The History of William Marshal

29006215The History of William Marshal translated by Nigel Bryant

Her Grace’s rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Genre: nonfiction/biography

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 243 pp

Published by: The Boydell Press (1 Aug 2016)

This medieval chronicle, written in the 1220s in verse, depicts the life of William Marshal, The Greatest Knight. The author is unknown, but he was likely a close friend or a member of Marshal’s household. He wrote events as he knew them, both from firsthand knowledge or by asking those closest to Marshal. It certainly exaggerates Marshal’s life and abilities and glosses cheerfully over the times he blew it, but it is overall a valuable document of medieval noble life.

As a medievalist, I’ve read my share of chronicles and documents of the time. This one was a delightful change from the texts that are often dry accounts. It was easy to read and surprisingly funny. In part, this is due to Bryant’s skillful translation, but he can’t translate what wasn’t already there to begin with. The chronicler had a witty and sometimes playful tone to his writing. 

The whole document gives a fascinating glimpse into medieval noble life and the ways in which a knight can make a name for himself. The medieval mindset and things that the chronicler focused on are so intriguing. The politics and balancing acts these people had to perform must have been exhausting. It is also clear that women may have been respected (Eleanor of Aquitaine is mentioned in glowing terms) but they are still very much second-class citizens. One of Marshal’s horses is given a name, Blancart, and yet none of his sisters were named. Even queens are often referred to as ‘the queen’ or so and so’s wife. 

I wonder how much of the Stoics the author knew. Some passages were very Stoic in their reader: ‘But I tell you truly, no heart should grieve or rejoice excessively’ (p 28). Almost certainly he was influenced by Boethius as well; The Consolation of Philosophy had a lot of influence on medieval thought, and throughout Marshal’s history, numerous references exist to Fortune and her wheel. It feels like there may be some influences of the Beowulf poet on the chronicler as well. I’ll have to look into that more, because I’m a nerd. But the intro reminded me very much of the intro to Beowulf: þæt wæs god cyning! Yes, þæt wæs god knight! 

 This is definitely a must-read for any medievalist. Who doesn’t like learning about knights anyway, especially the one who was known as the greatest knight even in his own lifetime? 

Favorite parts/ lines:

  • On helping Empress Mathilda escape but she slowed them down by riding sidesaddle: ‘By Christ, lady, you can’t spur when you’re seated so! You’ll have to part your legs and swing over the saddle!’ (29)
  • And the fact is, sirs, the prowess of a single valiant knight can embolden a whole army… (37)
  • …joy and happiness are the due reward and stimulus for aptitude and prowess. (43)
  • Let’s be honest: being sedentary is shameful to the young. (52)
  • He won something of far more value, for the man who wins honour has made a rich profit indeed. (59)
  • I loved the part where the Marshal was at a tourney and he got smacked on the helmet so hard that it got stuck and he had to go lay on the smith’s anvil so the smith could pry it off. LOL. 
  • A man reveals himself by his actions! (70)
  • People often get what they deserve, and those who covet all lose all. (72)

 

 

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