Thursday, August 23, 2012

Self-representation and identity in medieval letters

So, one of the themes that is beginning to emerge in my research is that of self-representation and identity as it is constructed through letters. Letters are not really a type of primary source that I’ve systematically looked at before, but it is becoming clear to me that they are going to be an important source for me as this project develops. I’m not talking about one-on-one personal letters here, but letters that were intended to communicate with a wider reading/listening public (though that distinction is actually rather blurred, as will become clear from the discussion below). Broadly speaking, I’m interested in the political phenomenon of treason (as opposed to the theme of treason as it appears in theological, ecclesiastical and literary contexts, although of course all these different spheres interact and influence each other) in England and in English Gascony over a period covering the early 1300s through to about the 1470s. If you’re familiar with English or French history, you’ll know that this timeframe brackets the on-again off-again conflict now known as the Hundred Years War (a name that was coined in the nineteenth century). 

It is a truism of histories of the Hundred Years War that it saw the emergence of a sense of distinct English national identity, constructed in particular against the French and expressed in anxieties about both military and cultural conquest. For me, one of the interesting aspects of this process is the use of publicly circulated letters to spread news in England of the war effort in France and ginger up support for that effort in the way of money, men and arms. In 1346, for example, a letter from Edward III was read out to the English parliament in which it was claimed that the French king Philippe VI was plotting ‘to destroy and ruin the whole English nation and language’.[1] Letters were also used as a form of public propaganda in political conflicts at home, such as when the Lords Appellant sent a missive to ‘the mayor, sheriffs, aldermen, citizens, and all the good commons of London’ to try to secure their support against Richard II’s hated favourites (a number of whom were executed as traitors in 1388’s Merciless Parliament)[2]. After declaring themselves the king’s obedient and faithful lieges, the Appellants charged that the favourites:

‘Faithless and treacherous all, and each of them traitor to the king and the realm, who falsely and traitorously have carried off the king, and by their tendentious advice and contrivance have led his honourable person into divers parts remote from his council, to the disparagement of the king and of his kingdom, and have falsely advised him against his oath to do various things to the disheritance [sic] and dismemberment of his crown, to the point of losing his inheritance overseas [i.e. to France] to the great shame and destruction of the whole realm, and have falsely caused various dissensions between our said lord the king and the lords of his council, so that some of them were in fear and peril of their lives.’[3]
Thinking about Edward III’s earlier political posturing over the French threat to the English language and realm, I’m interested in how letters like that of the Appellants construct loyal subjecthood – their own and others - and whether they consciously deploy language as one element of that identity. While the Appellants’ themselves, being of the high nobility, spoke French as their ‘first’ or conversational language, their letter was written to an urban community who were Anglophone by this period. Their letter was written in French but it was most likely read aloud in a variety of public places, translated into English on-the-fly. This was the process that was commonly used in this period to circulate new statutes, which were still written in French. It was probably also the way that newsletters on the progress of the war in Gascony were widely communicated to the English ‘public’ (though this is a topic on which I need to do more research).

I’ve just read a terrific article, "The Use of English" by Mark Ormrod (full cite below), on this whole question of the use of English and French in fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England.[4] His starting point is 1362's Statute of Pleading (36 Edw. III c.15), which mandated that English rather than French should be the language used for oral pleading in English courts (excepting ecclesiastical courts). Ormrod contends this has been widely misinterpreted either to support an argument for the ‘triumph of English’ by the late 1300s or conversely, for the continued dominance of French, and argues instead for a much less black-and-white interpretation of England’s multilingualism in this period. He provides pretty convincing evidence from judicial and administrative sources to back this up and also makes some crucial points about the need to distinguish between written and spoken language. From my perspective, the most interesting aspect of the article was a discussion about how kings like Edward III and Henry V used language, and particularly their strategic deployment of English versus French in specific diplomatic and political circumstances. This brings me back to the question of letters as a form of self-representation and as a way of constructing identity. As Ormrod points out, while late medieval kings may have used the English language to score political points, their personal letters (e.g. those written under the signet) were still being written in French well into the fifteenth century. 

My own interest is chiefly in this theme of language or ‘tongue’ as it appears in various forms in treason cases over the later medieval period. There is seemingly a rather obvious relationship between supporting or aiding the French and being an enemy of the English tongue, but given the multilingual political culture of late medieval England, I think this relationship needs to be examined much more closely and picked apart to see exactly how it ticks. I’m also intrigued by a number of confessional letters written to kings by accused traitors. Take this case, for example. A king is consolidating his reign and emphasising his legitimacy by fighting a war with France. On the eve of his departure on campaign, one of his most-favoured nobles is accused of conspiring with the French against him and is sentenced to execution by hanging, drawing and quartering (gruesome). If this noble – who, under normal circumstances, would probably converse with and write to the king in French – writes his letter of confession and plea for mercy in English, how might we interpret that? Can his choice of English be seen as deliberate? If so, is the choice made with the intention or desire to represent himself as a loyal English subject by tapping into that whole discourse that is constructing English language and national identity against French difference? And who is he primarily ‘talking’ to? The king? The council of peers and nobles hastily assembled to try the case? The wider urban audience who would witness his public execution and dismemberment?

Working with letters to explore questions about identity and reception is a pretty new area for me, so I’d appreciate any pointers anyone out there can offer to useful interpretive frameworks and approaches. I’ve found a fair amount of material on early modern epistolary culture, but not so much at this stage on the later medieval period (particularly in a secular as opposed to clerical/monastic context). There is obviously a fair bit of crossover with the field of diplomacy, but things get a bit less clear when I’m looking at more personal (yet still political) contexts, like the letters of confession.

Next week, I’m off to attend a two-day postgrad workshop/seminar on interdisciplinarity in medieval and early modern research (thanks, ANZAMEMS!). I hope this will give me the opportunity to ask these questions of some senior scholars in the field, and also maybe figure out some fruitful ways to approach my sources with issues of identity (self and communal) in mind. I just hope Dunedin isn't too cold!

[1] Chris Given-Wilson, ed., The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, 1275-1504 [CD-ROM Edition] (Leicester, England: Scholarly Digital Editions, 2005): RP ii, 158.
[2] The letter is printed in the contemporary chronicle of Henry Knighton. G. H. Martin, ed., Knighton's Chronicle 1337-1396. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995, pp.410-13, quote at 411.
[3] Ibid.
[4] W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 1, 2003): 750–787.


stu said...

It's a little earlier than your period and monastic, but there's a lot of work on medieval friendship networks and the use of letters to actively construct/influence a place in an overall network. Julian Haseldine has done a lot on it with his work on the letter collections of Peter of Celle and Bernard of Clairvaux. Maybe his approaches might show you some of the divisions in language that apply.

stu said...

Sorry, here's where you can find some of Julian's stuff:

Bavardess said...

Thanks, Stu. I do need to look more closely at what's been done in recent times on monastic letter-writing. I have seen a few articles that specifically look at gender/ masculinity in that context, so you're right in that there may also be some good examples that consider language/ 'ethnicity' and other aspects of identity.

Gavin Robinson said...

How did Gascons signify loyalty to English kings? Was there a distinct Gascon identity that could be opposed to the French? Obviously Captal de Buch performed loyalty by fighting alongside the Prince of Wales at Poitiers (although strangely one of them is much more famous for it than the other). What other ways were there? This seems to be one of many things that complicate the English/French binary. Did the Armagnac versus Burgundian feud and English alliances with one side or the other make it harder to define an English identity in opposition to 'the French', or did the imagined community function regardless of reality? There's also the Plantagenet claim, especially after the Treaty of Troyes. We've already heard about the king's two bodies and the king's two genders. Can we also talk about the king's two nationalities?

Sorry to complicate things even further, but how does Welsh fit into this? Was it seen as a treasonable language because Glyndwr rebelled against the English king and got help from the French? Did Welsh soldiers fighting for England against France make up for it?

Bavardess said...

You ask some excellent questions here, Gavin, and they are things I am also asking myself. There are several interesting points I’m going to take up in a separate post but here are some initial thoughts (bear in mind that my comments are provisional at this stage, given that I’m still very early in the research process). From what I can see so far, the Gascon nobility did not consider themselves either French or English, but often expressed the belief that they were ‘more English’ than French that at times incorporated the idea of French as an ‘alien tongue’. The merchant elites of places like Bordeaux need to be considered as a separate group as their interests sometimes conflicted with those of the landed nobility, but they also seem to have had a stronger affinity for the English. I have found cases where Gascon nobles did change sides and fight for the French king (or the dauphin, during the Armagnac-Burgundy conflict), but then returned to their allegiance to the English king on the grounds that he was their ‘natural’ lord. (This binary of natural/unnatural in regards to treason is another interesting angle…). Prior to Troyes and the dual monarchy, Gascon loyalty was to the English king as duke/lord of Aquitaine rather than as king of England (Gascony never being integrated into the English ‘kingdom’ as such). I’m curious about how much this shifted or was tested by the revived claim to the French throne. Things definitely got very messy once the whole Armagnac vs. Burgundy conflict erupts.

I became aware only recently that a number of Gascons actually moved to England after Gascony was lost in 1453 rather than become subjects of the French king. I don’t know if this was a large immigration, but it would be interesting to know more about their motivations and how they constructed their identities once they were living in English communities.

On Welsh – yes, that is a whole other question! There is definitely a discourse of language/’tongue’ in some of those cases in the early 1400s related to the Glyn Dwr rebellion that I need to explore in more depth and detail.