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Kathleen B. Neal: The Letters of Edward I. Political Communication in the Thirteenth Century, Woodbridge / Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer 2021, XVII + 240 S., 4 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-1-78327-415-4, GBP 60,00
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Rezension von:
Barbara Bombi
School of History, University of Kent, Canterbury
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Ralf Lützelschwab
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Barbara Bombi: Rezension von: Kathleen B. Neal: The Letters of Edward I. Political Communication in the Thirteenth Century, Woodbridge / Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer 2021, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 2 [15.02.2022], URL:

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Kathleen B. Neal: The Letters of Edward I

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Kathleen Neal's book on the letters of Edward I is an exemplary contribution to the field of applied diplomatic. The author builds on the established tradition of diplomatic studies concerning the documentation of the thirteenth-century English Crown and examines the structure and language of royal letters within their historical context, further providing the edition of 22 unpublished documents of Edward I preserved in The National Archives (London) in the Appendix.

As Neil points out in the introduction, the book sets out to investigate the interaction between rhetoric and power, looking at written documents and their oral delivery as means to negotiate the king's power and authority. In this respect, she traces clear links between the form of letters, their political and administrative contents, and legal issues touched upon in royal correspondence.

In Chapter 1 Neal develops her argument, showing how Edward I's letters and writs adopted the traditional rhetorical forms of the ars dictaminis and employed different languages (French and Latin) in a sophisticated fashion in order to negotiate the king's power and express his voice before his subjects, especially at moments of domestic turmoil and rebellion.

As Neal further explains in Chapter 2, this administrative practice was carried out thanks to the interaction between the king and the chancery clerks, responsible for drafting and editing royal correspondence. Here, Neil builds her case on two fascinating case-studies, identifying, through careful diplomatic and palaeographical examination of the evidence, a royal clerk, named as scribe W, who was responsible for drafting Anglo-French diplomatic correspondence in 1294-95, and examining the rhetorical and legal language employed by Edward I and his clerks in Anglo-Welsh correspondence in 1276-77. On the basis of this evidence, Neal convincingly concludes that the language of royal letters was crafted thanks to the practice of clerks, responsible for negotiating rhetorical forms and the king's voice in order to assert royal authority.

The audience of this administrative process is the focus of Chapter 3, which addresses the aurality of royal letters. In this chapter Neal makes a very important point on the punctuation of the original letters, which allows us to understand their oral performance. Neal further shows how issues of aurality were not only the concern of the king's clerks, since Edward I and the king's council were present at the drafting and aural reading of important diplomatic correspondence - as was the case during the Anglo-French negotiations of 1273. Neal maintains that it was the collaborative production of letters that enhanced the collective commitment of the king and his council to political decision-making, ultimately creating an epistolary community and ideology of royal letters.

In the following two chapters, Neal moves onto investigating the reception and audience of royal letters. In Chapter 4 she focuses on royal letters as evidence of affective and personal bonds, convincingly demonstrating how affective and informal language was used to negotiate diplomatic matters and alliances. In particular, Neal addresses the important issue of the littere de statu, which were used as means to open diplomatic channels of communication and were of crucial importance in the thirteenth-century European political milieu. These letters evidence attempts to secure the king's favour, his gratitude for service, the acknowledgment of the king's status and request for his intercession in moments of diplomatic significance. Neal proves her point through the attentive examination of Edward I's Anglo-Scottish correspondence, whose language helped to secure aristocratic fraternity, to negotiate border arrangements, to cast disputes in a positive light, and to conduct informal negotiations, often avoiding references to political subjection through the language of personal connection and affective bonds. This last point is further developed in Chapter 5, which examines the relationship between royal authority and governing elites. Neal argues that rhetorical letter forms were employed as means of political management, creating a mutual aim between the sender and the addressee. On the one hand, the use of language to dispatch royal writs in England evidences the shared interests of the king and his magnates, that royal writs carefully worded as partnership through the use of verbs such as rogare / tenere. On the other hand, obedience was requested of the king's regents in his absence through the use of the verb mandare that commanded the exercise of royal duties in administering justice, law and customs. Ultimately, Neal maintains that the use of conciliatory language and the grant of favours for friends and allies in terms of patronage and intercession was carefully deployed to prevent resistance to the king's authority, for instance in Gascony where the English king-duke often employed the language of request rather than command with his non-English subjects to secure their loyalty and his patronage.

The careful examination of the specific political context during Edward I's reign is further addressed in chapter 6, where Neal shows how the strain on Edward I's power is evidenced in the language of his letters after 1290, when the king was facing the loss of his wife alongside political and military crisis in Gascony, Wales and Scotland. These challenges were addressed in Edward I's correspondence through a careful choice of language, as evidenced in: the familiar tone of early secret negotiations in Gascony and the switch to a language of command after the outbreak of the Anglo-French war in 1294; the employment of references to the legal ideology of dominion and legitimacy in the Scottish correspondence during the 1290s; and the negotiations with the magnates, where after 1297 conciliatory tones were replaced by more authoritarian letters, which were issued by the privy seal in French after 1294 - the different tones of these letters evidence the king's satisfaction with business as a means of transaction with the barons and his displeasure, when needed.

As Neal maintains in the conclusions, letters conveyed the ideal form of Edward I's polity and crafted the king's political message. As Neal puts it, the use of formulaic and rhetorical language in royal letters stood for significant political meanings and was crafted through the attentive work of royal clerks, negotiating alongside the king and his council solutions to political problems. Rhetorical and diplomatic forms of royal correspondence had the flexibility of modulating the king's action in different political circumstances, enhancing his control and executive power when needed, as was the case for Gascony, Wales and Scotland, and fostering the creation of diplomatic networks.

In this respect, Neal's argument makes an important contribution not only to the field of applied diplomatic, but also to our understanding of royal government and the management of diplomacy in late thirteenth-century Europe.

Barbara Bombi