The Hunt for the King 19) Exploding a myth about the Fieschi Letter

After a number of posts defining the global context of our research into King Edward II’s ‘afterlife’, with a broad look at the political forces and players involved, the time has come to get back to our main source, the Fieschi Letter, in earnest. For the first time this extraordinary document will be subjected to an in depth linguistic and philological analysis, thanks to the hard work of Auramala Project researcher Elena Corbellini, with contributions from other scholars.

Before getting into the analysis proper, let’s put to rest a myth that has got around about the Fieschi Letter: that it must be a forgery, because the Latin used in the letter is ‘corrupt’, or ‘informal’, or ‘patois’, and therefore could not possibly be the language of a high ranking church official like Manuele Fieschi, its purported author, writing a letter to a king.(1)

Elena Corbellini, one of our two main researchers at the Auramala Project, taught Latin in high schools for nearly 40 years, and has indeed written Latin textbooks. An ex-student wrote to her saying “Professor, I read the Fieschi Letter online. I had no idea it was written so badly. What kind of Latin IS that?” Here is Elena’s reply, with a some of my own comments added for good measure [in square brackets. IF]


Latin made fun by Elena Corbellini and Sergio Nicola: 'Ripasso ad hoc' (only available in Italian)
Latin made fun by Elena Corbellini and Sergio Nicola: ‘Ripasso ad hoc’ (only available in Italian)


My dear student, you ask me ‘what kind of Latin IS this?’

It is 14th century Latin, therefore a Medieval Latin, which seems ‘incorrect’ if viewed from the point of view of the classical Latin grammar you studied with me, which was based on the benchmark Ancient Roman authors (auctores) like Caesar and Cicero. [We need only look at the letters that powerful men such as great abbots, bishops, lords and patriarchs wrote to Cardinal Luca Fieschi(2) – living in the same time and place as Manuele Fieschi – to see that the Fieschi Letter is not in the slightest bit out of the ordinary, linguistically. All of the supposed ‘linguistic oddities’ it contains are, in fact, the norm. IF]

You see, languages are like living organisms, they are born, they grow, and they change over time as a consequence of many factors – and sometimes they die. The Latin of the 14th century (and here we are talking about the average written Latin of the time) displayed significant elements of difference from the classical Latin we study at school. These differences had crept into the language over the intervening centuries. This phenomenon is evident even in high-class texts of the time, for example in legal texts, in spite of the fact that such documents were expected to be crystal clear and conservative in their style. In fact, it is no coincidence that when the Humanists began referring back to classical literature as a model, it was as a counter-reaction to the ‘vulgarised’ Latin of the times.  Nevertheless, I must say that the Fieschi Letter also uses rather elegant turns of phrase, and uses them well, in several passages.

The first things a good Latin student should notice about the Fieschi Letter are: sloppy and simple syntax, though not particularly ‘incorrect’; the absence of dipthongs; a ‘macheronic’ seeming lexicon; oscillation in the use of locative complements (e.g. exivit carceres instead of exivit carceribusduxerunt ipsum in castro and, soon afterwards, miserunt eum ad castrum); oscillations in the use of third person possessives (e.g. extracto sibi corde instead of extracto ei corde, which makes it seem as though the poor guardian killed in King Edward II’s escape extracted his own heart from his own chest!) [Exactly the same ‘mistake’ is to be found in the Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, where Lord Berkeley says he knew nothing of Edward II’s supposed deathnec unquam scivit de morte sua. If we read this by the standards of classical Latin, Berkeley was sitting there in parliament, alive and well, saying he knew nothing of HIS OWN death. Well, one should hope so! IF] There is a consistent incorrect (according to classical Latin grammar) use of the auxiliary in the passive voice, e.g. fuit receptatus instead of receptus est, or similarly fuerat decapitatus instead of decapitatus erat, just as there is a consistent use of unus, -a, -um (= just one) as the indeterminate article. Both of these uses are generalised outcomes in romance languages. In terms of lexicon we also find here two verbs (receptare and decapitare) that neither Caesar nor Cicero would ever have used. The latter because the word itself came into existence many years after them (‘to behead’ in classical times was caput/cervices praecidere) and the former because it had already taken on a different nuance with respect to the normal recipere in the sense of ‘to give welcome’ or ‘to take in’.

Some might ask: ‘would a Papal notary have written like that? Especially considering that he was a Fieschi, a member of a wealthy and influential family?’

The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’.

We have no reason to believe that Manuele Fieschi was a man of great learning. The inventory of his possessions in the Avignonese Registers of the Vatican Archives lists less than 50 books, most of which were extracts, and above all they were glosses of canon law and legal formulae. Practically Manuele’s Manuals… Pardon the pun. He also had a Bible, a few Missals, and very few texts of the Patrologia Latina (parts of works by Saint Gregory and Saint Thomas of Aquinas and Severinus Beothius). I don’t mean to say his library was small: by the standards of the time it was significant. These were manuscripts, and therefore very costly books, and his library was a sign of prestige. He probably bought many of them out of a collector’s spirit, rather than to read them regularly.

High ranking members of the clergy like Manuele Fieschi were essentially full-time bureaucrats and diplomats engaged in politics, as is well known. They certainly did not use the Holy Scriptures or philosophical texts in their work nearly as often as legal texts. As far as Latin classics were concerned, once they had finished studying, what use did they have for them? How much time for daily study did you have, when you became a canon at the age of 12 or 13? When you had accumulated benefices and earnings, and therefore responsibilities, the length and breadth of Europe by the age of 30?

But let us return to the Fieschi Letter. We must not forget also that it is a hand-made copy. [A copy made years later, by someone who probably had no contact with the author and who knew nothing about many of the people and places the original referred to. We can imagine all the possibilities for mistakes and miscomprehension to enter the text. Just think of the mistakes we all make when writing. And at the time there was emphatically no such thing as standard spelling, especially for names of places and people. Just think: even in the age of print, a famous author like Shakespeare could spell his own name in different ways. Claims that place names in the Fieschi Letter are spelt oddly are simply laughable. IF] It is a telling fact that a number of words on the original document bear common conventional signs, such as dots beneath them, perhaps indicating that the scribe was not sure he had correctly copied the original.

The claim made by certain British historians that this letter must be a forgery on the basis that the language it uses is ‘inadequate’ or too ‘low-class’ to be that of Manuele Fieschi simply does not hold water.


Elena Corbellini


(1) The only serious claim to this effect made by an academic, though without linguistic analysis to support it, is to be found in Haines, Roy Martin, King Edward II: His Life, His Reign, and its Aftermath 1284-1330, Montreal 2003

(2) Hledìkovà, Zdènka, Raccolta praghese di scritti di Luca Fieschi, Prague 1981


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