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Middle Ages. “The Hanged Man” by Robert Bartlett Essay

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Updated: Nov 26th, 2021

In his book The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory and Colonialism in the Middle Ages, Robert Bartlett sets out to investigate the mysterious resurrection of William Cragh, a medieval Welsh rebel as well as brigand, who was sentenced to death and executed by English authorities, yet came back to life due to some unexplained reasons. The author examines the testimony, given by the witnesses, belonging to various layers of the then society: nobility, clergy, and laity. This work provides the reader with deep insights in the atmosphere of the Middle Ages. The audience is introduced into the world of political and religious struggles in colonial Wales. This work is remarkable because it eloquently demonstrates the contradictory nature of that epoch, in particular, strong belief in miracles and almost scientific precision of the court proceedings, deep Christian outlook and cruelty. These things seem to be hardly consistent with one another. This book abounds in examples which show that the Middle Ages was one of the most paradoxical period in the history of humankind; both scientific and fanatic, religious and atheistic. By investigating a single event, Robert Bartlett throws light on structure, beliefs, values and prejudices of the community. This work is based on the primary sources, namely, the transcripts of interrogation, found in the Library of Vatican, and this only makes it more convincing.

First, it should be pointed out that this event attracted avid attention of the Vatican because the alleged resurrection of William Cragh was attributed to the intervention of Thomas de Cantilupe, the deceased bishop of Hereford. In 1307, an inquiry was launched to determine whether he could be considered as a saint. The commission needed to ascertain if he was eligible for canonization. Therefore, the case of William Cragh could immensely influence their verdict. The rebel claimed that he miraculously escaped death due to the intercession of this man. At the time of execution in 1290, Thomas de Cantilupe had been dead for more than eight years. This gives rise to the question why William Cragh prayed to this particular person. We should take it into consideration that at the moment when this investigation was carried out only few eye-witnesses remained. So, the inquisitors had to juxtapose the evidence, given by each of them. In addition, the investigators asked them a series of questions in order to find any flaws in their testimonials.

The aspect, which we need to discuss, is the scrupulousness of the papal commission. For instance, while interrogating Mari de Briouze, they asked her whether William Cragh was “ hanged by an iron hook or with noose of rope”. The major purpose of this question was to test the validity of the evidence and compare it with the statements of other people. In fact, such strategies are largely employed nowadays during criminal trials. In terms of law, such tactics is defined as cross-interrogation. Furthermore, the inquisitors urged the witnesses to recall the facial expression of the William Cragh, his complexion, his clothes and so forth. Occasionally, this reading produces an impression that the audience is placed in the modern courtroom. However, subject of the inquiry seems almost grotesque to the modern reader.

When speaking about the precision of this investigation, we should mention the structure of the questionnaire. It consisted of several sections:

  1. faith, life and character of Thomas de Cantilupe;
  2. reputation and public report;
  3. finally the evidence of his miraculous deeds (Bartlett, p 24).

As a candidate for canonization he had to meet all necessary standards. Clearly, the inquisitors wanted to avoid every possibility of mistake and they rejected “easy belief” in miracles (Bartlett, p 18). So, they did believe in divine intervention, but they intended to find some material evidence. This is why during interrogation they asked witnesses about the time of execution, the location of each witness etc. In this way, they tried to determine whether the person had really seen this resurrection or his words had been just hearsay or rumor. The representatives of papal commission were not denying the possibility of Craghs salvation but they were reluctant to take it for granted or accept on faith.

We need to take it into account that at that time scientific life centered predominantly in cloisters and many of clergy men were versed in natural sciences. So they could offer an explanation of William Craghs revival. Nonetheless, they sincerely believed that this revival could be ascribed to the divine intervention. This is one of the examples which prove how contradictory that period was. From modern standpoint, such inquiry seems to be senseless or even absurd. When rendering these interviews Robert Bartlett shows that there are vast discrepancies in educational level between the clerics and laity. Many of average people could hardly understand what the point of all these questions was. To some degree, it can be explained by the fact that peasants and even nobility were very much afraid of the inquisitors. Any rash statement could be interpreted as a heresy. Therefore, some of the interviewees did not know how to responds to interrogators.

As a matter of fact, the clergymen broke those principles, which they tried to impose on others. The cornerstone of Christianity is faith, which accepts the existence of the high power without questioning, incredulity. It does not require logical proof. Nonetheless, papal commissioners cast doubt on every statement, made by the witnesses. Faith alone was not quite sufficient for them. These people combined religiousness and scientific skepticism. Overall, this was one of the major paradoxes of the Middle Ages. In part, this book refutes stereotypes, held about medieval period. We tend to think that the clerics were immensely fanatical, but the transcript of interrogation proves that this opinion is not quite grounded.

In this work Robert Bartlett describes another unique feature of the Middle Ages. He demonstrates that the declared values of medieval people were not consistent with the actions, policies, and laws. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Christian tenets were proclaimed to be the major guidelines for the population. However, this did not prevent the authorities from committing horrible atrocities. The author says that William Craghs relatives were forced to act as his executioners. It is hardly possible to imagine the torture which they underwemt while carrying out the order of the authorities. Most importantly, the representatives of the papal commission were not very interested in this fact. It was carefully avoided during the interviews. The strangest thing is that they concentrated on minor details, while overlooking or deliberately ignoring more vital things.

Apart from that when discussing the interrogations Robert Bartlett focuses not only on the behavior of the clergy. He also evaluates the worldview of laity as well. One of the witnesses, Mary de Briouze could not even remember whether all her children were alive at in 1290. At first glance, one may suggest that this question were entirely irrelevant to the investigation. Nevertheless, Mary de Briouze failed to answer it. Judging from this fact, we can argue that family relationships during Middle Ages were immensely different from modern ones. Evidently, this woman did not feel much devotion to her children. Meanwhile, she described the scene of execution in the most accurate manner.

It should be mentioned that the representatives of the then society assumed different attitudes toward the resurrection of William Cragh. Actually, not all of them thought that it was a miracle or a sign of God. Some argued that “it was evil that an evil man should be brought back to life”. The thing is that William Cragh can be regarded not only a rebel, who rose against English colonial rule in Wales. To some degree, he was a brigand, slaughtering innocent people, irrespective of their ethnic belonging.

The author does not try to answer the question whether the revival of William Cragh was the result of divine intercession or not. Certainly, there can be more logical explanations for this event, for example, deliberate carelessness of the executioners. Instead, Robert Bartlett makes the audience look through the eyes of the witnesses. He does not dispute the verdict, reached by papal commissioners. The major goal of this book is to restore the historical context of those events.

On the whole, Robert Bartletts book constitutes a unique contribution to the study of the Middle Ages. It alternates scientific accuracy with vividness. This work is intended for the wide audience, scholars, students, and those people, interested in the history of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The author gives an in-depth account of the then society, its values, beliefs and principles. The contradictions of that age can be observed in the following aspects:

  1. deep religiousness and scientific skepticism;
  2. close adherence to Christian outlook and horrible atrocities that entirely oppose Christian principles;
  3. immense discrepancies which existed between clergy and laity;
  4. different attitudes toward family relations especially in comparison with modern age.

Robert Bartlett strives to recreate that epoch and portray it from different angles. This work can serve as a very solid ground for further research of the Middle Ages.


Bartlett, Robert. (2004). The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and

Colonialism in the Middle Ages. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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