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Commynes l'Europeen. L'invention du politique.

Joel Blanchard. (Publications Romanes et Francaises, 216.) Geneva: Droz, 1996. 11 b/w illus. + 3 maps + 508 pp. Sfr. 73.45. ISBN: n.a.

Readers of these pages are familiar with the Memoires of Philippe de Commynes, which describe his diplomatic work for the kings of France from the time he left the service of Charles the Rash and entered that of Louis xI in 1472, to his attempts to extricate Charles viii from the unintended consequences of his 1494 "descent" into Italy. Blanchard is convinced that twentieth-century perceptions of Commynes have been skewed by our tendency to view him as a turn coat for having ditched le Temeraire, so he devotes the first one hundred thirty pages to a tendentious defense against this charge. Blanchard allows himself to be drawn into a moralistic defense which, as he makes brilliantly clear at the end of his book, is inappropriate to the genre Commynes went so far toward creating.

The book improves substantially, though: the second part starts with Blanchard's argument that Commynes depended throughout the time he wrote the Memoires primarily on his proximity to the king, especially Louis, and secondarily on the confidence and access he enjoyed among Italian diplomats. The latter proclaimed themselves unlettered, as did Commynes (though he did so as a statement of the value of personal experience and wisdom, in contrast to the book learning favored by clerks - and robins). He and his Italian colleagues depended on their wits and their ability to evaluate accurately the forces and personalities in play to advance their sovereign's interests. Blanchard shows that distrust of one's allies (and lords and vassals) was basic to the medieval world view; he is especially successful at evoking the physical immediacy of the fear everyone, particularly those bearing arms, felt at the end of the fifteenth century. Toward the end of the War of the Public Weal, for instance, Louis told Charles of Charolais that he meant to cede to the rebels' demands; as the two men rode along conversing, Charles suddenly discovered that he had ridden far from his lines. Louis took no advantage of his mistake, but Commynes noted that Charolais never trusted Louis again, and Blanchard is right to point to this incident as revealing the urgency of Commynes's instinctive caution.

Commynes's caution was formed in conversations among the merchants who made up the Italian chancelleries with whom he dealt while there, but he found a turn of phrase to express it that impresses this reader, more than it does Blanchard, as more medieval. Blanchard is right to see a sharp contrast with Machiavelli's eagerness to try his luck, but Commynes frequently expressed the turns of fate to which arrogant princes such as Charles the Rash exposed themselves as the punishments of Providence (270 and 405). Blanchard sees Commynes as a uniquely modern combination of an aristocrat's contempt for the bureaucrat's (or robin's) book learning with the trader's respect for hard-won experience, in the same way that both merchants and soldiers knew a kind of physical fear less common among Parisian humanists.

I agree with Blanchard's reading of the unique combination of qualities in the Memoires, though I am less willing than he to ascribe disorganization to Commynes's lack of rhetoric (cf. Blanchard's "demarche impromptue et relachee," 417, and Montaigne's famous "sauts et gambades"). I accept as well his explanation of where Commynes might have found these qualities, but I would suggest again that the combination was less "modern" than Blanchard made it seem. Aristocrats were less willing to associate with merchants by the middle of the next century; having made their peace with the King's bureaucrats, they came ultimately to see the world through his eyes.

EDWARD BENSON Central Missouri State University
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Author:Benson, Edward
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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