Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri is director of studies in medieval history at the University of Urbino and head of courses in methodology of historical research and the history of the Middle Ages. His latest book is The Man Who Believed He Was King of France: A True Medieval Tale. We interviewed him by email to discuss his book and research.
1. How did you first encounter Giannino di Guccio and what drew you into his story?
I vivdly remember the first time I came across “re Giannino” (or “king Johnny”), it was quite an encounter: ten years ago, in the Vatican Library, I was in the midst of a systematic study of the Codici Barberiniani Latini, for a project concerning the medieval history of Rome, which is my main field. An Istoria del re Giannino di Francia, which appeared in the catalogue, looked curious indeed; I found myself reading the whole manuscript. That, then, was my first encounter with this incredible figure.
Soon thereafter I undertook a study of Cola di Rienzo, “last of the Roman tribunes”. Cola was an extraordinary man, taken by the dream of ancient Rome, which he tried to realize with a popular government: a man of learning, a politician and a dreamer all at once. Anyway, while working on his biography (which I published in 2002) I noticed that Cola had direct relations with “king Giannino”: one can even say that the two lives are intertwined, in several ways.
Back then I was chiefly interested in the problem of fakes, forgeries, falsehood, deceit and imposture, which I discussed in my lectures at the Unversità di Urbino. “King Giannino” actually believed he was the legitimate king of France, but was a liar and an impostor nonetheless. A study of his life, which is interesting in its own right, thus became a magnificent case study providing a peculiar instance of the relation between “truth” and “falsehood.” One final thing made the case absolutely unique: the fact that Giannino left memoirs. So the impostor had told his story, giving his own point of view.
I thus decided to look into this figure, with the intention of proposing an analysis that can be called “microhistorical,” which can both address the specific problem and significantly broaden the scope of the results. Giannino is not only a merchant who is convinced of being a king. He represents the background colour of an era.
2. I noticed throughout this book a lot of characters who could be called con-men, forgerers or impersonators. I wonder what your thoughts were about how easy or difficult it was in medieval society to pretend you were something other than who you really were?
Indeed there are many such figures around “king Giannino”: a fake bishop, a fake abbot, forgers of seals and coins, notaries producing counterfeit documents… even another impostor, who claims to be king of Sicily. All this is no accident: medieval civilization, which had a clear notion of truth and authenticity, was—and for the same reason—also a civilization of counterfeit. This had its place in a dialectic of entangled relations between truth and falsehood which appears as one of the fundamental characteristics of that civilization.
It has been said that the middle ages are in various ways an exotic land to be approached with due caution. The same applies to the conspicuous presence of impostors and forgers, on which there is already a solid and substantial literature. The attempt to understand how medieval man conceived himself in the society he was part of is at the core of the matter; to what extent was he aware of his own personal identity and of the identities of those around him?
One can claim that medieval man had trouble forming a solid self-representation, and even capturing the identities of others, for which he lacked the necessary “objective” instruments; central records and photographs did not exist, nor did experimental facts or “proof” in a form we would accept today. Medieval thought is different from ours, being fundamentally “symbolic.” Truth is bound up more with authority and consensus than with “scientific proof.” The impostor is at home in this cultural context, which lends itself to his deceptions. The fable of Puss in boots could as it were constitute a perfect metaphor; the case of Martin Guerre, magisterially reconstructred by Natalie Zemon-Davis, is another illustrious example.
3. In recounting the life of Giannino you conclude that he, or at least someone close to him, gave an autobiographical account of his exploits. Previously, other historians have questioned the authenticity of this document. I would like to ask how you came to the conclusion that this source was for the most part genuine?
This is a problem to which I’ve devoted several sections of the book: opinions on the matter are varied, indeed Giannino’s very existence has been questioned. I can summarize the argument that seems best:
Parts of the Istoria indicate that it was written in the last months of Giannino’s life; the very last one even looks unfinished. We first see an account of past events, then a kind of diary for the final months, which breaks off abruptly. If a literary artifice it would be unique in all of late medieval literature.
The Istoria we have today is a text whose status has evolved—once a mere tale it has become the object of erudite curiosity. The similarity of Giannino’s memoirs to the typical “libri di ricordanze” of Italian merchants can be seen in the function he himself assigned to them. He produced this text primarily as a memorandum, a documentary record of immediate utility to himself; its function was not that of a narrative, whether ‘novelistic’ or historiographical.
4. Near the end of your book you write that this is a story “about facts and legends woven into an intricate and fascinating pattern.” Can you talk about the challenges of being a historian and having to work through all this material?
This is the chief—and most interesting—methodological problem of the book, which I spoke about recently at Berkeley. The complicated relationship between fact and legend belongs to the more general problems concerning the relationship between fact and imagination and between events and their narrative representation, which have given rise to a huge debate. I believe that the relationship between fact and narrative is one of the major problems encountered by historians, both when analyzing a source and when describing and narrating to others.
What, then, are the peculiarities of the “Giannino Case” with regard to the problem of the relationship between fact and narration, peculiarities which make it a most stimulating and enjoyable case to research? As I wrote in the preface, “in Giannino’s life truth and lies, essence and appearance are always interwoven, in a whirl of authentic, false, or nonexistent documents, of revelations, claims, inventions and intrigues, of factual record, memory, and literature”. We are dealing with a complex clinical case. I will list just a few of these problems, which I treat in my book.
a) The problem of the true or presumed royal identity of the character Giannino. It is a kind of level 0 of all the other problems. In its interpretation, we see anything from a real character, a Siennese merchant of the 14th century, to a completely invented character.
b) There is the fact that Giannino was his own biographer, telling us his own version of the facts. This is a problem which raises many others: cultural filters, cautions, choices, right up to autobiographic fiction, as it were.
c) We then have the huge problem of Giannino’s personality. He remains a liar, however genuinely he believed he was king of France, who invents, who deliberately creates fake documents to justify his claims. Some of the texts which he created are deliberate distortions.
d) The problem of the genre of the main text and of its later alterations: at first a complex autobiography, it is then changed by relatives, becoming biographical, and is finally, having become an extraordinary tale, handed down in the manuscripts.
e) The relationship of this text, originally written by Giannino, with myth and legend (a cradle switch, the evil queen, the king in hiding, acknowledgment, reconquering…). Once again, a relationship between this text and fiction.
f) Lastly the problem of narrating and explaining this entertaining “puzzle”: the problem of the relationship between text and fact, between source and true fact, is directly transferred, in the work of the historian in action—me in this case—as the problem of the relationship between the tale itself and its analysis.
What, then, is my inadequate solution? My book is written on two different levels that complete each other: narration and analysis. In the first 5 chapters, I tell the Giannino’s tale using a linear plot. In this first part, his story is recounted with precision. So it has not been invented, but narrated, following the lines of a story, with a beginning, a development, and an end.
I did this in accord with a historiographical position, which has very much reassessed the value of tales, for their true capacity of transmitting knowledge. I therefore agree with the necessity of the “revival of narrativity” and am convinced of its cognitive worth: narration, the ordering in the form of a “story”, that is, its rhetoric form, is a founding element and is a shape that we cannot do without in order to understand.
In the sixth and last chapter, however, I dismantled and analyzed this same story, to show how it raises a good number of problems. Here I abandoned the form of the tale, its orderly structure, and suggested what I thought were the doubts, the possibilities, the alternatives that I had discarded, the tracks that I had followed briefly before turning back, the paths that branched off, those that intersect.
Another thing I did in the last chapter was to take apart and compare the testimonies: the main source, that is the Istoria del re Giannino, and the others that we have at our disposal, which are not many, but very significant. In other words, at the end of the book (which does not at all mean at the end of the job!) I did the old and indispensable work of critical exegesis and philological collation of the sources.
Therefore, my experiment in writing — as I call it in the book — can be summarized thus: I tried to separate the two moments, of the tale and of the analysis. I first elaborated a text in which I told a tale. In this way, I supplied, at the same time, a relatively linear tale and also, obviously, my explanation of the information at my disposal.
I then undertook the analysis proper, bringing the theme back to its present-day complexity. This second part of the book is something of a … very wordy footnote. So what exactly have I produced? To what genre does my book belong? Is it a novel or an historical essay? I certainly intended to write history—but something must have gone awry, for I found myself revealing my devices after the show, which no conjuror should do.
So one recent reviewer found my book, which he saw as a novel of sorts, scientifically unconvincing, while another, who would have preferred a novel, felt instead that it was too academic. Such comments are welcome, for this is the very kind of debate the book is intended to provoke.
5. Finally, I was wondering what research and projects you are now working on?
I am now working on the broad cultural phenomenon one can call “medievalism,” especially on its connections with contemporary politics, and will talk about it in Kalamazoo, at the next international medieval studies conference. Indeed the ‘middle ages’ are an idea, a stereotype and a historiographical category which gets exploited all the time. This variegated idea of the middle ages, this ambiguous metaphor, has been used over and over, both positively and negatively. The middle ages have become particularly conspicuous, with marked political connections, in recent decades: there has been much talk of ‘crusades,’ or of the medieval roots of ‘united Europe’ or of this or that European nation or nationalism. The middle ages are also thriving in America: the “new middle ages” is a genuine interpretative category in the study of international relations. I’m writing a book on this huge subject, which will probably come out (in Italy) in 2010. In it I will analyze how the middle ages have been perceived and used politically over the past forty years, in the West, and also in the lands of Islam (with talk of ‘crusades’ and ‘crusaders’). Without the ‘medieval concept’ contemporary society and its cultural tendencies cannot be fully understood. Connections with my previous studies and with the case of ‘king Giannino’ are clear; for here I am also dealing with the relationship between historical fact and its representation in imagination: again, the relationship between fact and fiction, broadened to a macroconcept, the ‘middle ages.’
We thank Professor di Carpegna Falconieri for answering our questions.
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