January 31, 2009

The man who believed he was king of France

During the Hundred Years War, a Siennese merchant named Giannino di Guccio claimed to be King of France. Tommaso di Carpegna chronicles in an unusual and interesting biography the way that Guccio went through Rome, up to Hungary, to the Papal Court in Avignon, to Venice and through Naples to attempt to gather armies and men to pursue his claim. He even made diplomatic contact with the Muslims, promising that he would abandon French claims to the Holy Land if they would support him with troops and money through a converted Jew. Carpegna takes us through the story and the evidence expertly, Guccio's career involved support from such colourful characters as Cola di Rienzi, dictator of Rome and the Kings of Navarre, who themselves maintained a claim to the French crown. It is tempting though for us to ask the question of why this story, bizarre as it is, should claim our attention. Guccio comes into the historical record at some time in the 1350s, there are two sources apart from his own (edited) biography which refer to him, and then he disappears in 1361- a prisoner- and though we know he must have died by 1367 (we have a will from his wife saying he is dead), we do not know how (or by whose hand) or where he died.

Guccio is a minor offstage presence- but he himself represents something that is not so minor. Pretenders to the thrones of Europe arose continually throughout the Middle Ages- Henry VII faced two for example. Guccio came to the fore in the Hundred Years War, just after a major French defeat at the Battle of Poiters. He also came to the fore at a moment when it was just plausible that the French crown may well have been diverted: an infant King Jean I had died almost as soon as he was born. The French crown was weak and rumour had it that it was held by someone who had gained it through murder. Throughout the Middle Ages, the state of the Kingdom was held, in terms related to the Old Testament to depend on the will of God. Though we might see them as unrelated phenomena, defeat at Poiters was a confirmation that an unrighteous King was leading the French- just as the Kings of Israel had been awarded with defeat after not following the guidance of God- so defeat and victory on medieval battlefields could be seen as praise or reprimand from a jealous God.

Going further, it is possible to see in Guccio's story the importance of the Biblical narrative in another way. As Carpegna argues, Guccio's story was not unusual not merely in that he was a pretender- but in that he was a pretender who came from obscurity. Like Christ, who was King of the Jews, King of the World, despite having been born in a manger- so Guccio was King of France despite being born a merchant in Sienna. Again there are plenty of other Medieval pretenders who follow the same pattern- one might even point to another biblical parallel, David the shepherd's son, the youngest son, who was God's annointed. Medieval people definitely took Guccio seriously- he had forged certificates of his birth from various notables- and his mercenaries for example only followed him when they were convinced he was whom he said he was.

That takes us into a last area where Guccio's position is interesting- imagine Prince Harry were to die in Afghanistan- imagine someone claimed to be the Prince. Everyone in the UK would instantly know that the imposter was not who he claimed to be- because Harry's portrait has been seen in millions of newspapers and websites. Jean I of France was unknown to his subjects- no French King had been seen by anyone but the major nobles and occasional commoner- for Guccio raising troops in Italy, his certificates proved he was who he said he was. Common report or fame proved your identity in the Middle Ages- with no passport, letters from notable witnesses reinforced that fame when you had gone further than it would travel. So Guccio's forgeries from the King of Hungary or the dictator of Rome helped prove to anyone who he saw that he was who he said he was.

Ultimately the point I want to get across in this article though concerns the Bible. To understand medieval or early modern European politics you have to understand the shaping power of the Bible: whether it be Henry VIII claiming to be a new Josiah or the importance of the crusade in Christian history, the Bible was written deep into the consciousness of the society. Exploiting that language was the business of political propagandists. Someone like Guccio fitted into Biblical templates- the obscure but rightful King who would come to restore a covenant between crown, people and God and sustain the nation in its hour of need. Guccio himself probably believed that he was Jean I, rescued miraculously from birth, he forged certificates to back up a rightful claim and others believed him, not because they were credulous but because of his certificates and because he fitted into a template- a template that came straight out of a political faith that was ultimately biblical.


lady macleod said...

excellently interesting.

Crushed said...

I hadn't come across this pretender before.

It's interesting that a lot of those false claimants believed their story. Naundorff seems to have genuinely believed his own story. And the Anderson woman.

I often think Jean I is an oddity in so many ways. As far as I know only two people in history have ever been BORN King. He gets one of those slots as well as one of the shortest reign ever slots.