03.05.19, Vale, Princely Court

Main Article Content

Carol Symes

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.019


Vale, Malcolm. The Princely Court: Medieval Courts and Culture in North-West Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. xviii, 422. ISBN: 0-19-820529-5.

Reviewed by:
Carol Symes
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In July of 1915, the curator of the departmental archives of the Pas-de-Calais, housed in Arras, made an heroic contribution to Malcolm Vale's study of the princely court. Desperate to save the region's documentary heritage from the German bombardment that would eventually destroy his town, he rushed into the burning stacks and began to throw bundles of parchment out of the window. He began, indeed, where French archival practice had long decreed that archivists should begin: with the letter A, denoting the records of the local secular authority which, in the thirteenth century, was the county of Artois. Happily, an extraordinary trove of comital charters and registers survives as a result, albeit at the expense of other layettes now lost to researchers, notably the ecclesiastical records of the diocese of Arras and those of the region's many ancient and powerful monasteries, filed respectively under the unlucky letters "G" and "H." From this reconstituted archive, Vale can show that the princely court of Robert II of Artois (b. 1250; r. 1266-1302) exercised "a formative influence upon the other courts" of medieval Europe, including that of England (8).

This detailed survey of the practical workings of the medieval court, and its day-to-day expenditures, movements, protocols, and pastimes, will be of enormous importance to all scholars studying the artifacts that were produced in courtly circles -- among them poetry, romance, music, books, buildings, and luxury goods. It also contributes to the histories of accountancy and accountability, domestic economy, warfare, and material culture, and will be useful to anyone who seeks to understand the intricate network of affinities and exchanges within which princely courts operated. Vale knows this territory well, perhaps better than anyone, and his book resembles one of the muniment chests that would have accompanied an itinerant court on its journeys; it is a treasure-trove of information, on the hoof.

It is divided into two main parts. The first, entitled "The Material Foundations of Court Life," describes the inner workings of "The Court and the Household," outlines its "Organization and Structures," looks closely at "Consumption and Expenditure," and reveals the logistics behind the constant mobility of "The Traveling Court." This is where the real meat of the book is to be found. Part Two is called "Culture" and consists of two unwieldy chapters: "Court Life and Court Culture," which includes discussions of leisure activities (gaming, hunting, tournaments), display, and ceremony; and "Art at Court: Investment in Culture?" This deals with the visual arts and courtly patronage on the one hand (painting, architecture, book production) and, on the other, with the consolidation of "a Francophone culture." It is in this latter half of the book that Vale seems out of his depth. In some ways, though, this is of little moment, since there are many other scholars equipped to re-read and re-assess the artistic record, and they now have The Princely Court as their guide.

Mining the rich documentary veins of England, northern France, and the Low Countries, Vale's purpose is to demonstrate that there was a shared court-culture in northwestern Europe, a culture whose lineaments were already being formed by political, economic, and dynastic alliances during the twelfth century, but which is not clearly discernible in the surviving records until the last quarter of the thirteenth. This fact somewhat complicates one of Vale's other main points, namely that it is "fairly clear, from a relatively early date," that the princely household had a "relatively well-defined structure" (34): scattered evidence from the English household of Henry I, or that of the counts of Hainault a century later, make this difficult to prove. And as Vale shows, the household ordinances that would later set out rules for domestic management are very late and highly idealized; they must be carefully weighed against the archival record. Still, it is certainly reasonable for him to assert that "the self-conscious institutionalization" of departments and offices in the fifteenth century "may merely represent a formalization of existing structures and procedures" (57).

Although Vale does not dwell on the causes of the documentary explosion that produced his sources (relevant studies by John Baldwin, Thomas N. Bisson, and William Chester Jordan are absent from his bibliography), the precocious development and application of accounting practices in Flanders and the Anglo-Norman realm provided models that could have been adapted by the expanding kingdom of France, the new county of Artois (established as a royal appanage in 1237), and the newly-powerful county of Hainault, augmented by Holland and Zeeland after 1299. Evidence drawn from any one of these milieux would be valuable, but the particular strength of Vale's study derives from its detailed comparison of fiscal accounts from England, the Artois, Flanders, and Hainault-Holland, with some limited consideration of the court of the French kings, for which such extensive documentation does not survive.

Throughout his reconstruction of the quotidian operations of the princely household, Vale takes issue with the prevalent view of courtly life as rarified and closed to hoi polloi. Instead, he sees the court as "a microcosm of society at large," although he admits that the space around the ruler (which constitutes his definition of a "court") could be more orderly, more cogently structured, and more closely monitored than other spaces (95). He shows how hierarchies were constantly articulated and enforced through mechanisms that were at once practical and theatrical: liveries of clothing which delineated the status of courtiers from household knights to kitchen-boys, dining privileges, quality and proximity of housing, conspicuous consumption, ritual, and so on. Moreover, Vale argues that this culture took on its familiar forms and parameters relatively early, as I noted above, and that these remained stable over a long period of time. This was (he contends) because the courts of northwestern Europe were united by a common language -- French -- and a common set of values and expectations. The most far-reaching aspect of his argument, most forcefully articulated in the conclusion (297-298), is that this vibrant culture did not develop in opposition to the culture of the nation-state, and that the "nationalisms and chauvinisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries find little place in it."

This is important, because it is in the light of these ideas that the hard evidence for court life in medieval Europe has always been interpreted -- if it has been interpreted at all. However, the temporal and geographical scope of this book do not really allow its author to drive home a related thesis, that the supposed discontinuity between medieval and Renaissance, or early-modern, princely courts is an "inherently false and artificial one" (18). His sources do not stretch so far, and the later examples he offers are adduced at random -- as in a discussion of the logistics involved in provisioning and moving the itinerant court, which introduces anecdotal evidence from as far afield as seventeenth-century Poland and Wilhelmine Germany. In my opinion, a few pages devoted to what appear to be superficial similarities do not warrant the conclusion drawn, that "the similarities of court life down to 1914 were very striking" (142).

There are a few other points at which Vale's evidence cannot fully support his conclusions, as when he contends that the princely court did not contribute to the evolution of later governmental institutions, which he sees as already stabilized and divorced from the workings of the household by the time that household emerges, in the mid-thirteenth-century, as an object worthy of study. And he asserts, rather than proves, the court's interdependence on the countryside and the urban environments which often provided its raw materials, artisans, and audience. He also questions theories that the court operated as a propaganda machine for the manufacture of princely personas and authorities; he stresses instead the collective and collaborative nature of its modes of production, as well as of the products themselves. He does not, however, choose to amplify Walter Map's view of the court as "market" of ideas and influences. Indeed, although Vale tries to situate his findings within a larger conceptual framework, to engage the ideas of Karl Marx, Johan Huizinga, Norbert Elias, and Joachim Bumke, among others, he is not always successful in his attempts to show how his own work challenges their conjectures.

Rather, Vale is at his best when displaying the fruits of his meticulous research. And he is very generous to his readers, both in his provision of raw data and its analysis. Tables and graphs are supplemented by appendices presenting certain key documents and accounts in their entirety; and most of these are the objects of close scrutiny in the body of the book. There are also a number of images, reproduced in black-and-white, although these are not as well integrated into the overall argument; they resemble the occasional literary allusions in this regard. One could say that Vale's tentative forays into art historical commentary or literary criticism merely draw attention to the fact that his skills as an historian lie elsewhere. Fortunately, these skills are placed in the service of the scholarly community, and have made an essential contribution to the study of court life.

Article Details

Author Biography

Carol Symes

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign