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Jean Froissart and the Fabric of History: Truth, Myth and Fiction in the 'Chroniques.'

Until recently, broad-brush studies of Froissart were initiatory: their function was to provide an overview for readers unlikely to have made their laborious way through more than a few selections from the Chroniques or Meliador. It is a measure of a new and more receptive attitude towards late mediaeval writers that this book, like Dembowski's 1983 study of Meliador, can situate itself at a much higher critical level. Ainsworth's book is best described as a series of rich, penetrating, elegantly written studies inviting us to look at the Chroniques as text. Part I looks first of all at the uneasy distinction between fact and fiction, historiography and romance, in the fourteenth century; it then sets Froissart against the dominant historiographical ideologies of a group of fourteenth-century chronicles, thus establishing his ideological specificity: his admiration for the |ideal world of Proece' (p. 73), his evolving consciousness of just how precarious that ideal is. Part II addresses specifically literary aspects of the text: structure, narrative voice, articulation. On the first, Ainsworth considers a characteristic structural feature of the Chroniques, its plethora of |fictionalised', selfcontained narratives, and brings out the adroit articulation and exploitation of detail in what it is tempting to call nouvelles. On the second, he looks at the progressive intrusion into the text of the je of the writer: his self-awareness as speaker, his sense of mission as a historian. And, finally, he turns to what one might call the dramatization of history: the play of personalities against a background of political instability. Part III, starting from a brief but illuminating overview of the thorny textual status of the different versions of Book I, examines |in what ways, precisely, the Rome manuscript version ... might be envisaged as a fresh reading of Book I' (p 225). Here it is the subtlety of Ainsworth's readings that are especially revelatory: an apparently innocent landscape shows the allusive value of concrete detail, the clask between historical truth and dramatic mise en scene, and Froissart's small but telling additions to Jean le Bel's original account convert a portrait of Edward Ill into an emblem precisely of Proece, even, didactically, a mirror for princes.

This is probably not a book for students, who would need the initiation that this study does not provide since it assumes a knowledge not just of Froissart's Chroniques and his verse texts, but also the tangled history of fourteenth-century France and England. But for the historian and the literary specialist it is a dense and challenging study not just of the fabrication of history, not just of the fabrication of narrative text in the fourteenth century, but also, and most importantly, of the evolution of a consciousness and a conscious art. Still too often embedded in critical discourse pertaining to the late Middle Ages is an ill-defined distinction between Villon and Charles d'Orleans as |personalities' and an anonymous remainder: Ainsworth's study of a historian prey to an increasingly urgent sense of tension between reality and ideal is a most valuable contribution to the rehabilitation of fourteenth-century narrative modes.
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Author:Taylor, Jane H.M.
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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