The Milemete Treatise and Companion Secretum Secretorum: Iconography, Audience, and Patronage in Fourteenth-Century England
by Libby Karlinger Escobedo
The Edwin Mellen Press, Lampeter, UK, 2011
242 pp., illus. 8 col. $130 USD
Reviewed by Rob Harle
This book is primarily written for manuscript scholars, historians, and medievalists. It presents the extensive research carried out by Dr Libby Escobedo into two fascinating illuminated manuscripts created in England in the fourteenth century — The Milemete Treatise and Companion Secretum Secretorum. Escobedo's research challenges the existing, fairly scant literature concerning these manuscripts, and, in doing so, she has written a book that is both informative and a highly enjoyable read.
Previous studies of these treatises seemed to suggest that they were created for Edward III and that Isabella of France was the patron responsible for commissioning Walter de Milemete to produce them. It is these two concerns that Escobedo convincingly argues against. She shows that the treatises were originally intended for Edward II but were changed during their creation as Edward's rule came to a disgraceful end, and that Walter was his own patron, so to speak, which was a way to advance himself academically (and financially) in this era. “Walter de Milemete, king's clerk, must have begun work on his manuscripts prior to the invasion in September 1326. As it became apparent that Edward II would lose his throne, Walter, perhaps hoping for royal patronage, quickly modified the manuscripts before presenting them to the new king [Edward III] as a coronation gift” (p. 196).
The book consists of a Forward by Dr. Colum Hourihane, an Introduction, which is followed by 10 chapters, a Conclusion, Appendices, Index, and an excellent Bibliography. There are eight high quality colour plates, four from each treatise to give the reader a good idea of the style, colours, layout, and subject matter of the illuminated manuscripts. The chapters are as follows:
1 – The Historical Context
2 – The Texts
3 – The Illumination Programs
4 – Summary of the State of the Manuscripts
5 – The Question of Patronage
6 – The Heraldry
7 – The Appropriateness of the Content for Edward II
8 – Alterations to the Milemete Treatise
9 – Additions to the Milemete Treatise
10 – Illumination Programs and the Education of Edward III
In the process of discussing and presenting evidence to support her claims, Escobedo's writing has the secondary benefit of conveying a real sense of the politics, the social customs, and deceit practised by individuals in “high” places in fourteenth century England and France. This adds considerable interest to an otherwise fairly circumspect academic study.
This brings me to two points of minor criticism. Firstly, the book is highly suitable for the lay reader with a general interest in history, medieval royalty and old manuscripts; however, the price tag of $130 will be out of reach for most of these readers. After all it is only a slim volume of 242 pages. One would also hope that at this price the book would be printed on acid free (archival quality) paper; there is no such indication of this being the case. Secondly, the book does not have a glossary of medieval, arcane words, and terms; this means only specialist manuscript scholars will not have to run to the dictionary quite as often as I had to. This is more a criticism of the lack of insight of the publisher than of Escobedo's work per se.
This aside the book is a valuable addition to the literature of medieval and manuscript studies and as such essential reading for scholars and students working in these disciplines.