William Marshal: Perception and Past
By David C. Harrell
Seniors Thesis, University of Nevada in Reno, 2012
Introduction: This thesis, as the title suggests, revolves around a facet of Sir William Marshal, therelatively well-known medieval knight. Specifically, the topic with which this paper is concerned is the perception of Marshal through time and why he is perceived in that way. Marshal is arguably one of the major historical figures of the 12th and 13th century in Europe; a figure of great significance, whose name still commands a level of respect as a cultural reference. The reasons behind that intersect directly with the circumstances of his fame, which shall be, if not definitively proven, analyzed here as potential causes. Through an examination of William Marshal’s life as it has been recorded – comparing and contrasting with works both contemporary to him and longafter his death, the interactions between the written events of the time and Marshal’s life can be seen to denote the reasons behind his continued popularity.
Touted as the “Flower of Chivalry” during his lifetime, his legend as an English folk hero has survived the centuries – even so far as to inspire popular historical novels based on his adventures. However, it is the legend which survives most noticeably in the general conception of his life, not who he truly was. The image we have of him was already being formed during his life,and is still being malleable adjusted today. Scholarly works which focus upon William Marshal are also often shaded by this fact, as shall be delineated within this thesis. There is a tendency among historians, in those situations where Marshal is presented in a comparatively more objective fashion, to use Marshal as a tool to gauge the social or political landscape in which he lived rather than to focus on reinterpretations or explications about his life that could remove layers of both cultural and literary distortion. It is this theme of interpretive gazes which shall be introduced first.