Saturday, January 28, 2017


In the course of reading the entire series of stories and novels about the 12th-century Benedictine monk, Brother Cadfael, by Edith Pargeter (as Ellis Peters), I had occasion to seek for more about Brian FitzCount. I found the following, and reflected on how little humankind has changed. The opinions to which I have drawn attention hold true even today, perhaps more today than at other times.

No professional advocate, however skilful in his exposition, can tell us what, as historians, we most desire to know. It is not merely or chiefly that he suppresses the facts which incriminate his clients. These we may easily enough obtain from the writers of the other faction. The more serious shortcoming of such an advocate is that, even where he states fairly enough the principles which were held to justify a given course of action, he gives them the colour of his own idiosyncrasy. He has his own way of marshalling the arguments; and he often adduces arguments which would scarcely have occurred to the men for whom he speaks. But the historian is as much concerned with men as with principles; the temperament of the politician is to him no less interesting and important than the idea which the politician represents. Even if the historian believes that the mainspring of feudal policy was a naive and brutal egotism, he cannot believe that feudal politicians were fully alive to the sordid character of their own motive. There is evidence enough that even Geoffrey de Mandeville had followers to whom he appeared in the light of a respectable and injured man. It is only reasonable to suppose that he and his like deceived themselves before they were able to deceive others. Self-knowledge is rare in any age — rarest of all in an age so unintellectual, so strenuous, and so eventful as the twelfth century. Now the truth about men is only one part of history; the myths which they make about themselves, and which they succeed in circulating, are also to be carefully considered. For it is in these myths that the ideals of any age are most infallibly revealed; not indeed the ideals of the best minds, but the ideals of the market-place, the conventional standards of morality.

We can never understand feudalism as a factor in history until we correct our conception of feudalism in the abstract by studying the mental processes of the individual feudatory. He was not to himself or to the majority of those who came in contact with him the mere incarnation of a centrifugal and disruptive individualism. He looked at political questions through a haze of sentiment and of tradition. So much we can imagine without the help of documents. But to estimate what sentiments and what traditions blurred his vision at a particular moment is less easy. And we are seldom supplied with the evidence that we require for arriving at an estimate.

No doubt confidential letters were exchanged, and manifestos were dispersed, whenever a crisis was at hand. Few however of these documents have come down to us from the age when feudalism was still robust and unsophisticated. Therefore we have in general to be content with secondary sources of information. We know how the baron of the Anglo-Norman epoch appeared to the minstrel, the monk and the esurient scholar. We know what was thought of his aims and his manoeuvres by kings and lawyers and highly placed ecclesiastics. But it is a rare piece of good fortune when he speaks in his own person. He may not be telling the truth; even so, we are glad to know the lines on which he thought it desirable to lie, the excuses which he thought would vindicate his conduct in the eyes of honourable men.
(H.W.C. Davis, "Henry of Blois and Brian FitzCount~"English Historical Review XXXV (1910), pp. 297-303.)

The article, and the letter from BrianFitzCount to Henry of Blois, are to be found at
and the letter in translation at

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