03.07.21, Given-Wilson, ed., Fourteenth Century England

Main Article Content

Sara M. Butler

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.021


Given-Wilson, Chris, ed.. Fourteenth Century England II. Series: Fourteenth Century England, vol. 2. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2002. Pp. ix, 180. ISBN: 0851158919.

Reviewed by:
Sara M. Butler
Saint Mary's University

Maintaining the high standards set by the first volume in this series, Chris Given-Wilson's Fourteenth-Century England, II offers readers an interesting mixture of histories, weighted heavily towards the political, but including also fascinating morsels of religious, economic, art and cultural history from a blend of new and veteran scholars. In his preface, Given-Wilson remarks that the essays in this collection are not linked thematically, rather they are joined together by their focus on a defined period in English history, presenting the turbulent fourteenth century from a wide variety of complementary and disparate perspectives. Yet, a common thread runs through this assortment of essays: most of the authors here wish to challenge the long-held beliefs of their fields in one way or another, whether it is to establish the hitherto neglected presence of Italian expertise and resources in the development of English coinage (as in Martin Allen's "Italians in English Mints and Exchanges"), or to challenge the dating of the Wilton Diptych (as in Shelagh Mitchell's "Richard II and the Broomcod Collar: New Evidence from the Issue Rolls"). The result is an agreeable and, at times, eye-opening journey through a variety of existences in the fourteenth century.

John H. Arnold's superlative insight into inquisitorial discourse in the persecution of the Lollards shines in this diverse collection. As an historian of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Languedoc, Arnold defends his intrusion into English history, explaining a sense of "haunting familiarity" (81) experienced when he was first introduced to the English legal discourse of Lollardy. Not only did medieval English investigators utilise the same format of interrogation as continental inquisitors, but similar terminology "strongly implicated in an inquisitorial mode of thought and expression" (83) appears frequently enough in the English context to contest traditional orthodoxy that England simply kept out of the Inquisition. In an attempt to "strip away some of the myth from the reality" (87), Arnold argues persuasively that English historians need to rethink their views on the Inquisition. "Rather than imagining 'the Inquisition' as a kind of extreme outfit," he contends that we should see it instead as a "set of language and practices that claims to produce and police a field of knowledge (namely heresy)" (87). Arnold's paper acts as a rousing call to historians of Lollardy for comparative research, leaving the reader pondering a number of perceptive questions, such as: if similar terms were used in Cathar and Lollard trials, do they indicate the same kind of behaviour in both contexts? As well, if the inquisitorial method was indeed used in England to persecute the Lollards, why were English heresy trials so surprisingly boring? While Arnold's article underscores the similarities between these two moments in history, he calls upon English historians to explain the differences.

In her "A Curious Erasure in Walsingham's Short Chronicle and the Politics of Heresy," Jill C. Havens takes up the theme of Lollardy once more, complementing Arnold's meticulous, investigative approach. Havens's focal point is the so-called Lollard Knights: Sir John Clanvowe, Sir Lewis Clifford, Sir Thomas Latimer, Sir John Montagu, Sir William Neville, and Sir Richard Stury. Placing their trust in Thomas Walsingham's unfavourable commentary concerning these six men in his Short Chronicle, historians have usually supposed that they were in fact heretics. Havens argues, however, that Walsingham, as an "ardent and outspoken opponent" (96) of both the Lollards and the king, is hardly a credible source. Inspired by a copy of the manuscript held at the Bodleian Library in which the names of these six Lollard Knights have been strangely erased from the text, Havens questions this hypothesis. Perhaps pushing the evidence beyond its limits, Havens traces the gentleman most likely responsible for the erasure (Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester), drawing upon his background and connections to the Lollard Knights to conclude "that a member of Walsingham's immediate audience did not readily accept the veracity of his charge of heresy against these men" (106). Havens's conclusion is not entirely convincing (might not the erasor have been trying merely to protect others from his circle, rather than cast doubt on their guilt?). None the less, her investigation reminds us of the cardinal rule of historical research, sometimes ignored or forgotten by even the best of historians: every historical document is a product of the cultural, ethical and political assumptions of its writer, and it is up to the historian to discover what these assumptions might be and how they shape the history recounted by that document.

Tom Beaumont James's "John of Eltham, History and Story: Abusive International Discourse in Late Medieval England, France and Scotland" also exemplifies the upper end of the scale in this fine collection of essays. In an attempt to separate propaganda from history, James vindicates King Edward III of his brother's death. Despite allegations of violent fratricide levelled against Edward by Scottish chroniclers, James deduces that Edward could not possibly have committed the murder himself, having been elsewhere at the time of the death. Rather, much like the French aspersions of Edward's sexuality, we must see these charges against Edward III "in a wider European context as faggots on the fire of patriotic feelings which were stirring in late medieval England, France and Scotland, their flames being fanned not only among the lower orders, but also threatening the reputations of the most powerful monarchs of the day" (80).

Michael Prestwich, Shelagh Mitchell and Nigel Saul are also to be especially commended for their diligence and engaging writing. Mitchell's essay, in particular, in which she uses the world of fashion to challenge the traditional method of dating the Wilton Diptych, demonstrates the level of precision employed throughout this volume as well as the infinite value of the collection's contributions. Nevertheless, such standards are not easily maintained. Essays by Carla Lord and J.S. Hamilton, for example, scarcely seem to warrant the small amount of space awarded to them. Similarly, essays by Alastair Dunn and Paulette E. Barton, although generally well written, prompt the reader to question exactly what is new about their arguments or evidence.

As was also the case with its predecessor, this volume of Fourteenth Century England offers primarily a political history of England, concentrated among the highest ranks of English society. A more balanced third volume might also include some works of social history. Such shortcomings are minor, however, and do not lessen the overall high quality of the research. Readers can look forward with enthusiasm to the third volume of this series edited by Mark Ormrod, scheduled to appear in 2004.

Article Details

Author Biography

Sara M. Butler

Saint Mary's University