The Medieval Review 16.02.29

Fletcher, Christopher, Jean-Philippe Genet, and John Watts, eds. Government and Political Life in England and France, c. 1300-c. 1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. pp. x, 382. $120.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-107-08990-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Michael Sizer
Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)

This collection of essays is not only useful in providing some of the finest recent scholarship on the late medieval government and politics of England and France, it is also inspiring for its presentation of the possibilities of collaborative research. The book stems from discussions held from 2002-2006 by a subgroup of the larger research group France-Îles-Britanniques sponsored by the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique). The approach for all but two chapters was to have two authors--usually one French and one British--for each chapter, so that French and English history would be presented together and in dialogue with one another. The logistics of co-writing and then assembling, editing and translating (all of the essays appear here in English) these chapters must have been quite challenging, as it took from 2010 for the essays to move from draft form to this completed version. Nevertheless, the result is no mere cut-and-paste job, as generally the writing flows together nicely to allow for comparison between the English and French material, and the essays and wonderfully extensive bibliographies included at the end of each chapter have been updated to reflect material since 2010.

The fresh approach to the idea of political history the scholars in this project employ adds to this book's success. As Jean-Philippe Genet explains in his introduction, the focus here was on "dynamics" as opposed to "structures"; in other words, on processes observed empirically rather than through an imposition of abstract concepts such as "the state." This allows them to avoid the teleological trap of narratives of "the birth of the modern state" that in my view have encumbered some previous efforts in this vein (including some overseen by Genet). [1] The group uses an expanded concept of "political society" that includes all affected by government (whether through courts, taxation, etc.) to allow for inclusion of the lower orders, reflecting the bottom-up as opposed to the top-down notions of state-construction that have been an important part of medieval political historiography in the past several decades. Among its other effects, perhaps the most important consequence of this approach is that it reinforces the idea that the monolithic narrative of "birth of the modern state" should be replaced by a more varied and contingent history, in which France and England, though so historically intertwined and so alike, arrived at their modern forms in different ways and according to different imperatives.

Along with this presentation of the group's comparative methodology and approach, Genet's introduction also provides a broad overview of the historiography of late medieval French and English politics. Obviously this is an enormous task, and so Genet focuses on major works and major themes, and on French and English authors. As a result, though he briefly mentions the excellent and still-important book by Richard Kaeuper, he mostly omits the scholarship of Americans or other nationalities. [2] This is in some ways regrettable--Genet identifies nationalist sentiment as an obstacle in his review of the historiography, something that makes the contribution of non-French and non-English historians to these nations' political history particularly useful--but even if this volume is mostly an Anglo-French show, it still covers much of the best work in the field.

Genet also remarks that the focus in this book is on the royal governments at the exclusion of the principalities. He suggests that Scotland, Wales and Ireland were relatively subdued in contrast to Burgundy and Brittany, such that a comparison that included consideration of these regions would not be useful. This claim is a bit forced. Certainly Scotland in the fourteenth and Wales in the fifteenth centuries were anything but subdued. More crucially, as the essays in the volume itself often illustrate, the royal governments and political identities of England and France were shaped in large part through their relationships with their principalities and peripheral regions such that it becomes difficult to talk of them in isolation from these areas. Genet gives some acknowledgment to these issues, and ultimately bases the exclusion of the principalities on the exigencies of time, space, and focus.

Genet's most important and elemental observation in this introduction has to do with the different kinds of source material available in each country, which has been a crucial factor in shaping the way the histories of England and France have been constructed. Put simply, England has a larger and more continuous collection of materials from the central government, while France has a thinner source base for the central government due in part to destruction of some of these materials during the Commune, the French Revolution, and the 1737 fire at the Chambre des Comptes. However the opposite is true when it comes to regional sources, where richer materials in France have led to a wealth of regional studies that is not paralleled in England.

Aside from Genet's introduction and the conclusion written by John Watts, the book consists of ten chapters, each on an aspect of political life or government common to both kingdoms. These are:

"Courts," by Malcolm Vale

"Kings, nobles and military networks," by Steven Gunn and Armand Jamme

"Offices and officers," by Christine Carpenter and Olivier Mattéoni

"Royal and public finance," by David Grummit and Jean-François Lassalmonie

"Justice, law and lawyers," by Michelle Bubenicek and Richard Partington

"Church and state, clerks and graduates," by Benjamin Thompson and Jacques Verger

"Political representation," by Christopher Fletcher

"Grace and favour: the petition and its mechanisms," by Gwilym Dodd and Sophie Petit-Renaud

"The masses," by Vincent Challet and Ian Forrest

"In the mirror of mutual representation: Political society as seen by its members," by Franck Collard and Aude Mairey

This is an excellent range, touching on institutions, spaces, people, practices, and beliefs throughout much of the social spectrum. One would perhaps like to have seen a chapter comparing the political role played by urban patriciates in both kingdoms--such a comparison has not, to my knowledge, been done and would be very interesting. But certainly one could not expect such a huge topic as government and political society to be covered exhaustively in one volume.

The first six of these chapters cover the institutions and personnel of royal government, as well as the cultural life that emerged around them. Much of this work builds on the recent trend of prosopographical analysis that has flourished, especially in France, in recent years, which has fleshed out the earlier tradition of institutional histories. In many ways, these chapters confirm the idea that France and England both became centralized and bureaucratic states with significant power to extract revenue from their citizens in similar ways in this period. However, some important differences emerge as well. Vale's chapter, while it notes key common elements between French and English royal courts (overlap between household and court, courtiers as increasingly powerful and important intermediaries between king and subjects, existence of anti-court sentiment, court as producer of propaganda), does remark that the shared culture between French and English courts, though it persisted, was strained by the Hundred Years' War, and that the flow of personnel between princely and royal courts was of greater importance in France than in England. Steven Gunn and Armand Jamme, in their discussion of military organization, Christine Carpenter and Olivier Mattéoni in their analysis of royal officers, and David Grummit and Jean-François Lassalmonie in their chapter on fiscal organization, show that England and France had different timelines in terms of the centralization of their institutions. While England had a more centralized regime of royal office in the thirteenth century compared to France, it was France that had a standing army and a more well-managed fiscal system earlier in the fifteenth century under Charles VII than did England. Other variations in organization, outlined very clearly in these chapters, collectively demonstrate the multiple paths to centralized state power pursued by each.

In the field of law, certainly, the two kingdoms had quite divergent paths, as the English system of Common Law differed fundamentally from the French who were more influenced by Roman Law. Nevertheless, as Michelle Bubenicek and Richard Partington in their chapter on justice and law, and Benjamin Thompson and Jacques Verger in their chapter on clerks show, parallel bureaucratic cultures that were more dependent on the king and more lay developed in each kingdom as the Middle Ages came to an end. And law was a crucial vehicle for the consolidation of power in royal hands in both places, although each author shows that this was not merely a top-down process but rather emerged from a shared emphasis on the importance of justice that was felt by king, clerk, and subject alike.

Certainly England and France would seem to be quite different in the field of representation and representative institutions as well. English Parliament met much more regularly and played a more active role in political affairs of the realm than did the French Estates-General. Still, Christopher Fletcher argues that this should not lead us to believe that for this reason England's system or culture of representation was more "developed" than was France's, as in France the many local Estates or municipalities with their own fierce sense of liberties and rights embodied an idea of representation which collectively compared to that of England's Parliament. Gwilym Dodd and Sophie Petit-Renaud, in their excellent chapter on petitioning, show that this was a crucial means of contact between king and subject in each realm, and that petitions were taken very seriously as a central aspect of governance. The much larger body of petitions in English archives allows for a more focused and extensive study, but the evidence that does exist in France reveals similar modes of representation through the petition process.

Vincent Challet and Ian Forrest's chapter on the masses affirms, again, that our understanding of political society is incomplete without consideration of the large majority of people who lived in these realms during the period. In sources, these people act as a collective, designated with words such as populares that signaled their political subordination, and this is what the authors mean by "masses" as opposed to signifying any economic status as the term does in the Marxist historiographical tradition. These masses often expressed themselves through means of prophecy, or through displays of collective emotion, or revolt, which the authors refer to as a "political language" with its own "grammar" of recurring symbols and themes. Both English and French masses frequently participated in revolt in the period, although French revolt was often more regional and community-centered, and English revolt had more intense anti-clerical themes.

The final topic chapter, by Franck Collard and Aude Mairey, is on the terms used for political society in literature and other sources. The authors note a greater amount of "estates satire" in England, where the power of the royal government was a more settled question but the relationship of subjects to one another was less secure, while in France there was greater concern in the political literature with asserting the primacy of the king in a more contested and heterogeneous political landscape.

The book's concluding chapter is by John Watts, who has been a key figure in recasting late medieval politics in a more inclusive, holistic way as opposed to the top-down model that has dominated the field until recent decades. Watts attempts to summarize the similarities and differences pointed out by the authors in the previous chapters, and what might account for them. The main difference, in Watts' view, relates to the size of the two kingdoms. As France was much larger, its conflicts were much more between the center and its regions, whereas in England the crises were in the center, and were often more drastic, as the overthrow of three kings in the period covered by this book demonstrate. Another crucial difference was the fact that France was a constant site of war, while England was mostly spared war on its shores, which was decisive in the justification found in each place for military and fiscal organization, as well as shaping the motivation for revolt.

To have all of this eminently useful scholarship in one place is a great benefit to any researcher of the period--this book is like one-stop shopping for the graduate student studying for her prelim exams--and furthermore the comparative approach makes the material come alive in new ways. France and England have always been intertwined, presented in the historiographical literature either as mirror examples of proto-modern centralized states, or as opposites whose differences serve to illustrate each other's exceptionalism. This volume of essays will not fully resolve this two-headed debate, but it will at least make further discussions of it more informed.



1. Jean-Philippe Genet, L'Etat moderne, genèse: bilans et perspectives: actes du colloque tenu à Paris les 19-20 septembre 1989 (Paris: CNRS, 1990); Genet, La genèse de l'Etat moderne. Culture et société politique en Angleterre (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2003); Michel Mollat, Genèse médiévale de la France moderne (Paris: Seuil, 1977); Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).

2. Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973); Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990 (Cambridge; Oxford: Blackwell, 1990); Wim Blockmans, André Holenstein, and Jon Mathieu, Empowering interactions political cultures and the emergence of the state in Europe, 1300-1900 (Farnham; Burlington: Ashgate, 2009).

Copyright (c) 2016 Michael Sizer

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