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REVIEW: Royal Magnificence

REVIEW: How do you recognise a king or a queen? Through splendid Magnificence, a new book reveals.

Magnificence and Princely Splendour in the Middle Ages
By Richard Barber
Boydell Press 2020

“Magnificence” is indeed a glorious book. Sumptuously illustrated, it tells the story of how kings and queens came to regale themselves in material grandeur in the 13th century and onwards.

In 2017, Richard Barber published a very charming book on the Splendour of Princes, as it was expressed in the medieval court festival in all its forms: jousts, knightings, processions, and banquets. The present book is a follow-up to this work. In the new book, he does cover some of the old ground. However, he also presents us with a more detailed exposé on how the idea of Magnificence came to play such a massive role in the later Middle Age.

The story is that the idea of Magnificence came about as part of the revival or rather rediscovery of the Greek philosophical works of Aristotle in the 12th century. Based on Plato, and yet differing from him, Aristotle wrote about Magnificence as a profound virtue expressed in a “fitting expenditure involving largeness of scale”, that is magnanimity concerning votive offerings, sacred buildings, and sacrifices. This idea was picked up by Thomas Aquinas, who regarded Magnificence as a virtue, which – though it belonged to God – might be shared by human beings. Thus, for Aquinas, Magnificence, was more a question of expressing fortitude and courage while undertaking glorious actions, than expressing Magnificence through the sheer demonstration of wealth in the attire and material surroundings.

Later, however, kings in the 14th century began to believe that they had to dress and behave magnificently to play the role of God’s representative on earth. In due time, this led to the opulent lifestyles of the kings, queens, and their retinues, which they excelled in parading in front of each other and their lesser minions.

What shifted was what it meant to enact the royal status. In the 12th century, people did expect kings and queens to be splendid, that is to appear with a great entourage of numerous people. Also, they were expected to wear crowns, dress in silks and look kingly. However, in terms of material wealth, other virtues might be just as important; for instance, to appear humble when caught out in a major sin – killing an opponent (Henry II) or seeking a reconciliation with the Pope (Heinrich IV); or to be magnanimous towards (royal)saints by building great shrines in the form of cathedrals or chapels.

However, this changed, gradually during the 13th century, creating a new royal atmosphere permeated by the thirst for material magnificence. Up until then, royal splendour might occasionally be regarded as a malicious and selfish display. Now, it became a prerequisite of kingly behaviour. Enacting splendour was no longer an option, which might be manipulated according to the situation. Now it was obligatory.

So what did it take to appear magnificently? In chapter after chapter, Barber guides us to how to dress in embroidered clothes set with jewels, put on crowns, and carry magnificent weapons and armoury. Another essential item was to be seated next to a queen fitted out in likewise manner and surrounded by an entourage dressed in livery with badges and collars. Thus fitted out, the court would collect numerous artists, musicians, composers, poets and writers expected to deliver the right atmosphere in the new magnificent castles, with their royal apartments, celebrating memorable royal feasts and banquets or organising tournaments. This list is endless, but Barber enjoys parading all the trinkets and remnants of this past magnificent glory. But he also tells us of the management of all the “stuff” – the cost of the Magnificence, the royal resources and the role of bankers.

There is – writes Barber – a significant feeling of “unreality” attached to this display or show of material wealth. Nearly “childish” when we imagine kings using their afternoons to inspect their treasuries as Charles V was want to do according to Christine de Pizan’s biography. “Magnificence”, however, was simply “part of the complex way in which a ruler was judged”.

Later, this opulent fashion was upturned, when leisure became the great symbol of wealth, expressed in ladies, who no longer paraded at grand balls dressed in gross garments and adorned in jewels, but instead was expected to find the time to invest in doing nothing: non-working and home-caring. The leisure class, Thorstein Veblen famously called it. Today, of course, we are once again expected to work as seen by the work-out signalled by lean, fit and young bodies, walking on ridiculously high heels or fitted out in immaculate white sneakers, ready to be on the run. Indeed, times have changed.

Magnificence is a great and fascinating book; fun to read and enjoyable to peruse. Some minor quibbles, though, need to be noted. The book is week on the theoretical sociology of the field. Barber may be forgiven for not quoting or considering Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899. However, the work of Norbert Elias is absent, more precisely his “Process of Civilisation” (1939) but also “The Court Society” (1969). Both are unavoidable when trying to explore the shifts in comportment in the Middle Ages.

Also, the examples are uniquely sampled from the French, English or German (Bohemian) contexts. It might have been interesting if Barber had at least acknowledged that Scandinavia was a united and indeed mighty kingdom at this time (see map p XXII where it is absent from the map, which purports to show the major kingdoms of Europe in the 14th century). Or that the Jagiellonian dynasty, which played such a significant role in Eastern and Central Europe between 1386 and 1596 has escaped the author completely. Recently the object of a major international research project, it would have served as a fine addition. A broader perspective might have yielded insight into the workings of “magnificence” far away from Paris and London; and shown that it was seemingly a Pan-European idea, reaching into the corners of the seeming periphery of late Medieval Europe.

However, this is a gilded and sumptuous sourcebook; a joy to read and peruse.

Karen Schousboe