11 July, 2010

Edward II Prefers Speaking French To Latin And Therefore Is Stupid, 'Experts' Claim

Edward II's mother tongue was French, or rather the version of it used in medieval England, which is usually called Anglo-Norman today. In February 1308, Edward made his coronation oath in French, rather than in Latin as previous English kings had done (though records are missing for Edward I's coronation in 1274, and it may be that he made the oath in French too). In January 1312, the writ declaring that Piers Gaveston had returned to England from his third exile and that the king considered him "good and loyal" was written in French rather than the usual Latin, and a memorandum declares that the king himself had dictated the form of the writ (la dite forme fu fete par le Roi meismes). And in 1317, Pope John XXII thanked the archbishop of Canterbury, Walter Reynolds, for translating a papal bull from Latin into French for Edward's benefit. [1]

These factors caused various historians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to condemn Edward II for 'laziness', 'stupidity' and 'illiteracy' because he had failed to master Latin. [2] This is completely and utterly ridiculous. Edward I's biographer Professor Michael Prestwich says that the king "had some understanding of Latin," [3] but I've never seen anyone condemn Edward I for 'laziness', 'stupidity' and 'illiteracy' because he wasn't completely fluent in the language. Funny, that, isn't it? I've never seen anyone claim that Edward III was stupid because he took his coronation oath in French not Latin in 1327, or Richard II in 1377, or Henry IV in 1399, or the other kings who also did. Pope John XXII asked Edward II's brother-in-law Charles IV of France in 1323 to write to him in Latin in the future, not in French as Charles was wont to do, as his (the pope's) knowledge of French, or rather the Parisian form of it, was inadequate. [4] Has anyone ever called Charles IV stupid and lazy for sending letters in his native language rather than in Latin? Of course not.

Hmmm. If you didn't know better, you might even think that some writers have been biased against Edward II and determined to think the worst of him in any and every situation. (God forbid.) Using Latin to give the responses during the coronation oath would have required the king to learn a mere five words (Servabo; Faciam; Concedo et promitto) by heart, assuming he didn't know them already, which he more than likely did. How on earth could Edward II, who might not have qualified for Mensa membership but who was certainly not stupid*, have been unable to learn five words by heart? A ludicrous notion. [5] It is virtually certain that Edward did learn Latin as a child, as his father and son did and his mother Queen Eleanor most probably did too, growing up at the sophisticated and literary Castilian courts of her father Fernando III and half-brother Alfonso X. [6] Despite his education, however, Edward II wasn't a great Latin scholar. Of course he wasn't; nobody would ever have expected him to be. His father and son weren't either. And regarding his coronation, it may be that Edward or his advisers decided that he should give his responses in French because it was the native language of just about everyone attending, and perhaps also out of respect for the large French delegation present, who included Queen Isabella's uncles the counts of Valois and Evreux and her brother, the future Charles IV.

* Some modern commentators have sneeringly described Edward as stupid, but they're wrong, as wrong as older commentators who sneered at him for supposedly being illiterate and lazy. Sneering at Edward II on highly dubious grounds (his rustic hobbies being a favourite excuse for a good old-fashioned lip curl, with his sexuality coming a close second) has been a popular pastime for more than a century, but that's no reason why we should take any notice of these people.

As for the 1317 translation by the archbishop of Canterbury, papal bulls, letters and so on were often written in a Latin difficult and convoluted even for scholars to understand, as Hilda Johnstone has pointed out. Edward's request for a translation does not demonstrate ignorance; for pity's sake, how many people would be able or willing to read a complex text in a language they had learned twenty years previously but had had little occasion to use since? If some commentators weren't so eager to slam Edward II for every single damn thing he ever did, they might realise that his wish to read the letter in his native language is far more likely to have arisen from common sense - because he wanted to ensure that he understood it correctly - than from ignorance. For myself, I can read French and German pretty fluently and have enough knowledge of various other languages to get the gist of, say, some newspaper articles and other texts that don't have an advanced level of vocabulary, but I'd still much rather read material in English if a translation is available. I don't think anyone would argue that this makes me stupid, ignorant or lazy. As anyone who's ever read (or tried to read) a contract will know, legalese is hard enough to grasp in your native language, never mind in a language you learned at school decades previously. Same for the writ declaring Piers Gaveston loyal in 1312; why should Edward have done it in Latin, when dictating it to his clerks in his native language was obviously going to be far more precise and to the point than struggling to find the right Latin words?

I'll end this post with the two memoranda appended to this writ and the one following, which restored Piers to his earldom and lands (and was written in Latin). The first begins, as stated above, with "this form was made by the king himself" and continues "he took the writs as soon as they were sealed and put them on his bed." The second reads "these writs were made in the king's presence by his order under threat of grievous forfeiture." Needless to say, Edward was not usually present, and indeed couldn't be owing to time constraints, whenever his clerks wrote and sealed writs, charters, letters and the like, but these two involved the return of Piers Gaveston; the king's emotions were therefore fully engaged and are easily visible from that second memo. It creates a vivid image in my mind of Edward II striding about telling his clerks what he wanted them to write about Piers and losing his temper when they were reluctant to do it - probably because they knew the effect Piers' restoration was going to have on Edward's barons - to the extent that he shouted dire threats at them. (Edward always did have a pretty vile temper.) The king's personality and emotions suddenly spring into view, not for the first time, in what would otherwise be a dry legal document.


1) Calendar of Close Rolls 1307-1313, pp. 448-449; Foedera 1307-1327, pp. 153-154; Pierre Chaplais, English Diplomatic Practice in the Middle Ages, pp. 128, 130; T.F. Tout, Chapters in the Administrative History of England, vol. 2, pp. 199-200.
Hilda Johnstone, Edward of Carnarvon 1284-1307, pp. 19-20, and J.R.S. Phillips, 'The Place of the Reign of Edward II', in The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives, ed. Gwilym Dodd and Anthony Musson, pp. 221-223, make valuable points about some historians' insistence on Edward's 'stupidity' and 'illiteracy' and the lack of foundation for these claims.
2) For example, V.H. Galbraith, 'The Literacy of the Medieval English Kings', Proceedings of the British Academy, 21 (1935), p. 215, and W. Stubbs, The Constitutional History of England, vol. 2, p. 332.
3) Michael Prestwich, Edward I, p. 6.
4) Pierre Chaplais, English Medieval Diplomatic Practice, vol. 1, pp. 21-22.
5) The full text of Edward II's coronation ceremony is given in Foedera 1307-1327, pp. 33-36, in Latin. The French and English versions of his oath are in the sidebar on the left.
6) See Phillips, 'Place of the Reign of Edward II', pp. 224-225.

For interest's sake, here's the original text and my translation of the January 1312 writ restoring Piers Gaveston, which Edward II himself dictated and addressed to all the sheriffs of England:

Come monsieur Peres de Gavaston, counte de Cornwaill', n'adgueres fust exile hors de nostre reaume, contre les leis et les usages de mesmes le reaume, as queus garder et meintenir nous sumes tenez par le serment, que nous feismes a nostre coronement; en le quel exil il fu nome autre que bon et leal; Et meismes celui counte, par nostre maundement, seit ja revenu a nous en dit reaume, prest d'ester a droit, devant nous, a touz que de rien li vodront chalanger, solom les leis et les usages avanditz; Par quei nous li tenoms bon et loial, et a nostre fei et a nostre pees, et unqes a autre ne li tenismes: Nous, de nostre real poer, vous commandoms ceste chose facez par tote vostre baillie publier.

As Sir Piers Gaveston, earl of Cornwall, was lately exiled from our realm contrary to the laws and customs of the same realm, which we are held to keep and to maintain by the oath which we made at our coronation; in which exile he was named as other than good and loyal; And this same earl, by our order, has now returned to us in the said realm, and is ready to stand trial [literally 'stand to right'], before us, of everything he may be accused of, according to the laws and customs aforesaid; Wherefore we hold him good and loyal, and in our allegiance and in our peace, and at no time will we hold him otherwise; We, of our royal power, command you to have this judgement published throughout your whole jurisdiction.


Ragged Staff said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head, Kathryn. When someone decides they don't like someone, nothing they do can possibly be used as evidence that they're anything other than rotten!

Kathryn said...

Exactly, Ragged Staff! I always think that poor Edward II is damned if he did, damned if he didn't as far as lots of people are concerned; even if the things he did were completely normal by contemporary standards, there's always someone who'll pop up to have a snide little dig at him for doing it.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Poor Edward! I wonder if the decision to take the oath in French wasn't partly out of consideration for Isabella herself. But that couldn't be, could it?

Kathryn said...

Good point, Susan. I wonder if her fans would think that this implies Isabella was less than perfectly educated so cannot possibly be true?

Clement of the Glen said...

In all this I think we can see Edward's personality comming through. It seems to me he was a less formal and more 'modern' king and ahead of his time.

Anerje said...

I'd forgotten all the nonsense written about Edward and his Coronation oath! It's unbelievable he should be called 'stupid'. Might not the words 'innovative', 'asserting himself', 'independence' and as Susan says, 'consideration', be used instead?:> Ah, but that would be too positive for him! Great post Kathryn!

And of course, I LOVED the wording and temper display to bring Piers back! Those clerks must have been quaking!

Anonymous said...

How amazing that the document is brought to life by a bit of emotion. Unusual and wonderful. I agree with Susan. Makes sense that he would speak French for the benefit of her and the many other people whose native tongue it was. That Edward, he really wanted to do things his way. Good on him.
Kate Plantagenet

Gabriele C. said...

Well, I don't blame Ed for prefering to get a translation. I'm reading Tacitus in a bilingual edition, and I don't consider myself stupid. Maybe a bit lazy. :)

I bet he'd have gotten a grin out of the verses I found in the toliet of the Department for Classical Philologies:

- Latin is a language
- As dead as it can be.
- First, it killed the Romans,
- And now it's killing me.

Gabriele C. said...

BTW, do we know if Edward spoke English as well? I think the AngloNorman upper class and court members could get along without it or with but a passivle knowledge, but since Ed sometimes spent time with lower class people (his merry band of swimmers and such) he might have spoken English. That would have been another point for members of his court to wrinkle their uppity little noses at. ;)

Kathryn said...

Clement, yes, in many ways Edward so ahead of his time - definitely born at the wrong time, poor lamb. :(

Anerje, I thought you'd like that bit! Great, isn't it?

Kate, I'm glad you appreciate him - me too. (Obviously...;)

Gabriele, I love that verse about Latin! :) About English - I was hoping to discuss that in this post, but it was getting a bit long, so I'm hoping to write another post about it sometime soon. Basically, there's no direct evidence that Ed spoke English, but I'm sure he did, partly for the reason you mention. And yes, no doubt that was another reason for a bout of lip-curling and nose-wrinkling...;-)