The Medieval Review 10.01.12

Bothwell, J.S. . Falling From Grace: Reversal of Fortune and the English Nobility, 1075-1455. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2008. Pp. xv, 269. $85.00 978-0-71907-521-6. .

Reviewed by:

Linda Mitchell
Womens Studies, University of Missouri Kansas City

The medieval world had a long association with the notion of "The Wheel of Fortune," from as early as Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy to the late medieval images of Fortune either seated on or spinning a wheel upon which cling people of all social status. Bothwell (University of Leicester), in this extensive and detailed look at the ways in which Fortune could affect the careers and futures of English noblemen and women from shortly after the Norman Conquest to the eve of the Wars of the Roses, makes good use of the Wheel of Fortune imagery, in both illustrations and in his text, as well as of the biblical trope of the "Fall from Grace." If there are problems in the presentation of this issue, they do not lie in Bothwell's determination to be comprehensive in his analysis of the rise and fall of noble fortunes, or in the richly detailed examples he utilizes, but rather in the conceptual underpinnings of the work, which in some ways work against the clarity of his vision.

In his conclusion, Bothwell reiterates his "five 'larger' themes" first stated in his introduction:

the increasingly formal, pointed and public processes against disgraced nobles, including trial, punishment, sentences, and reversals; the growing importance and at least theoretical tenurial permanence of confiscated lands in royal patronage; the increasing use of violence, and banishment; the growing role of women in the fate of families and estates; and the continued presence of trial by battle in various forms (226).

These themes operate in some tension with the overall structure of the work, which is organized in chapters that focus on a different, if related, set of themes: the ways in which nobles "fell from grace"; the kinds of corporal and capital punishment exacted by the Crown (and the differing levels of barbarity with which these punishments were meted out); the seizure of estates and moveables, especially in the period after 1322; the experience of exile; and the amelioration of lost fortune through forgiveness and intercession, reversals of adverse judgments, and the determination of wives, mothers, and other women to effect a recovery of lost status and property. Within these chapters, the five themes might or might not be the main focus. It is, indeed, possible to identify still other themes that Bothwell is determined to tease out of his sources: the relationship between the psychology or personality of the monarch and the level of violence directed against a noble fallen from grace; the role of both an increasingly professionalized royal administration and of the parliamentary system in replacing the personal animus of the monarch against an individual or group of individuals; the effect of what he describes as a class-based schadenfreud that might have affected the level of public humiliation of nobles during periods of lower-class revolt and rebellion; the significance of blood kinship with the royal family to the kinds of punishment meted out; even the influence of what he terms "Celtic" forms of violent punishment on the execution of rebels and traitors after the Edwardian conquest of Wales. If one then adds the very broad historical reach of the work, from the reign of William I to the middle years of Henry VI, then it might become clear that this is a study that would have benefited from simplification of its stated--and unstated--goals.

The methodology Bothwell employs is neither theory-based (such as a Foucauldian interpretation of the forms of punishment used by kings, armies, and governments) nor quantitative. Instead, it is more impressionistic. Bothwell collects the most compelling exemplars of medieval falls from grace, beginning with Waltheof, earl of Huntingdon, who led the rebellion against William I in the 1070s, and ending more or less with the "Southampton plotters" against Henry V (although the changing fortunes of the Warwicks during the reign of Henry VI is also discussed to some extent). The major dissidents against the Crown or the King are all included: they are too numerous to list here. Included as well are those who counted as royal favorites, only to be felled by baronial disapproval: Piers Gaveston, the Despencers, Richard II's favorites, etc. The histories of these exemplars are interwoven with more general discussions of each chapter's themes. This can lead to both repetition and confusion, especially since Bothwell does not employ a single chronological thread throughout any given chapter. Despite the claim on the dustjacket that this text is appropriate for "general readers interested in medieval history and culture," one has to have a very good foundation in the political and legal developments of the entire medieval period, from before the Conquest to the Tudors, in order to follow Bothwell's roadmap.

This is not to say that this is not an important and useful study, for indeed, it is. No one has attempted to do what he has done: to link the political events of rebellion, punishment, and redemption to such perhaps disparate developments as the tension between royal sovereignty and chivalric and Christian notions of benevolence, the growth of parliamentary authority, and the trope of the Wheel of Fortune in both art and literature. This is an ambitious and thought-provoking series of linkages and Bothwell's impressive command of the sources and his own personal vision more or less compel the reader to go along with him on his journey. The connection between the political, iconographic, and literary seem to be self-evident for Bothwell; he tries to demonstrate this visually, through the insertion of manuscript images periodically in the text, and mechanically, through the use of literary quotations at the beginning of every chapter and frequently at the beginning of subheadings within the chapters. While I can appreciate the illustration of such a medieval mentalit, the effect is more subliminal than overtly analytical.

With such an ambitious "to-do" list, it is perhaps understandable that Bothwell is not able to be entirely consistent in his presentation of all five themes, as well as of all the other themes indirectly expressed. The two that are most problematic for me are his notion of all military or pseudo-military activities (such as tournaments) in this context as "trials by battle," and his treatment of the role of women as both felled by fortune and as advocates for the fallen.

Although the medieval connection of victory and God's approval cannot be discounted, Bothwell does not in fact emphasize that connection in a way that enhances his discussion of how military action, and either victory or defeat, affected someone who was "fallen from grace." He also seems to conflate the legal concept of trial by battle and the idea that all battles between hegemonic authority and rebels against it are trials. Bothwell even admits in his conclusion that he has been less effective in explicating this theme. There are ways in which he could have clarified this position, especially in his section on the veneration of fallen rebels, such as Simon de Montfort and Thomas of Lancaster, who might have lost the battles, but won the hearts and minds of the "people": a kind of reverse trial by battle in which the loser is judged innocent rather than guilty.

With respect to the participation of women both as intercessors and as actors in their own right, Bothwell seems not to have done his homework in as careful a way as when he deals with male subjects. He does not mention, for example, the extensive and important intercessory role played by Queen Marguerite of France in adjudicating the conflict between Henry III and Simon de Montfort, or the role of Henry's wife, Eleanor of Provence (and Marguerite's sister), in raising royalist forces while the king was Simon's prisoner. The enormous bibliography on queens and queenship that discusses their intercessory role is, indeed, missing. Bothwell also does not seem to understand that, for many of the women he includes as examples, the lands they were seeking were often not dower, but rather, their own inheritance: Joan, widow of Roger de Mortimer, was lady of Meath and Ludlow in her own right and, when those lands were forfeited after Roger's death, she quite legitimately petitioned for their return. Again, important studies of these women, especially as widows, are missing from his bibliography and it seems that most of the information on them was taken from the Dictionary of National Biography--and often from the articles on their husbands, rather than works written about the women themselves. Bothwell's tone, especially in the final chapter when he discusses the strenuous efforts by women to rehabilitate their husbands or to petition for the return of estates forfeited to the Crown, is also disturbing: borderline smarmy. Historians whose work focuses almost entirely on the activities of men might not find the archness of Bothwell's presentation of the activities of women as troubling as I do, but if he had presented his male subjects in similar ways, I think the protests would be loud and plentiful.

This tonal problem is, I think, part of an overall lack of careful copyediting on the part of Manchester University Press. Although it might seem like nitpicking, this can also be annoying to a careful reader. Word usage issues (such as "adverse" when Bothwell meant "averse"), inconsistent formatting of endnotes, very inconsistent punctuation and occasionally impenetrable syntax, and outright errors (such as referring to Geoffrey of Monmouth's work as The History of the Kings of England) are all items that could have been caught had some editor somewhere taken the responsibility to do so.

In sum, this is an important, if flawed, study of the ways in which noble dissent against authority was managed, how it was viewed, and how it was resolved over a long period of medieval English history. Thought-provoking and ambitious, Bothwell's work should provide much fodder for debate in coming years.