England and the Avignon Popes: The practice of diplomacy in late medieval Europe

(Legenda: London, 2005), pp. xiv, 304, incl. index. ISBN 1-904713-04-1.

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In England and the Avignon Popes, Karsten Plöger, who is a Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in London, has provided an invaluable book not only for students of medieval diplomatic method but for students of diplomacy in general. It is a work of immense and meticulous scholarship: exhaustively researched, well organized, carefully worded, penetrating, and beautifully written.

The author concentrates on the period from 1342 until 1362, when the francophile popes Clement VI and Innocent VI sought to mediate a settlement to the renewed conflict (subsequently dubbed ‘the hundred years war’) between the English and French thrones and Anglo-papal relations were soured by disputes over rights to the wealth attached to ecclesiastical positions in England. These years thus witnessed a marked increase in the tempo of diplomacy between Avignon and London and suit the author’s purpose because they left behind a comparatively rich residue of primary sources, especially in the expense accounts of envoys and messengers.

Plöger begins by providing a detailed account of the strengths and limitations of his sources, both in the British National Archives and those of the Vatican. He then sets the scene with a long chapter of great authority (though perhaps with a little too much detail) dealing mainly with the ‘diplomatic agenda’ of the period. The meat of the book consists of the subsequent chapters on diplomatic personnel; organization of missions; means of communication; and protocol, procedure, and ceremonial. There are also long and juicy appendices, for example on the academic backgrounds of envoys and on diplomatic gifts. The bibliography, too, is lengthy and wide-ranging.

I mention the following points because I found them of particular interest and because they illustrate the riches to be found in this book. Kings’ confessors, Plöger tells his readers, were among the envoys employed in diplomatic communications with the curia. By entrusting messages to the pope to their confessors, the kings were confessing to him ‘by proxy’. This guarded the message en route since a priest could not divulge information imparted in the confessional without the express consent of the penitent. Presumably this form of communication also flattered the pope. This was altogether a brilliant device. Plöger also has an interesting if rather brief discussion (pp. 87-8) of the question of whether or not resident proctors at the papal court were actually the first resident ambassadors; if they were, the origins of this vital institution are to be found over a century earlier than is usually claimed, notably by Garret Mattingly. The author’s slightly hedged position is that while it is a mistake to deny that the proctors had diplomatic as well as purely legal functions, they had ‘no discernible connection’ with the residents who were established at the lay courts of Italy in the second half of the fifteenth century, who were shaped by ‘an entirely different political context’. Thus, he concludes, the curial proctors were not the first resident ambassadors. I shall have to think about this a bit more. Perhaps it is best to class them simply as a different kind of resident diplomat but as a resident diplomat nevertheless. It certainly makes a good exam question. Plöger also provides a most impressive account of the slippery question of diplomatic immunity, pointing out that practice squared with theory; and I was struck by the degree – on which he rightly lays emphasis – to which diplomatic communication continued almost unimpaired despite outbreaks of plague and war.

Drawing the threads of his argument together, Plöger concludes that medieval diplomacy had all the features required of a sophisticated diplomatic system that I had suggested in my chapter in the Cohen and Westbrook volume on Amarna Diplomacy – excepting continuous contact via resident diplomats. However, this did not matter, he maintains, because continuous contact was not always needed and, when it was, it was provided by ‘a rapid succession of missions’. As a follower of the great Richelieu, I am not altogether swayed by this last argument, since who is to say that the presence of capable and respected residents in Avignon might not, among other things, have nipped at least some emerging problems in the bud (when ‘need’ was relatively invisible) and prepared the ground for more effective interventions by special envoys when their presence was nevertheless unavoidable? Besides, in the absence of resident missions it is not merely the number of special missions that should be considered in assessing the quality of the continuous contact they provided but the extent to which they involved the rotation of the same people and the duration of their stays. In fact, Plöger had already shown that the same people tended to be used quite often and that their visits usually extended to months – they were not tourists. This obviously made a difference, so it might have been better had the author summed up his own argument a little more fully by referring to a rapid succession of relatively long-stay visits by persons often already familiar with the curial court. Thus, in any event, does my objection on this point fall away, and I have no hesitation in saying that Karsten Plöger has in general marshalled his voluminous evidence in support of a most convincing argument. This is one of the most important contributions to the history of diplomacy of recent years.