31 October, 2010

O calamity! To see authors quoting a primary source out of context!

"O calamity! To see men lately dressed in purple and fine linen now attired in rags, bound and imprisoned in chains!"  (O monstrum! uidere uiros purpura et bisso nuper indutos nunc attritis uestibus incedere, et uinctos in compedibus recludi sub carcere!)

The above quotation comes from the Vita Edwardi Secundi (Life of Edward II, a contemporary chronicle written by a very well-informed man who was frequently critical of the king) and is often cited in modern works. The quotation is usually interpreted as the author harshly criticising the tyranny of Edward II and his friends the Despensers in and after 1322, following his execution of twenty-two(ish) Contrariants and the imprisonment of several dozen others, as for example:

- "The chroniclers are unanimous in their condemnation of what took place after 1322. 'O calamity,' the anonymous biographer of Edward II wrote, 'To see men, so recently clothed in purple and fine linen, now tied in rags bound and imprisoned in chains.'"  (Note that 'attired in rags' is changed to 'tied in rags'.)

- "The chroniclers, like most of the King's subjects, were horrified by the violence. 'Oh calamity!' cried the author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi. 'To see men, so recently clothed in purple and fine linen, now tied in rags, bound and imprisoned in chains. The harshness of the king has increased so much that no one, however great or wise, dares to cross his will. The nobles of the realm are terrified by threats and penalties. The king's will has free play. Thus today might conquers reason, for whatever pleases the king, though lacking in reason, has the force of law.'"

(Although this is cited as one continuous text, the part beginning 'The harshness of the king...' actually appears in the Vita no fewer than eleven pages after the rest, and some of it is inaccurately quoted, including 'tied in rags'. See the end of this post.)

- "'Oh Calamity. To see men lately dressed in purple and fine linen now attired in rags, bound and imprisoned in chains', wrote the author of Vita Edwardi at the sight of men imprisoned after Boroughbridge."

(For more info about the events of 1321/22, see here, here, here and here.)

Let's look at the quotation in its proper context.  The author of the Vita is discussing the aftermath of the battle of Boroughbridge on 16 March 1322, when Andrew Harclay defeated the earls of Lancaster and Hereford and the other Contrariants, of whom the Vita says "puffed-up by the earl of Lancaster's protection, they killed those who opposed them, plundered those who offered no resistance, sparing no one," a quotation missing from most accounts of events in 1321/22.  A narrative portraying the Contrariants as innocent whiter-than-white freedom fighters bravely resisting a tyrannical king and his nasty favourite, who are unfairly and unjustly executed or imprisoned despite committing no real crimes, is favoured these days, and apparently we can't have the black and white moral certainties of the Bad Edward and Bad Despensers/Good Contrariants story messed up by accounts of Our Brave Heroic Lads killing and plundering non-combatants. The Vita's statement is in fact confirmed by numerous petitions and inquisitions of the early 1320s.

The author of the Vita, by the way, although he hated the Despensers and their behaviour, hated the Contrariants and theirs even more.  He strongly condemned the Despensers' greed, brutality and harshness, but pointed out that in August 1321 they had been "exiled [from England] out of malice" (Vita Edwardi Secundi, ed. N. Denholm-Young, 1957, p. 121) and that the Contrariants "had disgracefully destroyed the manors of both father and son; and further because they had taken for their own use and wasted the goods of the exiles, which ought rather to have gone to the treasury..."  He also declared that "in the judgement of some worthy persons the barons went too far in their persecution [of the Despensers]. For even if they found just reasons for banishment, they did not justly seize their goods. Why did they destroy their manors, for what reason did they extort ransoms from their retinues? Though formerly their cause had been just, they now turned right into wrong." (pp. 115-116)

Here's the 'O calamity!' quotation as it appears in its proper context, the end of the battle of Boroughbridge (Vita, pp. 124-125):

"...the earl of Lancaster made a truce with Andrew Harclay to keep the peace until the morrow; and when this was done each returned to his lodging. On that same night the sheriff of York came with a large force to attack the king's enemies; relying on his help, Andrew Harclay entered the town very early, and taking the earl of Lancaster and almost all the other knights and esquires scatheless, led them off to York and imprisoned them. Some left their horses and putting off their armour looked round for ancient worn-out garments, and took to the road as beggars. But their caution was of no avail, for not a single well-known man among them all escaped.
O calamity! To see men lately dressed in purple and fine linen now attired in rags, bound and imprisoned in chains!  A marvellous thing and one indeed brought about by God's will and aid, that so scanty a company should in a moment overcome so many knights. For the earl's side were more than seven times as numerous as their adversaries." 

See the bit where the author calls the royalist victory over the Contrariants a 'marvellous thing' which happened with the will and aid of God? That's not quite the impression given in the secondary sources quoted above, is it?  The author is describing the desperate actions of noblemen and knights trying to flee from justice after rebelling against their king and committing numerous crimes against non-combatants, by throwing away their fine clothes and possessions and dressing as beggars - a story confirmed by numerous entries in the Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous. Other men who had fought at Boroughbridge or otherwise rebelled against Edward "put on the habit of religion and other diverse habits in order to leave the realm or to hide more securely within the realm."*  John, Lord Mowbray, whose many acts of theft and extortion in 1321/22 are recorded in petitions of his indignant victims - he even robbed the church of Laughton-en-le-Morthen in Yorkshire, and imprisoned the parson of Rossington until he agreed to give Mowbray £200** - rid himself of "a coat of armour of great price, and a pack with robes and good fur" in an attempt to disguise himself and escape.  It didn't work, and he was hanged in York on 23 March with his fellow church-robber Sir Jocelyn Deyville and Roger, Lord Clifford.  Stephen Baret was another of the men who helped Mowbray steal the possessions of the people and church of Laughton, and was captured by the constable of Knaresborough Castle after Boroughbridge and subsequently executed in South Wales; he must have been another of the men who threw away his clothes, as he and four of his men were "taken bare."
[* Calendar of Close Rolls 1318-1323, pp. 534-535;  ** The National Archives SC 8/7/301, SC 8/106/5274]

The author of the Vita was not, as some secondary sources claim, condemning Edward II for executing or imprisoning noblemen and knights and their families or saying that the king himself forced people to wear rags (or 'tied' them in rags, whatever that means) or that things in England were so bad in the 1320s that even noblemen could not afford to buy clothes. Far from being "horrified by the violence" of the 1322 executions, he was clearly out of sympathy with the rebels - and this from a man with a pretty low opinion of Edward II. To use the 'Oh calamity...' quotation as evidence that the author was condemning Edward's tyranny and the supposedly pitiful condition of his subjects, to use it without ever mentioning that the sentence immediately following it begins 'A marvellous thing' and that the author strongly disapproved of the actions of the Contrariants, is selective quotation at its worst.

Postscript: Returning to the other part cited above about Edward II's 'harshness', here's the quotation also in its proper context (Vita Edwardi Secundi, p. 136).  The author is now describing Edward's war with France in 1324 and his unwillingness to pay his soldiers, who were forced to pillage the Gascon countryside for food (which is borne out by letters sent to Edward and Hugh Despenser in 1324 from several men on the ground in Gascony):

"All were astonished that the king did not satisfy the treasury, since they could not live properly without wages, and the king had plenty of treasure. Many of his forbears amassed money; he alone has exceeded them all. Howbeit, the king's meanness is laid at Hugh [Despenser the Younger]'s door, like the other evils that afflict the court. Hence, many conspired to kill him, but the plot was discovered, some were captured and the rest fled.
Then the king ordered all the infantry to board their ships and stand out to sea, until the time should come for crossing to Gascony; and he put in command the Earl Warenne, John de St John, and other great men of the land, who likewise went on board not daring to resist. The king also sent letters to every county commanding and ordering that all who had returned from the army to their homes without leave should be arrested, and hanged forthwith without trials. The harshness of the king has today increased so much that no one, however great and wise, dares to cross his will. Thus parliaments, colloquies, and councils decide nothing these days. For the nobles of the realm, terrified by threats and the penalties inflicted on others, let the king's will have free play. Thus today will conquers reason. For whatever pleases the king, though lacking in reason, has the force of law."

24 comments:

Susan Higginbotham said...

Great post! Context is everything, isn't it?

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

"O calamity! To see authors quoting a primary source out of context!"

No, don't be silly. Such a thing could never happen.

I like the facelift! Pretty blog is pretty.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Susan! It certainly is (thinking of the Henry VI/Holy Ghost context here...)

Glad you like it, Hannah! I suddenly got really bored with the old template.

Carole said...

Oh dear, that really is a bad example of not using context... are the examples you used from academic stuff? If so, it's even worse, because they should have been expected to look up the original source...

Susan Higginbotham said...

And I forgot to comment on the new template! I like it too.

Kathryn Warner said...

Carole, the third quote is from an academic work, and the first two are from 'popular' history books, both of them pretty recent.

Thanks, Susan! I thought the book background was rather appropriate.

Anerje said...

Great post! Yes, context is everything! Makes you think you should always check 'historians' primary sources. Or rather, 'historians' should not play around with them to make them fit a purpose.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Anerje! Yes, it's often a good idea to check writers' original sources...

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

The trouble is that you usually can't check the original source of an original source. You just have to hope that the editor is representing the text correctly...

Kathryn Warner said...

True, but when an author cites two paragraphs of a chronicle which appear eleven pages apart and pretends there's no break between the paragraphs because it suits their purpose, that's pretty easy to check.

Anerje said...

I take Hannah's point. Unless you have a copy of the chronicle yourself - and I do have a copy of the Vita - or unless it's online, it's difficult to check. The example you have chosen has been TOTALLY taken out of context and made to mean something completely different. It really is a shocking abuse.

Carla said...

At the very least they could have put in [....] to indicate that there was something missing in between. Not very impressive.

Anonymous said...

I've been checking the genealogy sites you recommended on Facebook and have found some pretty wild stuff about Piers' family. I wonder if any of this is true : Claramonde was married to Arnaud de Lescun before marrying Arnaud de Gabaston (had a son Fortaner and 2 daughters)Guillaume-Arnaud was actually a legitimate son of Claramonde and Arnaud de Gabaston.Arnaud de Gabaston was married to someone before he married Claramonde and had a son named Pierre who was actually the father of Piers!! (The part about Claramonde having a previous marriage might explain how Fortaner could be the brother of Arnaud-Guillaume de Marsan, when he is not mentioned as such by Piers' biographer Hamilton.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, all, for the comments - have just come in from work and it's 9.20pm, so will respond properly tomorrow. :-)

Gabriele C. said...

I thought I had commented on this. Now, either I dreamed that, or Blogger's spam detection has been overacting again. *sigh - in both cases* ;)

Kathryn Warner said...

Anerje, I completely agree. :-(

Carla, it really isn't, is it? Pretty dishonest, IMHO.

Gabriele, no, no comment showed up this end, I'm afraid! Stupid Blogger! :-(

Anon, wow, I hadn't checked Piers' entry on that one site - quite an eye-opener! I've never seen his mother named as 'Marie de Coarraze' before. Odd (and implausible). Hamilton makes Fortaner de Lescun Claramonde's brother, but there's a petition (SC 8/278/13863) where he's called brother of 'Arnaud-Guilhem de Marssan' and son of Arnaud de Gavaston. So Piers' brother, not his uncle. I haven't checked it for a while, but I remember seeing refs to Fortaner de Lescun in the chancery rolls as late as the 1340s, so he's unlikely to have been a generation older than Piers. There was some debate on Gen-Medieval a few years ago about Piers' father not being Arnaud, but another Piers, based on a statement in one chronicle. I find it unconvincing.

Kathryn Warner said...

Another petition, SC 8/291/14546, presented by Piers Gaveston ('Perrot de Gavastun') and Arnaud-Guilhem de Marsan, says that they were the sons of Arnaud de Gavaston, thus disproving the notion that Piers' father was also called Piers.

Anonymous said...

Most of the "officially" accepted info on Piers' family seems to be based on the Hamilton biography. Unfortunately, he does not list sources, but only presents a Family Tree. He also made some errors, such as confusing Piers' sister Amie with his daughter Amie,and not even mentioning Bourd de Gaveston or Fortaner de Lescun (junior). He was also sloppy with some details, such as calling Arnaud-Guillaume de Marsan a "knight" in Edward I's Household when he actually was not able to become a knight until 1308 (Edward II granted him land specifically so that he could qualify for knighthood) It's really time for a new biography of Piers!

Kathryn Warner said...

I couldn't agree more! Funny you should mention Hamilton's family tree, as I've just been looking at it, trying to figure out what his source might have been for Piers' younger brother Raimond-Arnaud - that's the only mention of him in the entire book. (At least Gerard gets another mention in the endnotes.) He says on p. 102 that Arnaud-Guilhem de Marsan's name last appears in 1324, when actually A-G was paid as the keeper of Roquefort-de-Marsan from 6 Jan to 14 April 1325 (P. Chaplais, ed., The War of Saint-Sardos (1323-1325): Gascon Correspondence and Diplomatic Documents, 1954, p. 274.) The Amie confusion needs to be corrected, too, and Fortaner's and Bourd's identities sorted out.

Anonymous said...

Dodge mentions the existence of a Raymond de Gabaston in the 1320's. I imagine this was Piers' brother, who appears to have become the Gabaston family heir in Gascony after his older brothers died. Did Gerard die young, or did he go to England and "morph" into Bourd ?? I've been told that "Bourd" is not a Gascon first name, so may have been a nickname.(But why would Edward have allowed his own clerks to refer to a relative of Piers this way, when he insisted that Piers be referred to by his proper title??) It's very frustrating when professional historians don't get the facts right!

Kathryn Warner said...

I tend to think that Bourd was a nickname, perhaps based on the man's love of the joust, and was probably one of Piers' brothers. I've never seen another ref to a 'Bourd de Gavaston', except for that one mention on the Close Roll in July 1312. It's not common to see nicknames used in the chancery rolls, but not unknown - and maybe Ed wasn't as fussed about Piers' relatives being called by their correct titles?

I've found two petitions now (undated, late Ed I's reign or Ed II's) that name Fortaner de Lescun as the brother of Arnaud-Guilhem de Marsan, so also Piers' brother, and evidently the three were sons of Arnaud and Claramonde, and not half-brothers.

Anerje said...

Kathryn and Anon - this is all fascinating info on Piers!

Anonymous said...

I did see another reference to Bourd many years ago but have never found it again. Edward gave him money for performing some "service". The author of this work also mentioned Arnaud-Guillaume in this section of the text(giving examples of Edward's generosity to Piers' relatives) He apparently unequivocally named these two as brothers of Piers, as I came away from this thinking Piers had only two brothers (I had never seen any other mention of his siblings at that time) I don't remember what the author cited as a source. It's not unlikely that Ed would have given money to Bourd, but it seems somewhat unlikely that the original source would have identified Bourd as Piers' brother. Other possible origins for the nickname: Bordir in Gascon means "to hit", Borda means "little farm" (from discovergascony.blogspot.com) I also saw a reference to an illegitimate son of a Gascon lord who was an outlaw and was called Burd.
If Fortaner was a son of Claramonde and Arnaud, how was he totally missed by Hamilton? (And I wonder what Arnaud thought of all this - providing heirs for the Marsan family and the Lescun family before the Gabaston family)

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

To return to the original point, I just came across this in a discussion of the Lancaster martyr-cult (chapter 2 in Danna Piroyansky's Martyrs in the Making: Political Martyrdom in Late Medieval England, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p 34):

[Lancaster's death was remarkable enough to be mentioned by almost all chroniclers of the period, whatever their opinion of him and his actions,] "whether sympathetic, indifferent or even hostile to the Earl. All political factions were bewildered by this event, and it was the pro-royalist chronicler of the Vita Edwardi Secundi who expressed this feeling best, albeit with a taint of sarcasm: 'O calamity! To see men...[etc]'"

So, still that quote alone out of context, but acknowledges his alignment and even his sarcasm, and does not use it as proof of how mean and nasty Edward was considered.

Interestingly, she goes on to link the rags with the cult of Lancaster and the popular depiction of him clothed humbly in rags in cult images.