Magnificence and Princely Splendour in the Middle Ages
An interview with Richard Barber
Dr Barber, thank you for joining us for your Medieval Herald debut. To begin with, can we go back to what first inspired your interest in medieval history and literature?
I’m told that when I was six I discovered the Encyclopedia Britannica and was fascinated by the entry on China. I set out to write my own version of Chinese history, but then decided that Egypt was more interesting … My sister kept the China history for years, but it has fortunately now disappeared. Medieval history came later: there was a famous book called Our Island Story which would probably be banned nowadays, but it had wonderful illustrations by leading painters of great historical moments. And then there was King Arthur and his Knights, illustrated by Walter Crane – pictures which still haunt me and are among the best Victorian images of Arthur.
How old were you when your first book was published?
I had a teacher who gave the same course every year to the top form – the Upper Sixth in those days. At the start of what would have been the third time round, he said ‘I think you know what I am going to be saying, so go away and do something useful’. So I went to the library, and for want of any other ideas, started at Literature, A, which began with the Anglo-Saxons. They seemed a bit dull, but next along the shelf was Arthur. There wasn’t a handy history of Arthurian literature, so, appallingly over-confident, I set out to provide one. The result met with approval, and led on through various stages to publication in 1961, when I was 20. One reviewer was convinced that I was an elderly schoolmaster – but the book is still in print, in a much-revised version, as King Arthur in Legend and History.
And you were, of course, the driving force behind the founding of Boydell & Brewer. How did it feel to see the company reach its 50th anniversary last year?
Naturally I’m delighted. We certainly didn’t think in terms of a half-century when we started, and we had not one, but many lucky breaks, and a few narrow scrapes. I think that always having to work to a tight budget was a wonderful discipline. A few years after we started, our bank, Glyn Mills, offered to give us a large overdraft to develop the business – it was just as well we didn’t take it. Our biggest lucky break was when Derek Brewer, whom I had met when I was working for another publisher, asked us to help him to set up his own imprint; and this led to our acquiring or rescuing four other imprints started by academics like him.
And the progress in technology has worked in our favour – I did some printing in the days of hand-setting with metal type, a highly skilled physical process. Now I can produce vastly better results on the computer; the printing plates are now electronic, so there is only a digital file on the computer instead of heavy chases of lead characters.
Your new book is Magnificence – and with 104 colour illustrations and a lovely page layout it truly is magnificent. Tell us about the medieval concept of magnificence and why you chose to write about it now.
This actually started as a different book, on the medieval court, which I showed to a friend, who wasn’t in fact a historian. He was a bit puzzled by it, and asked ‘What is the book really about?’ I replied, ‘Magnificence’. ‘That’s a good word’, he said. And when I went away and researched it ‘Magnificence’ turned out to be an important idea in medieval thinking about kingship which no-one seemed to have really looked at. It was described as an important virtue for kings in books which tell them how they should govern. Obviously they liked being told they had to dress magnificently, and surround themselves with magnificence, but there are also serious philosophical ideas behind it all.
What was it like tracking down all those illustrations? I hope it’s a process that’s easier now that collections are online.
Yes and no – it is a great deal easier and quicker than it used to be, and the big picture agencies are very helpful. The problem is that it depends on how well indexed the images are – quite often, I’d find an image which I wanted and look for it on the website of the source which was quoted, and fail to find it. It was there, but I had to talk to someone to discover how they had catalogued it. And in some cases, I had to track down a particular photographer. But it would have been far more difficult thirty years ago and the quality of the images is now vastly superior.
Can you give us some of your favourite examples of royal extravagance?
Interestingly, magnificence is very rarely described as extravagance by contemporary writers. Great expenditure was seen as a mark of royal power. Perhaps the most remarkable examples of great expenditure in pursuit of magnificence were the New Year’s gifts which Charles VI of France and his brothers gave each other in the 1390s. In the space of twenty years, the value of these was as great as the annual income of the richest of them, the duke of Burgundy. Only one example survives, a wonderful jewelled and enamelled statue of the Virgin Mary with Charles VI kneeling before her.
You organised two sessions of papers on the subject at Leeds IMC last year, so how long have you been working on the book? And did your research uncover anything that particularly surprised you?
There were a number of surprising connections, and some surprising places, but I think the most striking one was a recent article in an Australian historical journal which showed that in the thirteenth century an Australian cockatoo had been taken to the emperor Frederick II in Sicily, and describing the links which made such a journey possible. And the degree to which luxury goods were imported from the Far East was another such item – scraps of Chinese silk were found in London which have been dated to as early as 1325. The most interesting figure, rarely discussed by English medievalists, is the emperor Charles IV, who was crowned five times, married four times, wrote his own coronation service, produced an autobiography aged 33 – he lived to nearly seventy – and collected over 600 relics of saints, as well as establishing a new constitution for the Holy Roman Empire and rebuilding Prague. The chapel at the castle he built thirty miles outside Prague, Karlstejn, is the most striking example of medieval magnificence that I have encountered.
What’s next for you now? I know you have some speaking engagements lined up.(NOTE This interview was conducted prior to the lockdown and the cancelation of conferences and book festivals.)
There’s a lecture at the Oxford Literary Festival in late March, and then a keynote paper on the Field of the Cloth of Gold – the last great medieval festival – at the Royal Armouries in July. Next year there is probably another paper at the College of Heralds for the five hundredth anniversary of the occasion which really marks the founding of the College in its present form.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. In this issue we’re asking how do you keep abreast of new publications and research? Is there anything that publishers could do better to keep academics informed?
I tend to look for things in a particular subject area that interests me, and I rely mostly on research using the really excellent library catalogues available, such as COPAC, which is generally up to date and lists all UK university holdings. Then there is a network of people working in the same field, and reviews which cover things that I may have missed. Conferences and newsletters – Salon from the Society of Antiquaries is very good – are also vital. And search engines have improved so dramatically over the past ten years. Otherwise good subject catalogues and the occasional more targeted mailing are probably the best way of keeping a regular flow of information going.
RICHARD BARBER probably needs no introduction to our readers. As a founder of The Boydell Press and an author he has had a huge influence on the study of medieval history and literature. His first book on the Arthurian legend appeared in 1961, and his many publications include: The Knight and Chivalry (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award in 1971), Edward Prince of Wales and Aquitaine, The Reign of Chivalry, Bestiary, The Penguin Guide to Medieval Europe and The Holy Grail: the History of a Legend.
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