Sophia Menache

title.none: Plöger, England and the Avignon Popes (Sophia Menache)

identifier.other: baj9928.0701.020 07.01.20

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sophia Menache, University of Haifa

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Plöger, Karsten. England and the Avignon Popes: The Practice of Diplomacy in Late Medieval Europe. London: Legenda, 2005. Pp. xiv, 304. $69.00 (pb). ISBN: 1-904713-04-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.01.20

Plöger, Karsten. England and the Avignon Popes: The Practice of Diplomacy in Late Medieval Europe. London: Legenda, 2005. Pp. xiv, 304. $69.00 (pb). ISBN: 1-904713-04-1.

Reviewed by:

Sophia Menache
University of Haifa

The challenging title of this book justifies expectations of an analysis of the complicated relationships between the so-called Avignon Popes (1305-1378) and the kings of England, the three Edwards. What we actually have here, though, is a study that covers twenty years of the reign of Edward the Third, focusing on the pontificates of Clement VI (1342-1352) and Innocent VI (1352-1362). The justification for this particular period (1342-1362) remains open to speculation, however, because of the continuation of processes that had begun in both the English and the pontifical courts as well as in the Continent some years earlier. This peculiar chronological focus, albeit allowing for some research in depth, is not devoid of problems. Thus, although the author tries to cover the rich bibliography on the subject, his conclusions and/or premises sometimes lack historical perspective. Some examples may clarify this point: Plöger's claim of a lack of anti-clerical trends in England prior to the mid-fourteenth century (23) can easily be invalidated. Many historical narratives, especially chronicles, as well as rich parliamentary documentation and also political songs and prophecies, extensively prove that protracted anti-clerical trends existed in Angevin England; indeed, they have been convincingly discussed in historical research. The author's allusion to a general recognition of papal arbitration in Europe (29), as well, presents another example of an anachronistic approach. About fifty years ago, Bernard Guillemain, among others, convincingly proved that the Hundred Years War actually heralded the end of papal recognized arbitration among Christian States. Besides, from the very wide range of diplomatic practice and the many problems that arouse during this period of crisis, Plöger defines his main interest as lying in "the forms and structures, rather than the contents [including 'end products,' such as alliances, truces, treaties, etc.] of diplomatic communication in the late Middle Ages" (2). His main goal, as he reiterates, is "to explore the techniques and modes of diplomatic activity in the late Middle Ages" (228). So, what remains is a very conscious study of the technical aspects of royal-papal relations during twenty years of the long reign of Edward III (1327-1377). This conclusion is rather disappointing, but perhaps some of the criticism should be vented on the editorial board of the Modern Humanities Research Association, which allowed the publication of a promising Ph.D. thesis without demanding the necessary adaptations and improvements to turn it into a book with a wider perspective.

No doubt, the reign of Edward the Third was critical in the history of medieval England, in which the papacy had customarily played a most critical role, especially following the feudal oath of King John Lackland to Pope Innocent III. Moreover, the protracted stay of the papacy in Avignon, coupled with the outbreak of the Hundred Years War, created new challenges and new problems for the royal administration. The propagandistic trend that was so dominant during the reign of Edward III, introduced an additional factor, one that did not receive satisfactory attention in the present study.

Notwithstanding these general observations, we have here an important contribution to the understanding of the practice of medieval diplomacy. This is especially true from page 65 onwards, when the author begins to discuss his original findings from the archival material. Chapter three reconstructs the diplomatic personnel of the royal court, which included aristocrats of the rank of Henry of Grosmont and Richard Fitzalan, both of them close to King Edward and possessing military and diplomatic experience prior to their missions to Avignon. A long list of barons, bannerets, and knights joined the leading nobility; among them, Richard de la Bere, Thomas Bradeston, Guy de Brian, all of whom were recruited to the king's household in the first years of Edward's reign. Many of the large range of clergymen who were active in the royal administration had graduated in both Roman and Canon Law from the leading universities of the time, Cambridge and Oxford, thus reflecting anew the well-known importance of jurisprudence in medieval politics. A third category is provided by the notaries public, all of them trained administrative experts, whose expertise became crucial in light of the spread of juridical procedures. The personal careers of those involved in Anglo-curial diplomacy allow the reader to discern the most important requisites for a diplomatic career in those times: not just aristocratic origins, but legal expertise and personal skills, as well.

Chapter 4 deals with "Organization," a rather general title that covers diverse topics, such as diplomatic immunity and safe conduct passes, some of which were of no avail in times of crises, especially during the anarchic years in consequence of the plague, coupled with the many misfortunes caused by the protracted conflict between the two leading monarchies of Christendom. The structure and self-image of royal embassies to the papal court receives special attention, with maps of the standard routes to Avignon (146-147). The discussions of the speed of traveling and of accommodations and provisions for the English envoys provide very interesting data on communication practices, a subject matter that has not been satisfactorily researched. What kinds of accommodations were available for medieval travelers, according to their rank? To what degree did the city of Avignon, as papal residence, provide food, security, and accommodations, not only for the ambassadors and envoys of the political powers, but also for their secretaries, counselors, servants, and even their horses (156 ff.)? The size of the English delegations, running from some dozens to hundreds, provides further food for consideration. Thus, the largest delegation that reached Avignon in 1354 consisted of the retinues of Duke Henry of Grosmong, Earl Richard Fitzalan, two bishops, and one peer, among others, totaling more than 630 men traveling with 602 horses. These numbers suggest the many challenges that delegations of this size posed during both the prolonged journey to Avignon and their residence in the city. Undoubtedly, the state of war between England and France did not facilitate English delegations traveling in French territory.

Under the heading, "Means of Communication," chapter five (179 ff.) discusses other aspects of diplomatic practice, while focusing on the use of written texts, which had become common practice by the middle of the fourteenth century. The blank documents that former medieval kings provided their envoys went out of practice, giving way to a very meticulous use of documents of all kind. Procurations, a clear expression of Roman juridical influence, specified the kind of authority given to the envoy. Though a clause of full power (plena potestas) was often specifically mentioned, it did not bestow unlimited authority to the envoys, and sometimes appeared to be just lip-service to customary requisites. At times, multiple procurations were written, thus allowing progressive concessions that envoys were enabled to make according to the tempo and atmosphere of the negotiations. Still, oral instructions, usually given by the king, continued to be common practice, thus posing further difficulties to research on the subject. Reliance on verbal communication responded to two main worries: 1] breach of security--to avoid having particularly important documents fall into foreign hands; 2] misunderstanding--to ensure the right understanding of the goals and purposes of the mission.

Under the sub-title "Communication problems," Plöger presents some interesting examples of linguistic barriers that still existed in the mid-fourteenth century and that actually increased because of the development of vernacular tongues. Though Latin continued to be the formal language of European diplomacy--a fact that actually dictated the participation of clergymen in all diplomatic missions--the use of dialects, such as Provençal in the Avignon area, sometimes made communication quite difficult. A brief discussion of matters of protocol, procedure, and ceremony (197-225), which were part and parcel of the Avignonese period, closes the narrative part of the book. Unfortunately, a very short conclusion and epilogue leave unanswered several questions that arose while reading this book.

Seven appendixes provide important material on diplomatic practice and the development of communication in the late medieval period. They specify the leaders of the English royal embassies to the papal court, along with their times of departure and return to London, the duration of missions, their size, and itinerary, and the academic background of their members. The last appendix, devoted to diplomatic gifts, quite surprisingly presents the gifts given by both Edward II (1307-1327) and his wife, Isabelle, to Pope John XXII (1316-1334), i.e., both in the period that preceded the present study. Moreover, the data reproduced here cannot properly be understood except in the political context of the riotous reign of Edward the Second and the beginning of Isabelle's uprising.

A better knowledge of the practice of medieval diplomacy is undoubtedly an important subject that can improve our understanding of the historical context and, especially, of the political processes during a period of crises, characterized by an accelerated tempo of change. From the perspective of communication developments, the present book produces important insights into the many challenges with which medieval diplomacy had to cope. One may hope that Plöger's book will pave the way to complementary research into additional subjects in communication and diplomacy, two fields that have been quite neglected by medievalists.