Steven Isaac

title.none: Aurell, L'Empire des Plantagenet (Steven Isaac)

identifier.other: baj9928.0406.005 04.06.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Steven Isaac, Northwestern College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Aurell, Martin. L'Empire des Plantagenet, 1154-1224. Paris: Perrin, 2002. Pp. 404. ISBN: $25.00 782262019853.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.06.05

Aurell, Martin. L'Empire des Plantagenet, 1154-1224. Paris: Perrin, 2002. Pp. 404. ISBN: $25.00 782262019853.

Reviewed by:

Steven Isaac
Northwestern College

Professor Aurell, who specializes in "The Plantagenet Worlds" at the University of Poitiers, returns throughout this analysis to one central question: what force or forces kept together the hodgepodge of lands and principalities first assembled by Henry II and then held with varying degrees of success by his family. It was an "unnatural" union (contre nature, 287) which Aurell describes as "fractious," "divisible," and "temporary," its moments of stability mere respites from the usual state of endemic fighting (12). Yet it lasted, more or less, seven decades. Aurell notes early on the role of power in establishing and maintaining the Plantagenet dominions, but he does not focus solely on a Weberian monopoly of force by the rulers. He is just as critically interested in authority: the contest for control waged by monarchs, regional magnates, ecclesiastical princes, clerical theorists, and even the satirists. Symbols were the primary weapons, and the battlefields were the hearts and minds of subjects on both sides of the Channel.

The primary benefit of this study is its wide-ranging and creative synthesis of primary documents, standard historical works, and the latest English and French scholarship on the topic. By focusing on how the intellectual climate of the Plantagenet empire drove its politics and vice-versa, Aurell naturally has to forego many fields of inquiry. This approach is, of course, quite understandable given the already grand scope of his study. Still, he is able to hint at a great deal more than he is able to treat directly: the economic underpinnings of Henry II's state, the reliance on townsfolk to counterbalance divisive feudatories, and the arrangement of dynastic alliances. On the other hand, the involved defense of the label "Plantagenet Empire" tells us less about medieval perceptions than the historiographical issues in the British and French schools.

Aurell sets the foundation of his study in the court of Henry II, where the opportunities and burdens awaiting literary talents were well attested. Amid the intellectual renaissance of the twelfth century, the Angevin court provided careers to many a cleric, but it also demanded much. Peter of Blois and Walter Map provide vivid accounts of the wearying itinerancy, of the treachery that abounded among courtiers, of moral corruption, and of the risks of too much celebrity. It was hell, or at least its antechamber (76). As a stepping-stone to sinecures, offices, and pensions, however, the court drew many of the brightest, even from the schools in Paris where a rival ideology was being developed. The Plantagenets used such patronage to draw in the literate servants-secular as well as religious-who could craft an ideology that might forestall the centrifugal tendencies of the family's territories (95). This ideal was then propagated through official correspondence, through the production of histories, and through popular media such as chansons and sirventes.

The precocity of the Angevins in co-opting powerful symbols through propaganda (although the practice occasionally backfired) is a recurring theme. Henry II especially used a variety of images to augment his position, stressing in particular his pre-eminence as a model of wisdom and military prowess (106). Different paradigms were used as needed: King David of the Old Testament (35), the Arthurian legacy (156), a reputation as a "man of the people" (145), and a model of sagacity (106). The Arthurian heroes were especially potent since it gave the kings of England a pedigree which equaled, or potentially surpassed, the Carolingian heritage of kings on the continent. Aurell's implicit claim is that these images reinforced an image of the Plantagenet monarchs as unconquerable and thus they reduced the incidence of rebellion. Even the image of Henry as a patron of scientific research could serve to bolster his political and military pre-eminence. The argument is compelling even if not entirely provable.

Of course, Plantagenet political history was anything but placid. More efficient methods of governance almost guaranteed the rebellions which ideology was meant to forestall. On the secular side of the coin, the growing reliance on sheriffs, bureaucrats, and paid soldiery saw a willful aristocracy's traditional control of judicial and military matters being whittled away. In addition, the reliance on English and, to a lesser extent, Norman fideles antagonized the other parts of Plantagenet territory. The whole process practically ensured some sort of revolt. When it came, most especially in 1173-74, Henry's success vindicated his trust in loyal functionaries. But the seeds of dissolution were being sown. Every rebellion naturally looked to the Capetian kings for support. And unexpectedly, according to Aurell, even the Capetians eventually benefited from the twelfth-century successes of Plantagenet monarchs. Aurell goes so far as to wonder whether Henry and Richard's success in accustoming the Norman magnates to strong rulership left them more reluctant to resist Philip II once the Capetian dynasty had a similarly triumphant quality (293).

On the religious side, Henry II practically guaranteed (despite the many clerics he had "tamed" through patronage) a reaction when he pushed forward the Constitutions of Clarendon. The novelty of the Constitutions was not the actual claims, but the enshrining of a habitual but flexible practice in concrete forms. The king's mother, perhaps from her time as Empress, knew he had erred in pushing things this far (265). Again, the symbolic components of the struggle are key to Aurell's anthropological analysis of the Becket crisis. The archbishop and his partisans quickly gained the rhetorical high ground and have had the dominant voices ever since. The court version of things has to be gleaned for the most part from the broadsides of the king's opponents. The sophistication of all the players in the crisis is perhaps demonstrated in the tensions that surrounded Henry's refusal to give Becket the kiss of peace during the attempted reconciliation of 22 July 1170. The refused act naturally carried held more meaning to observers than any of the spoken words. It also meant that when the king finally made his official peace with the martyred Becket in 1174, he had to give the withheld kiss to the bishop of Poitiers as a surrogate.

It is difficult to find much to criticize in Aurell's work. On several occasions he nearly argues that the Plantagenets were on the verge of creating an absolutist state of the early modern variety, but he eschews such a claim even as he slyly suggests it. As I hinted above, there is much that simply cannot fit into the parameters of this study, and it would be unjust to suggest my wish-list deserved attention. Given the sweep of Aurell's study, it would almost be unjust to nitpick over details, but in one instance, I must give way. The mercenary captain Cadoc is incorrectly assigned to the Plantagenets when, in fact, he was the chief hired soldier of Philip II. This misstep, however, in no way mitigates the import of Aurell's arguments in that section. If even the paid soldiery among the Capetian forces had names derived from the "matter of Britain," then it attests to the success of Plantagenet propaganda.

Finally, Aurell deserves credit for accomplishing something of an immersion experience for his readers. He has brought together an enviable number of primary sources and lets them tell the story for the most part. Naturally, the testimonies are by, for, and of the elite, but within that milieu, one gets a vivid sense of what it was like to be in the orbit of Henry II and his sons, or just as importantly, to be excluded from that space.