Originally posted 7th December 2023

The Provisions of Oxford is the name given to a collection of reform measures drawn up in 1258 by barons led by Simon de Montfort, in consultation with the knights of the shires. They were the result of a meeting of parliament in Oxford which was described by a chronicler as illud insigne parliamentum (that distinguished parliament) but since the 1800s it has become known as ‘the mad parliament’ after someone amended the word ‘insigne’ to ‘insane’ (though properly it should have been ‘insanum’).

The Provisions were designed to regulate the royal government and address issues of corruption at the shire level and were most immediately prompted by Henry III’s attempts to establish his young son Edmund as King of Sicily, requiring a substantial payment to the Pope and an invasion, and his brother Richard as Holy Roman Emperor. These experiments in foreign policy required huge amounts of taxation and Henry further alienated the barons who were responsible for granting the authority to tax by the favouritism he showed his half-brothers the Lusignans, the sons of his mother’s second marriage. At the parliament in Oxford, the barons presented Henry with a list of his failings, accused him of failing to abide by Magna Carta as he had repeatedly promised, and demanded that he abide by their proposed reforms, including expelling the Lusignans and making the exercise of his royal power subject to the approval of a council of 24 barons with all royal officials including members of the king’s household to be appointed by parliament. To underline the importance of the provisions, a proclamation about them was published all over the kingdom not only in French and Latin but also in Middle English so that commoners could also understand it.

Despite their importance, the Provisions themselves are not a formal charter or statute like Magna Carta. They have been described as something more like the minutes of a meeting. The only surviving copies are in private manuscripts, not official government records, and many of them begin ‘a remembrer fet’, meaning ‘be it remembered that’ rather than the more usual ‘provisum est’: ‘it is provided that’. The proclamation to the people of the kingdom does not list the Provisions, stating only that the king wished to establish whatever was done by his new council as an official royal command and all men were to swear to uphold the council’s decisions. However, people at the time treated the Provisions seriously; many later copies exist, sometimes compiled with other important legal and reform documents. They were also referenced in solemn oaths by the king and many noblemen who appear to have known exactly what they were swearing to uphold and the king and barons later refer to specific Provisions as if they were sections of a statute.

Despite this, the Provisions did not last as black-letter law, becoming a shorthand for Simon de Montfort’s attempts to control Henry. However, their spirit lived on; one of the first things Henry’s son Edward did upon becoming King Edward I was to conduct the Hundred Rolls enquiries, which not only collected information on royal rights but also compiled complaints about abuses by royal officials, demonstrating a determination to root out corruption himself even if it wasn’t immediately practical for him to actually deal with the volume of complaints received.

Originally posted 14th December 2023

Hanukkah 2023 runs from nightfall on the 7th December to nightfall on the 15th December: this Friday. Hanukkah commemorates the recovery of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Second Temple during the Maccabean Revolt in 2BCE. The revolt was led by four brothers of which the most notable was Judah, nicknamed Maccabee, which is believed to be related to the Aramaic word for “hammer”. During the medieval period, new legends were emerging about Hanukkah and the Maccabean revolt - this is when the first records appear of the tradition of lighting a menorah - and Judah Maccabee became a well-known figure even outside the Jewish community as one of the Nine Worthies.

The Nine Worthies were a collection of men from history, scripture and legend who were promoted as chivalric role models beginning from the 1300s, where they are first mentioned in the poem Les Voeux du Paon (The Vows of the Peacock) by Jacques de Longuyon. They consisted of three pagans - Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar - three Jews - Joshua, David, and Judah Maccabee - and three Christians - King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Boullion (the first ruler of the kingdom of Jerusalem following the First Crusade). Each group of three men was viewed as the paragons of chivalry within their respective traditions.

The Nine Worthies became a major part of chivalric art and were later joined by the nine “female worthies” or “worthy women”, though the identities of the women chosen varied.

Originally posted 21st December 2023

The appointment of a Boy Bishop was a common tradition across a lot of parishes in pre-reformation England. The premise was what it sounds like: a boy was appointed to dress as a bishop and might also be accompanied by other boys as attendant priests. He could conduct religious services - apart from mass - and gave sermons.

In England the boy bishop was chosen on the 6th of December, the Feast of St Nicholas, and according to modern boy bishop selection services the adult bishop and boy bishop would switch places during the Magnificat, at the lines “He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek”. The boy bishop then stepped down again on Holy Innocents Day, the 28th of December. During his tenure, he not only led services but might also lead processions through the town and collect monetary offerings. Especially in Suffolk, boy bishops also gave out tokens to the poor during these processions. These tokens could be exchanged for food during the boy bishop’s tenure. Such a token was recently discovered near Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk; it came from Bury St Edmunds Abbey originally, suggesting that a resident of the village on the site may have made the 27-mile journey to the festive ceremonies at Bury St Edmunds.

Since this tradition involved an element of parodying church authority it was problematic for some more orthodox views, but it could be justified with reference to scripture: not just the Magnificat, but also Isaiah’s prophecy “a little child shall lead them” and Jesus bringing young children into the midst of his disciples and saying “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these”. Despite these defences, boy bishop ceremonies and other similar social role reversal and misrule traditions were officially abolished during the reign of Henry VIII.