My work on Alice Perrers, a woman much reviled since the 14th century, has inspired a fascination with reputations—or, more specifically, why we give them such credence. We limit our understanding of the world when we base our opinions on reputations rather than ferreting out the facts for ourselves.
Alice’s reputation was based on the opinion of a monk, Walsingham, who took little trouble distinguishing between his heavily prejudiced and overblown opinions and and the truth, and a parliament looking for a scapegoat. And although historians and antiquarians admitted their dissatisfaction with the theories they set forth regarding her parentage, no one ever seems to have questioned whether or not Perrers was her maiden name. Even worse, their half-baked theories were accepted by those who came after. Nor did they seem to question the incredible power over the king and his household that Walsingham and the Parliament had ascribed to a female commoner. Could they not see that her reputation was exaggerated? Couldn’t I? I admit, I misused Alice in earlier books.
But we were not alone; all of us do this all the time. We accept others’ opinions about people as fact. Shortcuts are useful. Still, at least in one’s profession….
So I’m hooked on this topic. In October I’ll be delivering a lecture at Stanford University on medieval reputations. I’ll have the great honor of sharing the stage with Gary Alan Fine, who wrote Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial. I’m also exploring other medieval people whose reputations strike me as too simplistic.
Needless to say, I’ll be sharing my immersion in medieval reputations on this blog. And I hope to have some guests sharing their thoughts on the topic as well.
According to the OED (confession—I love the Oxford English Dictionary):
The second definition for reputation is: “The common or general estimate of a person with respect to character or other qualities; the relative estimation or esteem in which a person or thing is held.” This isn’t about anyone’s personal experience of the subject, but a vague consensus. Curiouser and curiouser.
But I really like this one, the first definition of “reputation” in the OED, which is labeled “obsolete; rare”: “Opinion, supposition; also, the opinion or view of one about something.” Aha!
I’m having a think….
Meanwhile, medievalist.net has posted a lovely review of THE KING’S MISTRESS and an interview with me that we recorded during the medieval congress at Western Michigan U here: