The Hunt for the King 10) The Military, the Catholic Church, or the Mafia…?

I’ve finally found time to come back to the story of the archival and historical research of the Auramala Project. I’ll pick up the thread where I left off: my visit to Mulazzo and the ‘discovery’ of the sanctuary where King Edward II may have spent two and a half years of his ‘afterlife’ in Italy.

I got back from Mulazzo late in the evening, exhausted, and facing an early start the next morning, and my first real confrontation with one of the most challenging archives in our story. An hour south of Pavia there is the town of Godiasco, in the heart of the Staffora Valley, a stone’s throw away from Cecima, the town named by Manuele Fieschi in the Fieschi Letter, and from the Abbey of Sant’Alberto, where Edward II is supposed to have lived. By special arrangement, a member of the local town council, Monica Masanta, was going to assist me as I methodically photographed every single 14th century manuscript  in the Malaspina Archive of Godiasco, for reading and examination by Auramala Project volunteers. That meant days of work for Monica and me, but weeks of work for the volunteers.

Godiasco in the Staffora Valley, in winter
Godiasco in the Staffora Valley, in winter

The Malaspina Archive of Godiasco is one of the great un-studied archives of the Malaspina family, the Apennine feudal lords who were close kin of the Fieschi family and controlled both Mulazzo and the area around Cecima and Sant’Alberto. The archive actually derives originally from Oramala Castle itself, the principle seat of the family at its origins. I was daunted by the size of the enterprise, with nearly 400 folders, each containing thousands of pages. We had only an approximate outline of which folders contain documents from which century to help us.

The documents that interested us the most were the 14th century parchments – sheets of animal hide carefully treated to make a writing material that can easily last centuries upon centuries. And unfortunately, as we opened folder after folder, the dust and faint but pervasive odour left no doubt that we were handling age-old skins.

They tanned a poor kid's hide 650 years ago, and here it is.
They tanned a poor kid’s hide 650 years ago, and here it is.

Monica patiently helped me flatten out and photograph sheet after sheet. Papal seals lolled around on yellowed string, ancient kid and lamb tail-skins with notarial marks on them folded out, and brittle edges of half-burnt pages crackled. Hypnotically, my voice sinking more and more into monotone, I read out the year on each document to make sure we were photographing manuscripts from the right era. ‘Anno domini millesimo tregentesimo quadragintesimo quarto…’ Sometimes it took minutes to photograph the larger sheets (probably calf hides) piece by piece, so that the printed images could later be put together to reconstruct the original, bilboard-sized document. As we worked, we chatted.

 

“My head is too full of other researchers’ theories.” I complained to Monica. “We need to look at this conundrum with a fresh mind, from a practical point of view.”

“You should try and formulate everything in as simple a question as possible, then put it to someone who knows nothing about the project.” Monica suggested.

“Ok, let’s try.” I agreed. It was nearly the end of the day, and we were both fed up with parchment. We were only a fraction of the way through the archive, however. “What about your son? He’s smart, and not even vaguely interested in the Middle Ages. He’s bound to come at it from a fresh angle.”

“Ok.” She agreed. “What question should I ask him, though?”

“How about… If you had to hide an extremely important and famous person, and make him completely disappear, but keep him alive for years, what would you do?”

The next morning another hundred or so ancient skins greeted us. But Monica had put the question to her son.

“He says that you need to rely on the services of a disciplined, hierarchical organization that has members everywhere, and in which you can rely on members to obey orders and be absolutely discreet. He says there are three options. One is to use the military. The second option he said was the Catholic Church, and the third option is the Mafia, though he doesn’t recommend that, as you end up beholden to them for the rest of your life. What do you think?”

I began mulling it over. “The military, the Catholic Church or the Mafia…” The more I thought about it, the more I found the insight compelling. The Fieschi family featured elements of all three. It commanded military might, and it was a powerful lobby within the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the way the Fieschis (like all other great medieval families) perpetuated the transfer of power within the family structure, and used the family structure to perpetuate power, has perhaps its best parallel today in the Mafia. But let’s be clear about this: the activities of the Fieschi family were all legal, and indeed honorable, at the time. Medieval culture did not condemn nepotism as we do today.

“Thanks, Monica.” I told her. “I’m going to investigate the art of hiding people. I think there’s something in this.” And there was. In the next post we’ll look at the uncanny similarities between the Fieschi family and some of the best people-hiders in history.

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