16 May, 2014

Busting The Myth That Edward II Was Stupid

If I tell you that I read German and French fluently (which is true), but if I have to read a letter or legal document in either language which is vital for me to understand fully and accurately, I'd much rather read an English translation if there's one available, would your first reaction be 'Oh my goodness, what a stupid, uneducated, lazy and illiterate woman!'  Or if I have to take an oath and I decide to say it in English rather than in Latin, because using my native language makes the oath feel more real to me and because all the hundreds of spectators understand English but not necessarily Latin, would you roll your eyes and think 'Ugh, what a thicko!' about me?

I'm guessing you wouldn't.  I wouldn't either; I'd think it was entirely normal to prefer to read complicated texts in your own language, or to speak the most important oath you're ever going to give in your life likewise.  Yet this is precisely how some historians have reacted to Edward II's choice in February 1308 to give the responses to his coronation oath in French, rather than Latin.  We get sneering comments like "It was stupidity or laziness, and not want of opportunity to learn Latin, that made it necessary for Edward II to take his coronation oath in French."  There are other very similar statements, including that he was illiterate.  We have no direct evidence of Edward's ability to read or write, but it is extremely unlikely that he was illiterate.  Most probably he couldn't write Latin particularly well, but then, I can't write French that well either, not nearly as well as I can read it, and no-one's ever thought that makes me illiterate.  Given that speaking his responses to the coronation oath in Latin would have meant learning only about six words, assuming Edward didn't know them already (which I really doubt), 'laziness' or 'stupidity' is a very, very bad and unlikely explanation. It's far more likely that Edward wanted to ensure that everyone present understood what was happening, including his twelve-year-old French queen, by having the oath spoken and responding to it in French. But oh no, a common sense explanation is never good enough for historians desperate to criticise every single thing Edward II ever did. So there we go, he was stupid and lazy. That's all there is to it. Funnily enough, Edward's son Edward III and great-grandson Richard II also used French at their coronations in 1327 and 1377, and no-one has ever called them 'stupid' and 'lazy' because of it. Edward I may also have given his oath in French at his coronation in 1274; we don't know as the records are missing. Is he guilty of stupidity and laziness in historians' eyes? Take a wild guess.

In 1317, Pope John XXII thanked the archbishop of Canterbury Walter Reynolds for translating one of his (the pope's) letters from Latin into French for Edward.  You won't be surprised to learn that this has also been taken as evidence of Edward's stupidity, laziness and illiteracy.  Papal letters were, however, written in very complex Latin which even scholars find hard to follow.  In 1317, Edward II was thirty-three and it must have been at least fifteen years or more since he'd last learnt Latin.  How many people would be able or willing to read a very complex text, containing sentences the length of paragraphs with numerous sub-clauses, in a language they'd had no contact with since school?  Especially if it was a very important letter, and it was vital that they understood it in full and absolutely correctly?  Very few, I bet.  It makes far more sense to have the text translated into your native tongue rather than struggling for ages trying to grasp the meaning of a foreign language.  Who wouldn't?  I've seen highly specialised technical texts in German which I've tried to grasp, failed to understand one word in three, think I've understood something then seen a long additional sub-clause and thrown my hands in the air in despair, and given up.  But common sense is lacking in our Edward II detractors, not to mention compassion for anyone who struggles to comprehend a long complex text in a foreign language.  He was unable to read a complicated letter in Latin and that's enough evidence to condemn him as 'stupid' and badly educated.  Never mind the fact that Edward's brother-in-law Charles IV of France was reprimanded by the pope in 1323 for writing to him in French rather than Latin, never mind that this demonstrates that Charles was, obviously, also more comfortable in his native language than in Latin.  Charles IV wasn't stupid because of this, but Edward II was.  Good to know.

Edward II may not have been a great scholar (he wasn't raised or trained to be one anyway), but his interest in learning is evident.  He owned plenty of books.  He is one of only a tiny handful of people throughout history to found colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge, and has an important place in the history of Cambridge University particularly.  He encouraged the archbishop of Dublin to found a university there.  None of this indicates a stupid, ignorant man unconcerned with learning.  How many of us struggled at school with Latin conjugations and declensions and the ablative and translating De Bello Gallico and what have you?  I was hilariously rubbish at maths at school, and I'm far from being the only one.  How unpleasant and unfair to think that this would be used to condemn us as stupid, uneducated, lazy and illiterate nearly 700 years later.

14 comments:

Sami Parkkonen said...

Stupidity or uneducated are just myths like so much else about Edward II. Had he been such an illiterate oaf had been accepting that his eldest son was educated by a man who had one of the largest libraries at that time anywhere?

No, he would have chosen other kinds of teachers for his son.

One thing people very often fprget about Edward II: he was surrounded by very tracherous people, he was challenged from all angles, he had virtually no party behind him, except few favorites, and yet, how long was his rule?

If he had been such an idiot how long he would have been in the throne, when we remember how the earls and particulary Lancaster treated him?

Elijah Shalis said...

This is a new one to me. I didn't know people said Edward II was stupid. Thanks for the post, it educated me some more. :)

Carla said...

Doesn't the modern European parliament routinely translate proceedings into the various countries' languages? It makes sense to have a professional translation for important legal and political documents where every last shade of meaning could matter.

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Kathryn, if I may be of any comfort... Henry the Young King was said to be the least educated of Henry II's sons only because he spent to much time on... martial arts when he should have studied (pious representatives of the church found it highly improper for the heir to the throne) :-) Today nobody bothers to remember that Walter Map himself admitted (reluctantly but still) that Henry was adept at courtly discourse.
Historians often accuse him of totallack of political acumen and intelligence. I don't understand how can they say so about a man whose charm and personal charisma became almost proverbial. As far as I'm concerned a charming man is intelligent by nature, or am I wrong?

Thank you for your lovely e-mail. I will write back ASAP.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I wonder how much of the "Edward was stupid" myth is due to "looking backward" through a prism created by later events. Edward's political decisions, for example, are not always intelligent; once someone decides that he was stupid, his use of French instead of Latin would then be used to support the prejudice.

Esther

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, everyone! Yes, I think Edward's appalling political decisions have led some historians to think he was 'stupid', though his decisions actually make sense, at least to me ;-), when you see that he reacted to so many things with his heart, not his intellect. I do the same. With Edward, a lot of hindsight comes into play, the knowledge of his later deposition, and all his actions are viewed through that prism and therefore seen more negatively than they otherwise might be. 14th-century chroniclers did the same, which is one reason why the Vita Edwardi Secundi is so valuable, as it ends abruptly before Edward's deposition.

Anonymous said...

I loved "De Bello Gallici" so much that I went down in history as the only girl in my year at school, if not ever, when sitting my Latin "O" level exam to do the unseen Latin translation rather than that from "De Bello Gallici V" - it's so long ago now that I don't remember clearly but I think I just about managed a translation from "The Aeneid". (I passed my Latin "O" level but only just; shame really because the first year I did Latin I obtained good marks but then we had a change of teacher and I couldn't get on with the second teacher's methods). I guess we all come across people who have little formal education but manage to become knowledgeable. The points made in the post about Edward's asking for something to be translated into his own language for clarity are valid.
Patricia O

Anerje said...

How about thinking Edward was being innovative in his choice of language when he took his oath? Or even that he was asserting himself in making his decision? Interesting that it's rarely mentioned that Henry VIII loathed letter writing and is called lazy for it!

Annie Given said...

The assumption that anyone, other than a trained and experienced medieval legal/cleric, had the time and competency to translate a complex legal document from Latin, suggests a writer lacking in knowledge of the period about which they are attempting to show expertise.....

Jerry Bennett said...

I am quite surprised at this assertion, as I have never considered Edward to be any way unintelligent. He lacked good judgement at times, but that is not the same as being unintelligent. I wonder if this is a later interpretation that has grown out of his liking for activities like rowing and building.

Edward III was corresponding with the Pope at the age of 17, via the "Pater Sancte" letters to keep his thoughts hidden from Roger Mortimer's spies, so he must have had a good quality education. His father would surely have had a major influence in that. Along with his interests in both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, it suggests he had a deep belief in learning.

As for needing interpreters, what's new? The first time I ever saw a "small company tax return" I had to get it translated for me by an accountant, and that was supposed to be written in English! And as for the small print in an insurance contract... enough said.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that post! Very interesting. I totally agree with you. Sometimes it really seems that when a writer/historian has decided that their subject was a bad king/person, they will interpret his every action in the worst possible light, no matter if it makes sense or not. I don`t know all that much about Edward II (though I am trying to learn by following your blog), but King John is another good example of this. He`s constantly called stupid as well, and several people on the internet (as well as some authors of books about popular history) even claim he was illiterate because he *sealed* the Magna Carta rather than signing it. Doesn`t make the least bit of sense for anyone who knows even a bit about the Middle Ages, but nevermind. It fits in so nicely with the myth of the horrible, horrible man who had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Such nonsense.
Anyway, thank you again for the post and the blog in general. And my apologies for any mistakes I might have made in my comment; English is not my native language.

Ian Mortimer said...

Lovely, Kathryn, really like the way you start this. Made me smile. And not only was Edward II stupid, Gaveston was fay, Roger M was a brutal warmonger with no aesthetic sense, Isabella was a wicked she-wolf, and Maltravers had a curious twinkle in his eye every time he saw a knife!

Brian Wainwright said...

You can bet your bottom groat that if Edward had been more scholarly than he was, historians would have lambasted him for being 'bookish' and not a martial, active chap like his dear old dad.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I write about the Romans and still rely on biligual editions and translations of the sources. Sometimes I doubt Latin made sense to the Romans, esp. Tacitus' convoluted sentences. :-)

BTW did our darling Isabella read and write Latin fluently? /irony off