My posts have often emphasised our similarity with people from the medieval period, as I believe it is an important and interesting aspect of studying medieval history. Whilst those living in medieval England did lead very different lives to us today, often their issues and worries were not as extreme as worrying about plague, or God’s wrath, or starving to death, but were far more recognisable as ones we may have today. Sometimes whilst trawling through hundreds of pages of chronicles, you happen across a small tid-bit that makes you laugh due to how trivial a modern-sounding story is. When trying to relate to people who lived in the medieval era, you would think you could relate least of all to members of the royal family, or those attached to their court. However, as the examples below will show, this is not always the case.
Walter Map, writing in the twelfth century, compiled a piece called Courtiers’ Trifles, a gathering of gossip about various courtly stories. Within this, we hear the following story that occurred one time at Henry II of England’s court. Thurstan, the steward of the King, complained to Henry that Adam of Yarmouth, who was the sealer of writs, had refused to seal a writ for him free of charge (usually this could be an expected favour between those working in government). It turned out the Adam was upset at Thurstan because one time when Thurstan was entertaining guests, he would not let Adam have two cakes. Well, this certainly would upset me! The King was forced to interfere in this petty dispute, and he resolved it by making Adam sit and seal the writ whilst Thurstan offered him two cakes on bended knee. What a story! We can laugh at this story, and laugh at what a petty squabble it was between the two men, especially considering the fact that the King of England was forced to resolve the issue, but it is still a squabble that we could identify with as modern readers.
“Are you going to eat that cake or can I have it?”
Even the King’s own family could be involved in petty squabbles. Orderic Vitalis, a Benedictine monk writing in England in the early twelfth century, tells a story about William the Conqueror and his sons. So Orderic says, one day William was staying as a guest in a village called Richer, whilst preparing a military expedition. His sons were with him, and two of his sons – William Rufus and Henry – were jealous of their older brother, Robert, who was due to inherit William’s kingdoms. As a result, whilst they were in the castle of L’aigle, where King William was staying, William Rufus and Henry began to play dice in the gallery of the house where Robert and his followers were. They began making lots of noise, and then they threw water over the gallery edge, onto the heads of Robert and his followers. This led some of Robert’s followers to make him seek vengeance for the insult, and so he hurried to the banqueting room where William Rufus and Henry had hidden. The brothers started yelling and fighting, and were causing such a ruckus that William was drawn from his lodgings to stop the fighting.
This story does have deeper implications, as the quarrels between William’s sons got more and more violent, and it is even suggested that Henry was later responsible for William Rufus’ death in an apparent hunting accident. Henry also eventually imprisoned Robert for life after seizing the English throne and invading Normandy, which was under Robert’s control. However, when you take the basic premise of the story – that two younger brothers poured some water over their older brother’s head and the heads of his friends, and then had a huge argument until dad had to be dragged from his office to tell them off – the story certainly takes on a more familiar tone. Even kings and princes had family fights like families today!
William Rufus died after being shot by an arrow whilst hunting.
To return to Walter Map, he tells us of an embarrassing incident which again involved Henry II. One day when Henry was riding at the head of a parade of knights and clerks, a monk was walking by on the street they were riding through. Unfortunately, this monk tried to hasten out of the way of the King and his entourage, and this caused him to catch his foot against a stone and fall right in front of the King’s horse. At this moment, the wind blew the poor monk’s habit right up over his neck, exposing his naked body to the King and a distinguished monk riding beside him. I think all of us can groan in embarrassment for this poor monk. As someone who is not particularly graceful and has fallen flat on my face whilst walking next to main roads, in full sight of plenty of cars, many a time, I can certainly empathise with the embarrassment he must have felt (at least all my clothes didn’t come up…).
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You wouldn’t want to fall flat in front of a Kingly procession…
Stories such as these make people living hundreds of years ago feel far more familiar to us in the twenty-first century. They were different people living in different times, but they were still human, and not much different to us today. They had petty squabbles, they fought with their siblings, and they had embarrassing moments that would make anyone want to never leave the house again. If any of you can think of similar such stories that you have heard, it would be great to hear about them in the comments!
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If you want to read more about humanising the past, check out my post on The Humanity of Manuscripts