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Is the past a foreign country? Musings on a 15th century poem
(with some history curriculum links too)

Richard III came up in conversation over the summer. He’s tended to in my vicinity ever since I became mildly obsessed by his reign over 40 years ago during A levels and nothing much has changed since, except that my enthusiasm has broadened to take in the whole of the later middle ages.

Someone commented that there was nothing surprising about Richard’s use of violence to seize the crown, ‘it’s what people did in those days’. The implication was that the past was very much a foreign country – one where morality hadn’t been invented and violence was the first port of call in any political dispute. I wasn’t impressed. Skipping rapidly past counter-references to numerous 20th century dictators and their millions of victims I’m quite happy to argue that Richard III’s reign demonstrates just the opposite – that the rebellion against him in 1483 was inspired by moral revulsion at the violence of his usurpation. That there’s a visible kinship between moral outrage in 1483 and similar reactions to events today.

And there’s plenty of other evidence from the later middle ages to give us a sense of common cause with the people of 600 years ago. You just have to meet people as individuals, whether it’s the Pastons writing letters or chroniclers writing about politics or merchants giving money to charity or to build better toilets or improve the water supply in their town. Or look at the comfort of their homes – a recent visit to Harewood Castle just up the road from us revealed a very modern des res complete with all necessary comforts.

And then I came across a poem, written shortly after the battle of Agincourt. I haven’t read it all as there doesn’t seem to be a full English translation and my medieval French isn’t what it was … and what it was at best was decidedly ropey. For all my belief in the commonality of human experiences and reactions across time I was quite taken aback by this poem – so let me tell you about it.

It was written by Alain Chartier, a Frenchman, who loved from around 1385 to 1430. It’s called Les Livres des Quatres Dames and seems to have been written in 1416 or 1417 and while he doesn’t mention Agincourt by name he does refer to that ‘maudicte journee’, that ‘damned day’.

The theme is love and honour. It tells of a poet, taking a stroll one fine summer morning, who meets four women, finely dressed ladies, all deeply affected by the events of that damned day. The first is mourning her husband who was killed in the battle. She is consoled by the fact that he died honourably but distraught at her loss. Until that day they had shared everything and she can only hope that, after her own death, they will be reunited in Paradise.

The husband of the second woman has not been killed but taken prisoner. He is probably alive but they are still separated as he has been taken to England and she has no news of him. Filled with uncertainty she too is weeping for her loss, hopeful but wanting us to understand that she too is worthy of pity, that at least her friend knows what has happened to her love while she cannot be certain and has no idea when or if she will be reunited with her husband.

Then the third lady tells her story – her husband is missing. She has heard nothing of him. Is he dead, wounded, being held for ransom? Is she a widow or the wife of a prisoner? Should she mourn or should she hope? She argues that her position is worse than those of her two friends because of the doubt and uncertainty. She does not want to despair but …

And then there’s the fourth lady whose great love is alive – but alive because he ran from the battle. His flight is deeply shameful. It is not only the knight who is dishonoured but all who are connected with him. This lady is distraught at the shame and dishonour he has brought on her – she would rather be in the positions of the other women whose husbands had preserved both their honour and their ladies’ honour.

The poem goes on to compare the situations of the four women, who is suffering the most, whether the widow is more fortunate for knowing and being able to take another husband if she wishes, whether shame and dishonour is harder to deal with than grief for an honourable death. Chartier also discusses the tragedy of war and its impact on people and society, its impact on innocent victims such as the four ladies at the heart of the poem.

What is obviously so striking is that this past is not a foreign country. This is a poem that could have been written after any battle or war in any century. It shows the commonality of many human experiences across the centuries, helping us link to those people who preceded us 600 years ago.

Are there comparable sources from this side of the Channel? The closest that come to mind are the poems or elegies written by Welsh praise-poets to honour those who died at the battle of Edgecote in 1469. [Edgecote was fought between the armies of the earl of Warwick and Edward IV though confusions meant that Edward’s army consisted only of the Welsh contingent led by William Herbert, earl of Pembroke. The Welsh were heavily defeated with many deaths.]

In his elegy for Thomas ap Roger Vaughan, the poet Lewys Glyn Cothi writes that Thomas’s wife:

Elen Gethin was weeping
Drops of dew, as drops of rain.

Another poem records how Margaret, the wife of Rhys ap Dafydd Llwyd of Mathafarn is still waiting for his return, having no definite news of him:

Margaret doesn’t believe, Rhys,
That you are not alive and well – come to Powys!

Evidence in wills also tells of the reactions of widows. In a codicil to his will written hours before his execution, William Herbert asked his wife, Anne, to remember the vow of chastity she had promised to take should he be killed. Anne did indeed become what was known as a vowess, remaining a widow for the remaining 15 years of her life though only about 37 when her husband died. The poet Guto’r Glyn described her as

‘An earl’s wife was so faithful to her husband’
‘There is not a better face to be found dressed in black’

What’s this got to do with history in schools?

I’m not sure really! I have a vague idea of a Venn diagram helping to develop a sense of period – features of 21stC life and thought, features of 14thC life and thought – and what goes into the overlapping sector?

Those who see the past as a foreign country would expect to see little in that overlap but perhaps there would be more than expected – and perhaps that changes the way we engage with the past and its people. If we see them as incomprehensible strangers then, I think, that takes away much of the value and attraction of exploring the past. For me one of the enduring attractions is trying to work out the balance of similarity and difference in thought, morality, principles, culture and pondering how that helps us explain people’s actions.

So perhaps there’s an enquiry question in there – was the past (choose your century) really a foreign country? And maybe A level students would benefit from coming to a period through an appreciation of the similarity of thinking between people of then and now, the better to make a connection, to develop an enthusiasm for the situations and problems they are studying.

All ideas welcome.

If you want to read more about Les Livres des Quatres Dames there’s an article After Agincourt: Women and Pain in History Today, February 2012, by Professor Christopher Allmand.

There’s also a summary of the poem on pages 344-348 of Anne Curry’s The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations, Boydell and Brewer, 2000.

For Anne and William Herbert see my article on Anne in The Historian in Spring 2014 or on this website [ here … ]


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.