November 9, 2010


Bisson, Thomas N., The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton U. Press, 2009) ("[I]t is ironic in the extreme that the most conspicuous crisis of power of this age turned on the bad lordship not of a castellan or baron but a king, no less. The crisis of Magna Carta, although by no means uncomplicated, would never have happened had it not been for the arbitrary, sometimes brutal behavior of King John (1199-1216). John wriggled out of one jam after another. In the end the Great Charter of 1215 itself played into his canny strategy. But already by 1210, with the loss of Normandy unavenged and the English church under costly interdict, John's authority had plummeted as his habits of coercive violence became clear. Everyone knew that Matilda of Braose together with her son had been wilfully starved to death in a Windsor dungeon because her husband's financial default and alleged contumacy. Perhaps not everyone knew, or dared to say, what one (unreliable) chronicler ungallantly said of Matilda: that 'with womanish imprudence' she had babbled to the king's men that she knew what had happened to Arthur of Brittany. In this event were linked the two worst atrocities of John's stormy reign." "Yet both were uncharacteristic. John's oppressive ways, as with lesser bad lords, was to coerce and to exploit, not to kill. It was abuse in the courts and the manipulative excesses of customary obligation that induced his victims to converse and to compare experiences. . . . Many of John's sworn barons ceased to trust him. . . ." Id. at 516-517.).