Mark B. Spencer

title.none: Hochner, Louis XII (Mark B. Spencer )

identifier.other: baj9928.0811.002 08.11.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mark B. Spencer , Southeastern Oklahoma State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Hochner, Nicole. Louis XII: Les dérèglements de l'image royale (1498-1515). Seyssel: Champ Vallons, 2006. Pp. 309. ISBN: $38 978-287-673453-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.11.02

Hochner, Nicole. Louis XII: Les dérèglements de l'image royale (1498-1515). Seyssel: Champ Vallons, 2006. Pp. 309. ISBN: $38 978-287-673453-1.

Reviewed by:

Mark B. Spencer
Southeastern Oklahoma State University

Nicole Hochner's ambitions in this impressive study are both daunting and modest at the same time. On the one hand, she incorporates every imaginable literary and iconographic source, including histories, political treatises, poems, farces, songs, sculpture, paintings, manuscript illustrations, coins, and medallions, in her effort to tease out all the possible permutations of royal imagery generated during the reign of King Louis XII of France, while on the other hand she offers no bold interpretive thesis as to precisely what it all meant for the development of the French monarchy. Indeed, she repeatedly admits how heterogeneous and frequently contradictory the competing myths, symbols, ideologies, and visions of "la gloire" that these images embody could be, created as they were by a widely varied group of artists, intellectuals, men of letters, and other political and cultural agents. It is, in fact, their bewildering diversity and often hybrid character that constitute what she calls the "dérèglements" of the royal image, although it might be more useful to think in terms of "incoherences," rather than a literal English rendition into "disorders." At the turn of the 16th century, the traditional medieval imagery of the French monarchy both secular and religious was in direct collision not just with new antique models popularized by Renaissance humanists, but also the radically altered political realities created by Charles VII and Louis XI during the 15th century, which had as yet to be fully digested and absorbed into the political mentalité of the day. Hochner thus posits the reign of Louis XII as essentially a period of transition and adjustment, in which competing visions of monarchical power and its limits jostled and engaged without reaching a clear resolution.

Previously author of L'image du roi, de François Ier à Louis XIV (2006) in collaboration with Thomas W. Gaehtgens, Hochner chose Louis XII for this more intensive study partly because of the fecund abundance of source material available, which contrasts starkly with the generally low profile of Louis XII in the French historical imagination, both learned and popular, although Frederic Baumgartner's relatively recent Louis XII (1994) in English should be noted. After a brief overview of Louis XII's historical reputation as Father of the People (père du peuple) according to the enduring sobriquet popularized by Claude de Seyssel, and an introductory chapter sketching the public image of Louis before he became king in his capacity as duke of Orléans and the leading prince of the blood, Hochner divides her analysis into six basic themes. Le roi chevalier explores his depiction as the principal chivalric warrior of the realm in the long line of biblical, medieval, and antique military heroes, with Louis XII's Italian campaigns forming the primary theatre of action. The next chapter takes up the theme of Louis as the New Caesar (nouveau César) and Restorer of the World (orbis reparatori). Once again the descent into Italy serves as the principal occasion for these depictions, particularly his triumphal entries into various Italian cities such as Cremona, where he was received not as a foreign conqueror, but as the Father of Peace and Conservator of Public Tranquility, reestablishing Roman imperial order. In contrast with the perceived continuity of chivalric prowess from David, Alexander, and Charlemagne, these imperial pretensions did not always harmonize with the more traditional conceptions of medieval kingship, above all in the tension between the unfettered absolutism of the Roman emperors and the more limited political authority of medieval monarchs, who were supposed to rule in concert with the governed. The religious personae traditionally adopted by French kings consume another chapter, and these too involved complicated potential contradictions in the wake of the Italian invasion. The Most Christian King (le roi très Chrétien) and Defender of the Faith (fidei defensor) found himself at odds with Pope Julius II, and it was necessary to considerably blacken the character of the Holy Father in order to highlight the superior Christian virtues of Louis XII, and thereby justify his opposition. The focus then returns to the French domestic sphere with a more detailed analysis of Louis' role as Father of the People and Prince of Virtues (prince de vertus), in which the king embodies all the traditional royal qualities of justice, clemency, moderation, and wisdom reiterated in countless medieval Mirrors. Finally, two more chapters examine representations of Louis XII's counselors and that of his queens.

Hochner's principal interpretive thrust throughout is the lack of a dominant univocal theme in all these images. Sometimes the same literary or artistic work alternately depicts Louis as a saint, an antique hero, or a sage and beneficent ruler in a rather awkward and incongruent manner, and the question is whether this is a result of mere carelessness and indifference, or a genuine difficulty in negotiating and harmonizing traditional conceptions with newly emergent ones. Ultimately, she opts for the latter and suggests that the conflict of representations reflects a deeper ideological struggle between medieval constitutionalism and the impulse toward monarchical absolutism in the guise of neo-Roman imperialism.

It is impossible to complain of Hochner's painstakingly patient and nuanced appreciations of these iconic images, and her work deserves the highest praise on that score. I also have little quarrel with her principal thesis that these competing representations reflect deeper political and ideological tensions. My only doubt arises in regard to how significant and important such imagery was in shaping the political landscape of the day. The previous century had certainly witnessed a seismic shift in the balance of political power that laid the foundations for French royal absolutism, above all in the sweeping reform of taxation implemented by Charles VII and the virtual extinction of the princely apanage houses, which resulted in the escheat of their lands to the royal domain, a process that reached its culmination when Louis XII brought in the Orléans patrimony with his accession to the throne, and his marriage to Anne of Brittany permanently added that duchy. Louis XI had cared little for appearances in his effort to reduce everything and everyone to his imperious will, and there can be no doubt that he overplayed his hand. His perceived tyrannical excesses, including the forced marriage of the future Louis XII to his deformed daughter Jeanne, generated considerable public resentment and resistance toward the end of his reign, which found expression in the Estates General of 1484 after his death. Charles VIII died much too young to set his personal stamp on the issue, and it largely fell to Louis XII to reconcile the politically active French public to the transformed political circumstances. His primary tool in my view was genuine retrenchment and restraint in the exercise of royal power, however temporary that proved, but Hochner may well be right in affirming that political imagery was a vital component of this effort too, even if the contradictions proved too intractable, and a coherent new vision of the monarchy failed to emerge.