The Medieval Review 12.05.06

Matthews, David. Writing to the King: Nation, Kingship and Literature in England 1250-1350. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xvi, 221. 53 UKP. ISBN: 978-0-521-11137-9.

Reviewed by:

Frdrique Lachaud
Universit de Lorraine

For a number of years, there has been increasing interest in the political dimension of the literary output of both of Richard II's reign and of the century which preceded his accession to the throne of England. Scholars such as Thorlac Turville-Petre and Wendy Scase, whose recent work on Literature and Complaint judiciously links the genre of complaint with the growth of parliamentary petitions from the reign of Edward I onwards, have shown that the "political turn" in literature was not an innovation of the last decades of the fourteenth century. Writing to the King situates itself within this historiographical movement. In this book, David Matthews gives a full discussion of the political aspects of literary works produced from the time of the rebellion of the barons against the government of Henry III to that of the reconciliation between the king and the community of the kingdom, thanks to military offensive, in the 1340s.

Apart from a few incursions in prose texts, the corpus is mainly constituted of verse chronicles and of the poems known since Wright's edition as "Political Songs." [2] The opportunistic dimension of these texts, the tactics used by their authors and the fact that complex codes are often resorted to in order to veil criticism explain why these poems remain difficult to read and to understand. Authors--probably preachers, "literate" knights and lawyers--may have been seeking a kind of protection in anonymity, but this also had the advantage of making their voice closer to that of the population, like that of a kind of ventriloquist. At the beginning of the period, most texts were written in Latin, the vernacular dominating only from the late 1320s. The expansion of poetical political writings in the vernacular was parallel to that of administration, Parliament and petitions; it also reflected an increased awareness of the possibility of taking part in the political process, as well as being the echo of a more strident expression of nationalism.

The book is divided into five chapters, which follow the chronology of the poems. In Chapter 1, "Defending Anglia," Matthews analyses the political poems of the second half of the thirteenth century, where the notion of "Englishness" plays a growing part. This was not defined by birth; in fact, it connoted both a particular kind of character and a form of political behaviour that respected the English tradition in matters concerned with law. In the rhymed chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, as well as in the political poems linked to the period of baronial reform ("Song against the king of Almaine," "Song of Lewes," Plange plorans) and in those that describe the fate of the rebels and traitors, "Englishness" is increasingly noticeable, but this notion is still malleable enough to absorb those who were born abroad. In these poems, "England" does not express a widely shared national feeling nor does it express the sense of belonging to a national community: instead, "Anglia is Latinate, bookish, a construction of the clerks. England--something implied in the English poem on Lewes but not named--will emerge more fully later on" (50). From the 1290s, however, the king was able to draw upon a stronger pro- English feeling, in particular in the wars against the Scots, a theme that is at the heart of Chapter 2, "Attacking Scotland: Edward I and the 1290s." Robert de Gloucester and Peter Langftoft transformed Edward I into a new Arthur, in a process that bound the legendary past found in the Brut chronicles to contemporary events. For Peter Langtoft (who may have echoed popular feeling) the king's actions fulfilled the Prophecies of Merlin. This double link with the past enabled Langtoft to interpret the wars of Edward I in the British Isles not as a form of conquest but as a process of reunification of the Isles, the restoration of the ancient English hegemony. At the time of the Great Cause, the king and his advisers were probably not ready to integrate the legendary past of Britain in their quest for historical proofs of English sovereignty: ten years later, this mythical past was summoned in the defence of the rights of England over the other British lands. Matthews demonstrates convincingly that in parallel to that process, the figure of the enemy and that of the traitor were rejected as the alien "Other." In this respect, the evolution of the figure of John Balliol in political poems is revealing: at the time of the Great Cause he was celebrated as the best candidate to the British throne, a member of the caste of magnates that dominated on both sides of the border. But when Edward I politicized the border between England and Scotland, Balliol started to incarnate the colonized "Other."

Chapter 3, "Regime Change," is a study of the difficulties of the end of Edward I's reign, of the succession of Edward II and of the coup of 1330 as seen by the political poets of the period. Matthews offers a daring interpretation of these texts through the systematic comparison of the dismemberment of the rebels' bodies with the process of assimilation between the body of the king and England. He also follows closely the related themes of the posthumous life of the king or of the rebel, and of the impostor pretending to be the "true" king. Chapter 4, "The Destruction of England: Crisis and Complaint, c. 1300-41," deals with the perception of royal exactions and taxation: these are at the heart of two treatises addressed by William of Pagula to King Edward III, and also of two contemporary poems, "King Edward and the Shepherd" and "The King and the Hermit." Other poems written in the first decades of the fourteenth century, the "Outlaw's Song of Trailbaston," "On the King's Breaking His Confirmation of Magna Carta," or "Simonie," list the evils of the times. The "Song of the Husbandman" (for which Matthews suggests a date in the 1330s or 1340s) is probably the text that identifies most with the voice of the peasantry. In none of these poems is it possible to find any direct attack against the person of the king, whose attention is always sought. This makes even more remarkable the proposal in the song "Against the King's Taxes" for Parliament to restrain the actions of the king.

The last chapter is entitled "Love Letters to Edward III" and is centered on a very suggestive comparison between the work of Laurence Minot and that of Froissart. Representing the interests of the rural gentry of the North of England, Minot promoted a nationalistic and xenophobic vision of war as the destruction of the enemy: the chivalric and courtly culture which is so prominent in Froissart's Chronicle is entirely absent from Minot's conception of war. In his poem the body of the king is also identified with England: the figure of the king is at the heart of the kind of nationalism expressed by Minot. However this was still sufficiently open and flexible so that it could include such a hero as the Hainault knight "Walter Manny."

Not all the texts studied by Matthews are addressed to the king, but the choice of the title Writing to the King may be justified by the recurrent examination of the link between the authors and their public, and of the role of dedication and apostrophe. The study is centered on political poems, many of which have been known and studied since Wright's edition. What is perhaps missing here is a more detailed analysis of texts addressed to the king that do not enter strictly into this corpus, such as the treatises by William de Pagula, which are a first-rate testimony on the existence of a political and critical literature addressed to the king. One may also regret that the author did not choose to refer--at least for the sake of comparison--to the Mireur a Justices, a late thirteenth-century legal and political treatise which contains attacks against current abuses which are quite close to those found in political poems. One might also wish for a close comparison between the political poems of the 1320s and 1330s and the treatise addressed to the young Edward III by Walter Milemete; more generally it would have been worth comparing the strategies used in 'mirrors of princes' and that of political poets.

These remarks must not detract from the fact that David Matthews has offered a refreshingly novel analysis of the literary output of the century between c. 1250 and c. 1350. In particular, the idea of the evolution from a literate Anglia to a more popular "England" is highly suggestive; this is also the case with the idea of the invention of the Scottish nation in the poems of the 1290s as an ideological preliminary to the destruction of Scotland. This study is an important step towards a more refined and comprehensive knowledge of the literary works of the period as well as for our understanding of the construct of the idea of a national community in England on the eve of the Hundred Years War.



1. Thorlac Turville-Petre, England the Nation: Language, Literature, and National Identity, 1290-1340 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996); and Wendy Scase, Literature and Complaint in England, 1272-1553 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007).

2. Thomas Wright's Political Songs of England from the Reign of John to That of Edward II, ed. Peter R. Coss (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996).

3. The Mirror of Justices, ed. W. J. Whittaker, with an introduction by Frederic William Maitland, Selden Society (7), 1895 (for 1893). On this work, see David J. Seipp, "The Mirror of Justices", in Learning the Law: Teaching and the Transmission of Law in England 1150-1900, ed. Jonathan A. Bush and Alain Wijffels, (London and Rio Grande, The Hambledon Press, 1999), pp. 85-112; and Anthony Musson, "Rehabilitation and Reconstruction? Legal Professionals in the 1290s," in Thirteenth-Century England IX: Proceedings of the Durham Conference 2001, ed. Michael Prestwich, Richard Britnell and Robin Frame (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2003), pp. 71-87.

Copyright (c) 2012 Frdrique Lachaud

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