King John vs Barons: 1-1 in Espionage Cup semifinals

The Magna Carta season is upon us and everyone who’s known King John of England ‘personally’ (via narrative chronicles and government records, that is) find themselves revisiting the years 1214-17 and ‘reliving’ the ups and down of king and barons in one of the most pivotal moments of British history. This year we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the drafting, sealing and granting of Magna Carta, that pomme de discorde of 13th-century cider-drinking monarch and aristocracy.

More and more people are likely to learn this year about the ‘Baronial War’, the ‘Road to Runnymede’, the ‘Security Clause’, disseisins, pipe rolls and reliefs, and many other exotic concepts that have traditionally acted as conversational stoppers every time a medievalist was asked by a non-medievalist, ‘What are you working on?’.

I was looking today at one of the most valuable narratives written in the reign of king John. It is a chronicle written by a Cistercian abbot named Ralph at the monastery of Coggeshall in Essex. Ralph’s chronicle is fascinating and would make a good read for anyone with a sense of wonder and curiosity. Ralph is very well-informed when it comes to reporting on the events on either side of 1215. His prose is detailed and well-constructed. He gets my attention on different details and aspects of the conflict every time I go back to him, and this time was no different.

Ralph has something exciting to say about the war between king John and his rebelled barons, and it has to do with sabotage and deception. Very few have noticed the information war that was being carried out by both sides and which complemented the traditional I’ll-take-your-castle-you-take-mine warfare. Ralph has two examples of this.

As the English barons were promising the English crown to prince Louis, the French king’s son, John began a ruse de guerre which proved almost successful. Ralph wrote that John addressed letters to king Philip of France but faked the seals (aka messed up the handwriting and signatures) so that the letters would seem to be sent by the English barons to the French king. In them, he assured Philip that the had made peace with the barons and that an invasion was no longer sustainable. This ‘stropha fraudulosa’ (fraudulent artifice) almost paid dividends, since when Philip read the letters, he suspected treason and, one may guess, almost broke negotiations with the barons. The ploy failed when Saer de Quincy, the earl of Winchester, convinced Philip that ‘litterae illae mendosae erant’ (those letters were false). Persuaded as he was, Philip demanded hostages from the barons, and the way Ralph put it suggests that his confidence in the barons was shaken, just as John had intended. Other occasions presented themselves. With London in the hands of the barons, John played his trick on some of them too, hoping that it would prevent others from joining the rebellion.

That was not all. If it had been, then at least on the basis of Ralph’s story, John alone would have graduated from the college of medieval deception. But the barons returned the favour. Towards autumn 1216, John was travelling up and down the country like bad news, which in the middle ages always led to a deficit of information about where the king was and was doing. No doubt the barons exploited this crack in John’s reputation (as they had done on many previous occasions, cough seducer/slayer of barons’ wives, cough). They spread the ‘fallax fama’ (fallacious rumour) of his death and secret burial at Reading. John was not dead, but was going to die in less than a year. We learn from another source that when he died, the rumour of his death did not circulate immediately, not even to Dover, where the besieged garrison obtained a 6-month truce, clearly hoping that John would come and relieve them.

This may not be much to show that the civil war was revolutionary in any significant way, but it shows that both parties were ready to make use of methods that were not conventional in the High Middle Ages. Kings and nobles had used many kinds of tactical tricks, but to falsify documents in order to sabotage your enemy’s standing with their allies, and to fake your enemy’s death in order to undermine support, that was the way of the future. 13th century England was set on it.

‘Augustine was a highly credulous thinker': a tale of monsters and portents

I was reading today a book by Josie P. Campbell titled ‘Popular Culture in the Middle Ages’. Here’s what the author wrote about Augustine (p. 19):

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According to Campbell, ‘Augustine was a highly credulous thinker’, not just credulous, but highly so. I felt rather favourable towards an exposition in support of this adventurous claim. Augustine wrote vigorously against Apuleius in book 8 of the City of God; in regards to Pliny’s creatures, he concluded “cautiously and guardedly”, that “either these things which have been told of some races have no existence at all; or if they do exist, they are not human races; or if they are human, they are descended from Adam.” (City of God, XVI, 8). This skepticism does not ring of credulity. As for Aristotle’s ‘rationalism’, the author is making too simplistic a claim: neither was Aristotle a rationalist, nor Augustine a credulous writer. Both thinkers approached the miraculous within their divergent theories of providence. That Augustine allowed God – on metaphysical and scriptural grounds – to intervene in human affairs does not mean that he was ipso facto gullible, or more so than Aristotle who had espoused a more mechanistic worldview. I would be more inclined to accept that Augustine may seem ‘credulous’ according to a modern naturalistic view of things which a medievalist should refrain from applying to his subject matter.

Nevertheless, Campbell is guilty of a greater sin than simply allowing his modern prejudice to blur his historical lens. In the last part of his cursory attack on Augustine, he references Augustine’s supposed view of monstrous births. Let’s have a look at what Augustine really wrote on the subject in book 10, chapter 16 of the cited City of God:

“As for those miracles which history ascribes to the gods of the heathen—I do not refer to those prodigies which at intervals happen from some unknown physical causes, and which are arranged and appointed by Divine Providence, such as monstrous births, and unusual meteorological phenomena, whether startling only, or also injurious, and which are said to be brought about and removed by communication with demons, and by their most deceitful craft”

One can see that, for Augustine, the ‘freakish births of animals’ are not seen as portentous, but only as ‘arranged and appointed’ by Divine Providence. That God chose them to occur does not imply that they carry a significance about future events, in other words, that they are portentous and communicative. This appears to be a crass misreading of Augustine which coupled with the other arguments in this paragraph, makes one doubt Campbell’s academic honesty.

[°°] Met Desen Nijen Jare (Moderne Devotie)

Originally posted on Psallentes Plainchant & Polyphony:

[NL] Fragment uit Psallentes’ winterproductie Koningskind. Met Desen Nijen Jare is een tweestemmig lied in het Middelnederlands. Het is te situeren binnen de traditie van de Moderne Devotie. Het komt voor in verschillende handschriften uit de vijftiende en zestiende eeuw. In deze versie worden slechts drie strofen gezongen van de ongeveer twintig strofen die van dit lied bekend zijn.

[ENG] Outtake from Psallentes’ winter production Royal Offspring. The song (“At the start of this new year”) is a two-voiced piece in Middle Dutch to be situated within the tradition of the Modern Devotion. It may be found in several fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sources.

Barbara Somers, Kerlijne Van Nevel, Rozelien Nys, alten/altos
Marina Smolders, Sarah Abrams, Veerle Van Roosbroeck, sopranen/sopranos
Manuela Bucher, vedel/vielle
Hendrik Vanden Abeele, artistic direction

Shot and edited by Wim Vanmechelen
Sound recording by Hendrik Vanden Abeele – Le Bricoleur

Thanks to
Veerle Francke and Bart Demuyt

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Medieval bookmarks

A fascinating short video on book reading in the Middle Ages, focusing on an unexpected instrument that we now use on a regular basis: the bookmark. Erik Kwakkel of Leiden University showcases a Norman manuscript from the late 11th century and a newly discovered bookmark (12th c. judging by the numerals?). The round piece of parchment has numerals I-IV to indicate the column the reader was on before he closed the book. This discovery enriches our picture of medieval devices of textual navigation (chapter lists, rubrics, headings, running titles, quire numbers, marginalia).

More on medieval bookmarks on


Enigma no more: Cool new palaeography resource


It was about time this came to our rescue, though one must lament the lack of abbreviation support.

Originally posted on In Thirteenth Century England:

Despite the fact that this sounds like a publicity blurb, I’m not involved in any way in this – absolutely no kickbacks have changed hands. (Can a kick change hands? Mixed metaphor? Anyway, I digress.)

The main point is, the interwebs have been lighting up with this new resource, which I am linking here for the benefit of those not on (or in contact with those on) any sermon studies newsfeeds which is where the sh**has really been going down. I’m talking about ‘Enigma’ – a tool which helps you to identify uncertain words in medieval Latin palaeography. The truly wondrous thing about it is that it permits wild card searching for unknown / uncertain letter forms, including the first letter/s, making it more functional than a conventional palaeography dictionary for those tricky cases.


Launch Engima in a new window

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Dante in Inferno: the devil is in the detail (of perspective)

One of my favourite parts of Dante’s Commedia is the end of Inferno, canto 34. Having surveyed all nine circles, the two poets reached the abode of Lucifer, lo ’mperador del doloroso regno. They went down Satan’s fur and out of Hell, but, as Dante soon learned, they crossed the centre of the Earth and experienced a reversal in gravity, causing Satan to appear upside down.

Medieval iconoography found a nice way to deal with this in the famous Yates Thompson manuscript 36The verticality of the egress (di vello in vello giù discese poscia […] e aggrappossi al pel com’om che sale) is rendered horizontally, yet the passage of time is clearly visible in the posture of Satan, before and after, the descent, giving a sense of movement that creates unexpected realism on the manuscript leaf.

British Library caption: Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil witnessing the gigantic figure of Dis, with his three mouths biting on the sinners Cassius, Judas, and Brutus, and Dante and Virgil emerging from the Inferno, in illustration of Canto XXXIV in the Inferno, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 62v.

Dante was puzzled, thinking that they had made a volte-face and returned to Hell. The narrative representation of this infernal topography is something I always come back to in awe and fascination. In Henry Cary’s translation: (emphasis is mine)

Turn’d round his head where his feet stood before,
And grappled at the fell as one who mounts;
That into Hell methought we turn’d again.
“Expect that by such stairs as these,” thus spake
The teacher, panting like a man forespent,
“We must depart from evil so extreme:”
Then at a rocky opening issued forth,
And placed me on the brink to sit, next join’d
With wary step my side. I raised mine eyes,
Believing that I Lucifer should see
Where he was lately left, but saw him now
With legs help upward. Let the grosser sort,
Who see not what the point was I had past, 
Bethink them if sore toil oppress’d me then.
“Arise,” my master cried, “upon thy feet.
The way is long, and much uncouth the road;
And now within one hour and a half of noon
The sun returns.” It was no palace-hall
Lofty and luminous wherein we stood,
But natural dungeon where ill-footing was
And scant supply of light. “Ere from the abyss
I separate,” thus when risen I began:
“My guide! vouchsafe few words to set me free
From error’s thraldom. Where is now the ice?
How standeth he in posture thus reversed?
And how from eve to morn in space so brief
Hath the sun made his transit?” He in few
Thus answering spake: “Thou deemest thou art still 
On the other side the centre, where I grasp’d
The abhorred worm that boreth through the world.
Thou wast on the other side, so long as I
Descended; when I turn’d, thou didst o’erpass
That point, to which from every part is dragg’d
All heavy substance. Thou art now arrived
Under the hemisphere opposed to that,
Which the great continent doth overspread,
And underneath whose canopy expired
The Man, that was born sinless and so lived. 
Thy feet are planted on the smallest sphere,
Whose other aspect is Judecca. Morn
Here rises, when there evening sets: and he,
Whose shaggy pile we scaled, yet standeth fix’d,
As at the first. On this part he fell down
From Heaven; and th’ earth here prominent before,
Through fear of him did veil her with the sea,
And to our hemisphere retired. Perchance,
To shun him, was the vacant space left here,
By what of firm land on this side appears,
That sprang aloof.”

John Foxe and King John

King John is a figure that has often been used and abused, in literature, Reformation historiography, even art. My doctoral work on an important chronicle from his reign (the Crowland Chronicle, for those who have been coming to this blog in the past) is almost finished, but I have now discovered that the famous John Foxe, the 16th-century author of the Acts and Monuments, popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, had used parts of the Crowland Chronicle in his discussion of King John.

The chronicler from Crowland abbey, writing in the early thirteenth century, gave an assessment of John’s reign, now famous with all students of Angevin history:

Ibi igitur morbo invalescente, diem clausit extremum xiiii. kalendas Novembris postquam regnaverat annis xvii. mensibus v. diebus iiii: princeps quidem magnus, sed minus felix, et cum Mario fortunam utramque expertus: munificus et liberalis in exteros, sed suorum depredator, plus in alienis quam in suis confidens, unde et a suis ante finem derelictus est, et in fine modicum luctus.

In Antonia Gransden’s translation:

He was indeed a great prince, but rather an unhappy one, and, like Marius, experienced both good and bad fortune. He was munificent and generous to foreigners but a robber of his own people. He confided more in foreigners than in his subjects. And therefore he was deserted by his people before the end and was only moderately happy at the last. Historical Writing in England (London, 1974), 343

The end of Foxe’s account of the reign of king John (I, 14) weaves two threads: John’s legendary poisoning by a monk of Swineshead Abbey in 1216 and the king’s alleged contempt for the Catholic Mass, which must have charmed Foxe more than anything else. He wrote (emphasis mine):

And in the same selfe yeare, as kyng Iohn was come to Swinested Abbey, not farre from Lincolne, he rested there two dayes, where as most writers testifie þt he was most trayterously poisoned, by a Monke of that Abbey, of the sect of Sisteanes, or sainct Bernardes brethren called Simon of Swinsted. And concerning his noble personage, this witnesse geueth Roger Houeden therein: princeps quidem magnus erat sed minus felix: atque vt Marius vtramquè fortunam expertus. doubtles (saieth he) kyng Iohn was a mighty Prince, but not so fortunate as many were. Not altogether vnlike to Marius the noble Romaine, he tasted Fortune bothe waies, much in mercy, in warres, sometime he wonne, sometime again he lost. Munificus ac liberalis in exteros fuit, sed proditionis causa suorū depredator, plus aduenis quam suis confidens. He was also very bounteous and liberall vnto straungers, but to his owne people, for theyr daily treasons sake he was a great oppressour, so that he trusted more to foreiners then to thē.


Among other diuers and sondry conditions, belonging to this king, one there was, whiche is not in him to be reprehended, but commēded rather, for that being farre from the superstition which kynges at that time were commonly subiect vnto, regarded not the popish Masse, as in certain Chronicles writing of him may bee collected: for so I find testified of hym by Math. Parisiensis, that the king vppon a time in hys hunting, commyng where a very fat stag was cut vp and opened (or how the hunters terme it, I cannot tell) the king beholding the fatnes and the liking of the stagge: see sayeth he, how easily and happely he hath liued, and yet for all that he neuer heard any Masse.


Foxe was wrong to attribute the pronouncements on John to Roger of Howden (Roger wrote a Chronicle but was dead by 1202). Yet, that was understandable, as Foxe found the annal in a work which had relied on Howden’s Chronicle up to a point and established a certain affiliation to the latter. On the other hand, it is rather puzzling that Foxe kept the attribution to Howden when the work from which he worked was known to his contemporaries (Leland and others) as the Memoriale of Walter of Coventry.



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