09.06.13, Delogu, Theorizing the Ideal Sovereign

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Anne-Hélène Miller

The Medieval Review baj9928.0906.013


Delogu, Daisy. Theorizing the Ideal Sovereign: The Rise of the French Vernacular Royal Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. Pp. 300. ISBN: 9780802098078.

Reviewed by:
Anne-Hélène Miller
East Carolina University

"Medieval kingship is a complex and original institution, one built on a variety of disparate traditions to meet a range of practical needs" (3). This very first sentence of Daisy Delogu's book reveals that the reexamination of the medieval figure of the king is a large undertaking. It is indeed a vast topic which has, as the author herself points out, "generated a lengthy and still-growing bibliography" (4). However, by focusing exclusively on late medieval royal biographies in French, Delogu manages to open up an interesting and original discussion regarding the specificities and implications of such texts in fourteenth-century France. While recalling the central role of the king as a figure of power, she sets out to demonstrate that the literary biographies are the locus of a confrontation between the construction of an ideal figure of the king, necessarily variable, and a particular royal figure whose actions do not always conform to such an ideal in late medieval France.

Her general introduction is a well-crafted overview of what is at stake during this period. The rediscovery of Aristotelian political and philosophical thoughts complicates the approaches to the Augustinian principles of justice, peace and order. Capable of reaching a wider audience, the French language strives to gain a higher status, to become the vehicle of both the traditional representations of kingship--biblical, hagiographic and epic--and the "newer" political theories. Finally, in the context of the Hundred Years War, she considers the implications of writing about legitimacy, authority, and the even more important and complex concept of sovereignty. Those are the aspects, she argues, that guide her study as she develops them across five chapters, each devoted to a particular biographical work. The author also alludes here to what constitutes a biography in the context of the times. The Miroir du Prince, for instance, was directly addressed to the king (12), as opposed to the biography which, according to her, had a less defined discursive tradition and aimed more at engaging the reader (16-18). Her entire work encompasses such probl ématique.

In fact, in chapter one, entitled "Models of Sanctity and Kingship in Joinville's Vie de Saint Louis: Will the Real Louis IX Please Stand?", Delogu immediately argues that, because Joinville's work draws from a variety of discursive categories--hagiography, miroir du prince, memoir, epic narrative--it perfectly illustrates how medieval authors, contrary to modern scholars, thought about what constituted a biography (27) and thus played an important part in the development of late medieval vernacular royal biographies. Although Joinville's Vie de Saint Louis is divided into two parts, one devoted to his words and one to his deeds, Delogu interestingly argues in favor of a tripartite reading of the text: a thematic one, a chronological one on the crusade, and a conclusive mixture of the two (36). In this way, she demonstrates her argument in favor of the necessary engagement of the reader, as well as the blurring of boundaries between discourses, between saintliness and royal conduct, and therefore better captures the "real" Louis IX. However, she concludes that because at several levels this text functions more like a hagiography than any other form of discourse, Joinville's text sets standards of what an ideal king ought to be, a paradigm of Christian virtue through his actions while at the same time describing the flaws of the main character (41).

The second chapter, entitled "Hugh the Butcher: lineage, election, and succession in the Chanson de Hugues Capet," addresses the issues of representations of royal descent, legitimacy, loyalty of the king's noble subjects and other family members during the accession of the Valois dynasty to the throne of France. This biography is not of a contemporary royal figure and it follows for the most part the traditions of a Chanson de geste. However, it is as problematic in the values that it sets forth as in its description of the origins of its central figure, Hugh Capet, born of a noble father and a Parisian bourgeoise mother, daughter of a butcher! Delogu shows well how, just like its main character Hugh, and his persistence in conforming to a noble lifestyle, this text functions as a conciliation with the Parisian bourgeoisie of the fourteenth century--the rise to power and assassination of Etienne Marcel, the siege of Paris, and the overall new position of the bourgeoisie after the defeat at Poitiers (70). Not only does the text bring out the reditus that "linked the Capetian to the Carolingian dynasty by means of heredity" in order to authorize the Valois dynasty, but it also evokes the so-called Salic law that "forbade matrilineal succession" in order to deny the English king any right to the throne of France. Although they are "mutually exclusive theories" (61), Delogu shows how they best exemplify the complex rendering of the classical metaphor of body-politic, particularly popular amongst those "new" ideas, by trying to defend a social cohesion, and authorize the Valois dynasty as the most suitable to bring peace and justice.

In the third chapter, "The Crusading Ideal in Guillaume de Machaut's Prise d'Alexandrie" the author takes up questions of peace and justice outside of France by examining Machaut's biography of Pierre I of Cyprus, a French king of the last bastion of a Christian kingdom in the East. La Prise is the work of a well-established author and was apparently well received in its time (93). If we may see a parallel with the epic tradition as in the precedent Chanson, it is a rather ambivalent depiction of what an ideal sovereign ought to be. The various monarchs, as well as a sultan, whom Pierre de Lusignan encounters throughout the book--whose title we notice, contrary to the others, is not eponymous but recalls one particular episode!--allows Machaut to reevaluate the main character's responsibilities as a leader. Delogu well explores this most important aspect of the text. Without dismissing the role played by the French kings in the medieval crusades, she shows that Machaut's Prise sets out to denounce the political precedence of the domestic "kingdom" over "Christendom" in a fourteenth century France devastated by conflicts at home. She convincingly demonstrates how Machaut's Pierre finds no help amongst the Christian leaders, not even the French or the Pope (102), and how, in general, political decisions are of a more pragmatic nature in this text (110). Machaut's text illustrates best Delogu's argument in favor of the reader's sagacity, especially during the gruesome account of the king's murder for being a "tyrant" by his own Cypriot vassals, which is in sharp contrast with the mythological introduction of Pierre as a "hero."

The fourth chapter, "The Herald Chandos' Vie du Prince Noir: A prince tr ès chr étien," explores further "the struggle to reconcile an ideal of sovereignty with the demands of political reality" (124). As a chivalric biography, the figure of the Black Prince first epitomizes the ideals of knighthood, a possible contemporary element of propaganda, as suggested by J. J. N. Palmer, intended to promote the legitimate claim of the Herald's patron John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, to the throne of Castille in the 1370s (127). To that end, it aims at defining foundations of kingship and by means of amplificatio, the Herald strives to describe an exemplary hero in every aspect, moral as well as military. Delogu argues that the Prince is always guided by his virtuous inclinations, characteristics derived both from literary portraits of the king and theoretical treatises such as the miroirs (129). Since much is left unsaid in the first part devoted to the French campaigns, she asserts that in the second part that recounts the Spanish expedition, the ideal portrait of the prince is thus undermined (138). Delogu shows how the narrator struggles to preserve intact the good image of his eponymous character until the very end, which depicts his pious death (148-149) in the tradition of Saint Louis, even if, as she says herself, is really "nowhere mentioned" (150). Although it is an element of Delogu's definition of a medieval biography, we feel this fourth text resists most the interpretation regarding the conformity to ideals of kingship and sovereignty. This is perhaps due to the fact that Edward is not a "real" king. He is certainly presented as a ruler in Gascony, but the Gascon nobles were not his subjects and could rightfully appeal to the king of France if it were in their interest, which they did. Besides, if the goal of this text is to promote another Lord, John of Gaunt, this complicates the main argument.

The fifth and last chapter, "Reinventing kingship: Christine de Pizan's Livre des Fais et bonnes moeurs du Sage roy Charles V," also includes the conclusions to this book. Christine de Pizan's royal biography, which is the only one commissioned by an identified patron, the Duke of Burgundy, has arguably been more studied than the other texts. Even in the case of Guillaume de Machaut whose magnitude in fourteenth-century France is undisputed, his Prise d'Alexandrie has not attracted as much interest as his other works. More like Joinville regarding Saint Louis, Christine de Pizan presents here an unequivocal promotion of what an ideal king ought to be in the person of Charles V. Delogu argues that his reign is viewed some fifty years later in the early fifteenth century as a "lost golden age of reconquest and recovery" (152). She convincingly shows how this final text is a biography "endowed with the rhetorical force of a miroir" (157), but also how the writer herself underlines the novelty of her project, its didactic aspect and her own contribution in the legacy of this king (154-155). Christine de Pizan's theoretical work aims at re-constructing the monarch's unique moral disposition, the symbolic staging that characterized his reign, and the overall predominance of text over subject, to use Delogu's own conclusive argument (181). She shows how the metaphor of the architect is Pizan's governing concept (165), and how "the Aristotelian notion of the artist" allows Christine to redefine the ideal of kingship, but also the concepts of state and statesmanship for the Valois dynasty.

If we may still wonder what a medieval biography is, since all the works considered are often composite, we must remember that Delogu examines, as her title suggests, the "rise" of a discourse during that particular period. Of the different biographies, presented in chronological order, probably to illustrate a gradual evolution, it will come as no surprise that the last one by Christine de Pizan strikes us as the most accomplished and convincing. We may also ask ourselves how reliable the specificities of other medieval discourses, arguably just as disparate, are to constitute points of departure for the definition of biography. In all cases, the discussion carried out all through this book remains thought-provoking and invaluable. It should lead to further debate and exploration, especially regarding the hybridity of late medieval discourses. So, for a close reexamination of those often less studied and unique texts, she has our gratitude. Overall, Daisy Delogu's study is lucidly written, well-researched--nearly 70 pages of very useful notes--and gives evidence of serious scholarship. She makes a noteworthy contribution that should trigger, beyond the field of Late Medieval French literature, the curiosity of a vast array of medievalists interested in kingship, laws, politics, philosophy, other literary fields and discourses, readership and/or reception of texts.

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Anne-Hélène Miller

East Carolina University