‘Damnatio memoriae’ or the ghost in the historical record?

Nobody likes King John of England. Apart from a handful of English protestants and  some London scholars, everybody thinks he was, to quote one illustrious historian, ‘shit’. And yet, would this quasi-unanimous assessment justify that John should be excised from history? Nobody thinks that nowadays, when even detritus has value, if you’re in Pompei. But back in the fourteenth century, things may have been a bit different.

As far as I know, King John never generated enough anger as to raise the question of whether he should be banned from the historical record. He was part of a dark chapter of English history, but no  more than that. Yet, a fourteenth century commentator of Dante’s Commedia may offer a different perspective. Benvenuto da Imola, one of the best earlier commentators of the Commedia notes that King Henry III of England was King Richard’s son when we know of course that Henry was John’s son.

Vedete il re. Hic Sordellus nominat alium spiritum illustrem Henricum regem Angliae. Iste fuit filius Richardi valentissimi, qui mirabilia fecit strenue contra Saladinum; qui Henricus fuit vir bonus, et bonae fidei possessor, sed habuit heredem meliorem se per contrarium Petri et Caroli, scilicet Adoardum virum valentissimum. Dicit ergo: il re de la semplice vita, fuit simplex et purus, sed non strenuus, sicut pater et filius, scilicet, Arrigo d’Inghilterra seder là solo; ponit ipsum solum, quia solus fuit simplex in numero regum Angliae, qui fuerunt communiter astuti valde; vel quia solitarius non gaudebat conversatione hominum, vel quia anglicus: Anglia enim angulus terrae est reposita in Oceano occidentali. Unde Virgilius: Et penitus toto divisos orbe britannos. Questi, scilicet, rex Henricus, ha ne’ rami suoi, scilicet, Anglia, Scotia et aliis insulis, miglior uscita, idest, meliorem filium, scilicet Adoardum, qui tunc vivebat.

Benvenuto da Imola (1375-80), Purgatorio 7.130-132

So what are we to make of this? It seems to me that either Benvenuto’s source was faulty (and I am not aware of any textual tradition whereby Henry’s uncle becomes his daddy), or John was the victim of a conspiracy to cut him off from history.

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