Introduction to the hunt for the king – 1) International Europe

Before launching into the story of our research into the Fieschi Letter and the ‘afterlife’ of Edward II, three blog posts are necessary to set the scene for readers who don’t have an academic background in medieval history (but they should be food for thought for those who do, anyway).  This first one is about medieval Europe as an interactive, international place, and the role of the church in this, both for good and for bad. The second will be about the nemesis of the church, the Holy Roman Empire. The third will be about how charismatic leaders from what is now Italy influenced England at he highest level during the middle ages.

So let’s start out with a general observation about medieval Western Europe: it was a VERY international place. People travelled, interacted over enormous distances and, rather like the famous butterfly effect in the mathematical theory of chaos, a small action on one side of the continent could have huge ramifications on the other side. I sometimes get the impression that people think of English history during the medieval period as being a very long chess match with France, and other European countries were a long way off and didn’t really influence English history that much until the Renaissance and the Reformation. But this was simply not the case. During the so-called Dark Ages and right through to the Renaissance, all corners of Europe influenced one another.

Medieval trade routes, with Genoese shipping lanes in red
Medieval trade routes, with Genoese shipping lanes in red

In spite of never-ending, all-pervasive internal conflicts, there was one factor of towering importance in making Western Europe – including England – a surprisingly ‘globalized’ place: the church. This is an incredibly simplified statement, but we could to say that the church was a great binding force, holding medieval Europe together. One of the ways it did this was by providing people everywhere with a set of shared experiences. What do I  mean by this?  My aunt recently gave me a story book to read to my two little sons, an American classic, ‘The Little Train That Could’. As we unwrapped it, she said something very insightful. “When I moved from Australia to California, I sometimes heard people mention ‘The Little Engine that Could, and everybody would nod and understand, but I didn’t know what they meant. Then I had children, and somebody gave us this book. I realised that ‘The Little Train that Could’ was like a by-word for determination and generosity. It’s good to have read these books, that everybody else in a country has read, just like Shakespeare, you know? If you’ve read it, when people refer to it you understand what they mean.”

Well, in medieval times everybody, in every single tiny village or large city of Western Europe, had common points of reference, as though they had all read the same books or watched the same films. These points of reference were supplied by the church. Everybody heard the Latin mass on Sundays, and heard the stories of the Bible, interpreted in more or less the same way throughout Christendom. If they were literate, people everywhere also studied a small number of ‘core’ texts that were considered universal must-reads for good Christians, by authors  like Boethius and Saint Augustine. Together with the Bible, these texts were the ‘Shakespeare’s plays’ of the Middle Ages. It is true that every corner of Europe saw uncountable, ancient regional beliefs and customs overlaid onto this Christian framework, but people everywhere  could nevertheless tap into a single set of unifying religious experiences to help them relate to one another.

This had many repercussions. For example, the fact that the church chose to continue using Latin as its lingua franca meant that this language continued to be a vibrant, functional, and above all evolving means of communication for the entire continent. Today we tend to think of Latin as a dead language, that cannot change and evolve because it is no longer in use. Medieval Latin was anything but set in stone. This fact is going to come decisively into play when we look at the Fieschi Letter as an artifact, and stop looking at it as a disembodied text, as too many historians have done till now.

An emblemic map of pilgrim routes in globalized, medieval Europe. The Via Francigena is highlighted.
An emblemic map of pilgrim routes in globalized, medieval Europe. The Via Francigena is highlighted.

Religion also created a system of international travel of a scope that we find difficult to imagine today: the pilgrim roads. The Way of St James of Compostela is back in vogue today, but it was just one of many pilgrim routes criss-crossing the continent in ancient times. A large proportion of the population, from every walk of life and every region, would go on a pilgrimage at least once in their life. Englishmen might stop at Canterbury, or they might go as far as Compostela, or Rome, or Jerusalem. There were countless other shrines that attracted pilgrims too, such as the Shrine of the Three Kings (yes, ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are…’), in the Basilica of Saint Eustorgio in Milan for about five centuries, and then transported to Cologne in 1164 by… But I’ll get to that in the next post, about the nemesis of the church! Anyway, one of these pilgrim routes was vital to the story of Edward II’s ‘afterlife’.  This is the Via Francigena, which stretches from Canterbury, down through France and Italy to Rome, and continues to Jerusalem as an optional extra. In later posts we’ll explore the full significance of this road to a certain royal pilgrim in disguise…

Blake's illustration of the fiery and humiliating punishment Dante created for the Simoniacs, including Pope Boniface VIII, whom he hated. Boniface VIII is just one of the many ecclesiastical players in our story, as future posts will reveal
Blake’s illustration of the fiery and humiliating punishment Dante created for the Simoniacs, including Pope Boniface VIII, whom he hated. Boniface VIII is just one of the many ecclesiastical players in our story, as future posts will reveal

Now, the church was not necessarily a positive factor in medieval life. In fact, it was notoriously rife with corruption and nepotism, and this aspect, too, is going to play a very important role in our research into the Fieschi Letter. And the church was not without opposition. Such a powerful, omnipresent institution was clearly going to make enemies for itself, and the first and foremost of these was the Holy Roman Empire. But that is the subject of the next post.

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