2. The Story of William Clerk
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Chapter 2 • The Story of William Clerk In the last chapter, something that looked like a secret Usk had deliberately concealed proved to be written all over his book, a treacherous and self-aggrandizing act he had reason to regret but not to hide. Deeds done, however, are not the only cause of guilt. Might Usk’s secret have to do not with something he had done, but with something he could too easily do, or even something he knew and could too easily say? Writers who fear censorship come to regard their own pages with the censor’s eye.1 Under the year 1401, Usk tells of an unlucky conversation in which John Trefnant, bishop of Hereford, silenced him. Wenzel IV, king of Bohemia , had been deposed as German emperor, and Rupert of Bavaria substituted for him. The new emperor sent “solemn ambassadors” to England in hopes of a marriage alliance, and to these I said privately, “Surely the King of Bohemia, once elected, holds the empire? So whence this new election of yours, when the first has not been quashed?” One great clerk among them answered me, “Because he was useless, and was still uncrowned by the pope, the electors did this.” Then I said, “According to the chapter Venerabilem, from De lectionibus, this function distinctly and solely pertains to the pope, because The Story of William Clerk 29 he transferred the empire from the Greeks to the Germans.” Then the bishop of Hereford told me to be quiet.2 Trefnant intervened in chatter gone awry. Awry how? Those who have wondered have assumed that Usk offended the Germans,3 but their “great clerk,” unoffended, continued the conversation by sharing with him some witty verses (“in which I rejoice”) on simony.4 This obliviousness to offense suggests that the bishop’s nervousness lay elsewhere. The context shows where. Immediately preceding this paragraph is the story of William Clerk that I quoted in the introduction and here give in full: On Mardi Gras, one William Clerk—scribe of Canterbury, born in the county of Chester—having been condemned by the Court of Chivalry, and deprived first of his tongue, because he had spoken against the king (he put these things on others), and second of the hand with which he had written them, is, third, by the penalty of talion, because he did not prove his false declarations, at the Tower, beheaded.5 The connection with Usk’s faux pas will emerge, but this passage brings its own problems. Those who have thought about it seem quietly to have agreed that this never happened, or at least that its report has been mangled beyond recovery. That Given-Wilson’s impeccably documented edition does not trouble to footnote this paragraph silently classes it with absurd stuff like the birth of a two-tailed, two-headed calf.6 Paul Strohm, commenting on this episode in passing, is circumspect about its reliability , allowing that it may be an “invention”; later he attributes composition of the chronicle to Usk’s “later years.”7 Their doubts are easily understood because the story is improbable on its face. The Court of Chivalry had jurisdiction over matters arising from knightly service and the laws of war. Parliament, it is true, had complained for years that Chivalry habitually operated outside its sphere of competence, but these complaints 30 Chapter 2 concerned its tendency to become an alternative venue for lawsuits.8 The Court of Chivalry did have competence over treasonable acts committed in England in open war by those of knightly status. But Clerk was a scribe, not a knight. Usk says that Clerk was executed for the crime of writing, which would make him the only man in late medieval England who was. It is easy to suspect that the scene is fantasy, not only because it seems hard to credit, but also because it is structured as fantasy. What its details of date and venue claim for historicity, its symmetry and grim compression seem to deny. His trial, torture, and death—William Clerk’s entire existence in public history—take one sentence, whose verb-final construction labors to sustain a merely syntactical suspense. The threefold action is at once clinical and fairy-tale: first (primo) amputation of tongue, next (secundo) hand, and then (tercio) head. The few concrete details emerge with startling clarity from an account otherwise cloudy as a parable. Clerk’s members, seen in sharp focus at the moment of their removal, are...


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Subject Headings

  • Adam, of Usk, active 1400. Chronicon Adae de Usk, A.D. 1377-1421.
  • Adam, of Usk, active 1400 -- Literary art.
  • Written communication -- England -- History -- To 1500.
  • Great Britain -- History -- Richard II, 1377-1399 -- Historiography.
  • Great Britain -- History -- House of Lancaster, 1399-1461 -- Historiography.
  • Wales -- History -- 1063-1536 -- Historiography.
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