Princess Alys of France: a Twelfth-Century Patty Hearst?

A second instalment from students on my MA module ‘Medieval Diplomacy’. Hayley Bassett grapples with sexual exploitation of female hostages.

6 January 1169: King Henry II of England and King Louis VII of France ratified the Treaty of Montmirail, in an attempt to settle their long-running territorial disputes in France. Henry agreed to divide his lands between his sons with Henry the Young King receiving the kingdom of England, Duchy of Normandy and County of Anjou. Richard would receive his mother’s Duchy of Aquitaine and become betrothed to Louis’ daughter Alys and Geoffrey would receive the Duchy of Brittany upon his marriage to its heir Constance (there is no mention of the infant John at this time). At the age of nine Alys was sent to the English court as Henry’s ward in preparation for her future wedding to Richard. There is nothing unusual in these arrangements, the Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I, moved to the German court aged eight upon her betrothal to Henry V Holy Roman Emperor in 1110. The main issue of contention here was the absence of a wedding between the engaged couple which culminated in Alys being returned to the French court in 1195, still unmarried some twenty six years later.

Alys’ time in the Angevin court is poorly documented but embellished with scandal; most commonly she is depicted as Henry’s mistress prompting Richard to reject his father’s “conquest” as wife. The “real” Alys presents historians with a challenge but there are similarities to be drawn between her and later women in, if not identical, then certainly comparable circumstances. One such twentieth century example is Patty Hearst, granddaughter of US politician and media mogul William Randolph Hearst. In 1974, 19-year-old Patty was violently kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California, and held hostage for two years during which time she was repeatedly physically, emotionally and sexually assaulted by an organisation calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Patty’s time as a hostage is well documented; her family’s position in US society and her assimilation by the SLA guaranteed large scale media attention and it’s that transparency which allows parallels to be drawn with Alys. Alys position at Henry’s court offered her little security; she awaited a marriage and a bridegroom that, although promised, never came and was locked into an arrangement beyond her control, which neither her father nor Pope Alexander could force Henry to conclude. This position of abject helplessness also applied to Patty, when it became clear whatever action her family took to secure her release would not be sufficient for her kidnappers to release their “prisoner of war”. In her trial defence Patty insisted that the unrelenting physical and psychological pressure of her situation made her agree to anything, culminating in her public declaration of support for the SLA and participation in criminal activity (Nancy Isenberg, “Will the Real Patty Hearst Please Stand Up”, in Historic U.S. Court Cases: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1, ed. John W. Johnson (New York, 2001), 142). Likewise for Alys, she had no bargaining power at the Angevin Court and self-preservation was her only option for survival, in whatever form that took.

For both women sexual exploitation was a factor in their confinement and was a weapon employed by the media of their respective time to denigrate them. Patty claimed she was consistently raped by William Wolfe whilst the SLA orchestrated the image of a “love affair” between them for the world’s media, who swallowed that interpretation. Similarly, Richard of Devizes and Roger of Howden, as well as the more scandalising Gerald of Wales, refer to Henry seducing Alys sometime around 1177, whereas a more accurate portrayal would suggest a powerful authority figure pressurising a dependent into a sexual encounter (Roger of Howden, Gesta, ii, 160. Richard of Devizes, Chronicon, 26. Gerald of Wales, Opera, viii: 232) For both women there would seem to be no choice in the matter and little prospect of protection from a third party. Alys and Patty did what they had to do in a difficult situation and whilst they might be divided by eight hundred years, they are testament to their own ability to endure difficult circumstances.


What does that word mean, really?

All medieval historians engage with translation in some way to do research; whether it is simply to read primary sources or secondary literature, to write up research based on variations in translation, to edit translations already made, or to create new translations. Medievalists spend years honing their translation skills and I think it would be fair to say that translating, in its various forms, is one of the hardest parts of my job, not only because it requires significant skills but because it demands space in time and in mind – the two commodities hardest to juggle in my role as a lecturer in a busy history department.

'Oh great, this book's in cow.'

‘Oh great, this book’s in cow.’

My own experience with translation clearly began before I decided to go into research. As most of you will know, I’m a non-native speaker of English and this means that I continuously engage with translation by copying, editing and thinking about the way native speakers use English in speech and in writing. It has often been a process of trial and error – really, lots of errors (so many horror stories that are not suitable to write about here!). Nevertheless, by the time I started my postgraduate studies, this process had left me fairly confident that I could tackle any text with a good dictionary and patience. For several years, I felt that this worked like a charm – mostly – until my research took me in new directions and I had to make completely new translations of the sources I was working with. Honestly, my postgraduate training and a PhD had not prepared me for this. Even small practical things like whether to indicate variations in spellings in the word document using square or round brackets or footnotes became a matter to ponder for days, weeks and months. And, the more translations I did, the less I felt I knew.translation-is-a-puzzle It has resulted in me becoming more pedantic about words and phrases in general and those students and colleagues who know me well, can attest, with great exasperation, to the fact that I start almost every question or objection with “but what does that word mean in practice?”

Next week I, together with the Leverhulme-funded international network ‘Voices of Law: Language, Text and Practice’, will be hosting a postgraduate workshop on editing, translating and using medieval documents. I will be sharing some of the basic problems of translating (yes, maybe I’ll divulge some of those horror stories too), focusing on problems relating to purpose, time, knowing too much/too little, and logistics. I’ll be joined at the workshop by some more experienced colleagues from Cambridge, Copenhagen, Glasgow, and the Frisian Academy, who also grapple with translations. Afterwards, the papers from the workshop will be made available in an online booklet, which will, hopefully, provide postgraduates with some useful guidance on this topic.

A Friendship Meant to Last?

The second instalment of MA students comparing medieval and modern diplomatic practices. Here Niamh Kelly reports on the role of friends and friendship.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines diplomacy as “the profession, activity, or skill of managing international relations, typically by a country’s representatives abroad”. Looking at the management of international relations in the middle ages compared to the modern day, shows that there are similar tactics or skills used despite the (roughly) 800 year difference. The first thing I think of when the word diplomacy is used is the idea of peace, whether to it’s to start or maintain a friendship between nations or countries. Pledges of friendship have been found widely throughout history and two that are a good comparison are the pact between King Louis of France and King Henry of England to go to Jerusalem together on pilgrimage in the 12th century and in the modern age, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Hitler and Stalin in 1939.

The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in August 1939

The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in August 1939

The letter of Louis and Henry agreeing to go on pilgrimage together is found in the second “distinction” of Gerald of Wales’ De Instructione Principis and seems determined to stress the friendship between the two kings. Historically having a strained relationship, the letter assures that the two “now are friends” and continues listing the conditions under their new found friendship. Promises to “preserve the life, and limbs, and earthly honour of the other against all men to the utmost of his power” seem dramatic through modern eyes. Yet when looking at the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, a similar promise is made, if a little less poetic, as Article ll states: “Should one of the High Contracting Parties become the object of belligerent action by a third Power, the other High Contracting Party shall in no manner lend its support to this third Power”. Protection of the other party is an obvious way of maintaining friendship between nations and, in theory, should keep each party safe.

Another similar factor is the involvement of third parties as witnesses to these pledges of friendship. Both Louis and Henry call bishops and barons to settle any dispute that may arise between them and what is decided the two kings must “firmly abide by what they shall say”. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact allows for the two parties to try and settle any disputes between themselves by themselves and if it isn’t possible, “through the establishment of arbitration commissions” in accordance with Article V. Evidently, friendship between nations in any time must have a ‘back-up’ option to rely on should any hostilities or disputes arise even if they do not work as hoped.

Though pacts and pledges of friendship have good intentions, in practice they rarely work. Medieval diplomacy was riddled with leaders breaking their “friendship”; Louis and Henry’s broke down with Louis assisting Henry’s sons in rebellion against him and Hitler and Stalin’s broke in mere months with the start of World War ll. This goes to show that almost 1000 years ago or almost 100 years ago, friendship between nations and the ability to maintain it usually worked better in theory than when put into practice.

From Student to Research Assistant

In the fifth and last of a series of guest blogs, recent Cardiff University graduate (and now MA student), Jacob Deacon, writes about the transition from student to research assistant.

Working as a Research Assistant isn’t how you’d expect it to be. Despite being called an ‘assistant’, nothing could be further from the truth. In this job you’re effectively your own boss. Admittedly, all the resources are provided for you, but when left to your own devices it can be a very daunting prospect. You have to decide when to work, how to structure your research (no module handbooks here for a quick answer!), and make up your mind whether or not something is relevant to your lecturer’s needs.

For the last month I have been researching Anglo-Saxon diplomacy, with the end goal being to produce a database of every diplomatic event mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. At first this may sound like a lot of time to carry out one task, but as with any other bit of university work it can soon spiral out of control. I quickly found myself wanting to make sure this research was perfect, and started comparing the accounts of diplomatic encounters from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to several other sources. Before I knew it my notes started to get out of hand…I’m fairly sure Jenny didn’t anticipate the final result comprising of a document nearly 20,000 words in length.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, detailing the genealogy of the kings of Wessex, who had several diplomatic encounters with Danish raiders. BL MS Additional 34652, f.2

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, detailing the genealogy of the kings of Wessex, who had several diplomatic encounters with Danish raiders.
BL MS Additional 34652, f.2

But don’t let the hard work put you off. Being a Research Assistant has proven to be incredibly rewarding. Whereas most work you carry out at university will perhaps stay between you and your professor, working as a research assistant gives you a confidence that the research you are carrying out will go on to help other students in their work. Having spent my third year studying the Anglo-Saxons I can say I wish I’d had access to this document to help keep track of the diplomatic situation in Britain…especially in the tenth and eleventh centuries. There are also times that you’ll come across something both exciting and mysterious in equal measure, leading to a new desire to start researching another fascinating topic. For example, whilst on my placement one thing which kept cropping up again and again was the exchange of hostages to ensure that both sides remained faithful to the terms of an agreement. I found myself wondering what sort of individuals would have been selected for this role, what sort of conditions would they have lived in as part of their new life, and what their fate would have been if their king broke the agreement (this sort of thing tended to happen a lot – being an Anglo-Saxon hostage can’t have been an easy life). As I continued to work on Anglo-Saxon and then later Norman diplomatic encounters another thing that struck me was the almost complete lack of evidence for written documents being part of the two sides making peace. Unfortunately this was an area I did not have time to go in to, but given how written documents were certainly being produced for other reasons at the time, it makes their omission from the historical record even more puzzling.

The genealogy of King Cnut, a man with a reputation for mutilating hostages once an agreement was broken. BL MS Royal 14 B V Membrane 4

The genealogy of King Cnut, a man with a reputation for mutilating hostages once an agreement was broken. BL MS Royal 14 B V Membrane 4

Ultimately, working as a Historical Research Assistant gave me a fascinating insight in to what it truly means to be a professional historian, and I’d like to thank Jenny for giving me this opportunity. For anyone interesting in pursuing a career in academia, I can fully recommend pursuing a similar summertime position. No, working as a Research Assistant isn’t how you’d expect it to be; its so much better.


Collaborating with student researchers

Starting your first permanent academic post can be a scary and stressful experience, even if, like me, you’re a late comer to the profession and have spent some years working in other demanding roles. Learning to time manage the different demands of admin, research and teaching has certainly proved a challenge for me, but I am lucky in that Cardiff University has well-established support for early career researchers, and one way in which I am making use of this support is by employing some student research assistants over the summer period.

Thanks to funding from the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Cardiff University I have been given the opportunity to create six research-based work experience placements for undergraduate students. Each placement will last between two and five weeks and each student will be working on his or her own unique research project. The research involved will range from compiling bibliographies or list of treaties, to mining specific primary sources for material relating to law and diplomacy. At the end of the projects, the material will be used as online resources for both my undergraduate and postgraduate courses – increasing the pool of available primary and secondary material for future students – but will also guide my own research for my forthcoming book on the origins of international law in the medieval period. Furthermore, two of the students will use the material in their own dissertations and I hope that some of the students will continue to collaborate with me at postgraduate level to co-write conference papers and articles.

These placements will clearly benefit my work as a teacher and researcher but I hope that the students will also benefit from honing their skills and over the coming weeks they will all guest blog here about their experiences (good and bad) and about the material that they have found. Topics will include treaties (modern and medieval); exiles, criminals and outlaws; Anglo-Saxon marriage alliances; early medieval peace conferences; and Byzantine diplomacy.

I am ridiculously excited to see and hear about what they will find and, moreover, to work with some great people. Roll on summer!


To sell a medieval envoy

Lecturers are often asked to introduce or address the issue of enterprise and employability skills in our teaching to better prepare students for life beyond university. This is of course not always an easy task. Many academics have never been employed outside the higher education sector and some subjects perhaps lend themselves more easily to this task than others. So, as a researcher of (mostly) medieval diplomacy and legal practice, I thought that I should see if I and, more importantly, my students could rise to the challenge. The easiest way to do this, I figured, was to do something with marketing. After all, this is an exercise that all academics are engaged in to promote our research, books, articles, projects and so on.

Walter of Essex

Walter of Essex

Having hatched this plan, I then turned the last seminar of the term into an enterprise session and set all 23 students on my second-year undergraduate course ‘War, Peace and Diplomacy 900-1250’ the task of creating a marketing campaign to sell a medieval envoy to a king. In preparation for the seminar, the students, of course, had to apply transferable skills that involved doing some traditional academic work; researching and gathering information from primary sources and secondary literature, and analysing this information to assess which qualities would have been most valuable in a medieval envoy. Students had to think about issues such as whether their envoy should be a nuncius (message bearer) or a procurator (an envoy who could act on behalf of his master); whether he was an ecclesiastic or a secular person; and whether or not the envoy had specialist skills such as languages, legal, commercial, or military knowledge. Once they had done their research, students were allowed to work individually, in pairs, or as a trio, to create and design a poster (one side of A4) outlining their envoy (real or fictional) and his skills and qualities.

Absalon, abp. of Lund

Absalon, abp. of Lund

On the day of the seminar, we had three traditional five-minute seminar presentations setting the scene by discussing particular sources: an extract from William of Newburgh’s History of English Affairs detailing the negotiations between the Danish and French king in 1193, a letter from Pope Innocent III to King John retelling the fate of one diplomatic mission to the curia, and an extract from Geoffrey of Villehardouin’s Conquest of Constantinople outlining the negotiations between the crusader envoys and the doge of Venice in 1201. The main part of the seminar, however, was a speed-dating session, where each student/group had two minutes to present their poster and envoy to another student, who could also ask questions or come up with objections as to why this envoy would be no good for a particular mission.

Hubert Walter

Examples of envoys that students tried to sell included William de Longchamps, chancellor and justiciar to Richard I; Walter Map, clerk and itinerant justice of Henry II; Ahmad ibn Fadlan (famously depicted by Antonio Banderas in the film The Thirteenth Warrior), legal and theological expert of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir in the tenth century; and Hubert Walter, all round super administrator of Richard I and John.

Walter Map

Walter Map

Thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of my students, the speed-dating session was very successful and laughter-filled as they tried to perfect their presentation and selling skills, arguing backwards and forwards about their envoys desirable and not so desirable qualities in two minutes flat – no mean feat! At the end of the seminar, each student chose, in a secret vote, the envoy they would hire. No surprises. The clear winner was the fictional envoy Benjamin the Balanced, who, despite having the somewhat inconvenient quality of a limp after tripping over on the famous elm tree chopped down by King Philip Augustus of France at a conference in 1188 (yes, you read it here first!) was at least very cheap, reliable, loyal, and able to take and receive oaths on holy relics (Well done, Matthew!).

Benjamin the Balanced

Benjamin the Balanced

On a slightly more rational note, I, as king of the seminar group, and my co-ruler (Hugo), hired as our envoys Absalon, warrior-archbishop of Lund and right-hand man of kings Valdemar I and Cnut VI of Denmark; Thomas Becket, chancellor to Henry II; Nicholas de Moels, seneschal of Gascony during the reign of Henry III; and the fictional envoy Walter of Essex, a chancellor with 29 years of experience in the English court (Well done Jacob, Helen, Stefan, James and Lucy). Finally, in true medieval style, the students were paid in gold rings (ok, maybe they were chocolate gold coins…).

Reflecting on this seminar, which was really just an experiment on my part, it was probably one of the more successful ones of the term. All of the students entered into the spirit of things and came extremely well prepared, having done their research and prepared posters, business cards, and presentations – and this for the last seminar of term. Most importantly, it enabled the students to use some of the skills they are honing in the classroom in a more commercial setting. Although they are unlikely to sell medieval envoys once they leave university, they are likely to market or sell other products for which they have to research, devise, prepare and deliver a pitch to potential buyers. There were lessons to be learned too, in particular for me, because with a bit more planning I could have added elements that would have seen the students working in groups to plan and budget for an actual embassy based on the available sources.

In all, however, this was an excellent way to end the term on a high and I was simply in awe of the fantastic work my students had done.