Craig Taylor

title.none: Briggs, Giles of Rome's De Regimine Principum (Taylor)

identifier.other: baj9928.0009.009 00.09.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Craig Taylor, University of York,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Briggs, Charles. Giles of Rome's De Regimine Principum: Reading and Writing Politics at Court and University, c.1275 - c.1525. Cambridge Studies in Paleography and Codicology, Vol. 5. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. xiv, 207. $69.95. ISBN: 0-521-57053-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.09.09

Briggs, Charles. Giles of Rome's De Regimine Principum: Reading and Writing Politics at Court and University, c.1275 - c.1525. Cambridge Studies in Paleography and Codicology, Vol. 5. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. xiv, 207. $69.95. ISBN: 0-521-57053-0.

Reviewed by:

Craig Taylor
University of York

The De Regimine Principum was originally written by Giles of Rome (Aegidius Romanus) between 1277 and 1279 at the request of king Philip III of France, and survives in 350 medieval copies, making it one of the most 'successful' of all medieval non-religious works: in contrast, the 'other' De Regimine Principum, written by St. Thomas Aquinas and Ptolemy of Lucca, survives in just 27 manuscripts. Indeed Giles' treatise was read by and influenced a remarkable list of late medieval writers that includes Dante Alighieri, Bartolus de Sassoferrato, Juan Manuel, Pedro Lopez de Ayala, Philippe de Mezieres, Christine de Pizan, Jean Gerson, Thomas Hoccleve and Sir John Fortescue. In this impressive book, Charles Briggs examines the dissemination of the manuscripts of this remarkable text, thereby providing an important case-study in the circulation of Latin and vernacular writings to lay and clerical audiences.

The success of the De Regimine Principum may be explained by the fact that it was the first exhaustive and systematic treatment of Aristotle's moral philosophy designed for practical political ends. Structurally, the De Regimine Principum followed an Aristotelian model, discussing in turn ethics, economics and politics: Book I examined the conduct of the individual; Book II explored the rule of the family and household, including marital relations, the proper conduct of women and the raising of children; and Book III focused on the government of the state during war and peace. Overall the text offered an Aristotelian commentary or compendium, offering abridgements or extracts from not just the Ethics and the Politics, but also commentaries and writings by St. Thomas Aquinas, Peter of Corveheda, John Buridan and Walter Burley. Thus Giles provided a digested version of Aristotle's writings, suitably modified in the light of Christian principles. As a result, the De Regimine Principum became a textbook for the arts curriculum at Paris and other universities in England, Germany, Italy and Iberia. Briggs also demonstrates that it became a pastoral and preaching aid, appearing with related materials of that type in twenty-two English, French and Italian manuscripts.

But despite its scholastic language and organisation, and the lack of rhetorical and stylistic devices, the work was also enormously successful among lay audiences. Whether Giles of Rome served as a tutor to the son of Philip III or not (there is no evidence to support this common assumption), the prologue explicitly identified the work as a book on the education of princes and the rule of kings, and so it found an audience at court as one of the foremost examples of the 'Mirror of Princes' genre. Giles certainly offered a thoroughly acceptable filter for Aristotelian ideas, as he regarded kingship as superior to all other forms of government, and argued for hereditary kingship and the superiority of the king over the law. But the book also provided extensive analysis of the management of the household and the education of children based on Aristotelian principles, and Giles clearly regarded it as being relevent to a wider lay audience: though few might be kings or princes, "each person should nevertheless make great efforts to be such a one as would be worthy to rule a kingdom or principality" (De Regimine Principum, 1.1.1). As a result, copies of the text circulated widely amongst lay audiences, thanks in large part to the translation of the De Regimine Principum into the vernacular: Latin copies were certainly owned by both magnate and gentry families, but Briggs lists twenty-three different translations into Castilian, Catalan, English, Flemish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian and Portugese. The English translation was produced towards the end of his life by John Trevisa (d.1402), but was clearly not a success, surviving in just one manuscript, Bodleian MS Digby 233 [[1]]. One significant factor in the failure of the Trevisa version was the success of other translations, particularly the French versions such as that produced by Henri de Gauchy in 1282, which were owned by most of the leading princes and magnates of Western Europe.

The real problem is to know exactly what laymen made of the De Regimine Principum: it is perhaps too easy to make simple judgements based upon the circumstantial evidence of ownership. The most famous example of this is the claim by R.H. Jones that Richard II's 'absolutist' tendencies were partially inspired by Giles' book, a copy of which was owned by his tutor Simon Burley. [[2]] Yet there is no direct evidence that Richard read or was directly influenced by the De Regimine Principum. Perhaps more importantly, Giles of Rome was hardly offering a radically new view of kingship and certainly not an unequivocally 'absolutist' perspective (an anachronistic term that misunderstands the sophistication of political thought on monarchy in this period): he was equally insistent on the duty of the king to listen to the wise counsel of his nobility to provide, and warned of the dangers of tyranny. Indeed, Trevisa's translation of the De Regimine Principum offered long explanatory notes on Giles' discussions of tyrannical government and counsel, though it is difficult to know what to make of these: was this part of a political agenda or campaign to develop ideological weapons against Richard II, or simply an attempt to assimilate these continental ideas into the English context, parallel to Nicole Oresme's glosses to his Livre des politiques d'Aristote (pp. 81, 84)? But if Jones overstated his case for the De Regimine Principum as an 'absolutist' text influencing Richard II, it must surely be just as problematic to suggest that critics and opponents of late medieval kings owned and read the De Regimine Principum because it presented anti-royalist arguments. Yet Briggs argues that Thomas duke of Gloucester, opponent of Richard II owned a copy of the text precisely because of this emphasis upon noble counsel. It must be possible that other aspects of such an enormously wide-ranging work appealed to these men, even assuming that they actually read the books, rather than simply regarding them as objects of value or status: recent research has certainly undermined the notion that the most famous fifteenth-century English collector of books, Humfrey duke of Gloucester, was an avid reader [[3]].

To the notion that De Regimine Principum was read as an absolutist and as almost a 'subversive' text, Briggs adds the claim that it was a military manual, used by Henry V and English commanders towards the end of the Hundred Years War: the third part of Book III offered extensive borrowings from the De Re Militari of Vegetius. The evidence for Henry V's use of the De Regimine Principum is highly partial to say the least: in the Regement of Princes, Thomas Hoccleve argued that Henry read the text while still Prince of Wales, and the Gesta Henrici Quinti reported that Henry V and his brother Thomas duke of Clarence applied the techniques of siegecraft discussed by Giles of Rome [[4]]. Henry may well have read the De Regimine Principum while a youth, but it is equally possible that Hoccleve wished to enhance the image of his king as a learned and wise man, and at the same time legitimise the genre of Mirrors of Princes (and perhaps even the De Regimine Principum if it was regarded as either an absolutist or a subversive text), and therefore his own text. Certainly the notion that Henry V relied upon the De Regimine Principum for tactical advice during the siege of Harfleur is laughable: no late medieval military commander needed a book to tell him that ditches were an important weapon in a siege. Again, the author of the Gesta Henrici Quinti is making a point about the wisdom and learning of his king, as part of the wider panegyric purposes of his biographical study, and also highlighting the value of the De Regimine Principum to a lay audience. This may have created a demand for the text as a military manual, as Briggs suggests, but we must remain slightly cautious.

Indeed this specific question highlights perhaps the most important limitation of this study. Briggs offers detailed knowledge of all sixty English manuscripts (which he studied for his doctoral dissertation) but his knowledge of other continental European copies is often based upon secondary work rather than direct examination; moreover he has done very little work on the marginalia of the manuscripts which might shed an awful lot more light on the way in which these texts were read. This is certainly explicable on purely practical and logistical grounds, but as a result, it is very difficult to know what to make about some of the more interesting comparisons and contrasts between the English manuscripts and a very limited 'control group' of French and Italian manuscripts. Thus Briggs argues that the example of Henry V's use of the De Regimine Principum as a manual on the art of war created a unique English market for the text. He notes that seven contemporary English manuscripts include De Regimine Principum with Vegetius' De Re Militari or Christine de Pizan's derivative text, Le livre des faits d'armes. Yet this combination is repeated in just one out of forty-four French manuscripts and no Latin manuscripts, and so Briggs suggests that this indicates a unique English reading of the De Regimine Principum as a military manual (pp. 65-66). The first concern must be with the assumption that the De Regimine Principum was a military manual in these compilations; after all Giles of Rome had little that was new to contribute on that subject, especially given that he was merely repeating the same bland advice offered by Vegetius in his De Re Militari. The most famous of the seven English examples is the anthology presented by John Talbot to Margaret on her marriage to Henry VI in 1445: yet the extracts from the De Regimine Principum included not just the material on the art of war, but also chapters on the conduct of a queen, the education of children and the management of a noble household, all themes of direct interest to Margaret [[5]]. Yet even if the English readers were using the De Regimine Principum as a military text, was this a unique phenomenon? Care must be taken given that two of the seven English manuscripts were actually prepared in northern France and there certainly remains the possibility that there may be more unidentified French examples outside of the 44 manuscripts that Briggs viewed. At the end of the day, Briggs is quite possibly right, which would be a point of great importance for scholars investigating atttitudes towards war in this period (such as myself), but there must remain serious concerns about the attempt to place the English manuscripts in this wider European context based upon such limited evidence. There might well have been a case for saving these tentative European comparisons for the conclusion in order to emphasise their provisional nature.

In terms of structure, the book is competently organised and supported by tables, but on occasion is frustratingly hard to use. The most common problem (e.g. pp. 57, 65, 76) occurs when the text mentions a handful of manuscripts but then the footnote provides a cross-reference either to one of the tables or to a different part of the book: it might have been more logical and helpful to have also included the manuscript references, to save the reader having to flick between sections in order to put together their own list. In addition, it would probably have been well to include a clearer list of the continental manuscripts that Briggs actually viewed and those for which he has had to rely on secondary descriptions, given the importance of this distinction.

This has been an overly-cynical review which certainly does not do justice to a very worthy book, written by a scholar of the highest standards who has collated an enormous amount of information and in the process shed important light on the dissemination of a text of the highest importance. The limitations of this book are the inevitable limitations of the study itself. His book is confined solely to the dissemination of the manuscripts of the De Regimine Principum, and does not offer a study of the text itself: this therefore feels like the introduction to a much bigger, unwritten study that we must await with anticipation. More importantly, Briggs has viewed just a percentage of the available manuscripts, and might perhaps have made more use of codicology and the examination of marginalia for the vernacular copies. His discussion of the miniatures within the many illuminated manuscripts is competent if not perhaps as deep as one might hope: there is certainly enough here to suggest that there is scope for a more detailed study in the future. His views on the illuminations in the Trevisa translation in Oxford, Bodley MS Digby 233 are rather less convincing, and it might have been helpful for the reader if Briggs had rehearsed the contradictory arguments of Hanna and Somerset, (footnote 53 on p. 90), and had also included reproductions of the miniatures being discussed. Ultimately, the most exciting and interesting conclusions must remain tentative until a fuller study is produced in the future. In all fairness, Briggs himself is scrupulously careful and open about the limitations of his study, but the general reader would be advised to exercise equal caution in deploying the conclusions.


[[[1]] See John Trevisa, The Governance of Kings and Princes. John Trevisa's Middle English Translation of the 'De Regimine Principum' of Aegidius Romanus, volume I, ed. D.C. Fowler, C.F. Briggs and P.G. Remley (New York, 1997).

[[2]] R.H. Jones, The Royal Policy of Richard II: Absolutism in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford, 1968).

[[3]] David Rundle, 'On the Difference Between Virtue and Weiss: Humanist Texts in England During the Fifteenth Century', in Courts, Counties and Capitals in the Later Middle Ages, ed. Diana Dunn (Stroud, 1996), pp. 181-203.

[[]4] Briggs, preface and pp. 63, citing Thomas Hoccleve, Hoccleve's Works: 'The Regement of Princes' and Fourteen Minor Poems, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall, Early English Text Society, Extra Series, 72 (London, 1897), pp. 77-78 and Gesta Henrici Quinti, ed. J.S. Roskell and F. Taylor (Oxford, 1975), pp. 28-9, 40-41, 43.

[5] London, British Library MS Royal 15 E vi, fos. 327-362v.