Le Chevalier delibere (The Resolute Knight).
Ed. Carleton W Carroll. Trans. Carleton W. Carroll and Lois Hawley Wilson. (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 199.) Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1999. 352 pp. n.p. ISBN: 0-86698-241-8.
Mark Spencer. Thomas Basin (1412-1490). The History of Charles VII and Louis XI.
(Bibliotheca Humanistica & Reformatorica, 57.) Leiden: De Graaf, 1997. 320 pp. DG 120. ISBN: 90-6004-442-8.
Olivier de la Marche was a factotum for Charles the Bold (Temeraire, though Olivier called his master Traveillant, or hard-working), best known for staging the Duke's wedding to Margaret of York -- and for writing Le Chevalier deli bere. There have been four editions since 1842, but all are long since out of print, and none can have been as full and reliable as Wilson and Carroll's. This edition is based on a contemporary manuscript in the Musee Conde in Chantilly, and it takes faithful note of variants in the manuscript tradition and early editions as well as providing an expert English translation on the facing page; it is hard to see how it could be superseded as a basis for understanding the Burgundian court and its literary tastes.
Eleanor Roach wrote, in her edition of Melusine, "It is clear that for the history of thought and culture of an era, the work of a less gifted poet which was widely distributed in its own time is much more interesting than a text of great literary value that was unknown to its contemporaries." Le Chevalier delibere easily fills that bill: it went through at least eighteen manuscripts, and many printings in French, English, Dutch, and Spanish up to the end of the sixteenth century. Carroll and Wilson follow William Calin in arguing more broadly that, with the exception of the Roman de la rose, medieval vernacular works remained popular for a century at most, so they see Le Chevalier deliberi as successful.
Many have noted that medieval writers rarely knew they were writing in the Middle Ages: historical self-awareness is one of the contributions of the Renaissance. Carroll argues persuasively, however, that Burgundian courtiers were aware by the end of the fifteenth century not only that the Dukes had overreached, but more broadly that the chivalric code which they had invoked as justification for their enterprise was seeing its last days as well. This lends the poem an elegiac air: the thirty-eighth stanza, for example, continues Olivier's meditation on the choice between an early death by accident or a slow one due to debility: "Accident est toujours sus bout, / Tout prest a cheval et arme / Pour tuer et affoler tout / Et Debile tient l'autre bout, / Cruelx, sans mercy ne pite. / Mais pour ung qui aura passe / La ou Debile prent sa rente, / Accident en a tue trente." (Accident is always up at one end / All ready, mounted and armed / To kill and mangle everyone; / And Debility maintains the other end, / Cruel , merciless and without pity. /But for one who has passed that place / Where Debility collects his due, / Accident has killed thirty.)
I found Le Chevalier delibere charming to read, though it is hard to imagine finding time for it in a survey course. Advanced students studying the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance, on the other hand, will find a moving judgment of his life by a fifteenth-century courtier in its 338 stanzas. I have a couple of quibbles with the translation, useful as it is to students unfamiliar with the peculiarities of middle French: I would render "sus bout" as "on Its feet;" "livres de valeur" (Stanza 151, verse 2) could mean both valuable books and records of value; while "amoureuse" (270, 7) did not mean amiable.
Still, this volume would be a valuable addition to institutions with graduate programs in European history or French literature. Not the least of its attractions is a series of fifteen descriptions, also carefully translated, of what Olivier wanted in decorative miniatures; it is typical of the excellence of this edition that it directs the reader to Sandra Hindman's list of the few similar descriptions extant.
Mark Spencer's book on Thomas Basin merits a more mixed evaluation, however. Basin was the third son of a wealthy Norman merchant; he became bishop of Lisieux (Calvados) just as the French moved to take the province back in the mid-fifteenth century. Sent on a diplomatic mission to Roussillon by Louis XI, he so infuriated this irascible monarch that he was never able to return to Lisieux, and ended his days in Utrecht, refining his histories of Charles VII, and of the infamous son who had driven him from his homeland and his episcopal see.
Spencer argues that Basin played a critical role in inaugurating what Spencer considers history, by locating the origin of Louis's unprecedented power in his father's seizure of the power to tax his subjects without convening the Etats Generaux, in order to pay for the companies of knights and their retainers which finally drove the English from Normandy. There is no question that Basin's hatred of Louis motivated him to write the Histories, but this hatred does not detract from the use or importance of Basin's Histories for Spencer, perhaps because he shared them: "The arguments of Thomas Basin should have a special resonance for citizens of the United States, as they are exactly those espoused three hundred years later in the American Revolution against taxation without consent and the billeting of mercenary troops" (113).
This brings up the question of the audience for this book, written about fifteenth-century France and Burgundy and published in the Netherlands. Spencer's crediting Basin with providing an example (somehow simultaneously precocious and mainstream ) for the U.S. war for independence seems too far removed from his stated subject. I do not know how widely Spencer's faith in the democratic character of the Estates is shared, moreover, while recent historiography has detailed the early modern French crown's ingenuity at identifying its interests with those of Robins and the nascent bourgeoisie, to allow faster economic growth than the Middle Ages had shown (e.g., Bohanan, Hickey). Spencer never tires, finally, of repeating Basin's charge that Louis consorted with lowborn favorites and failed to dress or comport himself as befitted his station.
There are some bibliographical lacunae as well: Spencer contrasts Basin with Froissart's poetic instincts (200), but appears unaware of Gabrielle Spiegel's innovative study of the origins of vernacular prose historiography, while his treatment of Basin's legacy through the sixteenth century fails to cite William F. Church's definitive work on constitutional thought and resistance. There are, finally, stylistic infelicities: "Whether Thomas is justified in drawing such a full measure of iniquity against Louis is questionable" (240). Still, this is a useful introduction in English to the origins of modern political thought in the crucible of late medieval dynastic conflict.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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