Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Parliamentary oratory and images – a new approach to the study of late medieval and early modern political culture

Our ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar returned for a new term with a paper given by three German scholars. Professor Dr Johannes Helmrath, Dr Jörg Feuchter and Anna-Maria Blank from Humbolt University, Berlin and Konstanz University are part of a collaborative project about late medieval and early modern political assemblies and representations of socio-political order in parliamentary oratory and images of European assemblies.

Professor Helmrath, who leads the project, began by introducing its aims and some of the research undertaken to date. Beginning in 2005, the project’s members have published a large amount of research (full list here) on what oratorical culture, speeches and images can reveal about European assemblies and parliaments. Professor Helmrath discussed some of the problems scholars face with sources, especially when trying to uncover speech and oratorical culture.  Yet the collaborative project has revealed a number of common themes about medieval and early modern parliamentary culture. The oratory culture and ceremony of these bodies did not emerge from nowhere: many were influenced by other traditions, such as churches or courts. Later, humanism and classical influences were a common factor across the different national assemblies, there were many similarities of style or shared references. Furthermore, the performance of speeches was often just as important as the words themselves, and many sources make judgements on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ oratory.

Dr Feuchter and Anna Maria Blank both shared their work as case studies in the wider project. Dr Feuchter began with his study into the oratory of the English ‘Good Parliament’ of 1376, noted for its criticism of Edward III’s government and because it was the first parliament to impeach government figures.  Discussion of the sources for the Parliament demonstrated that the official roll was highly selective. By looking at other chronicles, Dr Feuchter has been able to piece together how oratorical devices were part of the tactics used by the Commons to encourage its members in criticising the government, and push the boundaries of its role. For example, on several occasions the Speaker, Peter de la Mere, refused to deliver speeches they were expected to in order to receive concessions.

Anna-Maria Blank’s research focusses on the representation of the early modern English

Version based on Thomas Wriothesley's 'Garter Book' image
Opening of Henry VIII’s parliament (C) Palace of Westminster, WOA 1352 (Version based on Thomas Wriothesley’s ‘Garter Book’ image)

parliament in images. Her talk focussed on Sir Thomas Wriothesley’s famous portrayal of Henry VIII’s parliament in his ‘Garter Book’. Blank argued that although this image is very famous, it has not been studied in its proper context – as part of Wriothesley’s private Garter Book – and so its use has not been fully understood. For example, it would not have been a very helpful seating plan, as some have suggested, because it does not include a key! Instead part of its purpose, Blank argued, was to elevate the status of the Order of the Garter and therefore, as Garter King of Arms, Wriothesley himself.

During questions afterwards, discussion centred around the difficulties of sources, the question of language and the division between the ‘formal’, ceremonial aspects of parliamentary culture and the more ‘informal’ parliamentary management that went on behind the scenes.

The next Parliaments, Politics and People seminar will take place on Tuesday 5th November, when our very own Dr Andrew Thrush will discuss the fall of Thomas Howard,  1st Earl of Suffolk. Hope to see you there!


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