Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Philip White

With the brief lull following my manuscript submission, I’ve finally been able to start reading for pleasure again. Having zeroed in on Churchill-focused books for the past three years, I scoured my shelves for something completely unrelated, and settled on Juliet Barker’s Agincourt, which vividly recreates the battle between heavily outnumbered British troops and their French foes on October 25, 1415.

One of the central figures is Henry V, the iconic English monarch. Previously, I had (somewhat embarrassingly, for an Englishman) only read of his exploits by way of William Shakespeare in Henry V, and through watching the film portrayals by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.

Such the Bard’s reputation and flair for characterization that we (or at least, I) often forget that he took creative license in his portrayal, and was crafting plays to entertain common, noble, and royal audiences rather than to provide an accurate historical record.

Still, it came as a surprise when Barker revealed that the incident that defines Act I, Scene II – the French prince sending Henry a set of tennis balls that mocked his youth and poured scorn on his negotiators’ attempts to acquire former British territory in France by peaceful means – was merely a myth. Shakespeare did not invent this incident, but seems to have conveniently used this piece of royal tittle tattle for dramatic effect and to set up one of Henry’s most famous utterances in the play:

We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have match'd our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God's grace, play a set
Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard

In fact, Barker contends, Henry did not believe that negotiations with the French would yield the land he was claiming without force and while the French did not play ball with English diplomats, no tennis equipment was sent across the English Channel to irk the monarch. So much for fancy words and clever plot tools.

Rather than relying on the playwright’s populist tales for source material, Barker makes fine use of medieval chronicles from Britain and France, including Thomas Elmham, Archbishop of Canterbury and founder of All Soul’s College, Oxford Henry Chichele and Enguerrand de Monstrelet. She uses their stories and anecdotes judiciously, relying on material that is verified in more than one account and debunking falsehoods as needed – such as Raphael Holinshed’s account of the tennis balls that inspired Shakespeare’s aforementioned scene.

As with all primary sources, these chroniclers’ words are not without bias. Many were supported by royal or noble patrons and some, as in Chichele’s case, were in the king’s inner circle. They were indeed writing for posterity, but in many cases, feared that negative observations about their masters could lead to severe punishment in the present. After all, this was an age in which beheading and burning at the stake were common. Thus, the chroniclers’ characterizations of Henry and other leading figures of the era were mostly positive. Yet despite their partiality, these writers give us an invaluable window into this distant age that is far less opaque than the work of Shakespeare – not least because, in the case of Henry V, he was writing about the Battle of Agincourt more than 150 years afterwards.

Reading Agincourt got me thinking about how the art of the chronicle has evolved. Who are the chroniclers of today? Perhaps certain journalists, historians, and filmmakers, or have bloggers taken on the mantle of these Middle Ages scribes? What value will their accounts hold for future generations, and how will their myths and bias find their way into our enduring literary works?


hcr said...

Sorry, Philip, I didn't make it past "With the brief lull following my manuscript submission." Wow. Manuscript submission. How incredibly wonderful is that? Congratulations!!!

dan allosso said...

Interesting to think about sorting through the tangle to try to discover which of these modern chroniclers has what type of agenda. While some will end up being associated with power, like the people you mention who wrote about Henry, I wonder if others will turn out to have slightly different points of view -- different interests that might end up being useful. Bloggers especially, and others whose voices might have been lost in the past.

PW said...

Very true, Dan. I think that, much as we strive for objectivity, it is very hard to not have an agenda when either writing or analyzing history. Same goes for journalists and, as you wrote, bloggers.

Something else that's interesting to think about is that we go to great lengths to preserve priceless chronicles from the Middle Ages and before, as well as visual sources such as tapestries. The presence of these at museums draws many visitors, and everything from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence is revered a historical artifacts. With so much of our current content online, how will future generations access it, how will they sift through the massive quantity of material (books, online, newspapers etc) and make sense of our time through it? That blows my mind just to consider!

Heather, thanks for the kind note. Expecting edits back in the next couple of days, so the hard part is yet to come!


mmbennetts said...

I've been thinking a great deal about your questions in a slightly different context--the political cartoons of the early 19th century which are so often claimed to reflect popular opinion, although popular opinion as such didn't yet exist and with the cartoons not travelling outside of London, most of the population still living outside London and being some 42% illiterate anyway, how can they be said to be a reflection of whatever it was people were thinking? It'd be like someone saying that the British tabloid press is a complete reflection of contemporary British thinking.

There's been a lot on Henry V out over here recently, upending the various myths, and latest in the line has been Bernard Cornwell's historical fiction offering of Azincourt.

PW said...

mmbennetts, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, political cartoons as barometers of public is a bit of a stretch.

In my research (primarily focused on Winston Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' speech for my forthcoming book) I've found that newspaper cartoons merely enhance editorial political bias - whether that be to the right or left. They're the second way (words being the first) for a newspaper or magazine to convey op-ed thoughts and to lampoon typical targets.

Maybe that'd be a solid thesis or book topic - the impact of cartoons on popular thinking in a particular time period, rather than vice versa?

mmbennetts said...

That's really interesting. I wonder how different it was in an era when there was such high illiteracy? Whether the op-eds were secondary to the picture or vice versa?

PW said...

A fascinating point. Maybe Google News Archive (or whatever they're calling it these days) could shed some light on that, and whether the number of cartoons diminished as literacy rates increased? And, in this age of decreased newspaper readership, if political cartoons still carry much weight? They can certainly still provoke controversy: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/feb/04/muhammadcartoons.pressandpublishing