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Welsh History Review


Vol. 15, nos. 1-4 1990-91

John of Wales. a study of the works and ideas of a Thirteenth-Century friar. Book review.

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part of the historian's concerns. Third, it exercised marked influence on the thoughts
and behaviour of those who read it. Finally, it is an important contribution to the
ideology and mythology which a society inherits. It is difficult to see how it is possible
to quarrel with the view that literature has to be studied because, at once timebound
and timeless, it gives us 'direct access to the mind of the past'. Sir Keith concludes
by examining the role which literary considerations play in the writing of history,
contending that, consciously or unconsciously, they loom larger than is often
supposed if only because, whether historians like it or not, they are in fact trying to
impose literary form upon the shapeless and unmanageable mass of past experience.
Underlying this argument there seemed to be a plea that historians should remember
that history is a branch of literature and should take immense pains to write as clearly
and as effectively as possible, though the author would probably agree that many of
them already do that. The text of the lecture appears to be a masterly distillation of
profound and extensive reading and thought on its subject. One hopes that it is not
too much to suggest that it represents the first outlines of a book in which these
reflections might be deployed in greater detail. The trumpet call on behalf of the
moral duty' of the 'unending quest to get nearer the past "as it really was"' could
not be more timely and it merits as powerful a sounding-board as it can get.
FRIAR. By Jenny Swanson. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought,
Fourth series, 10. Cambridge University Press, 1989. Pp. xi, 307. £ 32.50.
This is the first full-scale study of the works of the thirteenth-century Franciscan
friar, John of Wales. Very little is known of his life. His birth is placed between 1210
and 1230. He may not even have been Welsh. Dr. Swanson gives us three facts to
suggest that he was: his appellation; that he was attached to the Franciscan custody
of Worcester which included north Wales; and that in 1282 he acted as Archbishop
Pecham's ambassador to Llywelyn. He taught theology in Oxford and Paris, and was
sucked into the conflict with the Spiritual Franciscans in that from 1283 till his death
in 1285 he was part of the commission which examined the works of Peter John Olivi.
Although Dr. Swanson discusses all of John's works in her first chapter on his
career, her book is concerned only with what she considers to be the main part of his
oeuvre: his four early encyclopaedic preaching aids-the Breviloquium de virtutibus,
Communiloquium, Compendiloquium and Breviloquium de sapientia sanctorum.
These were composed between 1265 and 1275 at Oxford and Paris. She gives
exhaustive treatment to John's sources and technique; the content of these works; and
their spread and influence. The main focus is on the Communiloquium which, in the
light of number and spread of surviving manuscripts, must have been one of the most
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