start of this post. The project’s Twitter account (@MedievalFrench) remains a hive of activity, with regular #TretizTuesday posts (highlighting intriguing or unusual aspects of the text) pushing us towards a respectable 350 followers.
The coming months will be crucial to the project’s success, as we look towards completion of our encoding and the subsequent investigation of broader questions that underpin the Tretiz‘s composition and reception. We hope you’ll join us for the journey, whether on our Twitter page or on our project website, and look forward to bringing you another update soon.
Research Associate, ‘Learning French in Medieval England’
On 1 October 1536 a crowd of worshippers which had just spilled out from the parish church of St James at Louth (Lincs.) was stirred into shouts of angry protest at the Westminster government’s interference in their lives. Their cries included some of the familiar complaints of the pre-modern commons: that evil counsellors held the king in their clutches; that the policy of his government punished the many for the profit of the few; that the livelihood of loyal subjects was being drained away by levies that knew no precedent. But their anger also targeted a new theme: the government’s interventions in the institution of the church and customary religious practice. In particular, they expressed their fury at the forced closure of dozens of religious houses in their region under an act of parliament issued six months before. They had watched this compulsory suppression slowly but steadily advance across the county since the summer. Only now did they voice their reaction, encouraged by the general climate of agitation; and also by the presence among them of several professed canons and monks from monasteries nearby, including some of those whose houses had just been seized and their communities dispersed.
What followed the sudden outcry at Louth is very well known to historians. A band of laymen and clergy – canons and monks among them – hurriedly mustered and set off on a march to the cathedral city of Lincoln to win formal and public recognition for their cause. There, they stormed into the cathedral church and took armed control. Its chancellor was cut down in the melee. In just two days they were driven out, some killed, many captured. But their fury reverberated and in barely a week there were copycat uprisings north of the Humber. The reformation rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace had begun.
The involvement of the religious orders in the Lincolnshire rising has long been debated. The principal primary sources are the statements of the captured rebels, which carry all the contradictions and self-conscious evasions of testimony taken under duress. There were certainly canons and monks in the crowd at Louth. Some of them joined the march to Lincoln. Among those taken, questioned and, in due course, executed were professed men from the Cistercian abbey at Louth and Kirkstead, the Benedictine abbey at Bardney and the Premonstratensian abbey at Barlings. The most consistent story taken from them when captured was of their being pressed to join the rebel band by force and under threat of violence to them and their houses. The statements of secular clergy and laymen captured with them told it differently: it was some of these monastics who had stirred the crowd. The men from Barlings in particular were remembered as prominent captains in the field.
The witness statements say very little about these men except their names and in some cases their office in their monastery. Now, thanks to a neglected entry in the register of the Bishop of Lincoln, held in Lincolnshire Archives, it is possible to know a little more. Three of the canons from Barlings apprehended, and ultimately put to death for their part in the risings, appear standing together at an ordination ceremony in Magdalen chapel at Lincoln Cathedral just six months before. William Eversam, James Warton and William Kendall were presented as candidates for priesting at Easter 1536.
Their ordination to the priesthood on the same day provides several insights into their identity as canons. Monastic and mendicant candidates were progressed from minor orders to priesthood in cohorts, according to the timing of their initial entry into their house. By the sixteenth century, it was typical for priesting to coincide with the conclusion of the formal noviciate. The minimum age permitted under canon law to enter priest’s orders was twenty-four; for generations, religious houses had kept close to this minimum (and sometimes contravened it) because of their need for qualified priests. It may be safe to say that these three future rebels – executed as felons a year after their examination by the bishop’s suffragan – were newcomers to the religious life; young men; and they had been bound together for as long as they been at Barlings, because date of entry and placement in a cohort were the defining features of any monastic society.
Knowing this raises further thoughts about their involvement in the rising. They were a cohort, already confederates as they made their way as new canons of their community. They might have been pushed into the rebel band at the point of a pikestaff; but they might have made a collective decision to join it. They had lived together as novices, perhaps for eighteen months or more before that fateful October day. They knew each other’s mind. Certainly, they acted in defence of a way of life they had only just begun.
Their recent entry into the monastery and their (apparent) youth offers an important reminder about the state of the religious houses after the Henrician reformation was underway. In spite of the best efforts of the king’s commissioners, the monasteries and friaries continued to take in recruits. Ordination records show that incoming cohorts were still making their way in holy orders as much as three years after the Lincolnshire rising. The surrender deeds of the last monasteries standing in 1539-40 record the presence of novices who had not yet concluded their probationary term. The monastic estate that confronted the kings reformation, and in some locations resisted it to the death, included a rising generation, like the Barlings three, only just coverted to life in the cloister.
It’s the start of a new academic year at Exeter and many things are different. We can’t teach, research, or meet together as a community in quite the same way as before. But we’ve adapted and found workarounds – and it’s no different for the Centre’s Medieval Research Seminar!
We have a full programme of seminars scheduled for this year, details of which are on the Centre’s webpage. Until further notice, our seminars will meet online. As usual, we will host two public lectures. We’re pleased to announce that John Tolan is giving the Barton Lecture in December, while Elisabeth van Houts will give the Orme Lecture in March. These lectures will be open to all – although we’re still working out the logistics of this! Invitations to the other seminars will be sent out via the Centre’s mailing list. If you’re not on the mailing list and would like to attend a particular talk, then please get in touch with the seminar organisers, Helen Birkett (H.Birkett@exeter.ac.uk) or Levi Roach (L.Roach@exeter.ac.uk).
Moving online has also offered us new opportunities. We are no longer constrained by a travel budget, which means that we can host more international speakers – and we’ll be hearing from scholars based in the US and France this year. The shift online has also encouraged us to experiment with the seminar format. We’ve offered speakers the options of giving a standard 45-minute talk, doing a shorter ‘Show and Tell’ session (where speakers introduce us to a particular source or research question), or taking part in a 40-minute interview with a member of staff. We hope that this will keep our online audiences engaged and increase the chance for discussion.
Research seminars play a crucial role in maintaining our sense of community at the Centre. It’s where a disparate set of medievalists come together to hear new ideas, meet new scholars, and to interact with each other. We managed to keep these seminars going in May and June, which helped to ease feelings of isolation created by lockdown. Hopefully, this year’s seminar series will continue to add a small sense of normality to this very abnormal time.
Our first scheduled event, the AGM and welcome meeting, will take place on 14 October, just after our MA programmes start. We look forward to seeing members of the Centre then – and non-members at later events!
Helen Birkett, Centre Director
Writing in 1879, the great Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins bemoaned the recent felling of the poplars at Binsey near Oxford: ‘All felled, felled, are all felled’. To him, those trees represented something precious, a ‘sweet especial rural scene’. Had he been alive in 1615, he might have felt similarly outraged about what had taken place in the manor of Dunkeswell since the suppression of its Cistercian Abbey in 1539. The fate of the woodland once managed by the abbey is described in the Norden Survey, a fascinating document put together in the years 1615 and 1616. The surveyor does not mince his words, but launches a broadside at those whom he described as ‘intollerable spoylers’ and bemoans the fact ‘that there is no punishment of offenders’. He is almost poetic in his description of the woodland of the manor, stating how ‘This Mannor within theis fewe yeares was the best timbered Manno’ in the west partes.’ However, much of that woodland had now been devastated. The survey had been carried out with the involvement of eight local jurors and they had been obliged on their oaths to give the names of these ‘offenders’. The surveyor is unstinting in his criticism of the greedy tenants. He describes how ‘All the timber and wood is wasted, beinge of late the beste manor of wood and timber trees in Devon’.
Thanks to the generosity of a local private benefactor, the whole of the Norden Survey is freely viewable online via London Metropolitan Archives. The entry for the manor of Dunkeswell can be found in document CLA/044/05/041 (images 245 to 262 inclusive). What this survey reveals is how actively and effectively the local woodland resources had been managed during the late medieval period by its monastic lord. Timber had been used for many purposes by the convent, and its effective management was essential to the economy of the abbey. The grandest of the trees would have been used for the monastic buildings, especially for roofing timbers. Much wood was required for domestic items such as doors, flooring and shutters, and for the agrarian economy. The nearby Augustinian nunnery of Canonsleigh Abbey had an annual fair where cart wheels were sold – we know this from the building accounts of Exeter Cathedral. The woodland at Dunkeswell would have been used for similar purposes, as well as for fencing, ploughs etc. A constant supply of firewood was required for heating and cooking. To satisfy all those varying requirements, the abbey had to manage its woodland carefully and sustainably. Different areas of woodland were earmarked for different purposes, with some left to grow into the largest trees for roofing timbers etc. Harvesting of the woodland would have been carefully controlled to ensure that sufficient supplies of each kind of timber were always available. Dunkeswell Abbey was fortunate that the Devon landscape and climate were so amenable to the growth of woodland. Other religious houses had to call on benefactors such as the king or other nobles to provide the largest timbers from their forest resources.
At Canonsleigh Abbey the richness of their woodland resources are described in the records of the Court of Augmentations. This was the organisation established by Henry VIII’s government to oversee the disposal of monastic property for the king’s profit after the suppression at the end of the 1530s. The records itemise the woodland plots at Canonsleigh showing how they contained trees at varying stages of growth. Just as at Dunkeswell, the abbey would have had their own foresters who provided for the careful management of the woodland.
Over sixty years after the dissolution of the monasteries, there was clearly still a strong local memory concerning the rich woodland resources that the monastic houses had once maintained. The level of control over those resources had clearly declined drastically since the manor of Dunkeswell passed into lay hands, firstly those of John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford. When the Norden surveyor arrived in 1615, he was forthright in his condemnation of the free-for-all that had taken place across the woodlands of the manor.
What the Norden Survey helps to show is just how useful those records produced after the dissolution can be for the study of religious houses in the later medieval period. For example it also describes a set of long leases made by the abbey, some for the term of 100 years, that were still running in 1615. The last abbot, John Ley, could probably see that he was living in very uncertain times, and wanted to bind his temporal resources into local society to provide some stability. What he could not have anticipated was that his abbey, together with all the other religious houses of Devon and Somerset, would be swept aside in the whirlwind of suppression that took place in early 1539.
Des Atkinson, PhD Student
Five hundred years ago this week the monarchies of England and France met in the meadowland of the Pas-de-Calais. Today these flatlands are largely nondescript for the traffic that flashes past them on the A26, ‘l’Avenue des Anglais’, but even now the fields six kilometres to the east of Guînes, on the edge of the village of Balinghem, carry the sign ‘le camp du drap d’or’, or, changed somewhat in translation, the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
Here Henry VIII of England and François I of France, and the clerical and seigniorial hierarchies with which they governed, faced one another for a formal encounter that continued for a fortnight. It was the first meeting of these young monarchs – François was 26 and Henry was 29 – whose kingdoms had been in a state of war with one another for most of the past decade.
It was a conceived as a point of departure and certainly for François whose first years of rule had seen the successful extension of his military might beyond his borders, he surely anticipated this as the first stage on which he would be recognised unequivocally as a broker of Europe’s balance of power. Yet it was also the fulfilment of a rapprochement to which the ministers of both sides had applied themselves with serious purpose already for two years. At a diplomatic summit convened in London in October 1518 a pact pledging non-aggression had been agreed by the ambassadors of both kingdoms, and those of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and the Papal States. The rhetoric of this pact reached for a yet higher purpose, a universal peace for Christendom to protect its integrity from the advance of the Ottomans at its eastern frontier. But the realpolitik was the common imperative for a pause in the costly competition for continental overlordship. Money and conflict within the political nation were the inherited problems of the last late medieval rulers; now there was another threat, by June 1520 (when Martin Luther was the subject of the papal bull Exsurge domine) clearly focused on the horizon: a schism in the institutional church.
What both kingdoms hoped to carry away from le camp was something more than a pledge, a substantive treaty that might at least spare them from conflict on one of their frontiers. But common ground of such a pragmatic kind is rarely sufficient between ambitious heads of state to secure a settlement for the long term and their two-week interlude at their common border yielded no treaty. Rather, its tangible effect was to inscribe the self-image of the two reigns, still at the beginning of their course. This was a political summit performed as a pageant: in their trains, François and Henry paraded nobility, knighthood, prelates and clergy, the two presiding estates of their kingdoms; and the third, productive estate was a palpably present, in the hundreds of household staff attendant on each one of the principals, and in the machinery that supported them, manmade and land-raised, horses (for war and for carriage), hunting dogs and hawks.
The vast supporting cast was staged for presentation to either side with visual and aural accompaniment that self-consciously demonstrated the kingdoms’ claim to cutting-edge artistry. The choristers that performed with the English prelates wore the portcullis pattern vestments which Henry’s father, Henry VII, had provided for the Tudor family chantry – configured as a Lady chapel – at Westminster Abbey, new in 1520 and the costliest architectural and artistic project witnessed in living memory.
The pageant was an expression of the nations’ magnificence, but in the English party there was a painstaking effort to represent the regions of the Tudor kingdom. Here, perhaps, was an early indication of Henry’s notion of an imperial monarchy which would take shape over the next decade, as the leading lordships of provincial England were summoned to stand foursquare with their king. For the West Country, there were six delegates: Sir John Arundell and Sir Piers Edgcumbe representing the far west; John Bassett and John Bourchier standing for the north of the region (from Umberleigh to Bampton); Sir William Courtenay of Powderham and Henry Courtenay, earl of Devon, whose anchorhold was the region’s only city, Exeter, its estuary and its eastern march. Earl Henry, aged just about twenty-two, was already remarkably close to the centre of royal power and serving as a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Alone among the West Country men he was positioned in the principal royal train as they took the field at Guînes. A sequence of tournaments punctuated the programme there, and in the lists the earl excelled; he was one of the only English knights to emerge undefeated from each one of his jousts. His conspicuous prowess can only have further burnished the king’s favour and scarcely a year later he received a portion of the attainted lands of the Yorkist traitor, Edmund Stafford, duke of Buckingham. In 1525, Henry conferred on Courtenay the title of Marquess of Exeter.
The west of England still carries some trace of its part in the performance five hundred Junes ago: some of the personal archives of Earl Henry and Sir William Courtenay remain in the Powderham collection. At Berkeley Castle, there is a fabric fragment believed to be from one of the very tents that were pitched on the field.
Almost ten years ago, during my doctoral research, I was rifling through boxes at the Archives nationales in Paris for the first time. Guided by preliminary references I had found in notes kindly provided by Prof. Nicholas Vincent, I was mining a very rich seam through the Ordre de Malte section of the S series. It was there that I stumbled across an undated and unpublished charter that seemed to have inspired no comment in any of my secondary reading (pictured above). Its anonymity may seem natural enough: it records a donation to the Knights Templar made by a father and son—Hugh and Odo of Essonne, otherwise unknown—of the census from some vague ‘land of ours closest and nearest to [the order’s] mills’ on the island of Saussay (between modern Itteville and Ballancourt, Essonne).
The rather flashy red silk cords and surviving green wax seal caught my eye, however, and I froze upon reading the witness list. As a first-year doctoral student, the novelty of handling medieval parchment was still quite fresh, and that electric feeling of connexion with the past found in archives has never left me. But this scrap of skin and ink promised to be particularly special. In addition to Simon of Montfort, the subject of my doctoral thesis, those present at the grant included the Cistercian abbots of Vaux-de-Cernay and Cercanceaux, Robert Mauvoisin, Gerard of Fournival, and the Templars William of Chartres and Robert of Chamville. The abbots had not only been among those white monks deputed to recruit and accompany the Fourth Crusade (1198-1204), but, along with Simon of Montfort and Robert Mauvoisin, opposed the crusade’s diversion to attack Christian cities such as Zara on the Dalmatian coast, finally leaving together for Syria in 1203 while most of the army sailed to its infamous destiny at Constantinople. Gerard of Fournival had no connexion with this group, but was a Third Crusade veteran and Plantagenet courtier who made an independent second voyage to Outremer in 1204. William of Chartres would become master of the Temple in 1210, while Robert of Chamville is noted in the charter as ‘commander of the Temple of Acre’, a position he held until sometime before 1207.
Here was, then, an original charter that had almost certainly been drafted in the Holy Land during the Fourth Crusade, between mid-1204 (the arrival of Gerard of Fournival) and autumn 1205 (the latest possible departure of Simon of Montfort). Subsequent searching on my part yielded only four other such surviving charters. This fifth example was brought to the commandery of Chalou-la-Reine (modern Chalou-Moulineaux, Essonne), either by the donors or by Templars returning to France from business or service in Acre. After the suppression of the order in 1312, the Knights Hospitaller took over the commandery, and the charter was eventually deposited in the archives of the commandery of Le Saussay itself, erected in 1356. It would remain there until the suppression of all religious orders during the French Revolution and the national confiscation of their possessions, at which point the document was introduced to its present home in the Archives nationales.
In addition to its rarity, this charter also reveals a good deal about diplomatic practices among the Templars in Acre at the turn of the thirteenth century, as well as the history of the dissenters from the Fourth Crusade. Among the first things to note are the physical elements of the charter that first arrested my attention: the red cords and green wax.
Seals were ordinarily attached with simple parchment or leather queues and cast in uncoloured brown wax. Cords made of dyed fibres such as those attached to the Essonne charter (left) or to a contemporary confirmation by papal legates of a dying crusader’s grant to the Templars (right) demonstrate status, while green wax emphasises the importance and perpetual significance of the document it seals.
These materials, likely along with the professional scribe who so neatly composed the charter, were almost certainly provided to Hugh and Odo by the Templars in Acre, suggesting a ‘luxury service’ for those crusaders who wished to extend the benefits of their experience in Outremer by endowing the order with property in the West. That the Templars in Acre were willing to lay out the red carpet even for donations as modest as that of the Essonnes is indicative not only of the Knights’ wealth, but also of an indiscriminate approach to property acquisition.
Closer inspection of the text, particularly of the witness list, yields a number of other conclusions. A distinction made between the witnesses—the abbot of Cercanceaux, Simon of Montfort, and Gerard of Fournival—and the Templars ‘in [whose] presence’ the grant was made sheds light on the purpose of such observers. While the witnesses are described as such in the present tense (testes sunt), the attendance of William of Chartres and Robert of Chamville is in the perfect (fuit factum); Robert’s office as commander is furthermore given an imperfect qualifier (tunc erat). A nearly identical diplomatic formula in a Champenois charter of 1201 (surviving in a vidimus, below) attests the presence of Templars at a grant made in Acre but only recorded once the crusader donor returned home.
Here, however, a distinction is made between the witnesses of the ‘fact’ or ‘matter’ (res) of the donation, and the ‘gift’ (donum) itself. By contrast, both the witnesses of the Essonne charter and the Templars are associated with the actual donum of the grant. But while both the crusaders and the Templars attended the Essonne grant, they did not all serve as witnesses. Quite apart from the fact that, as beneficiaries, William and Robert were interested parties, the substance of the gift—the census on the Essonnes’ land—was in France, and neither Templar could be relied upon to return from his active service in Outremer. The true witnesses, however, all expected to make the voyage home, where they could vouch for the authenticity of the Essonnes’ act. The Templars in both Syria and France therefore distinguished between the persistent identity of the witnesses and the temporally limited role of the representatives of the order, who were too distant to be consulted or easily verified.
More indirectly, the conjunction of the abbots of Vaux-de-Cernay and Cercanceaux, Robert Mauvoisin, and Simon of Montfort testifies to the continued cohesion of the group that abandoned the main crusade army over a point of principle in 1203. The continued affinity between Simon, Guy of Vaux-de-Cernay (who had long been a friend of the Montforts), and Robert Mauvoisin through the Albigensian Crusade (1208-1218, Simon’s death) has been much discussed elsewhere; the inclusion of Hugh of Cercanceaux, who, unlike the others, had no connections with the forest of Yveline (south-west of Paris), shows that this association was not derived solely from regional identity. Indeed, the presence of an outsider such as Gerard of Fournival among the witnesses may confirm the importance of shared ideals. Before sailing east, Gerard petitioned for a royal licence to move a weekly market in his Norman lands from Sunday to Thursday, in line with the reforms preached by the Parisian schoolmen linked to Guy of Vaux-de-Cernay and enacted in 1212 by Simon of Montfort in the Statutes of Pamiers, a constitution for his conquests in the Albigensian Crusade. In contrast with the recriminations of Fourth Crusade apologist Geoffrey of Villehardouin, who accused them of wishing ‘to disperse the host’ at their departure from Zara, Simon, Guy, and their companions remained physically and morally united throughout their expedition to the Holy Land.
A decade ago when I discovered this charter, I was principally interested in this last dimension: its value as an independent documentary testimony to Simon of Montfort’s pilgrimage to Outremer. I have, however, continued to come back to this remarkable, if brief, bit of parchment over the years and tried to tease out some of the light it can shed through its peculiarities. I hope these musings have demonstrated its importance, not only as an uncommon survival but also as a window into medieval approaches to documents, particularly in the context of crusading, at the turn of the thirteenth century.
Gregory Lippiatt, Lecturer in Medieval History