05.04.11, Chaplais, English Diplomatic Practice

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Walter Ysebaert

The Medieval Review baj9928.0504.011


Chaplais, Pierre. English Diplomatic Practice in the Middle Ages. London: Hambledon and London, 2003. Pp. xii, 277. ISBN: 1-85285-395-6.

Reviewed by:
Walter Ysebaert
Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Pierre Chaplais is, among historians, well known as a specialist of English (medieval) diplomatic studies on the one hand, and of the conduct and instruments of English foreign policy on the other. His English Diplomatic Practice in the Middle Ages forms part of an extended study of the practice of English medieval diplomacy in general. The first two parts were published under the titles English Medieval Diplomatic Practice I: Documents and Interpretation (1982) and English Medieval Diplomatic Practice II: Plates (1975); the present book, which is in fact part III of this study, was already finished typesetting in 1992, but remained unpublished until now (see ix-x).

English Diplomatic Practice in the Middle Ages is not a study of English foreign policy in the Middle Ages, neither is it a "diplomatic" study or approach of English medieval charters and/or other official documents, as one could maybe wrongly expect out of the title. Rather is it an account of English diplomatic missions, to be understood as processes of communication and negotiation of treaties between English and foreign rulers, and in particular of the specific use and (un-)importance of written documents (diplomatic letters) and of the role played by messengers and envoys. He covers this larger subject for the whole medieval period, as well as a more technical (diplomatic) study of diplomatic correspondence from the early 13th until the end of the 15th centuries.

The book consists of three main chapters. In the first chapter, a general account is given of the methods used by English rulers to communicate with foreign powers from the very early period until the reign of King John. Here, as Chaplais explains on several occasions (e.g.,1 and 45), we are confronted with a lack of documentary material, which obliges him to build up his narrative by picking up examples from the continent or from known Greek and Roman methods and uses of written documents and/or messengers and envoys. As a result, no clear picture of English diplomatic practice for this period can be drawn, though Chaplais tries to make clear that near the end of the 12th century also in England a process of differentiation, which distinguishes "communicating" from "negotiating"--though both activities were never unconnected--had started; a process which was definitively completed by 1230.

The second and third chapters treat the 13th-15th centuries, and thus rely on a much richer font of sources. In the second chapter, which more or less can be seen as the "diplomatic" or "technical" part of the book, several aspects of diplomatic correspondence are analysed. Against the background of the major characteristics of medieval letter-writing in general and of its well-known conventions, Chaplais pays attention to a possible classification of diplomatic letters, to the evolution of the use of seals and signets, to the internal structure of diplomatic letters (and in particular to the importance of the use of the cursus and of the correct application of the rules of diplomatic etiquette with regard to the formulation of title (intitulatio) and address (inscriptio), to the language of the letters (Latin, English or French), to the importance of letters of credence, and finally to the bearers and the delivery. The third chapter--the most extensive one--then treats the problem of simple and solemn missions--referring to the option to send an oral message rather than a letter to foreign rulers. Here different aspects are treated, such as the choice for suitable envoys, the exact tenor of the written (letters of) credence, the itinerary taken by an embassy, and the scope, limitations and legal value of this kind of missions and of "oral" communicating in general.

Chaplais' book is a very detailed study which contains many anecdotes and Latin citations (in the text itself and in the more than 1300 footnotes as well), which makes it very rich but hard to read at the same time. It furthermore lacks an introduction, one or more conclusions and a bibliography, which makes it even more inaccessible and blurs the broader perspective of the evolution of diplomatic practice for the whole of medieval England. One also gets the impression that the first chapter is speculative and not very coherent--which contrasts with chapters two and three--and the first twenty pages of the second chapter more or less repeats what was written earlier. Another problem lies in the fact that results from recent historical research on different fields are not integrated (caused by the fact that the text has not changed since its typesetting?) The most recent secondary literature dates from the beginning of the eighties. During the last two decades, many medievalists have worked on all possible aspects of literacy (and on Schriftligkeit or on Verschriftelijking), have studied diplomatic sources (charters, cartularies) in less "diplomatic" ways, or are working on the different "genres" of letters and letter-treatises, but it is clear that these approaches did not had any influence on Chaplais' book. Recent scholarship on the relations between France and England are absent as well. This is a pity, for this book, which shows a huge extent of erudition, contains nevertheless interesting information for those interested in diplomatic practice in general or in medieval letters and letter-writing in particular.

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Walter Ysebaert

Vrije Universiteit Brussel