Middle English Word of the Moment

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Air-brush and Red Blaming Pen of History

I've never read Froissart start to finish, only dipped into bits depending on what I'm researching at the time. And now that I've set out to read his Chronicles as a whole, I'm becoming increasingly relieved that I only ever quoted his version of Edward II's reign and deposition to demonstrate "tales that were told later about these events", rather than "how these events happened, no really, and this is crucial to my argument". I'm going to assume his 'historical' value rises as he gets closer to his own time and events that he witnessed, but the way he conflates certain characters and events and smooths over others is, in the light it sheds on the transmission and construction of history, more fascinating than accuracy.

Edward II, he claims, is "no part of our subject" (5)[1]. Still, he spends a few chapters narrating his reign - primarily, it seems, to provide contrast with those of his father and his son. For "it has often been observed that between two valiant kings there has most commonly been one less sufficient both in wit and valour" (4). When the recent family history of your (erstwhile/occasional) patron includes events like, oh, said patron's mother overthrowing his father with the help of her lover and setting the patron up as king in his father's place and then being overthrown by the new king who then hangs her lover like a thief, there's some delicate narration to be done, and this is probably going to necessitate finding a few scapegoats to shoulder all their own blame and as much as possible of everyone else's. Edward II is definitely one of Froissart's scapegoats. Positive references back to Edward I ("valiant, prudent, wise and bold" (5)) prove that Our Hero did come of good, strong lineage: his father was just an aberration.

Another scapegoat is Hugh Despenser, who takes the blame for his own deeds, most of Edward II's worst behaviour (as opposed to his simple incompetence), the entirety of the disputes between king and barons, the death of Thomas of Lancaster ("a wise and saintly man" (7)), and, obligingly, the role of Piers Gaveston. Gaveston doesn't appear in Froissart's history at all; instead, we are told that Edward II "truly governed his country with great cruelty and injustice, by the advice of Sir Hugh Despencer, with whom he had been brought up since childhood" (ibid). Now, on the face of it, this could be absolutely correct. He was, in the latter and most notorious part of his reign, strongly influenced by Despenser. And Despenser was one of the ten pueri in custodia hand-picked by Edward I as suitable companions to his growing son in the 1290s. But so was Piers Gaveston (Edward I really knew how to pick them), and it was he to whom the young Edward most adhered, he who was to influence the formation of his personality, political attitudes and developing relationship with his father and barons and his own crown until well after Gaveston was murdered in 1312. Despenser, by contrast, wasn't really in Edward's favour until 1316 at the earliest, and doesn't appear to have substantially affected his decisions before his appointment as chamberlain in 1318[2]. And that's without even considering all the lesser favourites in between and around those times, like Roger d'Amory and Arundel.

But that's complicated, and creates an unnecessary duplication of the main villain of the piece, which, as any film writer will tell you, confuses the audience. There was always a favourite, and he was someone who'd been raised with the king since childhood, and Edward's government was strongly influenced (or just carried out) by him. And Hugh Despenser fits that description, is easiest to villainise (Gaveston gave half the barons insulting nicknames, which is funny), is most memorable and got executed in a horrible way, so he's much the best candidate for the scapegoat hat.

However, there's absolutely no way we can make his hat big enough to take the blame for Isabella invading England, the dubious legality of deposing a king (or forcing him to abdicate, if you prefer). So we need scapegoat #3. The obvious candidate? Roger Mortimer.

Unexpectedly, then, he barely appears at all in the account of the invasion. Edward II takes all the blame for this one. Isabella escapes his tyranny, fleeing to France with her son[3]. She hears the pleas of the oppressed English, wishes to help them, pleads with king of France and count of Hainault for help (on her knees, weeping, because this is proper and appropriate and very touching), Sir John of Hainault swears to her that "you may count on me as your own knight" (12), which is all very admirable, and he helps her enter England. Naturally, the country rises up to meet her and rejects Edward. Mortimer appears once, just after the queen has (independently) decided to answer her people's call:
Then she left her lodging as quickly and quietly as she could, with her son, who was then about fifteen years old, the Earl of Kent, Sir Roger Mortimer and all the other English knights that had come away with her. They passed right through France... (11)
So right now, Mortimer's function is to avoid stealing Isabella's glory (er, sorry - piety). We need Isabella to be a hero for now, and we don't need him as a villain yet, not until after Edward II and Despenser are out of the picture and we come to the awkward question of Isabella's tyranny. At that point, he will be necessary not only evilly convince Edward III to kill his uncle Kent and to be the focus of Edward III's coup, but also to retrospectively take the blame for any doubts still lingering about Isabella's actions in and after the invasion.

And then, of course, there's the awkward question of adultery. The woman in question is, remember, Froissart's patron's mother, and possibly the most influential woman in the country's memory. Froissart does his best to side-step it - largely by the simple expedient already mentioned, of leaving Mortimer out of the history altogether. If one were to try to pair Isabella's name with that of any man over the course of the campaign, it would be Sir John of Hainault: but he firmly defined their relationship at the outset as a very proper lady-and-her-champion courtly trope. There is a hint of adultery, or rather of some vague inappropriateness, before Mortimer's name is ever mentioned, when Isabella in France is warned that "in all truth, if she did not behave discreetly, the King her brother would have her sent back to her husband in England, and her son with her" (11). But this is muddied by context: it is preceded by Isabella's distress at hearing of England's unhappiness, and followed by "because it did not please the King of France that she should stay away from her husband" (ibid). So the indiscretion is there, if one knows the story, but it's as far from suggestive as he can manage.

Similarly, the only hint we have before the denouement of any relationship between Isabella and Mortimer is painted primarily as mutual interest and influence, and it comes on the very verge of their catastrophe, when Froissart is piling up the tension against them:
The young King of England was ruled for a long time by the advice of his mother and of Edmund Earl of Kent and Sir Roger Mortimer, as you have heard. At length jealousy arose between these two lords, to the extent that Sir Roger Mortimer, with the connivance of the Queen Mother, advised the King that the Earl of Kent was going to poison him... (51)
Leaving aside what Froissart may or may not have known about the actual accusations against Kent[4], this neatly places the Blame of Evilness on Mortimer, while allowing Isabella's "connivance" to the extent that it shows a powerful bloc working against young Edward taking on the full robe of government, elevating Edward III while demeaning his mother as little as possible. Where there is glory to be seen in the actions of Isabella's party, she is allowed to take full responsibility, adorned in the robes of chivalry's belle dame; where something unsightly peeks through, she is, naturally, a woman, and is absolved from true responsibility by the weakness of her sex.

But then, of course, came the part that Froissart couldn't ignore: that little detail where Isabella was suspected of being pregnant with Mortimer's child, and Mortimer's downfall. What he can do, of course, is a) assert that it was all rumour and he can't speak to its truth, and b) shift the focus away by using that as a prologue to AND THEN EDWARD REALISED MORTIMER WAS EVIL AND SMOTE HIM MIGHTILY. And to accentuate this MIGHTY SMOTIFYING, how was Mortimer killed? Not merely hanged as Murimuth and pretty much every contemporary source would have it, oh no:
[The barons and nobles] replied that Mortimer should suffer the same fate as Sir Hugh Despenser, and this sentence was carried out without delay or mercy. Mortimer was dragged through the streets of London on a hurdle, and then tied to a ladder in an open square. His private parts were cut off and thrown onto a fire, as were his hearts and entrails, since he was guilty of treason in thought and deed. His body was then quartered and sent to the four largest cities in England, the head remaining in London. Such was the fate of Sir Roger Mortimer; may God forgive him his sins. (52)
And so all the evil people were punished evilly for their evil, and the rest of them lived happily ever after.

Now, I don't suggest that every instance in which Froissart varies from what we (more or less) know to have happened is a deliberate and conscious attempt on his part to wrest history into a more fitting course. I haven't yet managed to track down a copy of Jean le Bel's chronicles, which I understand Froissart was to a large extent following (alright, copying) for the earlier books. So for some of the "Froissart"s above one perhaps ought to read "Jean le Bel" - and for some, one must surely read "rumour, folklore, that old bloke in the pub and Everyone Knows".

I skimmed through a high-school or undergrad level book yesterday on the events of the English Civil Wars (it had diagrams!). One phrase caught my eye - it said something about "to understand this period, one must..." Well, why must I? Why can't I just take the facts and - well, turn them around my way and make my own understanding of them?

To understand, one must make history into a story in one's mind. Froissart, and the people around him, had certain tropes and shapes into which the facts and events and clouds of history had to fit to become a good, coherent story. It can't be a story until it has meaning - and sometimes it needs to take a few hammer-blows first.


[1] All quotes are from the edition of the chronicles trans. and ed. John Jolliffe (New York: Modern Library, 1968). Eventually I will get around to reading them in French.

[2] Adam Murimuth doesn't find it necessary to refer to him before his first exile in 1320.

[3] In itself another example of simplifying events by placing blame and telescoping the sequence. Isabella went to France on Edward's instructions to negotiate terms with the king, her brother, who eventually agreed to receiving homage (for the French lands held by the English crown) not from Edward II but from his son the prince. Edward II was reluctant to send his heir over into the custody of his wife and her family, but eventually consented, sending a large loyal retinue with him. Isabella managed to manoeuvre people and events such that the retinue was sent home, and she was left holding the baby, as it were.

[4] Though if he had heard that the charge was actually about trying to help his brother (former Edward II, officially dead) escape from the place where he had been firmly assured by many notable and trustworthy people that he was, in fact, still being held prisoner, and should probably still be king... well, that was probably a good version of the story to leave out, because there's a whole mess of nasty legitimacy business there that I can't imagine Edward III would have wanted him to drag out. Come to that, I translated Kent's answer to the charges the other day: maybe I should post that.


Anonymous said...


And this, you see, would be why your housemate thinks they love you. I, meanwhile, love this post. I must read more Froissart.

Kathryn Warner said...

Fantastic analysis, Ceirseach. I loathe Froissart's chronicle, if only because it's so ludicrously biased against Edward II and so fawningly adoring of Teh Wonderful And Saintly Isabella, Our Hero's Wondrous Mother. And also because - not his fault, of course - Froissart's been followed much too closely by later writers, who still sometimes write that Isa 'fled' or 'escaped' to France in 1325 because of Ed's mistreatment of her. (from memory, Froissart has her fleeing from Winchelsea after pretending to go on pilgrimage to Canterbury, when in fact she sailed from Dover with a large retinue).

Would love to read your translation of Kent's answer!

Kathryn Warner said...

And just had to come back to read this terrific post again and comment. :) I loved the bit about Froissart holding Isa responsible when her party does something praiseworthy, but claiming that she's a mere weak woman when they do something bad; of course, Isa's modern-day apologists do exactly the same thing, pretending that she's solely in charge and A Great Feminist Icon And Strong Powerful Woman when doing something the commentators approve of, and totally under Mortimer's thumb and in thrall to his Thrillingly Virile Manliness when it comes to their greed, tyranny and downright stupidity after 1327.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

tenthmedieval: Thank you - I'm glad you liked it! Froissart is rather fun. It's sort of seductive to see events that you know as a rather jarring and haphazard collection of happenings smoothed out into an all-encompassing chivalric romance, after all.

Alianore: I don't know, I rather enjoy him, but of course for your period he isn't quite so good! I'm rather fond of Isabella, and think she was a very impressive woman (and know where Edward III got a lot of his canniness from), but somehow I manage to be simultaneously fond of her and Edward and Edward III and Mortimer and even, occasionally, Hugh Despenser; which doesn't really make for a very good narrative.

I shall do Kent today, then!

Kathryn Warner said...

Oh, I agree that Isabella was impressive in some ways, if not nearly as impressive as those who try to turn her into Empowered Feminist Icon Isabella!!! like to make out.

A good few of the misunderstandings that are still often perpetuated about Ed II, his reign and his relationship with his wife come from Froissart (most of the others come from Geoffrey le Baker) so I really can't like him, however useful he might be for later events.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Fair enough! Have you read Jean le Bel? I'm still trying to track down a complete set of his chronicles (rather than just selections, which invariably pertain only to things like the Hundred Years War and the Mightiness of Edward III) to see just how far we have to blame him for readings that Froissart perpetuated.

Jules Frusher said...

Great post about the inacuracies of Froissart - a chronicle which a few historians and writers have slavishly used to as 'the truth'. I echo everything Alianore says regarding Froissarts/le bel's accounts of Edward II's reign. If I may suggest one tiny correction though - Hugh Despenser was first made Edward's chamberlain in April 1318 - an appointment that was confirmed in the York Parliament later that year ;-)

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Thank you - you're quite right! I ought to proof-read more often. :)


Steve Muhlberger said...

Don't expect F to get any more reliable for his own times. Read F as if he were a pundit writing for the Washington Post in the first decade of the 21st century. Not a phrase is to be taken as the literal truth, all of it is spun ferociously. But I have read every word, and it was worth it. Many of the stories are very revealing.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Oh, that's how I read most chronicle writers. :) But they are good fun.