When a venerated medievalist who has contributed great insights into the cultural practices of late medieval elites pens a book that distills a life’s work, it is best to pay attention. This is the case with Magnificence and Princely Splendour in the Middle Ages by Richard Barber, legendary historian and publisher of the Boydell Press. Many of the topics and images discussed in this book will not be new to members of the HNA, but Barber’s synthesis of why and how elites of the late Middle Ages behaved as they did still offers lessons.
The book explores the concept of magnificence as a strategy for rule by princes, seeing extravagant expenditure and splendid appearance as a form of propaganda which shores up the ruler’s claim to rule. This idea is laid not only at the feet of Aristotle and Cicero, but through the words of the thirteenth-century Augustinian cleric, Giles of Rome, whose treatise De regimine principum is here translated as On the Governance of Princes. This text was commissioned by Phillip III of France as a guide for his heir in the tradition of the Mirror for Princes. One of Barber’s major arguments is that Giles of Rome’s text had widespread influence in the late medieval era in inspiring the ruling classes to displays of wealth and status via their persons, as well as their building projects, tournaments, and other public expenditures. To support this part of his thesis, Barber provides English translations of the relevant passages from the treatise in an appendix. Indeed, one of the conveniences of the book is the translation and integration into the text of many key passages from a variety of primary sources, such as chronicles, inventories, and letters, making them accessible for all kinds of readers.
This user-friendly strategy reflects the appeal of this book to a general audience, already suggested by the large format and high-end production values, including many color illustrations. A lay reader is also aided by an introductory series of maps and an historical overview of the rulers of Europe from 1100-1500. These dates describe the wide chronological scope of the book, but it has a broad geographic range, too, spanning the whole of western Europe to examine princely magnificence from Norman Sicily to Castile, Hungary, and Bohemia, but with the greatest emphasis on England, France, and Burgundy. This international scope allows the author to draw often illuminating comparisons between the various courts. Burgundy under Charles the Bold is presented as the apogee of this phenomenon in Europe, and thus the book concludes with a discussion of the many ways that Charles deployed his resources to look like a king, though he never achieved that title in reality.
Comprising 15 chapters, the book is organized into three major sections, along with an introduction and epilogue and two documentary appendices. A preface states Barber’s goals for the book, and the introduction, “Splendour and Magnificence,” sets up the many topics he addresses. Part One, “Princely Splendour,” is an overview of medieval concepts of kingship and the objects and ceremonies appropriate to kings. Chapter 3 in this section focuses on buildings and sites important to rulers, such as castles, royal chapels, mausolea and pantheons, and capital cities.
Part Two, “Magnificence,” is the longest section of the book (eight chapters) and examines the displays of status performed by rulers and their courts. Many of the art patrons most familiar to students of the late Middle Ages appear here, as do works of art and material culture that have been studied by specialists and taught in classrooms for decades. In addition to the usual suspects of medieval patronage (like Jean de Berry or René d’Anjou), patrons at courts like those of Angevin Naples or Majorca – that do not get included as frequently in balkanized curricula that separate the regions of Europe – appear here to demonstrate the wide appeal of splendid commissions that express dynastic or political goals. Naples, Mantua, and Milan represent the Italian peninsula, with papal patronage confined to the Avignon era alone.
This section is the heart of the book, encompassing 65 of the 104 images and many of the famous patrons and artists of the late medieval period. Topics range from representations of the prince to his dress, the livery of his courtiers, valets de chambre, civic entries and state visits, courtly ceremonies of knighting and coronation, among others. Princely patronage of the arts is discussed in chapter 8, encompassing music and literature as well as the visual arts. Art historians may argue with some details of discussions of specific objects – for example, the assertion that the room in which Christine de Pisan presents a volume to Isabeau of Bavaria (British Library, Harley 4431, fol. 3) is supposed to be painted rather than hung with tapestries (page 143) – but it is helpful to see the works by visual artists amidst such a variety of art forms.
The final chapters of Part Two focus on other topics that both historians and art historians have studied of late, such as princely patronage of architecture, joyous entries, and the entertainments between courses at banquets. Both in this section and in the next, particular stress is placed on Philip the Good’s Feast of the Pheasant of 1454. Burgundy is further represented by the figure of Philip’s son, Charles the Bold: his wedding to Margaret of York in 1468, his meeting with Frederick III in Trier in 1473, and his meetings of the Golden Fleece are all deployed to support Barber’s thesis.
Part Three, “The Management of Magnificence,” devotes three chapters to how the splendid ceremonies and feasts were organized and paid for. This includes not only discussions of how much things cost, but where the funds came from and who dispensed them. Also discussed is the work of those who devised the thematic displays at feasts and other elite gatherings. Some of these names will be familiar, such as Olivier de la Marche and Georges Chastellain. The chapter devoted to cookery and menus offers fascinating glimpses into the protocol of feasts and the wretched excesses of the tables. This is based on the writings of Taillevent and the lesser-known chef of the court of Savoy, Master Chiquart. Also included are descriptions of the sorts of entertainments (musicians, acrobats, automata) that contributed to feasts.
This section is followed by an epilogue, “The Spirit of Magnificence,” devoted mostly to the Burgundian court and in particular to Charles the Bold. Chastellain’s compilation of the “Twelve Magnificences of Charles the Bold” provides a summary of the arguments of Barber’s text, as the duke who would be king made splendor a key argument for his status among actual monarchs.
Barber’s narrative describes many famous objects, events and ceremonies, but rarely does the text go into detailed contextual analysis of an item or event. The goal of the author is more an overview of courtly practices than the detailed messages expressed therein, or contemporary debates about them among scholars. The focus is mostly on powerful men and their expressions of power, although there is one chapter devoted to queens and their patronage, prodded (as he says in his preface) by early readers of his manuscript. Towards the end of the text, Barber makes a nod towards the effects of global trade on the patronage and gifting practices of European rulers. All of this increases the impression of a text aimed at the general public. The book is well-written, beautifully illustrated, and succeeds at making its case about the conspicuous display of wealth. Despite its lovely production values, the book might have been better edited. The structure of the book results in some redundancies and multiple typographic errors or other mistakes (Philip the Good mentioned instead of Philip the Bold, Margaret of York identified as Mary) appear at various points throughout the text. But for anyone who wants to learn more about courtly ceremonial, dress, foodstuffs, and the like, this is an excellent starting point.
Lake Forest College