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The Incredible Fulk

October 14, 2012

Hi,

I was going to write about time travel today. I went to see the film “Looper” last night and it inevitably started me thinking about the idea of time travel and where I might pick to travel to and why, but I dismissed the idea of writing about it as I thought it might just turn into a creative writing exercise! Instead, I thought that I would write about somebody who seems rather relevant to the news this week – although it might not be possible to immediately see the connection.

Fulk III of Anjou (972-1040)has always seemed to me to be one of the most emblematic people to emerge from the Middle Ages. Fulk was the Count of Anjou and inherited the title at the age of just 17 when his father died. He quickly became the most feared figure in France  – known as Fulk Nerra or Le Noir, “The Black”, because of his savage temperament, violent destruction of his enemies and other savage acts. Yet despite this, or more probably because of it, he was also known for his immense piety, his pilgrimages and the foundation of the great church of Conquereuil. These two competing aspects of Fulk seem to me to be emblematic of the dichotomy of the Middle Ages; an era famed for its tremendous art inspired by religion and its tremendous and bloody wars that were often inspired by the same thing.

Modern scholars resent the stereotypical view of the Medieval period as bloody and violent but there is no getting away from the fact that it was. Whilst the savagery of the age was far from its only aspect the fact is that life was often short, hard and brought to a painful and brutal end, whatever your station in life. The career of Fulk is a great example of this. His most infamous act occurred in December 999 when he discovered that his wife, Elizabeth of Vendome, had allegedly committed adultery with a local farmer. Before establishing the veracity of this accusation Fulk had his wife burned at the stake  (in her wedding dress) in the middle of a public square. Even in Medieval terms that was pretty nasty.

His reputation didn’t stop there however. Fulk was a notorious robber baron who would stop at nothing to increase his territory or defend his interests. This was fairly run of the mill amongst his peer group – it was kind of what Medieval lords did – but Fulk always did things to the power of ten. The historian Henry Fichtenau has this to say about him:

“Fulk of Anjou, plunderer, murderer, robber, and swearer of false oaths, a truly terrifying character of fiendish cruelty, founded not one but two large abbeys. This Fulk was filled with unbridled passion, a temper directed to extremes. Whenever he had the slightest difference with a neighbor he rushed upon his lands, ravaging, pillaging, raping, and killing; nothing could stop him, least of all the commandments of God.”

(Henry Fichtenau, AD 1000: Living in the Tenth Century, Seastone, Berkeley, 1998)

Yet, in Fichtenau’s quote lies the element where Fulk becomes even more interesting. This man who raped, pillaged, murdered and broke oaths, spent the rest of his time in acts of astonishing pilgrimage and piety. This was the man who made pilgrimages to the Holy Land in 1002, 1007 and 1038. In, one presumes, an effort to atone for his sins he made these incredibly difficult, dangerous and costly journeys. A particularly impact for Fulk must have been the fact that by leaving his lands behind he was opening himself up to potential attacks on his territory whilst in absentia. It is tempting to think of him being trapped in a tragic cycle where every time he returned from pilgrimage he was forced into savage and bloody reprisals against the people who had tried to take advantage of his absence!

The Castle at Montbazon – Fulk’s method of control.

Fulk was also a tremendous builder and his schizophrenic qualities are well attested to by this. He was famous as one of the first great castle builders – not because of a deep or profound interest in architecture but as a way of enforcing his rule over his subjects in Anjou. Fulk’s castles were intended as symbols of his power and practical defensive structures to maintain security. Some of these buildings still remain including the great donjon that he constructed at Montbazon. Yet, Fulk’s most famous building project was a great abbey at Beaulieu les Loches where he was eventually buried in 1040.

Some of the earliest building at Beaulieu Les Loches – A very public statement of faith.

So what has Fulk to do with the news this week? Well I suppose he sprang to mind after hearing about the shocking assassination of a 14 year old girl by men who claim to be doing God’s work. It’s a simplistic analogy but perhaps it helps to try to understand it when you consider a figure from the past whose capacity for extreme and tremendous violence was equalled only by his public acts of devotion to his faith. The “double-mind” that is required to act in that way is clearly a part of human nature – horrific, unsavoury but ever present.

Have a good week,

Steve

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