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Definitive Reexamination of a Medieval Icon
on 6 September 2000
David Crouch's biography of William Marshal, an icon in his own time, a courtier and knight who served five kings--Henry II, Henry the Young King, Richard the Lionheart, John, and Henry III--as well as a queen, Eleanor of Aquitane, coming to represent the ideal of the corteis (courtly) to his peers and the embodiment of chevalerie for those who have since studied the period, does much to ground the legend and question earlier interpretations that often accepted the contemporary accounts of Marshal's life at face value. Earlier biographers, such as Painter and the French doyen of medieval history, Georges Duby, based much of their understanding of Marshal's life upon the posthumous "Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal," a still extant epic poem commissioned by Marshal's sons and followers to celebrate his life and many accomplishments. Surprisingly, previous writers have chosen to base their biographies, especially Duby, almost entirely upon what is obviously, regardless of any factual accounting, a suspect source, in doing so ignoring other contemporary documents that go a long way to tempering the portrait of Marshal, not only in the "Historie" but in the subsequent biographies from which they were based.
Instead of the chivalric hero of battlefield and tournament cast in the mold of Chretien de Troyes, or the often fortunate simpleton of Duby that rose to the heights of medieval society through the sheer prowess of his arms, in Crouch we find a poor, relatively minor-born knight who through valor and shrewd financial self-interest uses both the battle and tournament field to promote his own fortunes, aided at times by pure good luck, which he is quick to turn to his own advantage. Upon entry to the courts of the powerful we discover a man who was deft in manipulating the intrigues of his betters for his own benefit, quick to ally himself with those who could help him, adept at playing one party off against another, and, when his politics stumbled, able to ultimately survive and reverse his misfortunes where other men fell. Charismatic, he both received and demanded loyalty from the mesnie and supporters that surrounded him. Generous to his followers, he could be equally stern and unforgiving to those that opposed him, in many ways reflecting the values of the aristocratic society of which he was a part. At the end, he survived both rebellions and the displeasure of the kings whom he served, becoming one of England's most powerful magnates and regent for Henry III, in effect ruling England in the boy king's stead.
The author uses his biography to examine the role of the mesnie in 12th century medieval society, as well as the function of the tournament, both as a social phenomenon and an avenue for advancement, both financial and social. He investigates the evolving notion of chivalry, both as an ideal and its actual practice. And he makes a cursory foray into the influence of religion, especially as it pertained to the noble's household, with its dependence upon an administration of clerical clerks. As much an insight into medieval military and noble society as a biography, the author has leavened his account with some wonderful anecdotes, such as Richard I's remonstrance with Marshal against killing him in battle, and Henry II's pique with his son over the latter's crossbowmen firing at him during a period of The Young King's insurrection. The various interactions and shifting allegiances between King Henry II and his often recalcitrant sons is illuminating in itself. Though Marshal was often out of the king's favor, Henry II nonetheless twice requested that Marshal serve his son, even though the son was at war with his father, and Marshal's military skills and allegiance would be turned against him! Quite a different mindset than what we're accustomed to today.
At present, this must be considered the definitive biography of a medieval icon who not only influenced his own times, but the imaginations of subsequent generations. I suspect that many who read this account will be left wishing for more. Both the Painter and Duby biographies have their value, though the former has long been out of print and will require some effort to find. Read their accounts, then use this book to place their flaws in perspective. Also, Crouch indicates that the original "Historie" will soon be available in translation.
An exceptional book, and very highly recommended. My only complaint is that the price asked by the publisher is preposterous.