By Peter Konieczny
You might think your job is bad, but if you heed the words of Walter Map, it must be worse to work in the court of England’s King Henry II.
What do we know about Walter Map? He was born around the year 1130 to a Welsh family. They may have been a minor noble family for somehow his parents came to the aid of Henry II before and during his reign. Walter explains that as a reward, he would get a job in Henry’s court.
During Henry II’s reign (1154-89), Walter worked in several jobs – a clerk, an itinerant justice, and a diplomat who represented the king overseas. When Henry passed away, it seems that Walter’s civil service career also ended, but he lived on for another twenty years, earning an income as an archdeacon in Oxford. He twice tried to become a bishop, but was not selected, and passed away by the year 1210.
Gerald of Wales, who also worked as a courtier for the English crown, described Walter as having a “reputation as a wit and storyteller.” However, only one work of his survives – De nugis curialium, which in English means Courtiers’ Trifles. It’s a collection of different things, ranging from bits of history to ghost stories. It is here that we get a satirical description of courtly life.
The court of Henry II
In the podcast Medieval Death Trip, Patrick Lane explains that in twelfth-century England, the royal court was not based in a palace, but was rather a kind of ongoing tour of the country, where the king would set up in various places for a few weeks at a time, carry out business and then move on. Moreover, it did not really have officials and ministries in a modern sense. Rather, as Patrick tells us:
it’s more like a cloud that congeals around the King as a central power; a planetary system or maybe just a chaotic asteroid belt. There are some officers and there are household departments taking shape in this period, and there is an exchequer and a treasury but still a great deal of the actual work of government … is largely parceled out to and executed by powerful men that the king considers to be his friends.
Being a member of Henry’s court gave Walter many insights into the king, and he does offer this evaluation of his good and bad habits. One sense that Walter was often frustrated by his king and sometimes he sympathized with how he had to deal with all the demands of the crown:
He was slow in settling the business of subjects, whence it happened that many, before their affairs were settled, died or departed from him dejected and empty-handed under the compulsion of want. It was another of his faults that, whenever he was lounging, which happened rarely, he never allowed approach to him, in answer to the prayers of the good, but, remaining in inner chambers tightly closed, he was accessible to those only who seemed unworthy of such access. His third fault was that he was impatient of peace, and felt no qualm in harassing almost the half of Christendom. In these three was his sin; in regard to the rest he was strikingly good, and in all respects lovable, for no one ever surpassed him in gentleness and affability.
Whenever he went forth, he was caught up by the crowd, carried from place to place and forced to go where he desired not; and, what is remarkable, he gave ear patiently to individuals, and even when assaulted, now by general cries, now by violent hauls and pushes, to none on this account did he bring disgrace or make it serve as a pretext for his anger. And when he was too sorely tried he held his peace and fled to spots of peace. He was never haughty or puffed up; he was sober and restrained and pious, loyal and far-seeing, generous and often victorious, and a doer of honour to the good.
However, the section from Courtiers’ Trifles for our interest is the opening piece, which is called ‘Comparison of the Court to Hell’. While Walter does not say that he was basing this on the court of Henry II, this was the only example he could have based it on.
Sisyphus and Ixion
Before going on, we should perhaps add the words of C.N.L. Brook, who is one of the editors of the book. He explains, “The De nugis curialium was the commonplace book of a great after-dinner speaker, and if one is entirely sober when one reads it, it is easily misunderstood.”
Walter begins by telling the reader that he and his fellow courtiers “are an unnumbered multitude, striving to please only one man.” He goes on to say that being in court might not exactly be like being in Hell, it is like being in a place of punishment.
His comparison now moves to describe the denizens of hell as it was in classical antiquity – those people who were condemned by the ancient gods to unusual publishments. For example, there are members of the court who are always trying to get new riches, and Walter compares it with the endless struggle of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to be constantly pushing a boulder up a hill.
Sisyphus is there who, from the bottom of a valley, rolls up to the top of a lofty mountain a rock which falls back again and ever will fall back, and again must needs be carried up. There are many here who, having scaled the mount of riches, think that nothing has been accomplished; their heart has slipped back into the valley of avarice and they endeavour to recall it to a still higher mountain, where, indeed, it cannot rest, because in the contemplation of things desired, things attained are cheap. That heart is well compared to the rock of Sisyphus, since it is written ‘I shall pluck out their heart of stone, and shall give them one of flesh.’ May God give a heart of flesh to the courtiers that on some part of the mountain a pause may be possible.
Then there was Ixion, who got punished by Zeus for lusting after the goddess Hera. In hell, he could be found placed on a fiery wheel that was always spinning. Walter likens it to being on the Wheel of Fortune, where his fellow courtiers seemed bound to be:
Seldom similar to self, now on the top, now on the bottom, now on this side, now on that, Ixion is there, turning on his wheel. Nor are there lacking Ixions here who are revolved on the turning Wheel of Fortune. They rise to glory, they rush down to gloom and, although cast down, they still hope, nor will there ever be a single day which does not witness the turn of the wheel; and although on this wheel fear must assail them on all sides, yet is there on it no luck without hope: totally terrifying is its dread, it conquers utterly all qualms of conscience, nor is its alluring of less avail.
There were other types of comparisons made, but alas, due to a missing folio from only the manuscript we have De nugis curialium, these are lost. The manuscript picks up with Walter describing how creatures of darkness exist, but they have their equal among the greedy officials sent out from the court to deliver the King’s justice:
They do carefully lay their snares in every place, and do follow very greedily the stench from the dead bodies upon which they feed in the stillness of secrecy, and moreover on their return they blame all things else except those things which they stealthily appropriate to themselves from their own piracy. There are sent in like fashion from the court those whom it styles sheriffs, under-sheriffs, beadles, whose duty it is to pry cunningly. These men leave nothing untouched, nothing untried, and, like bees, they light on flowers to draw forth some of the honey: they punish what is innocuous, but the belly goes clear of punishment! And yet, at the outset of their office, in the presence of the highest judge, they do swear to serve faithfully and honestly God and their master, rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, to God the things that are God’s; but bribes pervert them so that they tear the fleece from the lambs, leaving the foxes unharmed, inasmuch as they win favour by their money, knowing that ‘giving requires ingenuity.’
In the end, Walter Map explains that “it suffices after these aforesaid reasons to conclude from them that the court is a place of punishment. I say not, however, that it is Hell (which does not follow), but it is as nearly like it as a horse’s shoe is like a mare’s.”
If you get the opportunity, listen to Patrick Lane retell these sections in episodes 50 and 51 of Medieval Death Trip.
You can also read an English translation of De nugis curialium by Frederick Tupper and Marbury Bladen Ogle, which was published by Chatto and Windus in 1924. It is available through Archive.org:
Map, Walter. De Nugis Curialium. Translated by Fredrick Tupper, Chatto & Windus, 1924.
Barber, Richard. Henry II: A Prince Among Princes, Penguin Books, 2018.
Smith, Joshua Byron. Walter Map and the Matter of Britain. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.
Top Image: Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II listen to Walter Map tell the story of
Lancelot du Lac. BnF Manuscript FR 123, fol. 229.