January 17, 2009

William Marshall: Knighthood, War and Chivalry 1147-1219

William Marshall, knight, Earl of Pembroke and Regent of England (1216-19) was a formidable figure within his own times: he was also a unique figure, being the only lay non-royal Englishman to have had a biography written about him in the early Middle Ages. Professor David Crouch has written a biography about Marshall which has several points of interest. Professor Crouch obviously knows the sources surrounding Marshall- he edited the most important of those sources- Marshall's biography for its publication in 2002, but he also is the first biographer to make extensive use of Marshall's charters which give us a reliable idea of who were his followers and knights. Marshall deserves a biography and deserves a biographer like this, one whose knowledge of Marshall's milieu is uncontestable.

Marshall was the son of a West Country nobleman who held an office at court (that of Marshall)- John Marshall was involved in the wars between Stephen and Matilda (the young William was held as hostage and at one point, King Stephen threatened to fire the live boy from a catapult over the walls of his father's castle, John Marshall replied that he had a hammer and anvil to make more sons!) When John Marshall died however it was his oldest son, John Marshall (II) who gained his lands. William was left to fend for himself. Crouch demonstrates here the way that Marshall did eventually gain lands- he followed a path that others too in different ways followed across the Middle Ages. Firstly he became a knight in the following of an important lord- Henry the Young King and later other members of the royal family. Then thanks to his connections at court he acquired the right to manage an estate of a dead lord for the King- in his case the Earldom of Pembroke where he was awarded the right and where Pembroke had left only a daughter- Marshall married the daughter to himself and hence acquired the lands and later the title.

Marshall's succession to his title and estates demonstrates how important political favour was in medieval England- primogeniture had not yet become a stable method of inheritance and Kings had power over the lands of those who died with minors as their heirs. Marshall exploited the second situation- not merely to acquire the hand of Isabelle and her lands- but also in forging political alliances. Crouch offers evidence that John of Earley, one of Marshall's wards, was married to a member of Marshall's family. This though brings us to a second key point which is that the power of an early medieval English magnate depended upon his access to and success with the King. In general Marshall was a plantagenet loyalist- only twice in his life (once with Henry II when the young King and his brothers fell out with their father) and secondly with John in 1206-7 did Marshall fall out with the reigning King. The consequences were dramatic- in 1206-7 notable knights in Marshall's retinue deserted him and the Earl lost royal offices and castles across the West Country and Welsh Marches.

Marshall's power depended upon his courtliness. Crouch is aware of this and towards the end of his study presents us with three thematic chapters- dwelling on Marshall's retinue of knights, courtliness and chivalry. The first chapter shows us the way that Marshall created and sustained a group of knights. Crouch argues that this represents one of the first intrusions into British history of that complicated concept, bastard feudalism. William's following depended not so much upon complicated tenurial structures within the Marches and the south west- indeed very few of his tenants were found amidst his following- but upon his own abilities to patronise. Hence he appointed his men as sensachels or sherrifs in his country and fitted them with weapons and horses- they were bound to him for the receipt of offices not of lands. There are many learned descriptions of the evolution of English feudalism- from the conqueror's men who dominated through tenurial relationships to the more complicated situations in the wars of the Roses- but Crouch definitely shows that Marshall's lordship represents a milestone along that route.

Lordship in the Middle Ages was bound up with ideas about ethics. One might represent those ideas in two parts- chivalry and courtliness. To succeed as a secular nobleman one had to have both attributes- one had to be judged as a preudehomme and also seen as a courtly and sensible counciller. The first attribute was not that of some Arthurian knight: rather a preudehomme was a man who could stand up for himself, was manly, able on the battlefield and in the tournament and would not take a slight without complaining. A courtier though was a different kind of human being- a man who could survive in the hostile, backbiting atmosphere of the court, who was suave and thoughtful. Those two attributes seem in some sense to conflict- and a medieval lord like Marshall had to observe the thin line between losing his status as an admirable knight and losing his head if he responded too eagerly to his lord the King. Marshall did manage it- but it is worth noting the dilemma and Crouch illustrates it well for us in his last chapters.

Crouch's book therefore is an interesting and thoughtful medieval biography. It lacks somewhat in that it is limited by the evidence for Marshall's life- particularly his early life is not covered well and Crouch presumes that is because the biographer had no access to men who had lived during that period. Lots therefore has to be assumed. Marshall's interior world again is something we can infer things about, but we cannot know like we can with a modern subject whose letters are available to us. Crouch though tells his story with verve and skill- his writing makes a great deal of use of modern analogy (perhaps for my liking too much!) but it is readable. The points he makes are interesting- and Marshall's life is intrinsically fascinating and well worth finding out about.

January 14, 2009


Rumbold rightly argues on Pickled Politics that it is difficult to estimate violence in the early modern period- he points to and explains a fascinating debate between Lawrence Stone and James Sharpe in the pages of Past and Present about the question of how much violence there really was. I would suggest you read his piece as I have nothing much to add to its description of the debate. What is worth adding though are two additional reasons why murder rates in particular might not denote levels of violence and secondly why levels of violence might not correlate to psychological feelings of insecurity.

Murder rates might not relate that well to levels of violence because of improved medicine. It is a commonplace of modern discussion of the battlefield in the early modern or medieval period that you were as likely to die from your wounds as you were from a blow which killed you. The same must be true of murder: I would imagine that many died a couple of days after or even more they were murdered. In some cases- where there was internal organ damage for example- I would imagine that the death might not even be described as murder. This both exaggerates the early modern figure- the numbers who died say from a beating would be higher if there was no doctor around with a knowledge of how to deal with head wounds- and it might also diminish that rate: the figure for modern murders includes things that in medieval and early modern times would not have been connected to the original act which led to them.

The psychological point is just as interesting. Imagine you got involved in a fight. If you are a modern city denizen that's probably one of the very few physical encounters that you get involved in: if you were an early modern citizen you would be involved in physical encounters every day- an overwhelmingly rural population would have to for a start cope physically with livestock. Violence in that sense must have been more common- in that violence, physical hardship is more common on a farm or in a field than in a modern office block. Psychologically the way that violence hit people would have been different just because of the different nature of their lives. Pain would have been more common as another example because of the absense of any pain killers- if pain instead of being unpleasant and irregular was a constant unpleasant echo to life itself then you might have a different reaction to the somebody causing you pain. That is not to say that violence would have felt any less terrible: just that it would have felt different and that may effect the perception of the level of it within society.

I can't add to Rumbold's arguments here- I think they are right. What I would argue though is that we can add reasons to suggest that comparison between the early modern and modern periods is difficult. Both because we may be comparing unlike things- incidents that would have been murders in the past may not be now thanks to medicine, incidents that might be now would not be in the past thanks to more sophisticated understandings of what causes death. Also even if levels of violence were higher or lower than now, the impact of that level of violence on people would have been different because of the radically different lives that they lived. As Rumbold argues such doubts are not an indication that we should stop thinking about the historical issues- merely that we should examine and re-examine our assumptions about them. Doing so may well teach us about the way that we understand violence and murder, their place in our society and the trajectory that such crimes are on.

January 13, 2009

The Body of a Greek God

Greek Gods were not like the 'gods' of the West. Zeus was unlike the Jewish, Christian or Muslim God- he was unlike them both in having colleagues, or either sex, in having a geneaology and a succession, powers limited to a region of the world and his own set of special tools (the thunderbolts). When we turn to look at the Gods of Greece we look at entities which are not the same as our own deities- and thinking about them according to the categorisation that we have developed for whatever God we believe in or oppose may not be useful. Ancient and particularly archaiac Greek polytheism- which is really what we are talking about here- is a very different beast to modern religion.

It is a different beast in part, as Jean Pierre Vernant argues, because we have two related attitudes to the body which the Greeks did not have. The Archaic Greeks did not believe that the body and soul were distinct entities and they did not believe that the body was something separate that one could study. For them the body was the person: this breeds that remarkable Greek attitude (remarkable to anyone brought up in a culture based on the separation of body and soul) that the external beauty of the body reflects moral virtue, that ugliness is in some sense a moral hazard. If the Greeks did not accept a fundamental division between body and soul, neither did they accept a fundamental division between nature and supernature. Zeus and Aphrodite slept with mortals, Ares battled with them on the planes of Troy and a mortal (Paris) was even appointed to arbiter between Aphrodite, Athena and Hera when they were in discord. We should not be surprised to find both these ideas- that the human being was indivisible and that the Gods and humans lay on a continuum influencing what the Greeks understood by a divine body.

The Greek conception of a human body was that it was perishable- every Menelaus turning eventually into Nestor, every Helen into Aethra. Throughout life the body needed revitalising by sleep (Hupnos) and eventually of course the term of the body ran out and the being became subject to the twin brother of Hupnos, Thanatos or Death. The Gods though were not mortal but immortal- in that sense they had 'super' bodies. Aphrodite's beauty was distinct from Helen in that it would not fade. The predicate of immortality was fastened to these 'super' bodies- but also they were exalted because of the nature of their beauty- as the Homeric Hymn comments on the Ionians at the island of Delos 'an unexpected guest would think them immortal and free from old age for he would see grace in all of them'. Notice that immortality comes with extraordinary grace or beauty or indeed strength (hence Apollo can kick away the fortifications of the Argives at Troy like sandcastles on a beech despite their great efforts to construct them). Beauty, strength and grace are all opposites to decay, to old age and ultimately to death- hence they are predicates or permanence: Keats was right in the Ode to the Grecian Urn that one of the great issues in Greece was of the immortality of beauty and that if beauty was immortal it was divine and hence true.

A last thing that Vernant notes that I found very interesting is the way that Greek Gods intervene in the world. Whether it is Odysseus meeting Nausicaa or similarly meeting Telemachus in Ithaca, Athena gives him added lustre. Interestingly that is accompanied by Odysseus getting dressed- and that moves us on to another interesting aspect of the Greek attitude to the body. They saw the aspects of the body whether it be the armour of Achilles or the thunderbolt of Zeus as parts of that body. When Pandora was created, she was created with all the implements of seduction, jewelry, dress and necklace. This adds another metaphor about divine intervention in the world of the human- the Gods putting on (like Prometheus did to Ajax) the hero courage and other attitudes. In a sense, as the outward persona and the inward persona are the same and the body shapes (in our language) the mind, dress becomes a signifier of a change within a person: a God can achieve this but so could a person by dressing themselves.

What Vernant gets here, and I think it is interesting, is a different mentality and way of seeing the world based on a series of very simple assumptions about the world- in which the Greeks and we differ. I want to finish on a caution though- I have relied on his research- and yet there is a reason to be sceptical. It is incredibly difficult to get to a different mentality and there is the potential for evidence to be used and chosen selectively: Vernant seems to use enough evidence to suggest he is not doing this- and even if he has constructed a whole out of a series of shards which denote something else, I think what he has constructed is interesting. It is a different way of viewing the world which leads to several basic assumptions that we all make being discarded, part of the reason to think about history is to realise how strange the past was (History as C.S. Lewis suggested is a traveller wondering through distinct, strange and wonderful territory)- in that sense Vernant succeeds in providing us with a strange and novel vision of the world. The Greek view of the divine body and the human body and its relationship was a fascinating one- and deserves to be understood partly because it is so counter intuitive and strange to those reared in a world that assumes a mind body, nature supernature duality.

January 12, 2009

Computers and Books

Stacy's post on Huntingdon's Clash of Civilisations is well written and thought out. But Stacy's post exemplifies something more than that- something that I often try to do on this blog. It is to take something that does not exist on the net- a book, a film, whatever- and to record your impressions on the net. That kind of article seems to me to distill something for the reader- gives the reader something that they could not find themselves unless they devoted time to reading an hundred pages of Livy or a passage of Huntingdon. I do not underrate the things that you can find on the internet- the Old Bailey website as I have commented before is a key resource for this blog- but I do think that the best blogs are about something more than a dialogue within the internet. Like Ashok for example, they take texts and arguments from outside the net and explain, refine and consider them within the internet. The net here becomes a mere extension of the Republic of Letters- an extension which allows everyone to write a common place book.

I was provoked to this by reading an article from the Scientific American about how we process text. It is an interesting article which argues that reading on the net involves more distractions and makes cognition and comprehension harder- as I read a page on the internet, I have to adapt to colours and adverts- often moving adverts. I find the argument that that changes the experience of reading and perhaps makes it a less intense and 'thick' experience quite convincing. The means of communication may make concentration harder: and in a sense blogging itself is a medium which does not require as much concentration as reading a book. I would expect you to take a couple of minutes to read this article- and then you might pass over to read something else either on this blog or another. Personally this form helpful to distill my arguments about longer passages- like a book or film- but I would find it hard to read for much further than the 10,000th word of an article (trust me on this having written a PhD I have had to read 80,000 words on a screen, it was painful!) Blogging works online because it allows us not to develop major ideas or scholarly rigour- we have neither space nor time- but it allows a common place book, recording impressions and ideas and hopefully developing a community around each blog which discusses and thinks about similar things.

January 11, 2009

Fortress Netherlands

This scene is not unfamiliar in Dutch art. It shows soldiers gathering and playing cards, presumably in a garrison town. I found this aspect of Israel's history of the Dutch state one of the most interesting and thought I'd note down some of his arguments. Essentially the Dutch state from the 16th Century onwards was threatened over both its southern and eastern land borders by Spain: their response was to create vast fortresses across the country which protected those borders. Such garrison towns saw large numbers of soldiers gather together with ordinary civilians. As Israel notes this had an important effect on the Dutch army: leading to a focus on discipline. It also stimulated an economy within garrison towns that was dependent on the disposition of the troops- whether prostitution or gambling or legal activities- many townsmen and women relied on the troops for their own sustenance. This is interesting- and it emphasizes something which I think is always worth considering- the influence of large armies on the economies and cultures of the societies that they dominate and protect. I don't want to go beyond Israel's arguments because I am tired and incapable of critical thought- but I do think that his points are interesting enough for us to note- and apply in other situations.