Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert (1877)

I’ve got the old 1961 Penguin translation by Robert Baldick. It has no notes but a handy nine-page introduction in which Baldick places the Tales in the context of Flaubert’s life and work.

Born in 1821, Flaubert spent his whole adult life living off a small private income in the remote Normandy village of Croisset and devoting his life to literature. But he was far from successful. His first novel, Madame Bovary (1857), was prosecuted for immorality and sold and misunderstood as a salacious scandal. His historical novel. Salammbô (1862), was condemned by critics as tedious, by the clergy as pagan and by archaeologists as inaccurate. The book he considered his masterpiece and laboured over longest, Sentimental Education (1869) was greeted with critical abuse and criticised for its cynical immorality (readers confusing Flaubert’s unflinching depiction of bourgeois immorality with endorsement). His religious fantasia, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), was greeted with blank incomprehension and mostly ignored. It is, as I can testify, difficult to read through to the end. And his one and only play, The Candidate (1874), was taken off after four disastrous performances.

The 1870s were a hard time for the middle-aged author. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 the Prussians occupied his house in Croisset, humiliatingly, and made Flaubert run errands for them. As the decade progressed a number of his best friends died, and his much-loved mother passed away in 1872.  In 1875 the husband of his beloved niece (Flaubert never married or had children) was threatened with bankruptcy and so Flaubert sold a number of his properties to raise money to save him, even considering selling up his beloved house in Croisset.

In other words the mid-1870s found Flaubert at a financial, emotional and artistic low point. And yet he not only wrote these three short tales relatively quickly but, when they were published, the volume turned out to be his most critically acclaimed and popular book. In fact, it turned out to be the last book he published during his lifetime.

The three tales in this short volume are A Simple Heart, Saint Julian the Hospitator and Hérodias. It’s not difficult to see them as recapitulating, in compressed form, the styles and settings of his previous novels: A Simple Heart is set in the same rural Normandy as Madame Bovary; Herodias is set in the barbaric and exotic ancient world of Salammbô; Saint Julian the Hospitator is a medieval folk story which echoes the early medieval setting of The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

A Simple Heart

Also known as Le perroquet (the Parrot) in French, this is the story of a servant girl named Felicité. Brought up in poverty, her parents die, she is brusquely wooed by a neighbourhood lad, who wins her heart but then marries another, rich, woman. Devastated, Felicité leaves the farm where she lives and walks to the nearest town, Pont-l’Évèque, where she gets a job with the first woman she speaks to, a widow, Madame Aubain.

The story describes Felicité’s fifty years of loyal service to the widow, particularly in bringing up the widow’s two small children, Paul and Virginie. Paul becomes a difficult adolescent and young man, perpetually getting into debt. Virginie is a frail little girl whose poor health necessitates several trips to the seaside, vividly described.

One day Felicité bumps into her sister, married with two children of her own. Realising she’s in a comfortable position, the sister encourages her children to visit Felicité and sponge off her at every opportunity. Felicité, in her simplicity, dotes on her nephew, Victor, who grows into a strapping young man and sets off to sea. Felicité makes the long hard journey to Le Havre to wave him off.

Later she is given a letter telling her that Victor died on the sea voyage. Yellow fever, then overbled by zealous doctors. Then Madame Aubain’s daughter, Virginie, catches pneumonia and dies. Grief for the poor little girl brings mistress and servant together into a new sympathy.

A neighbouring aristocrat, who was once posted as a diplomat to America and brought back with him a coloured servant and a parrot, makes a few social calls to Madame Aubain, because she has a certain status in the neighbourhood, on one occasion bringing the parrot to show off to all and sundry.

Felicité is enchanted by the parrot and tells everyone about it. This reaches the ears of the wife of the diplomat. When he is posted to a new job, he is only too happy to dump the parrot on this simple woman, seeing that it is noisy, dirty and temperamental.

Felicité tends the parrot with love, through summer and winter. When her mistress, Madame Aubain, dies, the parrot becomes a talisman for all the losses in her life – Madame, Victor, Virginie.

Eventually, the parrot also dies and she has it stuffed. On Madame Aubain’s death her son, Paul, and his greedy wife, had come to strip the house of all its valuables. They threatened to sell it but never quite manage to and so Felicité lives on, in increasing poverty, as the house crumbles around her, and the rain and wind get in, with the cage holding the dead parrot hung on the wall, as she grows old, deaf, lame, tended by a kindly neighbour.

Finally, one spring, come the weeks of the annual Corpus Christi festival, where temporary altars are erected around the town. One is set up just outside Felicité’s derelict house. Over the freezing winter, sleeping in a wet bed, she has contracted her final illness. As the neighbour tends her, Felicité hears the sound of the bells celebrating mass at the altar outside, her eyes open for one last time and she has a vision of the Holy Ghost as a huge green parrot, its wings open to welcome her to heaven – and dies.

Flaubert wrote to friends that the story was not intended in any way to be satirical or ironic, but as a straightforward depiction of a good woman, a good, heart and a good life. I grew up in a small village near a convent which was also a nursing home where very elderly patients were tended by the nuns. The nuns used to totter up to the village shop where I worked. My mother took us to visit the old ladies, lying quietly in rows of beds in the oak-panelled ward. I recognise the atmosphere of simple, feminine goodness. Goodness is simple, after all. Don’t hurt others.

Flaubert’s style is pared back to the bone. There are no metaphors or similes. Events are told in a brisk, no-nonsense prose. As with his other books, it is the descriptions I like most, the word paintings. Here is a description of winter.

On either side of the road stretched an endless succession of apple trees, all stripped of their leaves, and there was ice in the ditches. Dogs were barking around the farms; and Felicité, with her hands tucked under her mantle, her little black sabots and her basket, walked briskly along the middle of the road. (p.48)

Simple. Vivid.

Saint Julian the Hospitator

The medieval legend of Saint Julian the Hospitator (or Hospitalier) is portrayed in a stained glass window in Rouen cathedral, which Flaubert saw as a boy. In the 1840s he mentioned to friends the idea of writing about it, and he tucked away details about medieval hunting, weapons and castles from his omnivorous reading, for this purpose.

The story has all the fairy tale quality of a medieval legend. At Julian’s birth he is predicted to do great things. His father is told that he will marry into the family of a great emperor, while his mother is told he will be a saint.

But early on Julian displays violent tendencies. As a boy he kills a mouse which irritates him by appearing in the castle chapel. Then he stones a pigeon. His father introduces him to hunting and he takes to it with devilish enthusiasm, amassing an armoury of weapons, hunting dogs, and going out every day to massacre as much wildlife as possible, climaxing in his pointless massacre of an entire valley of deer. A stag approaches him with a doe and fawn and Julian shoots dead all of them. With his dying breath, the stag curses Julian, predicting that he will kill his own parents.

Soon afterwards Julian is wangling a heavy swords down from its fixture on the wall and drops it, narrowly missing his father. Then, on a misty day, he throws a javelin at what he takes to be the wings of a passing swan but are in fact the tails of the elaborate medieval head-dress worn by his mother. It pins the head dress to the castle wall while his mother shrieks and faints. Terrified at what might happen next, Julian flees the castle.

Julian enlists with a passing troop of soldiers of fortune, experiences hunger, thirst and battle, soon he commands a great army. Meanwhile, the emperor of Occitania is defeated by the Caliph of Cordoba and thrown in prison. Julian leads his army to the rescue, defeating the Caliph (and cutting his head off) before liberating the Emperor. Julian turns down all the rewards he’s offered until the Emperor produces his beautiful young daughter, at which Julian agrees to marry her and accept a nice castle.

The couple live together in happiness, but Julian categorically refuses to go on any hunts or kill any wildlife – still haunted by fear of the curse. Until one day, under the influence of his wife’s incessant nagging, he finally gives in and takes up his rusty weapons and goes for a hunt.

This turns into a strange visionary adventure. He finds himself wandering into a magical valley where the spirits of all the animals he’s ever killed surround him. Again and again he tries to shoot things but the weapons don’t work, or the animals dodge out the way.

Frustrated at his inability to kill anything, bewildered and upset by his vision of the spirits of the dead, Julian returns to the castle, and climbs the stairs to his bedroom, hoping his beautiful wife will calm him.

But leaning over their bed in the dawn light he strokes her face only to feel a long beard – and realises there are two bodies in the bed, a man and a woman. She has betrayed him! All his pent-up frustration makes him see red and in a frenzy he stabs his wife and her lover to death.

Then turns to see… his wife standing in the doorway holding a torch!!

She explains that while he was away hunting an old married couple came to the castle. Tired and dirty, it was his mother and father who had been seeking him all across Europe ever since he ran away from home. Touched by their story, his wife gave them dinner and then their own bed to sleep in.

So Julian has just murdered his own parents – exactly as foretold.

Next morning, Julian hands her instructions to perform a state funeral for his parents, wills her all his properties and possessions, then leaves. He wanders the world, begging like a monk, performing numerous good deeds. Eventually he comes to a wide river on the bank of which is a derelict boat, and it crosses his mind to repair it and to become a ferryman: it is a simple, practical good deed. So he repairs the boat, builds a hut, and lives off the donations given him by grateful travellers.

One day a figure calls from the other side of the river and, when Julian arrives, he discovers a hideously disfigured leper. Nonetheless, Julian rows him across. The leper is hungry. Julian gives him food. The leper is tired. Julian offers him his bed. The leper is cold. Julian offers him his clothes. The leper is still cold and asks for body warmth. Despite the obvious risk that he will contract this appalling disease, Julian hugs the leper to warm him up.

At which point the leper’s eyes take on the brightness of stars, his hair spreads out like the rays of the sun, and his breath smells like roses. Julian experiences superhuman joy as he is borne up to heaven by none other than Jesus Christ himself.


Baldick’s introduction points out that Flaubert, as usual, made copious notes about all the factual aspects of the story, especially medieval hunting. And, as so often, this is regurgitated into paragraphs which read like extracts from an encyclopedia:

His father made up a pack of hounds for him. There were twenty-four  greyhounds of Barbary, speedier than gazelles, but liable to get out of temper; seventeen couples of Breton dogs, great barkers, with broad chests and russet coats flecked with white. For wild-boar hunting and perilous doublings, there were forty boarhounds as hairy as bears.

The red mastiffs of Tartary, almost as large as donkeys, with broad backs and straight legs, were destined for the pursuit of the wild bull. The black coats of the spaniels shone like satin; the barking of the setters equalled that of the beagles. In a special enclosure were eight growling bloodhounds that tugged at their chains and rolled their eyes, and these dogs leaped at men’s throats and were not afraid even of lions.

But in a work like this it doesn’t much matter, since a lot of medieval literature is exactly as encyclopedic and factual as this (think of Gawayne and the Green Knight with its highly factual accounts not only of three hunts, but of how the kills from each chase were gutted and prepared for table). The oddity of the factual interludes among the fairy-tale story actually make sense in a tale like this.

Saint Julian the Hospitaller kills his father and mother and confesses to his wife by Stefano d'Antonio di Vanni (c.1460)

Saint Julian the Hospitaller kills his father and mother and confesses to his wife by Stefano d’Antonio di Vanni (c.1460)


Hérodias is another of Flaubert’s bracing fantasias of the evocative place names, wild landscapes and barbaric behaviour of the ancient world.

The sun, rising behind Machaerus, spread a rosy flush over the sky, lighting up the stony shores, the hills, and the desert, and illumining the distant mountains of Judea, rugged and grey in the early dawn. Engedi, the central point of the group, threw a deep black shadow; Hebron, in the background, was round-topped like a dome; Eschol had her pomegranates, Sorek her vineyards, Carmel her fields of sesame; and the tower of Antonia, with its enormous cube, dominated Jerusalem.

This time it’s a retelling of the Biblical story of the beheading of John the Baptist.

Part one establishes the uneasy relationship between the Jewish king of Palestine, Herod Antipas, and the forces which surround him:

  • his main military enemies are the Parthians to the east
  • the native inhabitants of the land, the Arabs, pass in voiceless but ominous caravans of camels
  • the Roman Empire has conquered Palestine and allowed Herod and other members of his family to ‘rule’ different parts of it, under their ultimate control; Herod is permanently fearful that the Romans are planning to replace him
  • he has to cope with the endlessly squabbling factions among the Jewish religious leaders, particularly the two main groups – the Sadducees and Pharisees

Above all, he struggles to control his haughty wife, Herodias. She was married to Herod’s half-brother and rival, Herod II, who has been imprisoned by the Romans. Herodias divorced him and has married Herod Antipas – in flagrant breach of all Jewish marriage law, prompting vicious criticism from religious leaders.

Now, as they stand looking out from the battlements of their hilltop fortress, Herodias tries to arouse her husband, but he is indifferent to her charms. Instead he gazes at a nubile, dark-haired serving girl hanging washing down in the town below the fort. Herodias notices and is angered.

But she has a deeper grounds for anger with her husband. Herod has imprisoned Jokanaan, the religious fanatic who the Latins call John the Baptist – but refuses to execute him, despite the fact that he waged a campaign of insults against her. Here’s an example of his anti-Herodias vituperation:

‘Ah! Is it thou, Jezebel? Thou hast captured thy lord’s heart with the tinkling of thy feet. Thou didst neigh to him like a mare. Thou didst prepare thy bed on the mountain top, in order to accomplish thy sacrifices! The Lord shall take from thee thy sparkling jewels, thy purple robes and fine linen; the bracelets from thine arms, the anklets from thy feet; the golden ornaments that dangle upon thy brow, thy mirrors of polished silver, thy fans of ostrich plumes, thy shoes with their heels of mother-of-pearl, that serve to increase thy stature; thy glittering diamonds, the scent of thy hair, the tint of thy nails – all the artifices of thy coquetry shall disappear, and missiles shall be found wherewith to stone the adulteress!’

(Note Flaubert’s lifelong addiction to exclamation marks at the end of every sentence spoken by his historical characters.)

In part two the Roman governor Vitellius, arrives. We are given, as you’d expect with Flaubert, factually precise descriptions of his armed guard and their uniforms and weapons, as a well as a comic description of his greedy fat son, Aulus.

It is Herod’s birthday and food is being brought up to the citadel in for a feast, alongside a throng of guests including leaders of the local Sadducees and Pharisees. Flaubert conveys the dirt and confusion of a first-century Palestine castle.

Unfortunately, Vitellius wants to see every aspect of Antipas’s mountain-top fortress and is surprised by what he finds. He is suspicious of the caves full of weapons, and the fine herd of a hundred snow white horses – is Herod planning some kind of rebellion? Sweating with anxiety, Herod assures him these are all for defence in case the Jews rebel.

Then Vitellius is astonished when, upon ordering Herod to open up his prison cells, he discovers the one in which the filthy dirty Jokanaan is kept. As daylight enters his deep dungeon, the Baptist starts up prophesying the overthrow of Herod, the day of Judgement to come, and the start of an era of milk and honey i.e. the advent of Jesus — though none of his listeners, of course, understand him.

Jokanaan then catches sight of Herodias among the throng and launches into another long diatribe against her filthy incest (divorcing her first husband to marry his half-brother).

The third and final part of the story describes in detail Herod Antipas’s birthday feast (which features ox kidneys, dormice, wild-ass stew, Syrian sheep’s tails and nightingales), attended by Vitellius, fat Aulus who has picked up a pretty slave boy in the kitchens, and the various worthies from Antipas’s kingdom.

Conversation turns to the latest news, rumours of the miracles and wonders worked by various magi and fakirs around Palestine.

The comfortable well-educated audience laugh at these stories of miracle-working peasants, but are surprised when one of the guests, a certain Jacob, stands up to proclaim that Jesus is the true Messiah. He knows because Jesus cured his daughter of a fatal illness.

Vitellius asks what a messiah is. The learned Jews present explain how it cannot be so, since the Messiah will, according to the scriptures, be a) a son of David and b) preceded by Elias.

But Elias has come, claims Jacob: and his name is Jokanaan!

At this dramatic moment, the fat proconsul’s son, Aulus is violently sick and all gather round to offer their help and advice. When he is quite finished throwing up, Aulus drinks some refreshing iced water and returns to guzzling . Flaubert does a good job of conveying the rich mix of religions and beliefs swirling among the guests, who include German pagans, Romans, Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Platonists, followers of Mithras, of the god Azia and so on.

The conversation degenerates into a drunken argument. The Pharisees are so infuriated with Roman impiety that they smash up their plates, while Vitellius gets cross that his Galilan interpreter refuses to translate to the Jews his increasingly offensive remarks.

Herod Antipas is trying to calm Vitellius down by showing him a rare medal with Tiberius’s face on it which Herodias gave to him for precisely this purpose, when Herodias herself dramatically pulls back the panels of the golden balcony and appears among slaves carrying torches.

The male guests are just taking in this surprising and inappropriate appearance of a woman at an all-male feast when, at the other end of the hall, a beautiful young girl appears and starts dancing to the music of a flute and castanets. It is Herodias’s daughter, Salomé.

The graceful dancer appeared transported with the very delirium of love and passion. She danced like the priestesses of India, like the Nubians of the cataracts, or like the Bacchantes of Lydia. She whirled about like a flower blown by the tempest. The jewels in her ears sparkled, her swift movements made the colours of her draperies appear to run into one another. Her arms, her feet, her clothing even, seemed to emit streams of magnetism, that set the spectators’ blood on fire.

Suffice to say that Salomé inflames them all with her youthful, athletic and erotic dancing, and especially Herod, who has never seen her before (Herodias having had her raised far from court for precisely this reason).

Herod is entranced, bewitched. When she dances up to him he offers her anything, his wealth, his throne, in return for her favours. Salome dances round him and laughs: ‘I want the head of… Jokanaan.’

Herod is horrified but then – realises that executing the Baptist might actually help him. It will show Vitellius that he can be decisive, it will please the Sadducees and Pharisees by sticking up for orthodox religion and, of course, it will placate his difficult wife.

So he orders his executioner to go and do the deed. This man returns in terror claiming Jokanaan is protected by a dragon, at which the entire company yells abuse at him. So the poor man goes back and this time carries out the task – returning with Jokanaan’s decapitated head held up by the hair.

Herod places it on a silver salver from the feast table and hands it to Salomé, who smiles and laughs and Antipas realises that she is the beautiful black-haired young woman he had glimpsed on a town rooftop back at the start of the story.

The tray and head are passed round among the guests who each react differently, a comic moment coming when the drunk, dazed eyes of Aulus look at the blank, dead eyes of the Baptist. The feast ends. The candles are quenched. The guests depart, leaving Herod alone staring at the head.

Off in a corner, the Essene, a minor figure who has been loitering in the background for most of the story, quietly prays for the soul of the Baptist. Two messengers from Galilee arrive and are shown to him. We don’t learn the message they bring but the implication is that they bring news of Jesus.

Herod finally stands and walks out the feast room. The two messengers and the Essene, clearly believes in Jesus and in Jokanaan’s prophetic role, pick up his bloody head and carry it off with them.

Then the three, taking with them the head of John the Baptist, set out upon the road to Galilee; and as the burden was heavy, each man bore it awhile in turn.

Herodias and her daughter by Ernest Lee Major (1881)

Herodias and her daughter by Ernest Lee Major (1881)

It is easy to see the thread connecting the sensual sadism of Salammbô with much the same themes embodied in the story of Salomé. Given that the depiction of heterosexual sex in fiction at this time was illegal, any hints at homosexuality ditto, and lesbianism wasn’t even acknowledged – one way of looking at the late-nineteenth century obsession with Salomé is that its setting in the remote historical past, allowed the expression of ‘transgressive’ images of sexuality which were simply impossible if set anywhere remotely contemporary (as Flaubert had found out to his cost when the relatively tame Madame Bovary was prosecuted for immorality).

Another interpretation might see it as sensationalist titillation for its own sake, as sexist soft porn.

But as always with Flaubert, the interest is as much or more in the deadpan delivery of the story, in the minutely itemised details of clothes and places, languages and customs, than in the actual plot.

This explains why Salomé’s dance and John’s beheading occur only on the last two pages of this thirty-five page story. The interest isn’t really in this grotesque (or plain tacky) deed itself: it is the careful build-up of background detail which the text is really interested in.


And it’s easy to overlook the simple fact that all three stories are about Christianity. Flaubert, as a cynical modern man, was not a practicing Catholic. But maybe his imagination was.

Related links

Flaubert’s books

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)

She still was not happy – she never had been. What caused this inadequacy in her life – why did everything she leaned on instantly decay? … Oh if somewhere there were a being strong and handsome, a valiant heart, passionate and sensitive at once, a poet’s spirit in an angel’s form, a lyre with strings of steel, sounding sweet-sad epithalamiums to the heavens, then why should she not find that being? Vain dream! There was nothing that was worth going far to get: all was lies! Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a misery. Every pleasure brought its surfeit; and the loveliest kisses only left upon your lips a baffled longing for a more intense delight. (Madame Bovary, Part three, chapter six)

Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert is one of the most famous novelists of the 19th century, in any language. Born in 1821 in Normandy, he went to Paris to study law but dropped out after being afflicted by a mystery illness, probably epilepsy. He returned to Normandy and spent the rest of his life living off a modest private income in the remote village of Croisset, devoting himself to literature.

His early (unpublished) novels are lyrical and romantic. As he matured he reined in his tendencies to lush romanticism in order to create a new kind of studied realism.

Madame Bovary

Flaubert is most famous for his first published novel, Madame Bovary (1857) the low-key, realistic depiction of the life of a small-town woman, Emma Rouault, originally the daughter of a farmer, who marries the well-meaning but dull local doctor, Charles Bovary, but soon yearns for something more.

She has an affair with a stylish local landowner, Rodolphe, who, after several years of dallying, dumps her when she shows signs of wanting to leave her husband and getting serious. As a result Emma has a nervous breakdown and takes months of being tenderly cared for by her husband to recover. Sone years later she develops a passionate and sensuous affair with young Leon the law clerk from her small town, who has moved on to bigger things in Rouen. With him she arranges weekly meetings for days of unbridled sensuality.

Nemesis comes not as a result of these affairs, but through Emma’s equally wanton way with money. The village haberdasher, Lheureux, preys on her over the years, selling her all kinds of luxury knick-knacks she doesn’t really need, making her consolidate her debts into large promissory notes, renewing these at extortionate interest, and finally handing the lot over to a rack-renting debt collector who announces that  she is bankrupt and that he is going to impound and sell off all the good doctor’s belongings and house to pay off the debts.

On this last, climactic day, Flaubert shows Emma desperately running round the village, begging everyone she knows for money. She begs the haberdasher himself, the local lawyer, then goes out to the chateau of her old lover Rodolphe, in a vain attempt to rekindle his interest and get him to lend her money. She takes the coach into town to beg Leon to get the money for her from a friend and then suggests that he steals the money from his employer. One by one all the men reject her.

Finally, in a delirium of despair, Emma goes in the back of the local chemist’s shop, persuades his biddable young assistant to fetch her a jar of arsenic (whose existence we’d learned about in an unrelated scene years earlier, but which she now remembers) and stuffs her mouth with it.

She staggers back home and there follows a protracted death bed scene, at which Charles her husband is distraught and calls for a set of more senior doctors to come and help. Quickly the two local ‘experts’ realise there’s nothing they can do for her and so they take up the offer of Homais, the chemist, to repair for a slap-up dinner at his house (his wife fussing and fretting that she doesn’t have anything special to hand). Back in the sick room, Emma coughs and pukes her last breaths, while the local curé struggles to administer the sacraments. She dies.

The trial of Emma Bovary

Because it was so matter of fact and realistic in its depiction of Emma’s affairs (for its day, 1857) Madame Bovary was seized by the authorities, and Flaubert and the publisher of the magazine it was serialised in were prosecuted for ‘insulting public morals and offending decent manners’.

The trial lasted one day and the defendants were acquitted, although Flaubert was reprimanded by the court for his use of graphic detail concerning ‘adulterous and corrupt affairs’.

The trial, as well as his devotion to the art of writing, which became apparent when Flaubert’s wonderfully colourful and thoughtful correspondence was published after  his death (1880), made Gustave a kind of patron saint of serious literary types, both writers and critics.


The appeal, the pleasure, of realism is in the precision of the descriptions. Flaubert excels at interiors.

A young woman in a blue merino dress with three flounces came to the threshold of the door to receive Monsieur Bovary, whom she led to the kitchen, where a large fire was blazing. The servant’s breakfast was boiling beside it in small pots of all sizes. Some damp clothes were drying inside the chimney-corner. The shovel, tongs, and the nozzle of the bellows, all of colossal size, shone like polished steel, while along the walls hung many pots and pans in which the clear flame of the hearth, mingling with the first rays of the sun coming in through the window, was mirrored fitfully. (Part one, chapter two)

One day he got there about three o’clock. Everybody was in the fields. He went into the kitchen, but did not at once catch sight of Emma; the outside shutters were closed. Through the chinks of the wood the sun sent across the flooring long fine rays that were broken at the corners of the furniture and trembled along the ceiling. Some flies on the table were crawling up the glasses that had been used, and buzzing as they drowned themselves in the dregs of the cider. The daylight that came in by the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace, and touched with blue the cold cinders. Between the window and the hearth Emma was sewing; she wore no fichu; he could see small drops of perspiration on her bare shoulders. (Part one, chapter three)

Light is important in these prose paintings. They have the still, pregnant precision of interiors by Vermeer.

The precisely rendered descriptions extend to finely observed accounts of humans and their surfaces.

In bed, in the morning, by her side, on the pillow, he watched the sunlight sinking into the down on her fair cheek, half hidden by the lappets of her night-cap. Seen thus closely, her eyes looked to him enlarged, especially when, on waking up, she opened and shut them rapidly many times. Black in the shade, dark blue in broad daylight, they had, as it were, depths of different colours, that, darker in the centre, grew paler towards the surface of the eye. His own eyes lost themselves in these depths; he saw himself in miniature down to the shoulders, with his handkerchief round his head and the top of his shirt open… (Part one, chapter five)

And Flaubert deploys the same forensic skills in his descriptions of human behaviour.

When shy Charles marries sentimental Emma, their wedding feast is an opportunity for Flaubert to satirise the behaviour of the small-town Normans he himself lived his whole life among.

Until night they ate. When any of them were too tired of sitting, they went out for a stroll in the yard, or for a game with corks in the granary, and then returned to table. Some towards the finish went to sleep and snored. But with the coffee everyone woke up. Then they began songs, showed off tricks, raised heavy weights, performed feats with their fingers, then tried lifting carts on their shoulders, made broad jokes, kissed the women. At night when they left, the horses, stuffed up to the nostrils with oats, could hardly be got into the shafts; they kicked, reared, the harness broke, their masters laughed or swore; and all night in the light of the moon along country roads there were runaway carts at full gallop plunging into the ditches, jumping over yard after yard of stones, clambering up the hills, with women leaning out from the tilt to catch hold of the reins. (Part one, chapter four)

He’s good at crowd scenes. As well as the wedding feast, he really goes to town in his description of the annual Agricultural Show in the novel’s main setting, Yonville. There’s a sumptuous and vivid set-piece description of a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at Rouen. And Emma’s funeral is another opportunity for Gustave to show his skills at large-scale compositions, the prose equivalent of the large canvases of his contemporary realist, the painter Gustave Courbet.

Flaubert’s characters

Flaubert applies the same wry, detached attitude to his characters.

We get a detailed account of the upbringing of Charles Bovary – which amounts to him being spoiled as a boy by his mother and encouraged to run around in the woods to become ‘a man’ by his father, all of which creates his easy-going, lazy personality. Charles drops his medical studies in Rouen and flunks his exams; then gives them another go, scrapes through to qualify as a doctor, and his doting mother finds him a nice, quiet, rural job as doctor in Tostes (a town near the river Seine, about ten miles south of Rouen).

At first we see Emma only through Charles’s eyes when he goes to treat her father, a worthy old farmer, Monsieur Rouault. Her physical beauty and stillness in the dark parlour entrance him. It’s only after they’re married, that Flaubert gives us a chapter describing Emma’s background and we begin to realise she is not at all what she seemed to simple Charles.

Only now are we told that Emma Bovary née Rouault is shallow, sentimental and silly, having been raised on a diet of romantic novels and sentimental religion at a convent school. It turns out that her poise and stillness conceal a mind consumed by the worst clichés of cheap fiction.

She thought, sometimes, that, after all, this was the happiest time of her life – the honeymoon, as people called it. To taste the full sweetness of it, it would have been necessary doubtless to fly to those lands with sonorous names where the days after marriage are full of laziness most suave. In post chaises behind blue silken curtains to ride slowly up steep road, listening to the song of the postilion re-echoed by the mountains, along with the bells of goats and the muffled sound of a waterfall; at sunset on the shores of gulfs to breathe in the perfume of lemon trees; then in the evening on the villa-terraces above, hand in hand to look at the stars, making plans for the future. It seemed to her that certain places on earth must bring happiness, as a plant peculiar to the soil, and that cannot thrive elsewhere. Why could not she lean over balconies in Swiss chalets, or enshrine her melancholy in a Scotch cottage, with a husband dressed in a black velvet coat with long tails, and thin shoes, a pointed hat and frills? (Part one, chapter seven)

Thus Flaubert, skewering the shallow tropes of popular fiction.

Emma hoped the confident amiable young doctor had come to take her away from a life of rural boredom. Instead she finds herself trapped in an arguably even worse life of small-town boredom.

Perhaps she would have liked to confide all these things to someone. But how tell an undefinable uneasiness, variable as the clouds, unstable as the winds? Words failed her – the opportunity, the courage. If Charles had but wished it, if he had guessed it, if his look had but once met her thought, it seemed to her that a sudden plenty would have gone out from her heart, as the fruit falls from a tree when shaken by a hand. But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him. (Part one, chapter seven)

A trajectory of alienation which continues throughout the book, until Emma comes to loathe and detest everything about Charles.


What Flaubert hated, what terrified him most, was banality. Life is banal and, oh God, people are so trite and shallow. In their different ways, Charles and Emma are almost spiteful portraits of dullness.

Charles’s conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everyone’s ideas trudged past, in their everyday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.

And poor Emma, the heroine around which these four hundred pages rotate, is an embodiment of the inchoate longing for adventure, for romance, for something, in the mind of a silly, shallow, provincial young woman, trapped by her narrow upbringing, limited life opportunities and her own trite personality.

Life in 1840s rural France seems almost unbearably dull to us, reading the book in the 21st century – but was doubly so for women who lived virtually under house arrest. Of course, she could go out whenever she liked, except that, in the dull little towns where the couple lived, there was almost nothing to do and no-one to see.

The thought of having a male child afforded her a kind of anticipatory revenge for all her past helplessness. A man, at least, is free. He can explore the passions and the continents, can surmount obstacles, reach out to the most distant joys. But a woman is constantly thwarted. At once inert and pliant, she has to contend with both physical weakness and legal subordination. Her will is like the veil on her bonnet, fastened by a single string and quivering at every breeze hat blows. Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains. (Part two, chapter three)


The story of this small-town tragedy unfolds with a kind of grim inevitability. Flaubert pinpoints with surgical precision the moments where Emma slowly realises she doesn’t love Charles, then chafes at her restricted life, then begins to dislike Charles, then ends up passionately hating him.

This makes her ill, stressed and unhappy. She loses appetite. Charles and his domineering mother, blissfully unaware of her feelings, decide a change of scene is called for and they move to a different town, the (fictional) rural town of Yonville. This is the setting of most of the story.

Against the rhythms of rural and small town life, against the backdrop of the Wednesday market and the Agricultural Show attended by the Department Prefect (part two, chapter 8), we watch Emma:

  • get pregnant, desperately hope it will be a boy who she can project her wish for freedom onto, and sink into despair when it is a girl, who she resents and never bonds with
  • has an almost wordless, touchless, intense passion with a young law student, Léon Dupuis, who shares her naive love of literature and music – perversely she doesn’t return his obvious admiration and he leaves to study in Paris, plunging her deeper into despair

It is then that she is spotted by Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy local landowner and experienced womaniser. With cold calculation he sets out to seduce Emma and add her to his list of conquests.

If he is what we nowadays call a ‘sexual predator’, Emma is far from helpless victim. She is depicted as self-centred and heartless – her lack of affection for her own little girl is quite upsetting to anyone who’s been a parent.

And Flaubert depicts with quite haunting insight the development of their affair, its ups and downs, as both parties are by turns genuinely carried away with love and lust, or have moments of doubt and repulsion, return to the fray willing it to remain heady and romantic, become slightly hardened… and so on.

In other words, there are no heroes or villains, everyone is portrayed with a clinical detachment, sometimes with tones of compassion, sometimes broad satire (the chorus of gossipy townspeople), sometimes bordering on contempt.


Stupid young married woman is seduced by cynical womaniser, has further affairs, runs up huge bills  – then kills herself. It’s not a novel you read for the plot. Instead, it’s a book you can open at any page and immediately enjoy for the precision and deftness of its style. God, it’s good writing, even in translation. Here are the household servants.

‘Let me alone,’ Felicity said, moving her pot of starch. ‘You’d better be off and pound almonds; you are always dangling about women. Before you meddle with such things, bad boy, wait till you’ve got a beard to your chin.’
‘Oh, don’t be cross! I’ll go and clean her boots,’ replied Justin.
And he at once took down from the shelf Emma’s boots, all coated with mud, the mud of the rendezvous, that crumbled into powder beneath his fingers, and that he watched as it gently rose in a ray of sunlight. (Part three, chapter twelve)


And the conception, the composition, feels so right. If the plot isn’t exactly original, it unfurls with a kind of stately orderliness and clarity. Although it is categorised as a ‘realist’ novel, there are in fact many scenes which seem pregnant with an almost medieval sense of allegory and deeper meaning.

In part two, chapter six, Emma hears the church bell of Yonville ringing and is suddenly overcome by the need to confess and unburden herself. She bustles along to the church but there follows an excruciating scene where she tries to hint and convey to the curé that all is not well, but he is hopelessly distracted by a class of unruly young boys he is trying to teach the catechism. Eventually Emma leaves having said nothing, with all her frustration redoubled and bottled up. Back at the house she sits in an agony of frustrated unhappiness while her poor little daughter, Berthe, comes tugging at her skirt, wanting to play. Emma tells her to go away but like all toddlers she comes back and then Emma snaps and pushes her hard with her elbow. With perfect inevitability, Berthe falls backwards and cuts her cheek against the curtain holder, at which Emma snaps out of her misery and panics, shrieking for the maid and then for Charles who comes running. All are impressed by Emma’s doting hyper-care for the child; only we, the reader, have any idea at all of the raging turmoil in her mind which drove her to be so thoughtless.

The whole incident unfolds with the heavy inevitability of a Greek tragedy yet at the same time is entirely naturalistic. There’s nothing forced or symbolic or precious about it. This, you feel, is how life is, made up of silly frustrations, unhappinesses, angers and accidents.

But the way Flaubert chooses and selects these moments is almost breath-taking. ‘Realism’ sounds like it ought to be dull, but Flaubert’s selection of just the right psychological and emotional moments from this tawdry story means that every single scene is alive with meaning and intensity.

And the words. The extremely careful phrasing of every sentence which is used to depict all these charged scenes.

The furniture in its place seemed to have become more immobile, and to lose itself in the shadow as in an ocean of darkness. The fire was out, the clock went on ticking, and Emma marvelled at this calm of all things while within herself was such tumult. But little Berthe was there, between the window and the work-table, tottering on her knitted shoes, and trying to come to her mother to catch hold of the ends of her apron-strings.
‘Leave me alone,’ said Emma, putting her from her with her hand.
The little girl soon came up closer against her knees, and leaning on them with her arms, she looked up with her large blue eyes, while a small thread of pure saliva dribbled from her lips on to the silk apron.
‘Leave me alone,’ repeated the young woman quite irritably.

The ticking clock, the spool of spittle, all scream out Emma’s unbearable unhappiness. Character, mood and emotion is portrayed with stunning brilliance on every page. This is what makes Madame Bovary a masterpiece. Here is Charles, alone by the body of Emma, after she’s died and been dressed for her funeral by the village women.

It was the last time; he came to bid her farewell.

The aromatic herbs were still smoking, and spirals of bluish vapour blended at the window-sash with the fog that was coming in. There were few stars, and the night was warm. The wax of the candles fell in great drops upon the sheets of the bed. Charles watched them burn, tiring his eyes against the glare of their yellow flame.

The watering on the satin gown shimmered white as moonlight. Emma was lost beneath it; and it seemed to him that, spreading beyond her own self, she blended confusedly with everything around her – the silence, the night, the passing wind, the damp odours rising from the ground.


If Flaubert is harsh on the self deceptions of the lovers – Emma herself, the calculating cad Rodolphe, the genuinely intoxicated young Leon – and gives an unflinching portrait of Charles’s dull obtuseness and the bossiness of his domineering mother, always ready to stick her oar in – an under-appreciated aspect of the book is its broad humour.

Comedy is harder to quote or pick out of a novel than its countless serious strands and issues. It generally needs more context or build-up. But there’s a kind of Dad’s Army, warm humour about Flaubert’s depictions of the inhabitants of the Norman village. If they can be caught out in petty hypocrisies or pompous speeches or absent-minded behaviour or gossiping, they will be.

A lot rotates around the figure of Homais, the pompous village chemist, who fancies himself as a scientific pioneer, quietly breaks the law by giving medical consultations on the side, and also largely writes the little local paper. Flaubert gives us big quotes from this august journal, allowing us to judge for ourselves its pompous provincial quality.

There’s a classic scene which takes a bit of explaining: Charles’s father dies of a stroke. Charles is so upset he deputes Homais to tell Emma. Homais, in his self-important way, writes a long speech (tearing up numerous drafts in order to arrive at just the right slow revelation of this tragic occurrence.)

And so Homais sends his boy to fetch Emma and tell her it’s important. She is walking by the river, but when the boy tells her something serious has happened and she must come to Monsieur Homais’ at once, she is understandably panic-stricken. But – and here’s the comic denouement – when Emma arrives breathless and anxious, she finds Homais in a fury because his assistant has gone into his inner sanctum and meddled with his chemistry equipment. Emma repeatedly asks what is the important message, while Homais rants and shouts at his poor cowering assistant.

Finally, in a paroxysm of anger, Homais turns to Emma and declares ‘Charles’s father has died,’ then returns to chastising his assistant. See, it’s not very funny when I write it down here. But if you are properly absorbed in the world of the book and its characters and the flow of the narrative, I found it very funny and it is clearly intended to be funny.

Similarly, at the end of the book, as Emma lies slowly dying, Charles sends messages for help to the two most senior doctors in the neighbourhood. After quickly examining the patient, the most senior one concludes there is no hope (he is correct) and, none of them wanting to be associated with death (bad for business), they eagerly take up Monsieur Homais’s invitation to cross the road to his house for a slap-up lunch – which is the point where his wife begins fussing that she doesn’t have fine food suitable for such eminences and sends out in a fluster for some luxury fare.

I grew up in a village. I have kids of my own and a network of family, cousins, in-laws, all with their foibles and peculiarities. My parents have died, friends have died, I’ve seen people behave very oddly around bereavements and funerals: the strongest collapse in tears, the weakest turn out to be brilliant at organising the funeral, some just can’t face it, can’t face death.

Without trying very hard I’ve come across commentary on the internet describing the behaviour of Homais and the doctors as ‘despicable’ and ‘contemptible’, but this seems to me much too harsh, simplistic and judgmental. Their behaviour is human, all-too-human. The judgers obviously haven’t learned from Shakespeare that something can be intensely tragic and howlingly funny at the same time – the message also conveyed 400 years later by Samuel Beckett. And maybe they haven’t been at many death beds or attended many funerals.

In fact, at a pinch, this could be taken as the humanist message of ‘literature’ – that people are complex, really complex, that what outsiders regard as ‘positive’ traits, can be mixed in with ‘negative’ traits, that people’s feelings and motivations fluctuate from moment to moment. It is as if modern readers took the moment when Emma pushes her daughter over as the one and only moment which Defines Her Character and condemn her as a Bad Mother.

That is to take a legalistic, social worker-cum-Nazi informer view of human nature, where one chance action or one chance remark against the Great Leader, condemns a person for life.

Literature – or some kinds of relatively modern literature – are intended to work precisely against simple-minded judgementalism and to show human beings in all their contradictoriness. The public prosecutor in Rouen didn’t understand this, and saw only a story about an immoral woman. It is disheartening, but not that surprising, that in our own hyper-judgmental times, many teachers and students of literature take a similarly one-dimensional, judgmental view of Flaubert’s characters.

Not that he’d have been surprised. It is exactly what he’d have expected.


As befits such a classic, Madame Bovary has been translated into English numerous times.

Madame Bovary, 1886 by Eleanor Marx-Aveling
Madame Bovary, 1928 by James Lewis May
Madame Bovary, 1946 by Gerald Hopkins
Madame Bovary, 1950 by Alan Russell
Madame Bovary, 1957 by Francis Steegmuller
Madame Bovary, 1959 by Lowell Bair
Madame Bovary, 1964 by Mildred Marmur
Madame Bovary, 1965 by Paul de Man
Madame Bovary, 1992 by Geoffrey Wall
Madame Bovary, 2010 by Lydia Davis
Madame Bovary, 2011 by Adam Thorpe

I read the old 1950 Penguin translation by Alan Russell, but I’ve quoted from the only version which seems to be available online, the one by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx-Aveling.

Gustave Courbet

Here’s a depiction of a rural funeral by the great pioneer of realism in painting, Gustave Courbet. In its sense of a) composition with large number of figures b) its emphasis on the quirks and individuality of the people depicted – their boredom, itchy noses and distracted looks, in among the expressions of genuine grief and remorse – it is very much the visual equivalent of Flaubert’s all-encompassing vision.

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)

Related links

Flaubert’s books

King John by Marc Morris (2015)

I loved Marc Morris’s History of the Norman Conquest because it gave such a thorough explanation of the background, build-up, events and consequences of the most famous moment in English history, so I was looking forward to reading this book and it is certainly good – but not as good as the Conquest one, and I spent some time, as I read it, trying to figure out why.

1. The long historical build-up to John’s reign

I think the main reason is that the central feature of King John’s reign (1199 to 1216) is the complete collapse of the huge and elaborate ’empire’ created by his predecessors – Henry I (his grandfather), the great Henry II (his father) and King Richard, his swashbuckling brother.

The pressures John faced trying to hang on to the south (Aquitaine), the middle (Anjou) and the north (Normandy) of France, along with the large and fractious realm of England, as well as managing relations with Scotland, Wales and Ireland – all these only make sense if you have a good grasp of how this patchwork ’empire’ had been slowly and effortfully acquired by his father and brother in the first place.

So anyone describing John’s reign would have to give a fair amount of space to this ‘back story’. Thus Morris has to start his story with the advent of Henry I (1100) and explain how his son and heir, William Aetheling, was lost in a disastrous shipwreck (1120) which – since Henry had no other sons – led him to the desperate expedient of trying to impose his daughter, Matilda, as his heir on his reluctant nobles. When Henry I died in 1135 Matilda’s claim was immediately contested by her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who managed to secure the throne of England and ruled as King Stephen (1135 – 1154) but under constant assault from the forces loyal to Queen Matilda in the west and north of England leading to 20 years of exhausting civil war.

Eventually, in the event-packed last few years of his reign, Stephen’s own son and heir, Eustace, died young (in 1153) and Stephen was forced to accept the son of Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey Count of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, Henry, as his heir. Geoffrey enjoyed the sportive nickname of Plantagenet, and so this name was also given to his son, Henry.

The very next year Stephen himself died (1154) and young Henry Plantagenet assumed control over a complex web of territories – England from Stephen, Normandy via his grandfather the Conqueror, Anjou, Touraine and Maine from his father and, via his shrewd marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, possession of Aquitaine, a huge slab of south-west France, maybe a third the land area of the present-day France.

Because Henry’s central inheritance (from his father, Geoffrey) was of the Duchy of Anjou, the ’empire’ is often referred to as the Angevin Empire, Angevin being the adjectival form of Anjou (as Poitevin is the adjectival version of the neighbouring region of Poitou).

Just holding on to control of these far-flung territories needed every drop of this remarkable man’s confidence, aggression, cunning and ruthlessness. But it is only by understanding how the ’empire’ came about, almost by accident, that we can understand the context of problems which he and his sons – first Richard (1189-99) and then John (1199 to 1216) – would inherit:

  • How to maintain the disparate French possessions in the face of continual uprisings by local counts and lords?
  • How to fight off the continual attacks and threats of successive French kings – Louis VII and Philip II?
  • How to keep the aggressive Scottish kings bottled up in Scotland?
  • How to secure more land in Wales?
  • How and when to interfere in the troublesome island of Ireland?
  • How to manage relations with the pope, especially when you seem to be at loggerheads with one or other of your archbishops? (England has two archbishops – of Canterbury and of York)
  • How to pay for it all by raising the maximum amount of taxes but not alienating the fractious competing nobles of England?
  • And, above all, how to manage all this while coping with all the adult members of your family politicking and conspiring against you?

This context, this historical backdrop, the events of the 60 or 70 years prior to John’s accession (in 1199) are key to understanding John’s predicament.

2. Use of flashbacks

Rather than deal with this long historical run-up in a straightforward chronological account, Morris takes the risky decision to start his narrative in the middle of John’s reign, starting with a detailed account (along with pictures and two maps) of the French King Philip II’s siege of the Plantagenet castle of Château Gaillard, on the River Seine, 20 miles south-east of Rouen in 1204.

Having painted this scene, in chapter two Morris jumps all the way back to the birth of the family empire in the early 1100s (as outlined above). Chapter three returns us to the Château Gaillard siege (which turned out to be one of the longest and most gruelling in medieval history). Chapter four jumps back again, to 1189, when Henry II died and his son Richard succeeded.

This chapter takes us through the first half of Richard’s ten-year reign – his adventures on the Third Crusade (1189-92), his capture on his return through Europe, his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and his final release after his regents in England had raised an enormous ransom for him in 1194 – then abruptly stops.

The next chapter picks up the thread of John’s reign in 1205 after the end of the Château Gaillard siege and the humiliating failure of his English nobles to join an armed flotilla designed to attack King Philip of France, then follows events of the ‘campaigning season’ of the following year, 1206.

We are just getting our head round this context when the next chapter whisks us away from all that, to pick up the second half of King Richard’s reign from 1194 and carry it on through to the first years of John’s reign, 1202.

And so on. For well over half its length the book flicks back and forward between a ‘present’ narrative and historical flashbacks. I think I can see why: he didn’t want to start his book with 60 or 70 pages of solid exposition before he gets to John’s coronation. But, for me, it doesn’t work.

Comparison with Dan Jones

It just so happens that I read Morris’s book  in parallel with Dan Jones’s jaunty, boys-own-adventure account of the entire Plantagenet dynasty. This tells the story outlined above but in a traditional chronological order and a direct comparison between the two suggests that, although Morris’s book is more scholarly and nuanced, Jones’s narrative is not only easier to read but gives you a much better cumulative sense of the issues at stake for all these rulers:

  • how the Angevin empire was originally created
  • the tremendously complex shifting alliances it required to keep it together
  • the history of the other major players involved, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, like Henry II’s rebellious children, like the pesky kings of France
  • as well as the litany of difficulties Henry, Richard and John all encountered while trying to tax the bolshy nobles of England
  • and the challenges of keeping the bloody church and interfering pope onside

To put yourself in the place of these (horrible) rulers you have to understand the constant pressure they were under from all sides (and the constant pressure they themselves exerted in the never-ending conflict which was medieval high politics). And the only hope you have of understanding why William of Scotland or Llewylyn of Wales or Louis of France attacked when and how they did, is to have a sense of the cumulative relationships between them and Henry or Richard or John, and the accumulated grudges or alliances or betrayals which feed into their behaviour.

It is hard enough to follow when presented clearly and simply so, for me, Morris’s approach made it hopelessly confusing. I quite quickly decided to read the chapters of his book out of the textual order he’s placed them in (reading chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, then 1, 3, 5, 7).


Dan Jones is shrewd to start his 600-page account of the Plantagenets with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, which really seems to be the mainspring of the whole Plantagenet story. But his chronological approach also allows him to give events a properly detailed treatment as they occur – logically enough, there is a set of chapters devoted to Henry II and Richard I, before we get to the birth and youth of John.

Morris, by contrast, often skips over these earlier events in order to get to the ostensible subject of his book the quicker. He has to tell us something about the events of earlier reigns because John grew up under them and spent most of, for example Richard’s reign (1189-1199) politicking and conspiring against his brother – but he tends to skimp on details of Richard’s activities.

Thus he tells us simply that, en route to the Holy Land in 1191, Richard conquered Cyprus, in one sentence (p.72). Jones goes into much more detail, giving us a full description of Richard’s two-pronged assault on Cyprus (pp.118-119) and giving a typical snapshot that, once he’d conquered, Richard forced all Cypriot men to shave their beards off!

Similarly, Morris skips very briskly over Richard’s time in Palestine to focus on John’s scheming back in England. But we need to understand the detail of Richard’s activities in Palestine in order to understand how and why he managed to alienate so many of his Christian allies with such parlous consequences: we need to know that he scorned Philip of France so much that Philip eventually packed up and returned to Paris. And when the vital city of Acre was finally taken from the Muslims after a prolonged siege in which many Christian knights died of fighting or sickness (1191), Richard managed to infuriate Leopold Duke of Austria. Leopold had been involved in the siege for a year before Richard arrived and had demanded an equal place at the front of the victorious Crusader army as it rode into the fallen city along with Richard – but Richard rejected this request and added insult to injury by having Leopold’s flag torn down from the ramparts of Acre.

These details are vital because both Philip and Leopold returned to Europe before Richard and spread the blackest possible rumours about Richard’s treachery, lack of chivalry and so on, to anyone who would listen. When Richard finally decided to abandon the Crusade and return to England (prompted by news of the ruinous feud which had grown up between his chancellor William Longchamps and his enemies supported by John) Richard discovered that he was now a wanted man across most of Western Europe. So that when his ships were blown ashore in north Italy and he tried to make his way in disguise through Austrian lands, Richard was soon recognised, arrested and taken to the court of the very same Leopold who he had so fatefully insulted in Palestine – who promptly threw him into prison.

For sure Richard’s imprisonment, and the vast ransom demanded for his release, are all dealt with by Morris because they all impinge on the state of England and on John’s scheming (John was in his late 20s during the ransom crisis) – but the story makes much more sense, acquires a fuller depth of meaning, if you’ve been given a really good account of Richard’s activities in Palestine, and this Jones does better than Morris.

King John

King John

Notable aspects of John’s reign

It is in the second half of Morris’s book (chapters 9 to 14) – once he drops the flashback structure – that it becomes measurably more detailed and immersive than the Jones account. Having had a run-up of 150 pages or so you begin to have a feel for certain key players in the story – the ill-fated William de Brouze who John hounded into exile, imprisoning and starving to death his wife and son – or the remarkable William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, whose career spanned five monarchs, and who managed to survive accusations and punishments from the erratic John and went on to become guardian and regent for John’s young son, Henry III, when he succeeded in 1216.

And you get a feel for the relentless turnover of events: every year sees all the players on the board – the Scots, the Welsh, the numerous Irish and Anglo-Irish, the King of France, the nobles of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Main, Poitou, Angouleme, Gascony and so on, all girding their loins and setting off to fight each other, in a bewildering blizzard of alliances which shift and change at the drop of a hat. This second half of Morris’s book becomes really gripping, providing much more detail than Jones’s limited space can, and judiciously weighing evidence, balancing the accounts of the different contemporary chroniclers, as he gives a week by week account of John’s difficult confusing reign.

Some highlights

His reign lasted 17 years (1199 to 1216).

John Lackland While a boy under King Henry II John acquired the nickname ‘Lackland’ because his older brothers were all given substantial provinces to rule except for John, who was too young. Towards the end of his reign, the nickname was ironically revived to describe the way he had lost most of the Angevin Empire.

The loss of Brittany Arthur, Duke of Brittany From the very start of John’s reign there was an alternative ruler, Arthur, son of John’s elder son Geoffrey (who himself had died in 1186). Arthur was born in 1187 and so was 12 when King Richard died in 1199.

Arthur inherited from his father the title of Duke of Brittany, and his Breton nobles proved remarkably loyal to him, while Arthur himself sought help and advice from French King Philip II. The situation was worsened by the fact that back in 1190 Richard had officially declared the infant Arthur his legal heir (during his peace negotiations with Tancred of Sicily, p.67). On his death-bed Richard changed his mind and proclaimed John his heir, fearing Arthur was too young for the job – but the Bretons, and everyone opposed to John, took Arthur as a figurehead for their cause.

The to and fro of successive alliances and peace treaties whereby Arthur allied with Philip, then John, then Philip again, came to an end when, in one of the rare military successes of his rule, John captured Arthur, who was leading a force besieging his grand-mother, Eleanor, at the Château de Mirebeau in Anjou.

John sent his nephew to a series of castle prisons. The contemporary chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall reports the story that John sent two knights with orders to mutilate the duke but that his gaoler, Hubert de Burgh, refused to let them – a legend which quickly spread and later provided the central plotline of Shakespeare’s play, King John, as well as heaps of wonderfully sentimental Victorian illustrations, like this one.

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Young Arthur was moved to Rouen prison in 1203 and never heard of again. Quickly the rumour got about that John had had Arthur murdered, though whether getting others to do it or, in one version, murdering his nephew himself in a drunken rage, has never been confirmed. The rumour was enough for many people, nobles and commoners alike, throughout his realm, and John became known as the nephew-killer. In response the nobles of Brittany rebelled against John and he never regained their trust.

The loss of Normandy Meanwhile in 1204, to the East, King Philip II of France began a major offensive against Normandy, bypassing the stronghold of Rouen and picking off smaller towns – Falaise, Cherbourg. Rouen begged John (in England) for reinforcements and John tried to mount an armed expedition to help them, but was stymied by the reluctance of his own nobles, who showed up late or not at all. When it became clear that no help was coming from England, Rouen surrendered to King Philip and the remaining strongholds of Normandy followed suit. The 139-year union of England and Normandy, created by William the Bastard in 1066, came to an end in 1204.

The loss of Aquitaine In April 1204 Eleanor of Aquitaine died, old and full of years (a little over 80). With her died the loyalty of most of the dukes and counts of the massive region to the Plantagenet regime in the form of the unattractive John. They rose up, seized whatever strongholds remained loyal to John and, within months, the largest part of the Angevin Empire was lost.

Tough taxes With the loss of most of the Empire, John’s sphere of activity was vastly reduced and now confined to the British Isles. Here he became famous for instituting ferocious new taxes. At that time many simple activities of the nobility traditionally required permission and a nominal fee to be paid to the king, for example for the smooth succession of an heir or the arrangement of a new marriage. John pushed these customary dues much deeper into every aspect of noble life and hugely increased the fees, by up to 1,000%. Anyone who questioned his right to do so was arrested or forced into exile and their lands confiscated. There was a ‘forest tax’ for anyone found breaching the rules of the Forest. John hiked these and extended the definition of ‘forest’ to include agricultural land and even towns. There was a tax known as ‘scutage’, which knights could pay if they didn’t want to answer the king’s call to join an army: John hugely increased this and applied it for new purposes. He applied another tax known as the Thirteenth, and in 2008 another tax, known as the tallage (p.182). He relentlessly mulcted everyone and everything throughout his reign.

The failed 1205 invasion In 1205 John used this money to organise a massive invasion of Normandy, recruiting thousands of knights and soldiers and building (or hijacking) enough ships to create a war fleet of 1,500 vessels. But – at the last minute his leading nobles and knights backed out – afraid of chaos in the realm if John were killed (he had no heir), afraid they would find no support in the French realms which had so solidly gone over to King Philip, afraid of losing their lives and remaining goods.

And so John was left to gnash his teeth and weep tears of frustration. In fact John did mount several expeditions to France later in his reign, in one of them landing in Bordeau and marching inland to seize castles in his traditional heartland of Anjou. But always he had to retreat before the superior forces of King Philip II, or the Bretons or Normans or the Gascon nobles, sometimes reinforced by armies from over the border in Spain.

Two wives King John had two wives, both named Isabella. In 1189 Henry married John off to Isabella, Countess of Gloucester, when he was 23 and she was 16. In fact they were half-second cousins as great-grandchildren of Henry I, and thus within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, and on this basis John had their marriage annulled by the Church in 1199, just before he acceded to the throne. He then married Isabella of Angoulême in 1200, when she was just 12 years old. The marriage gave him possession of lands in the centre of Aquitaine but also, unfortunately, led to the enduring enmity of Hugh IX le Brun, Count of Lusignan, to whom she had been betrothed and who John was widely seen as stealing her from. The enmity of the de Lusignan family and their allies was a contributory factor to the loss of Aquitaine in 1204 when Eleanor died.

The Papal Interdict Archbishop Hubert of Canterbury died in 1205 and the monks secretly elected one of their own as his successor. King John and the English bishops refused to accept their choice and appointed John’s favorite, John de Gray, in his place. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) refused to accept either candidate and instead arranged the election of his friend Stephen Langton, in 1207. Furious, John expelled the monks of Canterbury who fled to France. The pope responded by placing England under Interdict in 1208. The interdict suspended Christian services and the administration of sacraments (except baptism, confession, and last rites). Even the dead were denied Christian burial. Ordinary people would have experienced an eerie phenomenon – for the first time in their lives church bells – which rang at numerous times of day for various services – fell silent and remained silent. John in fact turned the situation to his advantage, imposing lucrative fines and threatening imprisonment to bully the clergy. Innocent III retaliated by excommunicating John and eventually declared John ‘deposed’ in 1212, absolving his subjects of their allegiance to him.

In fact John, at a low point in his fortunes in 1213, made the shrewd move of completely and totally humbling himself to the papal legate, declaring England as the pope’s belonging and himself only a humble vassal. Innocent II was delighted and from that point onwards (for the last three years of his life) treated John with notable indulgence and favouritism. The interdict was lifted and after five long years, the church bells of England were allowed to ring again.

The Jews There were probably only a few thousand Jews in all of Britain, but they were in a vulnerable position. They were allowed to carry on the business of lending money – forbidden to Christians – but only on the king’s sufferance. The crusading fervour at the very end of Henry’s rule led to violent anti-Jewish pogroms on the day of Richard’s coronation and for weeks afterwards, leading to the horrible climax of the entire Jewish community of York being hounded into York castle and preferring mass suicide to facing the baying mob outside. In 1210 John imposed a massive tax or ‘tallage’ in 1210, extracting some £44,000 from the community. At first he wanted only a percentage of their loans but this escalated to become a percentage of all their possessions. Roger of Wendover tells the gruesome story of a Jew of Bristol who was imprisoned and had one tooth knocked out every day until he gave in and handed over all his wealth to the king. Leading Jews were hanged as an example. And then, in John’s last full year of 1215, there were further attacks on the Jews, extracting money under torture. It took the Jewish community a generation to recover population and belongings after this onslaught.

Scotland When he came to power John turned down King William the Lion of Scotland’s demand to have the province of Northumbria returned to him. The two remained on reasonable terms until in 1209 John heard rumours that William planned to ally with King Philip of France. John invaded Scotland and forced William to sign the Treaty of Norham, which gave John control of William’s daughters and required a payment of £10,000.

Ireland John was made ‘Lord of Ireland’ by his father as long back as 1177, when he was just 11. When just 19 he was sent there by his father but, along with his youthful courtiers, created a very bad impression, making fun of the local nobles’ long beards. During his reign there was conflict not only between the caste of Anglo-Irish rulers who had settled in Ireland since the Conquest, and the native lords, but also among the natives themselves. John played all sides off against the other, and in 1210 led a major expedition to Ireland to crush a rebellion by the Anglo-Irish lords and impose English laws and customs.

Wales was divided into roughly three parts, the border or ‘marcher’ regions with England, ruled over by a handful of powerful Anglo-Norman lords, south Wales/Pembrokeshire owned by the king directly, and wilder North Wales. The leading figure was Llywelyn the Great, to whom John married off one of his illegitimate daughters, Joan, in 1204. In 1210 and 11 Llywelyn launched raids into England. John retaliated by supporting a range of Llywelyn’s enemies in the south and in 2011 launched a massive raid into North Wales. However Llywelyn’s forces retreated and John’s army was reduced to near starvation in the barren lands around Snowdonia. But the next year he came back on a better planned attack, ravaging Llywelyn’s heartlands, burning villages, towns and cities, until Llywelyn sent his wife, John’s daughter, as emissary to beg for peace. Peace was signed at, of course, a steep price, then John sent his mercenary warlords into South Wales to secure the territory and build defensive castles.

By 1212 John had lost almost the entire continental empire, but solidly secured the grip of the English crown over the neighbouring British countries. But all mention of peace is deceptive, even inappropriate in the context of the Middle Ages. The very next year John had to go to the aid of William of Scotland who faced pressing danger from a usurper and had barely finished doing this before Llywelyn led a concerted attack to reclaim his lost territory in north Wales, along with uprisings by lords in central Wales.

Basically, every year there was conflict – and in more than one theatre of war – with players shifting alliances from year to year based on short-term strategy. This is what makes medieval history so difficult to follow in any detail.

The Battle of Bouvines I’d never heard of this battle, but both Jones and Morris says it has a similar talismanic importance in the history of France as the Battle of Hastings has for England. It was the climax of the series of incursions John made into French territory in the previous few years. John had amassed a force of English nobles and foreign mercenaries (all paid for by his brutal taxation) and was campaigning in central France, while his allies – a force of German, English and Flemish soldiers – was being led by Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor, in the north. John’s plan was for his forces to draw King Philip II south while his German allies took Paris, leading to the decisive crushing of King Philip, for him to regain all his lost French land and the Emperor Otto to seize the Low Country.

In fact John had already suffered a defeat when he was forced to abandon the siege of La Roche-au-Moine due to the reluctance of his Poitevin allies to engage in a pitched battle against King Philip’s son, Louis. In the retreat his infantry were badly mauled and he only just made it back to La Rochelle, losing all the gains of the campaign to the French.

So everything now depended on the northern army of the Emperor. This caught up with Philip’s main army on 27 July 1214, and rapidly attacked. The battle turned into confused mayhem but slowly the cavalry charges of the French began to tell. By the end of the day the Emperor had fled, his army was defeated, and a collection of rebel nobles had fallen into Philip’s hands.

From the French point of view, their strongest enemies had created their strongest possible alliance and thrown everything against the French – and failed. A chapel was built, Masses were sung everywhere, the students of Paris danced in the streets for a week, according to one chronicler. The Battle of Bouvines confirmed the French crown’s sovereignty over the Angevin lands of Brittany and Normandy, and lost them forever to the English crown. It was the climax of John’s decade of brutal taxation and war plans: and it was a complete failure.

A few hours of bloody mayhem at Bouvines had confirmed that [John]’s loss of Normandy, Brittany and Anjou would be permanent. (p.235)

Magna Carta

The barons’ rebellion The failure of this campaign tipped many of England’s nobles over into open rebellion. Morris says there were about 160 barons in England and now most of them openly denounced and defied John. For several years there had been calls to return to the good old days of Henry II or even before, embodied in calls to restore the charter Henry II issued on his accession. Numerous hands – probably involving the archbishop – were involved in creating a draft document which started with traditional calls for good rule but then went on to address specific issues of John’s reign. The climax of the Barons’ Rebellion came when one of their forces – a self-proclaimed ‘army of God’ – seized London ahead of John’s representatives in May 2015. Now they had access to all his treasure and the taxation rolls of the Exchequer.

John camped with his forces at Windsor and representatives of both sides met half way, in the meadows at Runnymede. Here the document we call Magna Carta took shape and was swiftly stamped and agreed by John.

The key thing about Magna Carta is that it was a peace treaty between the two armed sides; and that it failed. Within weeks open conflict broke out again and John took his foreign mercenaries on a rampage through East Anglia, killing and raping all the supporters of the rebel barons, destroying crops in the fields, burning everything. It was on this last final orgy of destruction that he decided to take a short cut across the Wash into Lincolnshire but was caught by the tide and lost his entire baggage train, including all his jewellery and treasure, the crown of England and his priceless collection of Holy Relics. And he got dysentery. It was a blessing for everyone when he died on 19 October 1216.

There is no doubting John was a wicked, evil man, a coward who screwed his country and tortured countless victims in order to extract a vast fortune from his subjects which he then squandered on mismanaged military campaigns. He lost almost the entire Angevin Empire which he’d inherited, and he left his country in a state of bitter civil war.

Morris’s book includes at the end a full translation of the Magna Carta into English but that is all. Obviously his preceding historical account gives a blow-by-blow description of the events leading up to it, and to the issues raised by John’s misrule, which the charter seeks to address and limit. And briefly describes how the charter – a failure in its own day – was reissued under later kings, widely distributed, and became a set of standards to which medieval kings could be held to account. But somehow just stopping with the translation and nothing more felt a bit… abrupt.

Plantagenet trivia

  • King Henry I carried out a brutal recoinage of the realm’s money in 1125 in which he ordered the mutilation of all his moneyers – the people who had official permission to mint coins, namely the removal of their right hands and genitals
  • Right at the end of his life Henry II took the Cross with a view to going on Crusade and recapturing Jerusalem. In 1188 he instituted ‘the Saladin Tithe‘, a levy of 10% on all revenues and movable properties across England. In the end it raised some 100,000 marks, though Henry died before he could go on Crusade. The administrative machinery created to claim the tithe was used four years later to raise the enormous ransom required to free Richard I from his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor.
  • King Richard founded Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard.
  • Richard in his usual impetuous way, finding himself in negotiation with Tancred ruler of Sicily, promised to betrothe Arthur (then aged 4) to one of Tancred’s daughters (aged 2), though the wedding never took place.
  • In his passion to go on crusade, Richard weakened the Crown by selling off or mortgaging a huge number of Crown lands and goods. He is said to have quipped, ‘I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.’
  • King John founded Liverpool in 1207.
  • the word Exchequer derives from the large chequered cloth laid out a table on which debts were counted out using a device like an abacus (p.167).


  • amercement – a financial penalty in English law, common during the Middle Ages, imposed either by the court or by peers
  • castellan – the governor or captain of a castellany and its castle
  • distrain – seize (someone’s property) in order to obtain payment of rent or other money owed
  • interdict –  in the Roman Catholic church a punishment by which the faithful, while remaining in communion with the church, are forbidden certain sacraments and prohibited from participation in certain sacred acts
  • forest eyre – the main court of the Forest Law in the medieval period was the Forest Eyre, which was held at irregular intervals by itinerant justices
  • Forest Law – laws separate from English Common Law designed to protect game animals and their forest habitats from destruction. Forest Law offenses were divided into two categories: trespass against the vert (the vegetation of the forest) and the venison (the game).
  • justiciar – a regent and deputy presiding over the court of a Norman or early Plantagenet king of England
  • moneyer – any private individual who is officially permitted to mint money
  • scutage – also called shield money (from the Latin scutum meaning ‘shield’) in feudal law payment made by a knight to commute the military service that he owed his lord
  • tallage – a form of arbitrary taxation levied by kings on the towns and lands of the Crown

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