Gervase of Tilbury
Gervase of Tilbury or Gervasius Tilberiensis (ca. 1150 – ca. 1228) was a 13th-century canon lawyer, statesman and writer, born in West Tilbury, in Essex, England. His best known work is the Otia Imperialia.
Life and works
Gervase was of aristocratic stock, claiming kinship with Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, and relations allegedly descended from a fey serpent-woman recognizable as the Melusine, suggesting an alliance with the House of Lusignan in Poitou, with which England had contemporary dynastic connections.
The Dictionary of National Biography, (Banks S. E. 2004) states ‘he presumably came from Tilbury in Essex’, which must appear ambiguous to the modern enquirer. There are 4 Tilburys in the county; Tilbury (the dock town, founded from c.1883), East Tilbury and West Tilbury (both medieval manors and parishes) on the Thames shore and Tilbury juxta Clare in the north of the shire. However, the source of the matter goes back to William Lambarde, (1536 – 1601) county historian of Kent, who held the post of Keeper of the Rolls Chapel, 1597 and was latterly keeper of the records at the Tower of London. Lambarde spoke of Gervase as ‘a learned man ... who was kindred to that Kinge (Henry II) and wrote divers learned Woorkes’. He adds that Gervase came from West Tilbury – ‘he was born theare’.
Whether born in the manor or not, it seems substantially correct that West Tilbury is the legitimate placing for him, for the following reasons. Firstly, it was into Henry II's hands that the manor of West Tilbury Hall was taken, after its tenant in chief, William of Essex, defaulted in the King’s service against the Welsh at the battle of Conseyeth in 1163, when Gervase would have been about 10 or 15. Also, in 1165 a family of the surname of ‘de Tilbury’ was present in the district – Robert de Tillebury held 2 Knights’ fees at Childerditch, about 5 miles off. This same land (Tillingham Hall manor) continued to be tithable to West Tilbury Hall manor until the 18th century. Gervase is therefore convincingly one of this family (of which DNB suggests nothing is known, though it confirms she was related to Patrick, earl of Salisbury). Wright’s ‘History of Essex’ 1834 calls Gervase ‘a nephew’ of Henry II. A favoured bastard line from Henry II offers a plausible solution to the de Tilbury house, which would explain the unusual circumstance – referred to in an inquisition dated 1362 – of the de Tilbury’s private chapel at West Tilbury’s river edge (dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen) being a place where the chaplain was to ‘celebrate daily for the souls of the predecessors of the King and the ancestors of the lords of the manor ...’.
Gervase's best known work Imperialia was intended for the prince Henry, son of Henry II in whose circle Gervase, a learned scholar and cleric, was retained until the young man’s death, in his late twenties, in June 1183. Gervase of Tilbury next found service at the court of William II of Sicily, a move which would have been arranged due to the fact that the Sicilian monarch was himself son in law of Henry II (he married the Princess Joan, sister to Richard Lionheart and King John). His progresses after the King of Sicily’s death in 1189 to the court of the Emperor Otto was again a ‘family’ opportunity from within the circle of Henry II. Under Otto IV’s auspices, Gervase married (which bought him a palace) and was made judge of the Court of Provence and Marshal of Arles.
He travelled widely, studied and taught canon law at Bologna, was in Venice in 1177, at the reconciliation of Pope Alexander III and Frederick Barbarossa, and spent some time in the service of Henry of Anjou, and of his son, "Henry the Young King". For the latter he composed a Liber facetiarum (‘Book of entertainment’), now lost, as well as the basis for what would become the Otia Imperialia. He also served Henry's uncle William of Champagne, Archbishop of Reims (Gervase's attempt at dalliance with a reticent girl precipitated her condemnation by the archbishop as a cathar). He spent some time between 1183 and 1189 at the Sicilian court of the Norman William II, who had married Henry's daughter Joan (1177). From William he received the gift of a villa at Nola in Campania.
At some point after William's death in 1189, Gervase settled in Arles and was appointed Marshal of the Kingdom of Arles in 1198 by Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor and grandson of King Henry. Ex officio he accompanied Otto to Rome in 1209 on the occasion of his coronation. The following year Gervase was enmeshed in the papacy's struggle with his patron Otto, who was excommunicated by Pope Innocent III. Gervase employed the next years, from 1210 to 1214, writing the Otia Imperialia ("Recreation for an Emperor") for his patron. He also wrote a Vita abbreviata et miracula beatissimi Antonii ("Shortened life and miracles of the most blessed Antony") and a Liber de transitu beate virginis et gestis discipulorum ("Book of the passing of the blessed virgin and acts of the disciples").
Details of his latter years are uncertain. It has been suggested that, after the resounding defeat of Otto and his English ally John at the Battle of Bouvines (1214), Gervase was forced to retire to the duchy of Braunschweig, where he became, and died, provost of Ebstorf, and it is apparent that his work was known to the authors of the Ebstorf world map (ca. 1234–40). However, it is recorded by Ralph of Coggeshall that he became a canon in later life, and other evidence suggests that he may have been a member of the Premonstratensians of l'Huveaune.
The arguments for Gervase of Tilbury being the maker of the Ebstorf map are based on the name Gervase, which was an uncommon name in Northern Germany at the time and on some similarities between the world view of the mapmaker and Gervase of Tilbury. The editors of the Oxford Medieval Texts edition of Gervase of Tilbury's Otia Imperialia conclude that although the two Gervases being the same man is an "attractive possibility", to accept it requires "too many improbable assumptions".
- "Gervase of Tilbury". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- S. E. Banks and J. W. Binns, editors, 2002. Gervaise of Tilbury: Otia Imperialia : Recreation for an Emperor (Oxford University Press, Oxford Medieval Texts) ISBN 0-19-820288-1 The first English translation.
- Catholic Encyclopedia "Gervase of Tilbury"