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The Origins of the Hundred Years War: The Angevin Legacy 1250-1340

Malcolm Vale’s contribution to the debate on the origins of the Hundred Years War – The Origins of the Hundred Years War: The Angevin Legacy 1250-1340 – as the title would suggest, focuses on the Anglo-French tensions leading up to the war itself, with the Angevin heritage of the Plantagenet’s at the centre of Vale’s investigation. Vale thoroughly examines how the ‘nostalgia’ of the ‘English’ Kings, for the continental stronghold of Aquitaine (which they believed was their god given right/heritage) would inevitably clash with the French Kings tender memories of their own ‘Carolingian Empire’. Those reminiscent feelings, merged with the violent sparring nobles of the same territory, would prove to be disastrous. As I will demonstrate in this essay, the monograph in question was – and remains to this day – a vital addition to the studies and research on, not only the Hundred Years War, but also the ‘political, social and economic condition’ of South-Western France in the late Middle Ages. Originally published in 1990, I have chosen to review the reworked 1996 version, in order to gain Vale’s insight into feedback received upon the initial launch. Vale himself, admits that while previous historians have focused on the obvious feudal and dynastic issues of the time, his approach is unique – due to the emphasis on the subjects of Southern France and their unruly nobility. Vale also notes in his introduction that he chose to avoid elaborating too widely on the diplomatic intricates of the Anglo-French monarchies as this ‘has already been provided by other historians’. This sentence alone speaks volumes for the direction that the monograph takes. Rather than rely on our contemporary understandings of international diplomacy at the time, Vale emphasizes the importance of the local archives he picked apart for seven years – that would eventually lead to this publication, amongst others.

Before inspecting this monograph further, I feel it is important to give a brief description of the author himself. Malcolm Vale is currently listed as an Emeritus fellow and tutor of History at St John’s College, Oxford, as well as a ‘world expert on medieval Chivalry’ and a specialist in Anglo-French relations. With over fifty-seven publications and a career spanning many decades, his influence is observed amongst the hundreds of citations for his work, as well as the many dedications from former students and colleagues, including the production of a Festschrift in 2010 upon his retirement. Of course, Vale’s long history at Oxford University would have certainly helped with the funding for his research and he pays homage to this throughout the monograph in question. He also declares his gratitude for the sabbatical leave provided for the innumerable hours of research required in libraries and archives across France. Taking all of this into consideration, it is unsurprising that although the debate around the origins of the Hundred Years War has certainly ‘progressed’, Vale’s thirty-year-old monograph is still very much necessary reading when studying the late Medieval period.

It is also vital that when reviewing such monographs – with a focus on politics and economics – that the events at the time of writing are taken into consideration. Margaret Thatcher’s words at the start of the ‘Introduction’, are a reminder of the cultural changes that were taking place throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s. Malcolm Vale’s interpretation of the events leading up to the Hundred Years War focus heavily on the ‘subordinate’ members of society in Medieval France, and this is very much a reflection of the shifting historiographies at the time which saw a move away from the exclusive examining of the elites and high ranking members of society. ‘Much medieval history inevitably tends to focus on the ruler, but this perspective sometimes ignores the attitudes and behaviour of those whom he ruled’.

Moving away from modern, imbedded, more ‘nationalistic’ views and political policies, Vale sets himself apart from comparable historians at the time, such as Christopher Allmand – author of the similarly named The Hundred Years War: England and France at War c.1300–c.1450, which had been released a couple of years previously. While Allmand’s work focused on the military implications of the war, crediting an undertone of nationalism, Vale confidently narrates a divergent perspective:

An increase in national consciousness might explain why the Hundred Years War lasted so long but not how or why it started…The clash of rival sovereignties now became overt, but the old issue of authority over the duchy of Aquitaine lay at the heart of the dispute.

The Origins of the Hundred Years War: The Angevin Legacy 1250-1340 is a scholarly, yet accessible description of the increasingly turbulent relationship between England and France (leading up to the Hundred Years War), after a number of inconclusive confrontations and uncomfortable reconciliation agreements. Vale’s choice to deviate away from the ‘traditional’ methodology – focusing on the ruler’s subjects, rather than the rulers themselves – leads to an insightful monograph, brimming with previously unpublished information, ‘his use of unprinted records includes material from the departmental archives of Pyrenees-Atlantiques, Gers, Lot-et-Garonne, and Tarn-et-Garonne as well as from the Public Record Office and Archives Nationales’. Vale’s studies are also particularly enriched by scholars such as ‘Trabut-Cussac, Powicke, Chaplais, Le Patourel’ and he quite rightly, acknowledges his debt to them. While he doesn’t necessarily dispute any of the findings they had made previously, Vale specifies that he simply wants to add to the argument as he feels a ‘certain dissatisfaction with existing explanations of Anglo-French conflict in the later Middle Age’.

Vale’s monograph remains animated due to his meticulous research and unique resources. One such resource that greatly enlightens this book is another of Vale’s long-term academic research projects – converting the ‘Gascon Rolls’ to electronic format. The rolls give a valuable insight into the: ‘English government in the last major continental possession of the English Crown, and reveal the relationship between the king, and his English administration, with his officers in the duchy, and with his subjects in his lordship of Aquitaine’. They provide an important foundation for Vale’s argument and continue to be a prized resource for the global educational community. Interestingly, the foreword of the 1996 adaptation, sees Vale address a criticism regarding his ‘exaggeration’ of the importance of ‘Gascon affairs’. However, with relative ease, Vale goes on to dispel the claim, stating that ‘the fundamental, intractable problem of Aquitaine…served to inject a degree of thematic continuity into the ebb and flow of war and diplomacy. It remained unresolved until the mid-fifteenth century. The Hundred Years War began—and ended—with Gascon issues well to the fore, and I make no apology for restating this view’. Vale also adds that, at the time of writing, the regional issues of Aquitaine were still being overlooked.

Thankfully, many additional hours of research have been dedicated to the local aspects of medieval life since Vale’s 1996 publication, much of which has been conducted by Vale’s own contemporaries and students. Hannah Skoda is one such student, who would go on to publish Medieval Violence: Physical Brutality in Northern France, 1270-1330 in 2013. Vale’s influence is clear in Skoda’s monograph and specific ideologies discussed within ‘Origins’ are simply transposed to a wider, geographic area. The methodology remains the same though – the nobility of France, along with their subjects – were all too reliant on conflict, feuds and causing tension between the rival monarchies local representatives – to sustain a peaceful existence. This time period in question was after all ‘an age where people thought carefully and problematically about violence and its implications’.

Flaws and criticism will always be apparent in scholarship that is being scrutinized by fellow academic experts, and this remains the case with the monograph in question (for example, Dr W.M. Ormrod believes Aquitaine should have been looked at in a broader context). However, what also becomes apparent is the feeling of respect and admiration that so many historians have towards Malcolm Vale and his incredibly detailed description of the Anglo-French relationship, in the late Middle Ages. It can be seen from the reviews of the time, and indeed in the references of his work since. Historians, Anne Curry and Hannah Skoda are just two of the innumerable examples of his influence and Curry summarises ‘Origins’ wonderfully in her review from the time, ‘It is teeming not only with stimulating ideas (the Epilogue should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in the Hundred Years War) but also with detailed information’. Vale’s ‘essentially original’ concentration on the subjects of South-Western France – with a particular focus on Gascony/Aquitaine – enables him to delve deep into the alliances of the late Middle Ages and beyond. The unruly nobility and the turmoil caused by the competing English duke-king and the ruling French monarch, was a huge contributing factor towards the decades of war that ensued. While Vale, appropriately, includes many references to the similarities of the ‘French’ and ‘English’ throughout this book (‘the prevailing atmosphere was cosmopolitan’), the fact remains that the Angevin Legacy was too important for either side to forget.

Louise.

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