Representation in the Gesta Henrici Quinti
York Medieval Yearbook, ISSUE No. 2, (2003)
‘Not in the strict sense a chronicle or history, and certainly not a ‘compilation’, it is rather an original and skilful piece of propaganda in which narrative is deliberately used to further the larger theme.’ Categorisation of the anonymous Gesta Henrici Quinti, which describes the events of the reign of Henry V from his accession in 1413 to 1416, proves problematic for historians. Written during the winter of 1416 and the spring of 1417, it is thought that the author may have been an Englishman in priest’s orders, belonging to the royal household. A great deal of work has been focused on identifying the context and purpose of the Gesta, in the hope that this may reveal the identity of the author and the occasion for which it was written. But little attention has been paid to how it was written; although Roskell and Taylor have stated that the narrative was used to ‘further the larger theme’, no detailed analysis of this narrative has been undertaken. The author’s clerical background clearly had some bearing on the religious framework of the text, and attention will be paid to this issue.
This essay aims to pursue a more literary analysis of the Gesta, examining the subject of character through a discussion of treason and heresy, and that of causation through discussion of Biblical imagery and prophecy. It has been suggested that the text was intended to be used by English negotiators at the Council of Constance. A detailed reading of the narrative may substantiate this, or point to other directions for the Gesta’s intended audience, for example, international opinion, a domestic audience, the Church, or Henry himself.
Historians have long been aware of the value of using contemporary literary texts; Harriss, in the introduction to his Henry V, makes use of examples from contemporary works in order to illustrate what he considers to be the important themes of Henry’s reign. While this approach appears to be valid, it may also be fruitful to turn it around, considering the works themselves before projecting a ‘theme’ onto them. Much attention has been paid in recent years to the advantages and disadvantages of taking a literary approach to sources commonly seen as ‘historical’. Spiegel, pursuing a literary method in her study of the chronicles of St-Denis, discusses the postmodernist debate which undermined the ‘confident, humanist belief that a rational, “objective” investigation of the past permits us to recover “authentic” meanings in historical texts’. She points to the harmful results for a historical understanding of both textuality and history of the post-Saussurean investigation into language systems through separating language from any inherent relationship to external influences. Her basic critical stance argues for a return to context, in remembering that language only acquires significance within a specific social and historical setting.