Leah Shopkow

title.none: Emerson, Olivier de la Marche (Leah Shopkow)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.028 05.01.28

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Leah Shopkow, Indiana University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Emerson, Catherine. Olivier de la Marche and the Rhetoric of Fifteenth-Century Historiography. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2004. Pp. viii, 247. $75.00 1-84383-052-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.28

Emerson, Catherine. Olivier de la Marche and the Rhetoric of Fifteenth-Century Historiography. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2004. Pp. viii, 247. $75.00 1-84383-052-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Leah Shopkow
Indiana University

This is a review of a book by a literary scholar by an historian about a particularly interesting and problematic late medieval historical text composed in a region in the process of being politically reconfigured, one of those places where the disciplinary lines collide. As such, it is of interest to scholars of both sort, although I don't think historians will find this book as satisfying as literary scholars will. All readers will probably find it diffuse and somewhat unfocussed. Emerson's overall argument is that although scholars have tended to take La Marche's text at face value, as personal recollections, and have treated it as though it were transparent, the text is neither naive nor straightforward. Like all histories written in the Middle Ages, it is highly fictive, although that it has been read as it has demonstrates the success of the reality effect created by its rhetoric. The task Emerson sets herself is to unpack the text to reveal the artifice of its author.

In the first chapter, "Putting a date to the Mémoires," Emerson outlines the process of composition of the Mémoires of Olivier de la Marche. The first part of the Mémoires as we have them took shape in the early 1470s (although some passages seem to have circulated independently earlier). La Marche worked on this part until just before 1475. In the late 1480s, La Marche recast his memoirs as an exemplary history for Philippe le Beau of Hapsburg and wrote a new book, which he conceived of as being the first of three. He had returned to the first part of the project by 1494 and continued working until the year of his death (1501). The Mémoires are clearly not in any final form. Among other difficulties, both the original first part of the work and the book La Marche dedicated to Philippe claim to be book one, while the project La Marche proposed in his offering to the count was never completed. The remainder of Emerson's first chapter deals with the manuscript tradition and the problematic print tradition. Her comments here are a helpful reminder of how treacherous print editions of vernacular texts can be; she makes a strong case that La Marche has not been well served by his editors. Those who are not already deep in La Marche studies, however, will find a lot of this discussion confusing. It took me several readings to figure out, for example, that La Marche's work is currently divided into three books, although these do not correspond to the plan he put before his patron. Emerson's descriptions of the manuscripts are rudimentary.

The second chapter, "L'Autobiographie moyenageuse: Genre in the Mémoires," examines the question of whether the memoirs are an autobiography. Memoirs, which preceded autobiographic forms, did not necessarily do what autobiography does, that is, present the author as the central character, who has entered into an "autobiographical contract" with his readers. Emerson concludes that La Marche is writing what we might understand as autobiography. The remainder of the second chapter examines the biographical "hot points" in the text, namely those parts of the text which critics have over the centuries identified as particularly significant and strongly biographical. Despite the powerful reality effect produced by the text's rhetoric, however, Emerson is able to demonstrate its fictive qualities, which were sometimes intended to place the author artificially at the heart of the events he relates and sometimes, as in the case of the battle of Nancy, to efface his presence.

The third chapter, "'L'Histoire [...] bourguignonne'!" strives to place La Marche's work in the context of historical writing in the court of Burgundy. Emerson begins with some unnecessarily heavy weather, discussing whether historians are to be included in the school of "rhétoriqueurs" (and whether there was indeed such a school), concluding that, in the end, this group was comprised only of the poets. She then turns to the actual importance of history at the court. From at least 1455, the counts of Flanders had official historians. There were, however, many other historians operating from less official positions and their methods did not always differ from those of the official historians. La Marche had read the work of other historians, particularly that of the first official court historian Georges Chastelain and Chastelain's successor, Molinet. Emerson does a particularly nice job discussing Chastelain's powerful influence on La Marche. Emerson also (and to my mind less conclusively) compares La Marche to Philippe de Commynes, also from the Burgundian-Flemish world and also the author of memoirs. The two men knew each other, and their memoirs show some similarities, although it is not clear who influenced whom. Emerson ends by considering whether La Marche was influenced by Dutch culture and she concludes that while he probably knew Dutch and was associated with Dutch-speaking cultural groups, and that therefore he was unlikely to have been hostile to Dutch culture, there is little evidence of Dutch textual influence on his work.

The remaining three chapters of the book deal with particular themes in La Marche's work. The fourth chapter, "Exemplaire, miroir et doctrine: The Didactic Import of the Mémoires," argues that La Marche intended to produce a didactic work, in the 1488 version an historical mirror for princes, shaped by a knowledge of classical didactic literature. Emerson ties this theme to the popularity of Boccaccio's work on the fall of great men, the Cyropedie (History of Xerxes) translated into French by the Portuguese scholar Vasque de Lucène, who was active at the Flemish court, and La Marche's own poetic reflection on mortality, Le Chevalier delibéré. This chapter is well-argued and convincing, indeed, undoubtedly right. Dynastic history (and from Emerson's description, it seems likely that La Marche thought at least partly this way about his reconceived work) was frequently didactic, as Johanek has argued in his 1992 article, "Der Schreiber und die Vergangenheit. Zur Entaltung einer dynastischen Geschichtsschreibung an den Füsten höfen des 15. Jahrhunderts." The didactic structure of his work may help explain why La Marche's work was widely read in the sixteenth century, unlike the work of the official chroniclers (although I suspect that it was the memoir form as well--the memoirs of Philippe de Commynes were also popular then).

The fifth chapter, "La 'corde nouhé': La Marche and Religion," is on the whole less successful. Emerson argues that La Marche invokes the Franciscan friars (particularly the Cordeliers or Observant Franciscans) as intermediary figures, who operate between the secular world of the court and its politics and the spiritual world and that they appear in his text even when there is no need for them to do so. In his poetry, La Marche also employs a Franciscan love theme, which he either introduced to or borrowed from the circle of poets around Charles d'Orléan (Emerson devotes some seems to me to be an unnecessary amount of space to the issue of priority here). On the other hand, she also argues that it is unclear that La Marche had any personal tie to any of the forms of the order and his will stipulated that he was to be buried (or part of him, at least) in an Augustinian convent in Brussels. While his author portrait in the 1488 presentation copy of his book shows him in a habit, it is not a Franciscan habit. Finally, she ends by suggesting that La Marche introduces religious themes only when they suit his purpose, in other words. This rather inconclusive discussion does not seem to tell us much that we need to know.

Toward the end of her sixth chapter, "Ordre and ordinance: The Presentation of Combat in the Mémoires," however, Emerson loosely ties La Marche's religious attitudes to his attitudes about the various forms of combat to be found in the Burgundian realm, the pas d'armes, the judicial combat (mostly hypothetical in the fifteenth century, as La Marche had seen only one of these, between non-noble combatants), and warfare. All of these La Marche saw as properly noble activities (notwithstanding his experience of the judicial duel). But the reality of contemporary war was that combatants were increasingly commoners, archers, artillerymen, and infantry. La Marche does not comment on this, but does outline a process of decline. Nobles did not always wear their cottes d'armes, the over-tunic with their coat of arms on it, or even know their own coats of arms. Charles the Bold's own moral failings led him to participate in treacherous plots, to ally himself with a king who had murdered his own brother, to order the arrest of a woman and her children despite his chivalric obligations, and finally to die ignominiously under the onslaught of commoner's weapons at Nancy. She concludes by suggesting that La Marche saw not only a decline in nobility in his day, but also one of religious propriety.

So all in all, what is one to conclude? Emerson claims through her title to do two things in this book, to talk about Olivier de la Marche's historical writing and to set it in a framework of "the fifteenth-century rhetoric of history." The book does the first of these tasks well, albeit in a way that gives little quarter to those less familiar with La Marche than Emerson is. She wisely emphasizes that La Marche's work only makes sense when read as a whole, that cherry-picking passages will not tell you what he means, that his moments of "forgetting" are rhetorically useful as they allow him not to talk about things he does not want to talk of (just as Enguerrand de Monstrelet, present at the meeting between Joan of Arc and Philip the Good of Burgundy "forgets" what they said), that his details, which sometimes differ from other accounts, are chosen for rhetorical purposes.

But it would be somewhat less misleading if she had entitled her book The Rhetoric of Olivier de La Marche, for she does not perform the second task implied by the title very well, and here the historian will be particularly frustrated. The reader curious about how La Marche fits into the vigorous historiographic tradition of fifteenth-century Burgundy will not find as much to go on here as he or she might like. The library of Louis de Bruges, lord of Gruthuyse, one of La Marche's contemporaries, has mostly survived and is a good guide to what was available to a curious reader of French in the second half of the fifteenth century. It suggests that the models La Marche would have had available to him (if not directly from Gruthuyse's library, as they ended up on different sides) were far-ranging, from translations of classical texts to many contemporary works. Emerson tends to consider literary influences only in the most restricted way. Apart from Molinet, Chastelain, and Commynes, she does not discuss many other texts that could have formed part of La Marche's "horizon of expectations." The elephant in the living room is, for me, Froissart, whose chronicles were widely read in the fifteenth-century in the French-speaking world and who was still influencing historical writing (Enguerrand de Monstrelet began his Chronicles where Froissart left off and Gruthuyse had an extraordinarily glorious, lavishly illuminated manuscript of Froissart). If La Marche refers to himself as "I, Olivier, lord of La Marche, knight, counselor..." (97) it may be because this is a conventionalized position for the author of memoirs to take. It even may be the case that Joinville used the same formula and that the formula ultimately derives from the practices of witnessing (98), but it might also be handy for the reader to know that Froissart uses the expression "I, Jean Froissart" and its variants a truly stunning number of times--hundreds. Comparison with the writing of many contemporaries would be equally useful, particularly in an age when histories could be (as La Marche's was) the subject of lawsuits and the battleground for wars fought by alternative means. How many of La Marche's attitudes were peculiar to him and how many shaped by or in response to what his contemporaries had written?

One could also come away from this book thinking that fifteenth-century Flanders/Burgundy was alone in its interest in historical writing, which would be far from the truth. The kings of France, of course, had been vigorous patrons of historical writing and had their own official court historiographers. But the phenomenon was much wider spread than that. The fifteenth century was a golden age of historical writing, translation, and transmission in courts and cities across Europe. It would have been useful for Emerson to look at other fifteenth-century courts with traditions of writing history. A number of scholars (for example Althoff, Johanek, and Moeglin) have provided some useful discussions on the later medieval court historiographic traditions, providing insights that could enrich Emerson's discussion of La Marche.

Finally, there is the vexing issue of politics. La Marche's comments on "the War of the Common Good," with his emphasis on the treasonous aspects of the plot against Louis XI, suggest that one of his concerns may be the way alliances so easily shifted in the last quarter of the century. We know of many such changes of allegiance: Commynes went over to Louis XI and Gruthuyse to Charles VIII and the historian Thomas Basin shifted to the Burgundian side. If La Marche treats Philippe, the Lord of Ravenstein sarcastically, as Emerson suggests, might it not just be a matter of La Marche's desire to show how people had fallen off from their earlier ideals, but also because he knew that Ravenstein's son Adolph fell out of favor with Maximilian, in other words, that the flaws La Marche described in the father found fulfillment in the son's defection? How did the politics, particularly of the post 1477 period shape La Marche's view? That his work is didactic is beyond doubt, but in what ways beyond that is it political? For political concerns (in the widest possible sense) were driving the late fourteenth and fifteenth-century explosions of historical writing. These aren't questions that have to be asked or answered, but they nagged at one historian reading this book.

Now it is, perhaps, churlish of me to take the author to task for writing the book she wrote, rather than the book I would have preferred her to write. But this author's decisions limit the audience her book will attract and its usefulness. Those who want only to know more about La Marche as a writer will find a lot here; those who want to know why we should care about him (and we should) will want a lot more.