1066, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Book Review, Dennis was right, Diana Greenway, Don't eat Eels...That is All, English History, Farcical Aquatic Ceremonies are not the basis for a system of government, Henry I, Henry of Huntington, history, History of the English People, Human Body, Lamprey, Literature, Medieval Christianity, Medieval England, Medieval Europe, Medieval History, Norman Aristocracy, Norman History, Norman Invasion, Normans, Primary Source, The History of the English People 1000-1154, William the Conqueror, Writing
Watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks to the point of nausea as a child does not make one an expert on the Medieval Period. This is because, if the reader took the time to notice it, Eglantine Price did not just use the spell of substitutiary locomotion to bring only suits of Medieval armor to life, she also brought to life the suits of Enlightenment era “red-coats,” the clothes of Reformation era gentlemen, three bagpipers, and what could have been a Norman era suit of armor which lead the entire army of ghost armor. These facts are important damn it, but most people probably missed them because they were too busy either laughing at that one Nazi soldier who got his helmet crushed by that one knight’s foot, or else because they were, like me, contemplating the nightmares they were going to have after staring at the executioner for too long.
Like, seriously, that dude was fucked-up.
The Medieval period was a time that I honestly believed I had a pretty solid conception of until recently. I spent a significant amount of time during puberty either playing Stronghold Crusader and Rise of Nations both of which gave me a conception of the aesthetic of the times, or else I was watching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings a film which, I had been told, was largely rooted in the Medieval period in Europe. This last fact was untrue as the Lord of the Rings was in fact rooted more in Danish and ancient English mythology, but hindsight is always 20/20. The reality of my understanding of Medieval Europe was that I didn’t actually have one. I like many people fell for the aesthetic believing it to be the actual history of humanity during this period in Europe’s history to be nothing but rich and handsome men dressed up in armor sieging castles, fighting one another in tournaments, and rescuing fair damsels from tall towers. That is of course when they weren’t contemplating the air-speed-velocity of unladened swallows.
Okay, not that, but you get what I mean.
Studying Medieval Europe in a graduate level history course has totally reworked my conception so that I’m having to confront the actual realities of the time period. Medieval Europe was not just chivalry and feudalism (both words now largely absent from Medievalist vocabulary for the record), nor was it just armor and castles. The period was in fact a fascinating time of change and growth of a new noble class of people’s who were trying to find some level of autonomy and government structure following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. As much as this period has been written about as a “dark age,” there appears in the actual records and history a real attempt by the people of this age to find something new, or at least something stable so that life can resume its normality.
Which of course leads me to the bloody conflict of the Norman invasion of 1066, and the subsequent period of chaos and bloodshed.
What? It’s history. Get used to it.
While reading book after book of secondary sources, aka works by historians and writers long after the events in question who try to create some narrative from the raw accounts and data, I was also assigned a primary document. If the reader doesn’t remember college (you were going to be a dancer remember? Diego thought you had a beautiful smile and you used to wear your hair in that bun? God what happened to us?) A primary document is any work which later history is written on. Some obvious examples usually being The Histories by Herodotus, just about anything by Plutarch or Livy, or, in the case of this class, the work The History of the English People 1000-1154 by Henry of Huntington.
Henry’s work specifically tries to understand the conquest of England by the Norman people’s led by William the Conquerer and the resulting effects it had upon the local population. I suppose I should preface the remainder of the review by noting that, spoiler alert, he wasn’t a terribly huge fan. Except when he was. It’s complicated. We’ll get to it. What’s important about Henry’s book is that while the events of his time period are “chronicled” far more often Henry’s work is about the implied morality of his subjects.
Diana Greenway, who translated and compiled the Oxford University Press edition I read, gives her reader and understanding of Henry’s unique history:
Henry is not a collector of facts for their own sake. The idea of an objective study of history would have been quite alien to him and his contemporaries. In his world, history was a literary genre, and the writing of history required imagination and rhetorical skills. He did not seek to be a realistic reporter, but rather to represent selected events in an overarching interpretation and in appropriate style. He was following the ancient dictum that style should match content. Like the best writers among his contemporaries, Henry had developed his literary style from his training in rhetoric. (xxiv)
Henry of Huntington (heretofore referred to as HOH, JK, NVMJK, BYOB) was a man of real academic training and served as the Archdeacon of Huntington until his death in the 1150s. His position explains better than anything his training and skill in rhetoric as it was far more likely for a privileged and high ranking religious official to have training in classical rhetoric than a fieldworker who had to grow crops and try not to die from plague. Reinforcing only moderately accurate stereotypes aside, Henry’s “history” is a fascinating document, at least to nerds like me, because it’s not really a true history, or at least not history by modern standards.
One need only look at his description of William the Conquerer to observe Henry’s unique vision of the time:
William was the strongest of the dukes of Normandy. He was the most powerful of the kings of the English. He was more worthy of praise than any of his predecessors. He was wise but cunning, wealthy but avaricious, glorious but hungry for fame. He was humble towards God’s servants, but unyielding towards those who opposed him. He placed earls and nobles in prison, deprived bishops and abbots of their possessions, did not spare his own brother, and there was no one who could oppose him. He seized thousands in gold and silver, even from the mightiest. He went beyond everyone else in castle-building. If anyone caught a stag or a boar, he put out his eyes, and no one murmured. (32)
Henry goes on just further down the page to note:
Alas! How sadly is it to be lamented that any man, since he is ashes and a worm, should be so haughty as to exalt himself alone above all men, forgetful of death. (32)
These two small quotes provide a pretty accurate presentation of reading Henry of Huntington’s history. While there are lengthy passages of actual events and genealogies of the various Norman dukes, generals, kings, and even local leaders, these factual description are constantly checked by Henry’s seemingly unending moral assumptions. William the Conquerer is presented as a “great” man, but then is simultaneously denigrated by a character failing, and even after a long back and forth Henry often reminds his reader of the inevitable mortality of the people he’s describing.
This most likely has more to do with Medieval Christian and cultural sensibilities, and it’s likely going to be difficult to a modern reader. Before the Christian church became a bloated self-parody of would-be priests writing motivational self-help books, there was a real connection to the reality of death, and especially in early church there was a concern to emphasize the separation between the soul and the body. The body was an ephemeral object rooted in sin and subject to whims and pleasures, all of which served as a distraction from the more important reality of the afterlife. Henry seems bent on always reminding his reader of the troubles of the body, especially as he tackles these “great men,” who lead the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons following the Battle of Hastings.
What’s wonderful, truly fantastic about Henry, is that his personality makes these reminders the stuff of greatness. The best example of this is probably his description of the death of King Henry 1st. He tells his reader:
The king was provoked by these irritations to anger and bitter ill-feeling, which were said by some to have been the origin of the chill in his bowels and later that cause of his death. He had been hunting, and when he came back to Saint-Denis in the first of Lyons, he ate the flesh of the lampreys, which always made him ill, though he aways loved them. When a doctor forbade him to eat the dish, the king did not take this salutary advice. As it is said, ‘We always strive for what is forbidden and long for what is refused.’ So this meal brought on a most destructive humor, and violently stimulated similar symptoms, producing a deadly chill in his aged body, and a sudden and extreme convulsion. Against this, nature reacted by stirring up an acute fever to dissolve the inflammation with very heavy sweating. But when all power of resistance failed, the great king departed on the first day of December , when he had reigned for thirty-five years and three months (64).
I’ll admit without shame that reading this passage legitimately made me laugh out loud. I recognize that death is not always a pleasant subject, nor is it supposed to be funny. But damn it a king dying because his doctor told him not to eat lampreys is just so damn weird I couldn’t help it.
And Henry himself only added fuel to the fire a few pages on when he described the treatment of Henry’s body:
Meanwhile, the body of King Henry was still unburied in Normandy. […] The remainder of the corpse was cut all around with knives, sprinkled with a great deal of salt, and wrapped in oxides, to stop the strong pervasive stench, which was already causing three deaths of those who watched over it. It even killed the man who had been hired for a great sum of money to cut off the head with an axe and extract the stinking brain, although he had wrapped himself in linen cloths around his head: so he got no benefit from his fee. He was the last of many who King Henry put to death. (66)
My LOLing rose to a pretty high pitch and it only got worse as Henry only went further:
Although it had been filled with much salt and wrapped in many hides, a fearful black fluid ran down continuously, leaking through the hides, and was collected in vessels beneath the bier and cast away by attendants who grew faint with dread. See, then, whoever you are reading this, how the corpse of a most mighty king, who’s crowned head had sparkled with gold and the finest jewels, like the splendor of God, whose hands had shone with sceptres, while the rest of his body had been dressed in gorgeous cloth of hold, and his mouth had always fed on the most delicious and choice foods, for whom everyone would rise to their feet, whom everyone feared: see what the body became, how fearfully it melted away, how wretchedly cast down it was! (66-67).
In my mind this passage could only ever be followed by an “oh, snap” or else a quickly timed, “damn son” but for my own part I could only laugh.
Henry’s history is, as has been stated already, not a history that modern readers would be terribly familiar with because there is no concern with objectivity. As Greenway noted in her introduction Henry isn’t writing about the events of his time-period out of a concern for creating a lasting record, nor is he concerned with the minutiae of the actual runnings and doings of England from 1000-1154. Henry isn’t concerned or troubled with these details because details aren’t important. What is important is creating a document that translates a moral message to his reader.
But on the note of readers mine interjects. Well so what? This book sounds like a boring, sanctimonious, and “holier-than-thou” collection of clap-trap that I don’t have time for. If I wanna read abut the Medieval period I want to know about the actual details of the time, not just the opinion of one privileged man who’s not even telling me about any of the cool battles and stuff. Why should I care about Henry of Huntington.
History is, like any and all of the studies of humanities, largely subjective. Each reader and writer is going to bring their own concerns, experiences, and biases to a work and as they go about trying to understand the significance of a work they’re going to find their own narratives and relevance. In response to my reader then, if they wish to understand the details of the Battle of Hastings, or the types of metal used in making swords and flails, or the battle strategies employed by great generals then they’re very unlikely to find much of anything in Henry’s History. THis is just reality, and so if that’s what they’re really after they’ll have to find another work to appreciate.
But Henry’s History is important for the way it reveals the feeling of the English people from the years of 1000-1154, or at the very least, one English person’s perception. And while this perception is not objective in any real way, it does at least give historians of today something to work with. Records from this time period are scarce and so much of the work of a Medieval historian is often speculation coupled with real research. The History of the English People 1000-1154 is not an objective record, but it does possess enough detail and bias to give historians some idea of what the feeling of this time period was. The Norman conquest and establishment was a time of chaos and uncertainty, and while there were some lords who established power and brought relative peace, there were a great many lords who were, according to Henry, just pathetic or ridiculous.
In one particular passage he gives his reader his honest sentiment:
The count of Aumale [William le Gros] appears, a man who is remarkably consistent in wrong-doing, swift to enlarge it, intransigent over giving up, because of whose intolerable filthiness his wife left him and became a fugitive. That earl appears who stole the said count’s wife, a manifest adulterer and distinguished lecher, a faithful follower of Bacchis, though unacquainted with Mars, smelling of wine, unaccustomed to warfare. Simon [of Senlis], earl of Northampton, appears, whose action is only talk, whose gift is mere promise: he talks as if he has acted and promises as if he had given. But up to now I have had to be silent on the subject of the fugitive William of Ypres. For words have not yet been invented which can properly describe the extent and ramifications of his treacheries, the filth and horror of his obscenities. There also appear nobles of the same character as their king, practiced in robbery, defiled with pillage, grown fat on murder, and lastly, every one of them tainted with perjury. (77).
This passage reveals a great deal, the first being that if a man wants to keep a woman in his life he’s going to have to bath every now and then. I wish I had processed that as a teenager but, such is life. But this passage also offers the reader a glimpse into the perception of the nobility of this period and how many men only held the title of “noble” as a title. Henry’s History is an attempt to understand the morality of these men, and while it may not seem terribly important, that concern with morality is more than just his religious bent and bias. The Norman conquest established a new political order on the territory of England, and the men who established it allowed their new power to become an excuse for depravity and vice.
And once again, I must think of the Great Philosopher Dennis who said it best:
Dennis: [interrupting] Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
William the Conquerer ultimately invaded England not because some watery tart threw a sword at him, but because he felt he possessed a legitimate claim to the region of England, and that perception altered the course of history. Henry’s record of the deeds and moral character of his followers and successors attempts to understand the reverberations of that perception and decision. England became a realm of uncertainty before order steadily began to settle in, and even then the history of England would become one of conflict between English monarchs and French aristocracy who felt their own claims to the throne were valid and justified.
Henry’s History of the English People is preoccupied with morality because he sees the violence and chaos and the distraction it has from the larger concern of mortality which ultimately arrives at near the end of his short work:
But you ask why, at the end, after the dead, I speak of the living as also having come to nothing. The reason is this. Just as the dead have come to nothing, so the living will soon come to it—indeed, I may say, with some freedom, that they have already done so. For, as Cicero says, what is called ‘life is death.’ It follows that to begin life is to begin death. (109).
There is in this life, a struggle to find the difference between perception and actual cold fact. Looking at my own life I realize I spent a large amount of time believing a certain set of realities that weren’t actually true. The Medieval period wasn’t composed of nothing but chivalry, people dying of plague, fair damsels waiting in towers for knights in shining armor (probably spending most of their time jilling off because, I mean, why not and what else ya gonna do), and the movies and video-games that reinforced this world-view didn’t help. But in their own way they at least set a foundation of understanding that would be later corrected.
Looking at Henry’s History this feels terribly relevant.
The History of the English People 1000-1154 is not a perfect, or at least objective record of the actions of human beings, but it at least set something into the record. History is not always about reporting just the facts or events and times, it’s also about capturing the feeling of an age and understanding the moods and ideas of the people who lived during that time. Henry of Huntington saw the chaos, violence, and corruption of the early new order and was disgusted and so his effort was to write a moral and literary record about the men of his age who were allowing their vices to distract them from their Christian and political responsibilities. And those of us who read his prose long after the man himself set his ink to page are better for having such a record.
If nothing else, Henry’s reminded us that lampreys are just gross and should never eaten under any circumstances. I don’t really feel like that was a lesson that should ever have been needed to have been written down, but thanks to King Henry 1st we at least have it recorded for posterity.
All quotes cited from The History of the English People 1000-1154 were quoted from the paperback Oxford University Press edition.