". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Accursed Kings series by Maurice Druon

     . . . Prior to the opening of The Iron King, the first novel in the series, Iron King Philip, so named for his iron fist implementing his iron will, has dissolved the Knights Templar on trumped charges of sorcery. 

He has imprisoned and tortured as many Knights as could be caught by his forces. With the connivance of certain well-placed Archbishops and Cardinals inside and outside the Inquisition, both Church and King have appropriated the Templars' wealth, and incidentally, destroyed the records that could be found of their enormous debts to the Templars. 

At the start of the narrative proper, the Iron King gets the cooperation of the Church to burn at the stake the Knights Templar Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. As the Grand Master burns with his closest and oldest friend, he lays a curse upon the king and his line. The night the Grand Master burns, concurrently, the Queen of France and her sister are committing adultery with two young men about-court, for which they too are soon arrested, thanks to the scheming of the Iron King's daughter, Isabella (the she-wolf), the Queen of England. From the arrest of the Templars and the royal adulteresses follow all of what happens in the series of seven novels, which end with the end of the line of the Capets.

This post is evidently provoked by the inability to escape the frantic bleating of media of every kind around the coming premiere of the final season of HBO's Game of Thrones.  GRRM really did pull more inspiration from the novels of The Accursed Kings than he ever did from the Wars of the Roses.

This re-read of the the French historical fiction series revealed even more information of how much the first three volumes of ASOIAF took from the English language translation of Druon's retelling of the end of the Capetian dynasty. This dynasty, at the conclusion of the series, is replaced by the Valois (though, of course, the replacements were also related to the Capetians, just as the Capetians themselves were growths from the Merovingian and Carolingian families). 

When I say ‘inspiration,’ I don't mean only such Westros governing administrative bodies such as 'the small council,' the names of characters such as Loris, Brienne, figures that certainly are prototypes of the Clegane brothers, twins, dwarfs, etc., as well as place names, but so much else, such as 'banner' and 'bannerman'. 

'Bannermen'  is not French per se.* In French this affiliate to various lords would probably be called something more like 'moyens' the middles, as they were of middling ranked status, with lands -- but not nobility, nor peasants, some of which also small lands.

In English,'bannerman' derives from Scotland with Edward I’s conquest, coming into Norman-French speaking England, and then brought to France via his combined English and Scots forces. These campaigns play out in The Accursed Kings by the two final volumes, which is why the final volume is titled King Without A Kingdom. Here are the roots of the 100 Years War between France and England, as the Capets are replaced by the Valois.

To my historian’s mind, the most significant inspiration GRRM took for his fantasy history Game of Thrones, was The Iron Bank of Braavos. There are no banks in Lord of the Rings, thus they have seldom been part of medievalist fantasy or historical fiction until the Iron Bank of Braavos.** Occasionally there are Jews in historical fiction who provide the funds and credit by which nobility and royalty can carry on their endless wars, as in Ivanhoe, by the creator of historical fiction. However, in The Accursed Kings, the historical consortium of 13th- 14th century Lombard money lenders, credit extenders, and investors are essential to not only to the expensive military and political events (not least marriages and coronations) that take place over the course of series, but also to individual characters who make the wars. Even Gucci, the very young nephew-scion of the most important Lombard banker in France, Tolemei – a continuing, significant character in his own right -- is an ancillary character,who becomes more a featured player in the books’ events as he matures, even as he has a private life, which the consequences are, at best, bittersweet. -- and with which The Accursed Kings concludes.

Among the historical cultural elements that The Accursed Kings does include that ASOIAF doesn’t, is the place of artists and poets within this elevated society of churchmen, royals, nobles and bankers. We meet the father of the poet Boccaccio, who wants to retire from the Bank and just write poetry; Dante and his work is invoked, particularly in an affecting scene in the tent of an exception to most of the lords running French army. The army’s bogged down under a summer’s relentless rain and mud, this lord keeps his men’s spirits up by having Dante’s Inferno recited, encouraging the discussion and hoots of appreciative laughter when particularly disliked figures – whose deeds are very familiar to the men, some of whom, or their families do, have actual skin in the game -- are described suffering in hell. Did we know the Inferno  a/k/a The Divine Comedy had funny bits? These poets and writers also play a role as messengers, negotiators and information gatherers.

Inversely, partly via Sam Tarley and mageisturs, but primarily via crones’ folk tales, Game of Thrones does emphasize the importance of scholars and historians; the fabulous past is part and parcel of High Fantasy. Significantly, in this inversion of High Fantasy tropes, no one pays attention to them, or acts on what they learn, unlike Aragorn requesting information the herb athelas to heal Frodo and Eowyn, or Gandalf in the archives of Minas Tirith.

It is equally the case in The Accursed Kings that few learn anything from the past, beyond, occasionally the new king thinking over what his predecessor did for good or ill, so there are no historians or scholars as characters. What we do have is a large, fractious, rebellious faction of nobles who think everything will improve by returning to the ‘good old days of chivalry’ of Saint Louis IX in the 13th century. In those days the lords of the land weren’t obligated to follow rules decreed by a king. They behaved with impunity in their own lands and against each other. These short-sighted retrogressive nobles play an important role in bringing down the Capetian dynasty by demands that obligatory allegiance to the king’s central authority be voided. Thus the dissolution of Philippe IV’s first painful steps progressing to France as a nation state, not a state made of many individual feuding states and statelets. This too leads to the end of the Capetians.

I admire these books as perhaps the most honest historical fiction I’ve encountered that is focused solely on the figures who rule: royalty and nobles, popes and cardinals; and most of all, bankers. Druon does not glorify anyone and sticks as best he can to actually what happened. He dramatizes why the Salic Law was implemented, that the line of monarchy cannot go through the female/queen line.

 I can't figure out why the series was so successful in France as these novels are set during one of the worst eras of French descent into dysfunction, anarchy, poverty and suffering -- and in the middle we have the Black Death --made even worse, the historians tells us, through the idiocy of the Capetian kings, the Church (the era of the papacy removing to Avignon from Italy) their nobles and their rivalries. When adapted for television, all of France watched, with enthusiasm. Here in the US there would be no market for novels or television series -- or even histories themselves -- that provide a narrative of the pile-up of stupidities that make a pile-up of failures on the national and international stage. Instead there would howls of outrage accusing the creators and historians of lying and tearing down the country. 


*    Curiously, when one searches online for the French translation of 'bannerman', what one gets as examples are all from ASOIAF. 

**  Alas, then, allowing the conviction be imprinted among so many readers of this sort of fiction, who are so young they know no history, that there was no money in the European Middle Ages, just as there were no people of color in the European Middles Ages, and no women of power and agency in the European Middle Ages. This medieval historical fiction series would show them differently on all three fronts.