Christopher Gardner

title.none: Vernier, The Flower of Chivalry (Christopher Gardner)

identifier.other: baj9928.0406.007 04.06.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Christopher Gardner, George Mason University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Vernier, Richard. The Flower of Chivalry: Bertrand Du Guesclin and the Hundred Years War. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2003. Pp. vii, 237. $50.00 1-84383-006-x. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.06.07

Vernier, Richard. The Flower of Chivalry: Bertrand Du Guesclin and the Hundred Years War. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2003. Pp. vii, 237. $50.00 1-84383-006-x. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Christopher Gardner
George Mason University

Richard Vernier's two goals for his work, as stated in his Foreword, are to offer the first English biography of Bertrand since 1897, and "to trace the genesis and evolution of the legend in which Bertrand has undergone several apotheoses." As for his first goal, Vernier has written a pleasantly accessible and readable biography, what one might call a "popular history" of Bertrand and his adventures in the French regions of Brittany, Languedoc, the Auvergne, and in the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon to the south of the Pyrenees mountains. Bertrand was born around 1320 to a middling noble family who held La Motte-Broons in northwestern Brittany. Bertrand "entered into the world of chivalry" (as Vernier puts it) via a tournament at Rennes on the eve of the opening of hostilities that would eventually become the Hundred Years War. From there, the "stupid and ugly" Bertrand (as Cuvelier's La Chanson de Bertrand du Guesclin puts it, but more on the song below) rose to become a well respected captain of a Breton company, so trusted by King Charles V that he was sent to Spain to help Charles's ally, Enrique II claim the throne of Castile from Peter/Pedro I. Enrique found his company's intervention so beneficial that he offered Bertrand the crown of the as yet unconquered Moorish realm of Granada. Finally, Charles called Bertrand back to France to become the first Constable not to come from the extended royal family. With the resumption of hostilities with England around 1375, though, dynastic strife in Brittany resurfaced (motivated in part by the various nobles siding with either side of the Valois-Plantagenet conflict), and Charles V thought it best if Bertrand did not return to his homeland to quell the fighting but went to Languedoc instead to contend with English companies there. Despite all the dangers of battle, Bertrand died of illness while besieging Chateauneuf-de-Randon in 1380.

I do not intend the label "popular" for Vernier's biography to be dismissive in any way, because he has done a superb job of synthesizing material from monographs of both Bertrand and the Hundred Years War. For example, Vernier's book serves as a great counterpart to the surveys of the Hundred Years War written by Edouard Perroy (translated, London, 1951) and Jonathan Sumption (Philadelphia, currently 2 vols, 1991 and 1999). The biography puts flesh and blood on the grand narratives and dynastic-political conflagrations of the war as conveyed by these surveys. It also contextualizes Bertrand's opportunities and setbacks in ways that these studies cannot be expected to do. In particular, Vernier explores Bertrand's Spanish adventures with some relish, for they take up three central chapters of the eight. Vernier more carefully delineates the various claimants for the Castilian throne (and the various English, French, Aragonese, and Portuguese, parties that supported them) than he does the factions in Bertrand's own Brittany.

Yet, so well is the material synthesized that Vernier sometimes remains silent about the work of his predecessors, when he perhaps should have acknowledged their contributions and then pressed their conclusions. His debt to Georges Minois's Du Guesclin (Paris, 1996) is periodically noted, for example, but probably should be given greater notice, because both historians structure their narratives the same way. They introduce their protagonist with a belletristic introduction of Bertrand Du Guesclin's funeral procession. Bertrand was the only one in medieval France to be buried in four tombs, although this achievement arose not from design but from dealing with transporting a rotting corpse across France in the summer: entrails at Le Puy-en-Velay, skin and tissue at Clermont-Montferrand (destroyed at the Revolution), his heart at Dinan in his homeland, and finally his bones in the royal sepulcher at Saint-Denis. Then both historians introduce the theme of Bertrand's legacy and how it has been shaped over the centuries in early modern chronicles and twentieth-century French schoolbooks. Their respective studies return to the death of Bertrand, which received surprisingly brief treatment from his first biographer, Cuvelier, and conclude with to the theme of his literary and nationalist legacy. Indeed, both close with musings on the verisimilitude of Bertrand's two gisants at Saint-Laurent of Le Puy-en-Velay and at Saint-Denis.

But if the shape of Verner's study closely follows Minois's, his detail surpasses the precursor in almost all fronts. Vernier's strategy is to enjoin a close and deep reading of Cuvelier's La Chanson de Bertrand du Guesclin (completed around 1400 and recently edited by Jean-Claude Faucon (Toulouse,1990-1993, 3 vols.) while checking Cuvelier's information against other narratives, such as that of Froissart and the chronicle of Peter IV of Aragon. Vernier's reading of the chanson is refreshingly free of literary theory, which is in no small part what makes his work so accessible. Vernier trusts Cuvelier's account to give a fairly accurate view of Bertrand's career, although he checks Cuvelier's inconsistencies or omissions wherever possible. At the level of history for the general reader, The Flower of Chivalry succeeds admirably.

Nevertheless, Vernier's unwillingness to bring any textual theories to his reading also imposes a striking limitation on his ability to contextualize Cuvelier's narrative within the military, economic, or social contexts of France at the turn of the fifteenth century. Vernier often treats Cuvelier's song as if it were a collection of newspaper reports written by an embedded journalist, rather than as a "serious entertainment" constructed at least fifteen years after Bertrand's efforts and their most obvious effects had played out. Vernier often writes of Bertrand in the present tense, which makes for engaging reading, but which unhelpfully masks Cuvelier's chronological advantages. To take but one example (in reference to the withdrawal of many of the French companies from Spain in 1367 after they succeeded in getting Enrique his crown): "Cuvelier is clearly unaware of the mundane realities behind the withdrawal the Companies, or else he disdains them. Instead, he gives us a set piece, the farewell of comrades-in-arms separated by opposite duties" (107). One cannot help but be surprised to find Vernier surprised that a poet of chivalry, writing thirty years after the event, did not bother to discover how many men left at which time and along what routes back across the Pyrenees. Chapter Six opens with this statement: "Chroniclers concern themselves with memorable events. General chronicles give us at least a glimpse of ordinary life, as they touch--however briefly--on the extraordinary calamities that affected the populace at large" (125). But surely the opposite is closer to the truth, namely, that it is chroniclers who make events memorable by shaping them into a narrative accessible to future generations separated irrevocably from both the ordinary lives and the extraordinary calamities the chroniclers have shaped for us.

Vernier's second goal is to trace the history of the legend of Bertrand du Guesclin in a similar way Georges Duby traced medieval and modern perceptions and uses of the Battle of Bouvines in 1214 (Dimanche de Bouvines, Paris, 1973). Although this effort was made in Minois's biography, Vernier pursues it with much more thoroughness than does his predecessor. Vernier gives thorough synopses of a number of chronicles and plays written during the Valois and Bourbon dynasties that made use of Bertrand as a symbol of loyalty to the king and the realm (Bertrand was bested, and only barely, by Joan of Arc). Vernier then includes academic studies and nationalist, propagandistic, appeals in the early modern and modern eras that saw Bertrand as a professional soldier fighting and ultimately sacrificing himself for his patrie.

Cuvelier remains the Ur-text, and Vernier continues to call the reader's attention to all the places in which one must look elsewhere for more reliable information. Indeed, Cuvelier related almost nothing of Bertrand's last campaigns in Languedoc or his terminal case of dysentery. Nevertheless, Vernier's use of Cuvelier can again be questioned, especially in reference to Cuvelier's image of Bertrand as an unattractive outsider who learned chivalry and duty the hard way and eventually fought his way into the king's inner circle. According to Vernier, "Du Guesclin's early identity as the Ugly Duckling ranks as Cuvelier's master stroke...the diamond-in-the-rough effect. The theme elicits...fellow-feeling for the boy whose courage overcomes the banal handicaps of plain features and social rejection" (199). But, as Minois convincingly suggests but then drops, there is a classic literary topos of the unattractive and boorish hero who overcomes his shortcomings to prove himself worthy that Cuvelier adopts, not creates. Indeed, is it not likely that some of the events and meetings in which Bertrand participated but Cuvelier did not include in his poem were purposefully omitted so as not to undermine this topos?

Ultimately, Vernier has done a great service to synthesis a number of literary images and academic studies of Bertrand, who was both larger-than-life (and often mentioned by his successors as "the tenth worthy" of chivalry) and tardily sketched by his contemporaries. In so doing, one cannot fault Vernier for giving his subject every benefit of the doubt, as, for example, he introduces the career of his protagonist as one "to be viewed in the context of a time when professional soldiering in the service of a knight's 'natural lord' has become a full-time occupation, and often a very profitable career" (16). Even as I find much to commend of Vernier's study, though, I cannot help but find the more calculating image in the introduction ofKenneth Fowler's Medieval Mercenaries (Oxford, vol.1, 2001) more convincing: "[W]hilst there is thus clear evidence for the lowly beginnings of some of the captains of the companies, there can be no doubt that the more important among them, both in France and England, were those who had chivalrous backgrounds or pretensions... By carefully reinvesting the profits of war in military equipment, even archers and infantry could rise through the ranks. War was a lottery, and although the stakes were dangerously high, they were still worth the gamble" (12). Bertrand had a stunningly, indeed, uniquely, successful run in that lottery, but he was one of many mercenaries of the petty nobility who saw war as a means out of the limited circumstances that birth had given him. His legend had as much to do with the literary efforts of Cuvelier and subsequent royal propagandists as with Bertrand's own prowess.