Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.09.19 Bombi, Anglo-Papal Relations in the Early Fourteenth Century

21.09.19 Bombi, Anglo-Papal Relations in the Early Fourteenth Century

Barbara Bombi's Anglo-Papal Relations in the Early Fourteenth Century: A Study in Medieval Diplomacy is a concise and useful study that argues for a new understanding of diplomatic activity in the Middle Ages. At the core of Bombi's book is a key observation that "historians of late Medieval diplomacy have overlooked the importance of administrative and bureaucratic practices in diplomatic discourse, narrowly defining diplomacy as the management of foreign affairs" (2). In Anglo-Papal Relations, Bombi offers an important corrective to this view by arguing convincingly that "the interpretation of Medieval diplomacy ought to be revised and extended to the study of administrative practices and routine affairs" (3, emphasis mine). The emphasis on routine affairs is a particularly important facet of the book and its arguments. Implicit in Bombi's approach is the argument that studies of medieval diplomacy have focused too frequently on major political figures while failing to account for the crucial role played by lower-level officials, informal contacts, and, above all, administrative processes such as record-keeping and the production of correspondence, which fundamentally shaped all diplomatic activity.

In order to reinforce this new approach to the study of medieval diplomacy, Bombi divides her book into two parts. Part I establishes key thematic concepts, which Bombi then uses to unpack four case studies which appear in Part II. The five chapters in Part I discuss various aspects of medieval diplomacy. This section of the book demonstrates Bombi's impressive mastery of the complex, multilingual, and often quite technical historiography of the inner workings of the English and papal courts. Chapter 1 offers a detailed examination of the parallel developments of English and papal administrative practices by the early fourteenth century, which sets the stage for subsequent chapters. In chapter 2, Bombi argues that by the late thirteenth century, the rules of the stilus curieand the ars dictaminis, which governed the production of documents at the papal court, were well known in England and had begun to influence the production of English chancery documents. This contributed to what Bombi calls a "shared language of diplomacy" between England and the papacy, a key concept that she probes further in chapter 3 when discussing the ways in which messages were conveyed at the papal court. Chapter 4 examines in fascinating detail how the English crown, comparatively disadvantaged in terms of representation in Avignon, nonetheless utilized informal contacts and networks of key individuals--many of them of lower-level status--to facilitate productive diplomatic communication with the papacy. Finally, chapter 5 rounds out Part I with a very useful and informative discussion of the types of intermediaries who connected the English and papal courts. Bombi argues convincingly that high- and lower-level representatives (the latter of which were often trained in law or the production of documents) were equally important in lubricating the machinery of diplomacy in this period.

Having established key concepts and arguments in Part I, Bombi then turns to case studies for the remainder of the book. In many ways, Part I may be the more useful section of the book, especially for those scholars not interested specifically in the minutiae of the Avignon papacy. But it is in Part II that Bombi connects many of her earlier observations to actual fourteenth-century events. Chapter 6, which examines the election of Clement V in 1305 and Edward II's succession in 1307, argues that the beginning of the Avignon papacy initiated a new phase in the relationship between the English crown and the papacy. Bombi shows how both the growth of bureaucratic and diplomatic practices and also the inventiveness of a wide variety of administrative officials in both polities fueled important administrative advancements and cemented the central role of routine business in the broader realm of diplomatic affairs. Chapter 7, which uses the War of St. Sardos and the deposition of Edward II as its canvas, allows Bombi to argue that independent but complementary administrative advances at the papal and English courts, specifically in the realm of record-keeping, grew out of the practical demands of diplomatic communication and arbitration. The creation of diplomatic "dossiers," organized thematically and geographically, provided both polities with concrete diplomatic tools, which in turn provides evidence for what Bombi calls a "shared culture in the management of foreign affairs across Europe throughout the fourteenth century" (182). In chapter 8, Bombi turns to the outbreak of the Hundred Years' War, one of the defining political events of the fourteenth century. As this case study demonstrates, the outbreak of war in 1337 prompted significant reshuffling in the administrative departments of the papacy and the English crown. The reorganization of diplomatic records on geographical and thematic lines (which Bombi already discussed in chapter 7) continued during this period, which made documents "more moveable and accessible and facilitated the retrieval of information during diplomatic negotiations" (202). As in previous cases, Bombi observes that "English, French, and papal administrations developed similar administrative and diplomatic procedures, especially with regard to record-keeping, because each of them was facing comparable political challenges after the outbreak of the Anglo-French conflict" (203-204). In a final case study, Bombi analyzes the reorganization of papal and English administrative practices between 1356 and 1360, which concluded the first phase of the Hundred Years' War. Here, the reorganization of English and papal administrative practices followed similar trajectories, even if specific changes emerged from different political contexts. Crucially, however, this period also coincided with the implementation of certain continental administrative practices in England, further reinforcing Bombi's notion of a "shared language of diplomacy" during this period.

Throughout Anglo-Papal Relations in the Early Fourteenth Century, Bombi's comparative approach to her subject and sources provides readers with continually interesting and useful observations. The history of medieval administrative practices often has a nationalist bent that makes it difficult to see clearly whether certain institutional developments were truly unique to a particular place and time or whether they were broadly reflective of larger trends across Europe. By nature, comparison undercuts the myopia of nationalist history, and forces readers to think bigger and broader. Take, for example, Bombi's excellent observation that lower-level or unofficial English and papal diplomatic representatives often played a disproportionately large role in the functioning of medieval diplomacy. This is an argument that will be cheered uniformly by a whole generation of institutional historians who have made similar observations about regions and periods as diverse as Carolingian Europe, Norman Sicily, and twelfth- and thirteenth-century France. Intellectual and legal historians will undoubtedly be interested in Bombi's central argument that a "shared language of diplomacy" developed in the fourteenth century. This bold and important idea could and should serve as the foundation for future scholarship on a wide range of shared ideas across the European continent.

Bombi succeeds in her comparative methodology in large part because of her obvious mastery of both the historiography and also the sources of two very different areas of study: the English monarchy and the papacy. In particular, the case studies in Part II, while focused on very specific events in fourteenth-century Europe, reveal Bombi's thorough archival research, a feat even more impressive because of the voluminous documentary record for both institutions in the later Middle Ages. Some readers may be frustrated that Bombi infrequently allows the sources to speak for themselves. But the footnotes do not lie: for a comparatively slim volume, this book is exceptionally well researched, allowing Bombi to back up her individual arguments with considerable documentary evidence.

Of course, as with any book, there are areas where some readers may be disappointed. Historians of communication, who would be drawn naturally to a book like Bombi's, may be frustrated to learn that this study does not engage more fully with the growing and increasingly sophisticated literature on the theory and practice of medieval communication. Such literature would likely have allowed Bombi to find even more meaning in her analysis of the relationship between oral and written communication (chapters 2 and 3) or her useful discussion of informal contacts and networks of administrative officials (chapters 4 and 5). Some readers may wish for a fuller conclusion, one which more effectively ties together the complex threads of Parts I and II of Bombi's book. Still others may find the book's subtitle--a study in medieval diplomacy--somewhat ill-fitting, given that this is a book which at times seems more at home in the field of administrative history. But in many ways, Bombi's continual, and at times relentless, focus on administrative practices and norms reinforces her central argument: the history of diplomacy is the history of administrative practices. Scholars who believe they can ignore the minutiae of document production and record-keeping do so at their peril, for they are clearly at risk of missing a large part of what made medieval diplomacy work in practice.

Ultimately, it is important to note that readers (and, indeed, reviewers) cannot and should not push their own intellectual interests and methodology on the book project of another. Bombi has defined her project well, and she has succeeded admirably in crafting a useful and important study that will inform and inspire scholars of the papacy, the English monarchy, and comparative history in the years to come.