16.05.16, Šmahel, The Parisian Summit, 1377-78

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Thomas A. Fudge

The Medieval Review 16.05.16

Šmahel, František. The Parisian Summit, 1377-78: Emperor Charles IV and King Charles V of France. Prague:Karolinum Press at Charles University, 2014. pp. 478. ISBN: 9788024625225 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Thomas A. Fudge
University of New England, Australia
tfudge@une.edu.au

Approaching the end of a lengthy and productive career, František Šmahel has long been internationally known as the greatest living authority on the Hussite history of the later Middle Ages. This book, originally appearing a decade ago in Czech, reveals another dimension of his scholarly interests. The journey of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV to France already enjoys a rich historiography in French, Czech, and German. There are important studies by the Czech scholars Jiří Spěváček, Josef Šusta, and František Kavka. French historiography has been well served by Robert Delachenal and Françoise Autrand. Among German scholars, the work of Ferdinand Seibt and Heinz Thomas should be especially noted. It is worth drawing attention also to the highly-regarded work of the American art historian Anne Hedeman. As long ago as 1781, the subject was addressed by Czech historian František Martin Pecl whom Šmahel identifies as a scholar with a "truly remarkable" (268) and "surprisingly detailed knowledge" (401) of the event.

The main source for our knowledge of this journey can be found within the pages of the Grandes Chroniques de France. There are two manuscript versions, one complete and the other abridged. The account within the Grandes Chroniques is amazingly detailed to the extent, for example, of distinguishing between five different types of horse. Strangely, the events which make up the great journey are not mentioned in the chronicles of Emperor Charles IV with the result that the story must be approached and evaluated from the French perspective only. However scholars wish to interpret the events of 1377 and 1378, and despite the fact that the narrative of the Grandes Chroniques follows the figure of Charles IV, the principal subject is nevertheless French. The title of the original Czech study Cesta Karla IV. do Francie, 1377-1378 is remedied in the English version which more accurately reflects the pervasive French connection. The journey is as much about King Charles V of France as it is about Emperor Charles IV. This raises questions about why there is no extant Czech record. Recognizing this challenge, Šmahel nonetheless forges ahead with a detailed and analytic reconstruction of the last great journey undertaken by the emperor out of Bohemia (a geographical space with the unfortunate reputation for being a land of questionable morals). The narrative is ambitious and wide-ranging. What the reader encounters on the surface is a meticulous elaboration of medieval European life at the level of royalty. In the textual shadows, one also encounters politics and propaganda. However, before the journey commences, we learn much about Charles IV and his place in the history of Bohemia and indeed in the development of Europe.

Imprisoned as a boy, the young Václav (Wenceslas) eventually becomes Charles, a young man with an impressive linguistic resumé ranging from Czech to French, from Latin to German, with additional competence in Italian. There is a profound French influence on young Charles, and evidence for this can be found in the life of the emperor as well as in Prague, the city which Charles played no mean role in elevating to a place of European prominence. In these endeavors, as an expander of imperial interests, Charles fulfilled his title "zu allen Zeiten Mehrer des Reiches." Along the way, we encounter relics, profound religious devotion, the burning of a witch, the alleged miraculous powers of French kings (which included healing but only ironically and rarely efficacious for themselves!), details about books and libraries, and even the nature of medieval toilets. Indeed, Šmahel has succeeded in bringing the past alive and the reader is immersed in geography, topography, ritual, performance, mentalities, power, and politics. There is plenty for both the scholar and the interested lay reader. For example, the term "doctor" may not necessarily reflect either a medical profession or a university grade but may be best rendered simply as "teacher" in the common meaning of the word praeceptor as understood in the fourteenth century. On another level, we learn that Charles' ill-advised coronation of his two-year-old heir to the Bohemian throne in St. Vitus' Cathedral resulted in young Václav kicking up a fuss while he "shat all over the altar of St Maurice" (158) and creating a commotion which could not be ameliorated until a quick-thinking baker handed the royal brat a cake. The anecdote resonates with the disorder which characterized the long and mainly dismal reign of King Václav IV during which time he was deprived of the imperial throne, embarrassingly kidnapped twice, and held hostage, and fitfully had to observe the outbreak of the Hussite Revolution, resulting in his sudden death which he helplessly met, according to a Czech chronicler, roaring like a lion.

The journey of Emperor Charles to France, in the autumn years of life, only reinforced the political reality within the empire that the emperor actually or literally ruled only wherever he was (at least symbolically). Šmahel quite properly elucidates the point that any King of the Romans who was not constantly on the road could not hope to exert imperial authority or maintain political control. This was a lesson both sons of Charles IV were taught. Sigismund passed the exam. Václav failed. The French realm was not within the empire, of course, but Charles had his own reasons for making the trip. This is illuminated especially in the graphic descriptions within the Grandes Chroniques de France where we encounter the painful image of a gout-stricken emperor straining with all his might to ascend the steep and narrow stairway before the Great Reliquary in Sainte-Chapelle. The chronicler points out that Charles so greatly desired to see the holy relics that he was willing to forfeit imperial dignity and be "pulled by the shoulders and legs" (209) up and down the stairs which caused unspeakable strain and pain in his gouty body. Nevertheless, he was able to see the holy relics up close and was thereby greatly comforted. This awkward scene contrasts with the sacral nature of kingship espoused by both French and Luxembourg traditions. In addition to these moving textual episodes, as Šmahel has painstakingly revealed, there are traces of Charles in practically every place he visited ranging from documents to pious bequests.

It is illuminating to discover that there were specific steps taken to ensure that the authority of Emperor Charles IV was concealed during his sojourn in French territory. After all, rex imperator in regno suo French kings were, at least metaphorically, emperors in France. Prior to 1377, no protocol existed for an imperial visit. The journey of Charles IV to France precipitated the creation of one. As noted previously, we possess no Czech version of events. Nevertheless, the hastily prepared domestic protocols were respected and, while there were some awkward moments, we encounter no diplomatic crises. There are no fewer than three compelling features of the book which augment the narrative. The first lies with the decision to include 172 illustrations chiefly drawn from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sources. These include no fewer than thirty-two images of Emperor Charles. The second is a complete translation of the account of the journey as contained in the Grandes Chroniques de France. The third valuable feature is the inclusion of fifteen "excurses and investigations." These appendices range across more than 150 pages and take up topics pertaining to sources, visual images, processions, horses, clothing, banquets (including menus and tableware), dramaturgy and music, gifts, relics, and of course a detailed elaboration of the expenditures which clearly cost the king of France a fortune. Some of these appendices are extremely detailed and extend to the length of an essay. These provide analysis and data worthy of additional investigation and application. Šmahel even includes his own experiences at table at All Souls College in Oxford to corroborate details encountered in the events in France in 1378. So much for the insistence that historians should be completely detached from their topics.

The translation reflects an inordinate commitment to colloquialisms and the plain, straightforward, language is almost consistently accessible to a lay audience. This may be contrasted with some of the other monographs authored by Šmahel. Occasionally, the translation is odd. "The emperor's sick legs" (317) is an example. There are few typographical errors (perhaps a half dozen) which in a volume of nearly 500 pages is most commendable. The Latin phrase inter alia is overused (more than forty times by my reckoning). A number of the visual images are misleading when compared with the texts of the events they purport to depict. A severe attack of gout made it impossible for Emperor Charles to meet the French king's envoys on horseback at Senlis, but illuminators clearly thought it improper to show the emperor being carried on a litter. The same observation might be applied to the meeting of Emperor Charles IV and King Charles V wherein both are depicted wearing crowns. We learn from the written records that Charles V "wore a pointed hat" (199), not a crown. The narrative is unfortunately littered with far too many men named Charles (no fewer than fourteen!) which occasionally presents a challenge to the reader. This, however, cannot be helped. One is also disappointed that the content of a three-hour long conversation between the two main Charleses on 5 January 1378 remains a complete mystery. This, however, is no fault of Šmahel. No account of the discussion was made. What preoccupied two powerful men for three hours? We shall never know. Šmahel does not indicate with sufficient clarity the possible extent of the fictitious nature of protocols allegedly enacted for the imperial visit. We get the sense of a gentlemanly quid pro quo principle at work. I have some suspicion that the narrative of the grand visit of Emperor Charles IV to France contains a firm commitment to a political agenda aimed at securing firm protocols. Once more, Šmahel is effectively silent. It is further doubtful that we should accept Šmahel's claim that a particular speech "was captured word for word." (315) That said, we may be both amused as well as reassured when the Great Chronicle notes that when the son of the emperor swore an oath to love the king of France more than any other worldly prince, and be obedient in perpetuity, that "on this day, nothing more happened that would be worth recording." (227) The bliss of banality was known even during the drama of medieval European political summits. In the absence of a Czech perspective it may be doubted that Václav made such a sweeping concession to the French king. Šmahel does not make any extensive comment on the matter. It remains to assert that Emperor Charles IV made a serious mistake in failing to commission an official record of his own journey to France.

There are clues scattered here and there about the broader impulses which prompted the journey to France which are, in retrospect, useful for understanding the dramatic chapters which enveloped Prague in the fifteenth century. After 1330, the names of many Czech students appear in the enrolment books at Paris. The writings of the French priest and academic, Jean Buridan made no small impact in the intellectual world of Charles University after the 1360s when nominalism eventually came into sharp conflict with Wyclifite thought. The future archbishop of Prague, Jan Jenštejn, could be found in Paris, Matěj Janov studied at the Sorbonne, and Vojtěch Raňkův of Ježov obtained his master's degree at Paris. Jerome of Prague nearly set the university on its head in 1406 and in between there was a veritable stream of influence between Paris and Prague. The all-too-often overlooked correlation of politics and education in these later Middle Ages is not bypassed in this volume. With the outbreak of the papal schism in 1378, shortly after the Parisian summit, the Clementists denounced the Urbanists at Paris as "schismatic heretics" (250-51) and steps were then taken to remove university titles from those opposing the pontificate of Clement VII. Graduands who supported Urban VI had their promotions blocked. Politics prevailed. Academic matters were curtailed. Those on the wrong side of the dispute had little option but to transfer to institutions of Roman obedience. Inasmuch as Pope Urban confirmed the election of Václav IV as King of the Romans, there was some chance that an academic exodus from Paris might establish a pathway to Prague. Of course, it was not quite that simple. Nonetheless, had Václav IV honored his pledge to Charles V which he ostensibly undertook during the great journey to France with his father, Prague and Paris would have remained united during the crisis of the papal schism. As the bellicosity of the dispute escalated, the two famous university towns went separate ways.

Criticism of minutiae is the purview of little minds. Setting aside quibbles and nitpicking quarrels, the book is a masterpiece, filled with shrewd insight and the deft finesse of one of the most accomplished medievalists of recent times. This lavishly illustrated book proposes to follow the actors of the great 1378 summit. The journey itself, the summit at Paris, and the various events elsewhere in French territory are a rich examination of cultural history wherein little is omitted and the detail is often impressive. Drawing upon the disciplines of archaeology, microhistory, iconography, cultural anthropology, the history of mentalities, and material culture, František Šmahel has succeeded on a grand scale in achieving a readable and authoritative picture of an event which must be numbered among the triumphs of the reign of Emperor Charles IV. The Parisian Summit is a vivid and compelling portrait of courtly life and affairs of both the French and Luxembourg Houses. The analysis penetrates the sometimes obfuscating portraits of the larger pictures of life in the Middle Ages. In so doing, the reader encounters a useful modern chronicle of an altogether amazing medieval journey which features the intricacies of French culture and politics. The book deserves to be widely read.

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