Fictions of Advice: The Literature and Politics of Counsel in Late Medieval England

Fictions of Advice: The Literature and Politics of Counsel in Late Medieval England

Fictions of Advice: The Literature and Politics of Counsel in Late Medieval England

Fictions of Advice: The Literature and Politics of Counsel in Late Medieval England

Excerpt

The Monk of Westminster's account of the crisis of the English government in 1388 displays a surprising dissonance between the rebellious lords' mission -- to wrest control of the government of England from Richard II -- and their obsequious behavior toward the king. Few of the situations I discuss here produce such a radical contrast between deeds and demeanor because the other actors, literary and historical, do not successfully seize power while leaving the ruler in place. Nevertheless, we will see "due obeisance" mixed with prodding, pressure, and outright criticism. The mixture of submission and aggression, flattery and resistance, is my theme in this book.

To some, this mixture of respect and provocation may seem unlikely in mirrors for princes. First of all, the original writers of these treatises are traditionally thought of as adopting the king's point of view. Insofar as the treatises have political import, they ought not to be provocative. Furthermore, they are often seen as compilations of platitudes, clichés, and ancient stories so general, so distant in time and place, and so inert that they have no bearing on political concerns contemporary with their writers and translators. It makes a certain intuitive sense that works in the Fürstenspiegel tradition derived from the ninth-century pseudo-Aristotelian Arabic Kitabsirr al-asrar (The Book of the Secret of Secrets, often known in the West as the Secretum Secretorum), enthusiastically translated into Latin and the European vernaculars throughout the Middle Ages, would have little to say to their specific contemporary contexts. Truisms such as "It is better to take good advice and avoid bad" seem timeless only because empty. They had authority because they were seen as Aristotle's advice to Alexander, but their popularity looks to some like evidence of the medieval English taste for "platitude" and "moral generality."

On closer examination, their seeming emptiness is puzzling, since advice to the king was actually a matter of great importance in the late Middle Ages. The king's council was developing into an institution that had great power in the royal administration, especially when the king was incapable of ruling or incapacitated. Since Edward III was enfeebled by age in the last years of his reign, since Richard II came to the throne at the age of ten, since Henry IV was seriously ill several times during his reign, and since Henry VI came to the throne at the age of one year and as an adult suffered periods of insanity, there were long periods when the council was actually running the government. Since criticizing the king was sometimes dangerous, advisers on the council as well as those who were the king's personal friends and confidants were the foci of conflict and controversy, and . . .

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