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Royalit: What Did Medieval Kings Read?

Great medieval kings

By Danièle Cybulskie

I was recently reading an interesting article called The Great Lost Library of England’s Medieval Kings? by Nicholas Vincent, which looked at what we know about the books kings owned in the Middle Ages. Interestingly, there is a stretch of two centuries in which we can’t prove any specific books that have survived the Middle Ages were indisputably owned by any English king. (Later kings helpfully signed their names into a bunch of books, or wrote ex libris – “from the library of” – so that their ownership can be pretty easy to demonstrate.) But even though we can’t prove their ownership, we know that kings and queens did read. The question of the day is: what did they read?

Great medieval kings
Great medieval kings

Perhaps it’s obvious, but one of the big things kings read about was kingship, as in how-to books, starting with the Old Testament. If a king was expected to be as wise as Solomon, then he’d better read up on Solomon, and King David, for that matter. Edward IV had a not-so-subtle how-to book in his collection which was referred to in his accounts as “Le Gouvernement of Kings and Princes.” Royals wished to know more about the world they were ruling over, too, evidently, since Henry II was said to be interested in learning both European and Arabic knowledge, and John read Pliny the Elder, a medieval encyclopedist.

John also read Valerius Maximus, whose Memorabilia, as Vincent points out, deals with “the vexed question of relations between religion and the secular authorities, between the Caesars and ‘the wisdom of pontiffs’.” Vincent also points out that John received this book mere days after the papal interdict of England went into effect in March, 1208. (Coincidence? I think not.) Royals read about themselves and their histories, as well. Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine seem to have been responsible for commissioning histories of the Normans and of Britain (Vincent, p.88); Edward the Confessor’s widow (Edith) commissioned the Vita Edwardi (“Life of Edward”) to commemorate her husband; and Queen Adela did the same for her husband, Henry I. Edward IV held a copy of Froissart’s work, which would have outlined the history of the fourteenth-century kings.

As far as administration goes, we know that William the Conqueror ordered the creation of The Domesday Book, but seems it wasn’t until King John that royal correspondence was copied and kept on hand for kings to read. But, “from 1215,” Vincent says, “we even have the name of the first recorded royal archivist, William ‘Cuckoo Well’ (Kukku Wel)”.  Rounding out the books necessary to being a good king were the moral works of the classical authors and the church fathers like Origen, Augustine, and Peter Lombard. Oh, and also horoscopes, because even kings need to hedge their bets.

Aside from books and records necessary to kingship were books necessary to the soul. Vincent writes,

In 1239 … to furnish the chapel of Sherborne castle, the King [Henry III] ordered a Missal, a Gradual with Troper, a Breviary (portehors) with Antiphonary, a Legendary, a Psalter, a book of collects, a Capitulary (or book of short readings) and a Hymnary.

Henry III may also have owned a lavishly illustrated and annotated Bible – a Bible moralisée – like his French relations, while Edward IV owned a “Bible Historial”. A book of the apocalypse (that’s the biblical apocalypse, not the zombie apocalypse) from the mid-thirteenth century, The Douce Apocalypse, is the first book with definite royal ties (to Edward I) since 1066 CE, made all the more interesting because it depicts “the warriors of the Anti-Christ fighting under the Montfort banner” – Edward’s defeated enemy.

Psalters, though, are perhaps the most common religious book of the Middle Ages: if you could afford one, you probably had one. Vincent finds it a little puzzling (as do I) that there aren’t more clear associations with the Psalters that have survived and the royalty of the past, given the fact that they were usually quite personal items. The first positively identified royal Psalter after 1066 CE is the Alfonso Psalter, made for Edward I’s son sometime between 1281-1284 CE, but the pre-conquest Athelstan Psalter and the (early-fourteenth century) Queen Mary Psalter are almost certain to have been royal books, too.

Royal reading wasn’t all just work-related or religious, though, and not always in Latin. Henry III’s queen Eleanor ordered not only a vernacular romance version of William the Conqueror’s story, but also an illustrated copy of Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail. Henry himself asked for a book for the queen of stories of Antioch, specifically written in French. Eleanor of Aquitaine was a big fan of courtly love and troubadour poetry (her father even wrote some himself), so it wouldn’t be surprising if she owned some romances, too. (Eleanor’s tomb effigy even shows her holding an open book, although admittedly it probably wasn’t meant to represent the latest romance). Richard II also had court that appreciated literature, and there is even a famous illustration of Chaucer reading to him. Although that probably never actually happened, it speaks to how literary Richard’s court was perceived to have been.

In effect, royalty read a little bit of everything, from the classical and edifying, to the trendy and entertaining. Although kings wouldn’t have had huge amounts of time to spend reading to themselves (or being read to) while ruling, and not all of them may have prioritized reading, they did, in fact, read quite a lot of stuff on the way to being kings. For Vincent and McKendrick’s work, and a lot of other great chapters on royal reading, check out 1000 Years of Royal Manuscripts.

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