Wednesday, August 29, 2012


            Statue of John le Fleming, Mayor of Southampton (saec. 14), on the old city walls. (Sculptor: Anthony Griffiths; photographer: Brian Kernigan)

This essay starts with a common experience—one almost everyone I have ever talked with about it recognizes, though without being able to put a name to it.  You encounter an unfamiliar word, or hear of a rare medical condition outside your previous conscious experience.  Then suddenly it seems that you encounter the rare word in every book you pick up; and you repeatedly come across reports of victims of the Marburg virus or whatever.  Well, I have had such an experience relating to my possible medieval forbears, who have been hounding me for about a year.  Allow me to explain.

            Last week I received in my e-post the two photographs printed above.  They were recently taken in the English port city of Southampton by my distinguished colleague and friend Brian Kernigan as he was waiting to board the liner Queen Mary 2 to cruise home to New York.  Brian rightly thought I might be able to “relate” to a famous early mayor of the city. 

            I could, indeed.  Time flies when you are having fun.  Summer approaches its end, and it is nearly time for the Flemings’ own annual September visit to England—the meaning of annual here being that we have done it a few other years.  This year, however, I shall not take in the “Oxford Thinking” conference.  In fact, I probably won’t make it to Oxford at all.  I want to visit some old friends, and maybe a favorite old haunt or two, while my spouse, suffering from pilgrimage deprivation, takes two long hikes—one with an old school chum, and the other with our niece Elizabeth.  But my sojourn will begin in suburban Sevenoaks, Kent, the home of my in-laws, John and Margaret Newman.

             I wrote a blog post about my last visit to Sevenoaks, just about a year ago.  It was there that I found hanging on the wall of a charity shop a wooden heraldic shield with the Fleming coat of arms and the Fleming motto (“Let the deed shaw”) artfully incised upon it.  I mentioned this interesting detail, admitting that I had been unaware that there even was a Fleming coat of arms, let alone a Fleming motto. I did a little research of the whimsical kind that the Internet makes possible.  I was able to identify the artist—who turned out to be a nice retired gentleman somewhere up in Ontario—from a wood-burned signature on the back of the shield.  I had a nice exchange of letters with him.  He used to make such heraldic clan shields as a hobby, more than twenty years ago, using the models found in a standard heraldic encyclopedia.  He had done this one for some Canadian Fleming, and had no clue as to how it got to Kent.  But Canadian Flemings loom large in this tale.

             About three weeks later a stranger I met somewhere, upon learning my name, asked me if I were “connected to the Fleming of Fleming College.”  I had never heard of that either, so I just said “No”.  Then the previously unknown (to me) Fleming College began appearing everywhere in my field of vision.  It seems to be an important technical institute in Canada, or rather confederation of colleges, taking its name from an eminent Scottish-Canadian engineer of the nineteenth century, Sir Sandford Fleming, a bridge-builder, the Roebling of the North.  Fleming College naturally has the essential perquisites of a North American institution of higher education, namely sweat-shirts and a coat of arms, both of which I then began to encounter on a seemingly daily basis.

I had supposed that “Let the Deed Shaw”—literally let the deed be manifest--must mean something like “Handsome Is As Handsome Does,” or “Actions Speak Louder Than Words," or “Walk the Walk” or some other such sentiment of Presbyterian uplift.  Then—in the accidental course of some of my reading in medieval history--I learned how Let the deed shaw actually became the Fleming motto!  On February 10, 1306 Robert the Bruce had an arranged meeting with his rival John (“Red”) Comyn at Dumfries.  In order to guarantee the peaceable nature of their parley the Bruce had established its venue as the chancel of the impressive Franciscan church in the center of the town.  The men naturally unbuckled their swords and left them at the church door.  Unfortunately for Comyn, it turned out that Robert the Bruce had neglected to set aside his smaller dagger.  The meeting did not go well.  A violent quarrel (rixa) irrupted.  The Bruce stabbed Comyn with his dagger, apparently next to the high altar.  He then walked out of the church to his waiting kinsmen and said the equivalent in Middle Scots of “Oops!  I lost it.  I think maybe I killed him.”  The exact words of his cousin Roger de Kirkpatrick have happily been recorded.  Crying out “I mak siccar!” (I’ll make sure) he rushed into the church, sword in hand, and, well, made siccar.
That is how “I mak siccar” became the Kirkpatrick family motto, but there was still a small margin of yet further certainty left for the Flemings.  Sir Robert Fleming then went into the church, sword in hand.  He decapitated the dead or dying body of John Comyn and brought his dripping prize to the church porch.  Dangling the severed trophy by its gory locks, he spoke the immortal words: “Let the deed shaw.”  There are practically no limits to the eloquence of which a Fleming is capable if you only give him his head. 
            The interesting point that the legal historian W. D. H. Sellar draws from this history is that Robert the Bruce cannot have been regarded by knowledgeable contemporaries as guilty of murder, since he acted in hot rather than in cold blood. Medieval murder required premeditation.  This is an important point for the technical legal vocabulary as it develops in various parts of the English-speaking world.  What Robert the Bruce did in the greyfriars’ church was to be sure “inappropriate” (to use the current term of art of academic discipline committees) but it was not enough to get him excommunicated.  So after a few compulsory Anger Management Seminars he was able to go on to become the great Scottish National Hero.
            What I take from the story is a little different.  Can’t we come up with an alternative Fleming family iconography?  How about Sir Alexander Fleming holding a steaming Petri plate of penicillin with the device Let the wee gerrrms perrrish?