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22.01.26 Thomas, Power & Pleasure

22.01.26 Thomas, Power & Pleasure

Thomas (University of Miami), in this engaging and thought-provoking book, has packed an enormous amount of information into a concise package. Focusing on the ways in which King John exercised what Thomas calls “soft power” through the performance of courtly life and ritual, he unpacks the many ways in which space, place, environment, material goods, art, and culture all intersected to create a unique court experience for those who danced attendance upon this rather problematic king. Thomas uses a rich and deep variety of sources for his work, including both literary/historical works such as chronicles, and public, chancery, and private documents that began to be collected in greater numbers in John’s reign. When information is unavailable, Thomas pulls judiciously from both earlier sources--primarily the reigns of John’s father, Henry II, and brother, Richard I--and slightly later ones--those of John’s son, Henry III, in whose reign public documents became a burgeoning industry. The result is quite a detailed and multidimensional picture of king and court that works well as a model for future studies of courtly culture.

Thomas seems to have decided to investigate John’s court for some specific reasons. Firstly, John’s reign was short--only sixteen years--and therefore it is possible to engage in a thorough study of court life during the entire reign, unlike the fifty-six-year reign of his son. Secondly, the variety and density of documentary sources for John’s reign, unlike those of his father and brother, mean that there are sufficient sources to provide the kinds of independent verification needed to temper the opinions of court and monastic historians and literary figures, such as Roger of Wendover and Peter of Blois, whose animus against John affected the ways in which they depicted his reign and his court. John’s reign is a kind of Goldilocks period: not too long but not too short; enough records for variety but not enough to be overwhelming. At the same time, John is an interesting historical figure, one whose career both before and after becoming king has provoked controversy and condemnation in ways that other English kings have not. John is a conundrum historians might never unravel; Thomas admits that he considers John to have been a pretty terrible king, but at the same time he was not the monster portrayed in the chronicles and was capable of considerable charm and strategic planning when needed. As a result, Thomas humanizes John in a way that other portrayals have failed to do.

The book is organized into nine chapters, including a lengthy introduction (Chapter 1) and a far briefer conclusion (un-numbered). Each chapter builds on previous chapters, but it is also possible to derive specific information from each that the reader would find useful. This could be the reason why Oxford organized the chapters with both subheadings and numbers, much like a textbook, which I found unusual in a monograph, but which might be useful when selling individual chapters of the book. After the introduction, chapters focus on (2) Hunting and Falconry; (3) Luxury and Material Culture at Court; (4) Aspects of Court Culture; (5) Religious Practices at Court; (6) Food and Feasting; (7) Places and Spaces; (8) King John and the Wielding of Soft Power; and (9) John’s Court in a Comparative Context: A Preliminary Sketch. In many ways, chapters 8 and 9 operate as part of the conclusion, in that they pull together all of the various parts of the previous chapters to provide a more general and comparative overview of John’s reign. After the two-page conclusion, Thomas includes a brief appendix outlining the ways in which he calculated John’s hunting expenses, which he had to derive from numerous sources and probably no small amount of speculation based on comparing John’s enthusiasm for sport with that of his predecessors and successors.

Indeed, John’s love of hunting, the expansion of royal forests--which led to considerable strife during his reign--and his use of forests, deer, dogs, hawks, and other accoutrements of hunting as means for rewarding supporters and allies and punishing enemies is a theme that runs through the entire book. It is clear that Thomas considers John’s obsession with hunting to be a significant characteristic of his practice of kingship and one of the primary components of the court culture of his reign. I found this perspective, looking at John’s development of forest law and the expansion of forest jurisdictions to the detriment of his subjects and magnates through the window of John’s clear adoration of the hunt, to be absolutely transfixing. I frequently had to put the book down and think about how this particular monomania could be utilized to present a rationale for John’s actions--especially in England and the Welsh Marches, where royal forests were powerful political tools--which others have dismissed as everything from insanity to bloody-mindedness. I wish that Thomas had actually devoted more space to unpacking this issue and had also discussed John’s aversion to tournaments at greater length: this might be more connected to the hunting obsession than Thomas suggests. Control of royal forests and access to them was a typical political strategy of kings, including John’s son, Henry III, who also loved hunting but hated tournaments. Thomas considers it one of the most important elements of “soft power” on display in John’s court. I think that the chaos of the melee, so beloved of the young men of both courts and so hated by the monarchs, was anathema to John and Henry because it was chaotic, uncontrollable, and resembled another activity both disliked intensely--warfare. John was willing to spend enormous sums on creating a magnificent military array--as discussed in chapter 8--but far less willing to deploy the troops and mar the performative glories of marching armies. Killing animals for sport was perhaps more his speed because it did not involve the likelihood of grievous bodily harm to the human participants and could be managed systematically. It is perhaps ironic that one of his predecessors who was equally enthusiastic about hunting, William II (Rufus), was killed during such an outing, but the death of John’s brother Richard in what could be described as a careless and stupid episode of petty warfare could also have weighed on his mind and shaped the ways in which he expected his courtiers to engage with him.

There are fun chapters on food and drink and castles and other architectural spaces that provide a brief picture on John’s court practices but cannot complete with the far larger collection of monographs on these topics that Thomas cites in his superb and extensive footnotes and bibliography. This is understandable, as these topics probably cry for their own book-length treatment. However, Thomas raises some tantalizing questions as to the sophistication of John’s palate (perhaps very sophisticated, indeed) and the ways in which access analysis can transform our understanding of the juxtaposition between defensive and domestic spaces within castles and other royal structures. Thomas considers the possibility that John’s vision of royal castles had far less to do with defense and far more with quality of life. This is clearly the case in Henry III’s building programs, but it is interesting to speculate on the push toward domestic magnificence as occurring earlier with the reign of his father.

The one person I wish were far more present in Thomas’s monograph is John’s queen, Isabelle of Angoulême. Many of the domestic arrangements attributed to John and the departments of chancery, butlery, and exchequer might indeed have had more to do with Isabelle, who would have been in charge of such things on a more day-to-day level. It is difficult to find Isabelle in this monograph. For example, Thomas speculates that John’s sexual predations among the wives and daughters of the baronage had a great deal to do with their dissatisfaction with him. What about Isabelle? Just as it is possible to trace the itinerations of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (before her imprisonment) by using the work of court historians such as Robert of Torigni, it is possible to identify when Isabelle was present at court and when she was not. Her abandonment of her children with John when she returned to the arms of her former fiancé might have had something to do with dissatisfaction with her husband’s philandering. Other than the usual vague comments about John’s uxoriousness, Thomas neglects what might have been an essential and important component of court life.

In the end, Thomas dissects two sides of court culture. Firstly, he outlines the ways in which John’s performance of soft power contributed to his success in raising the “tone” of his court to one that rivaled in magnificence those on the Continent. Secondly, he outlines the ways in which John’s missteps in exerting soft power led to the growth of contentiousness with the baronage and the church, which ultimately led to the rebellion and Magna Carta. He makes few value judgements about John’s talent for using soft power. In the end John was unsuccessful in retaining the loyalty of his barons not because he was not good at performing magnificence and munificence but because he was a nasty, vindictive, and militarily incompetent king. Thus, the conclusions Thomas makes are not that different from those of other biographers of John and historians of his reign.

What makes this book different is the perspective it creates of court culture as a phenomenon that grew organically and that was not resisted by the courtiers who participated in it. While the glories of late medieval and early modern royal courts are well catalogued and often discussed, they did not spring fully formed from the minds of late medieval and early modern monarchs. The magnificence was always there, growing steadily, from a far earlier time, even in the courts of despised kings like John.