When Adrian Armstrong reviewed Mary-Jo Arn's important study of the personal manuscript of Charles d'Orléans (BnF fr. 25458), The Poet's Notebook (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), in the The Medieval Review a couple of years ago he could still refer to the prince's poetry as "unjustly neglected for much of the twentieth century. " (Although Jean-Claude Mühlethaler had made Charles d'Orléans's Ballades et Rondeaux available in 1992 in the affordable Lettres Gothiques series, albeit with a rather curiously conceived partial translation into modern French.) Since 2008, Charles's works have attracted renewed attention as witnessed by the publication of Jean Claude Mühlethaler's Charles d'Orléans: Un lyrisme entre Moyen Âge et modernité (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2010); the edition and modern French translation of substantial parts of BnF fr. 25458 by Mühlethaler and Virginie Minet-Mahy (Le livre d'Amis: Poésies à la cour de Blois (1440-1465) [Paris: Champion, 2010]); as well as the first volume of a modern French translation of selected poems by Charles prepared by Philippe Frieden and Minet-Mahy (Paris: Champion, 2010). Now we can add to this list the monumental and what will undoubtedly be the definitive edition of BnF fr. 25458 by John Fox and Mary-Jo Arn.
Charles d'Orléans (1394-1465) is one of the most appealing characters in late medieval France. The son of Louis d'Orléans and Valentina Visconti, he was the nephew of the mad French king Charles VI. His father was brutally murdered in 1407 (on the orders of his cousin, the duke of Burgundy) and in 1409 Charles was widowed at the tender age of fifteen. A year later he married the eleven-year old Bonne d'Armagnac and gained as his father-in-law the powerful Bernard VII, count of Armagnac, whose name would serve to designate one faction of the bitter civil war that erupted a few years later. But it was the English enemy that would define a large part of Charles's life: he was taken prisoner at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 and spent twenty- five years in captivity in England. His wife died in the 1430s and when he was finally liberated in 1440 he married again, this time the fourteen-year old niece of the duke of Burgundy, Marie de Clèves. After about ten years of an active life at the royal court and at his estates in Blois and Asti he retired to Blois in 1451 where he fathered several children (including the future French king Louis XII) and devoted himself to his poetry. When he died at the age of seventy he left behind scores of poems on a large variety of topics in both French and English, contained in one of the most complicated manuscripts any editor might have to deal with.
As a material object this manuscript is one of the most complex late medieval productions; it poses many riddles, most of them successfully solved by the Fox and Arn. In order to understand the long and complicated process of this manuscript's production over several decades one should consult Arn's The Poet's Notebook in conjunction with this massive edition and translation. But Arn also does an excellent job in the first four sections of the introduction in explaining the historical background and the codicological and paleographical complexities of this extraordinary manuscript. Arn clearly describes its growth from a collection of unbound leaves, collecting both lyrics and narratives, to the manuscript as we have it today. The crucial point is that the order of the poems in the manuscript does not at all correspond to the order of composition. The ordering of the poems constitutes the biggest difference with regard to the up to now classical edition of Charles's poetry by Pierre Champion (1923 and 1927) who edited the poems in the order in which they appear in the manuscript. In fact, the manuscript was written in four stages (beginning in the late 1430s) that can be detected through the hands of the different initial makers, limners, and rubricators (p. xxii). As time went on, more and more quires were added to the original ones and often spaces were left empty for the addition of more lyrics later on. It is impossible here to summarize in detail the production process as laid out by Arn. I find the results of her paleographic and codicological detective work wholly persuasive. Visualizing this process also opens a window onto the errant life that Charles was forced to lead during his twenty-five year captivity in England during which he constantly added poems to the manuscript, a process continued throughout his life, including the time in Blois where a number of friends were also invited to contribute. Stephanie A. V. G. Kamath places Charles and his friends' literary production into context in part five of the introduction, establishing useful parallels with Christine de Pizan and René d'Anjou among others.
As do other recent critics of Charles's works, Kamath cautions against the autobiographical impulse that may mislead readers. The prison imagery in particular could lend itself to such an autobiographical reading, but as Mühlethaler has shown in "Charles d'Orléans, une prison à porte-faux: Les ballades de la captivité dans l'édition d'Antoine Vérard" (pp. 193-210 in his Charles d'Orléans: Un lyrisme entre Moyen Âge et modernité), late medieval readers and editors such as Vérard elided the autobiographical aspects of Charles' prison poems and rather emphasized the courtly and allegorical aspects of the prison. As does Kamath, Mühlethaler reminds us that the strong presence of lived experience in this type of poetry was not part of the horizon of expectation of Charles's fifteenth-century audience.
The translations of all the poems are by R. Barton Palmer, an experienced translator of late medieval poetry. Wisely, no effort is made to retain rhyme schemes, the number of syllables or other formal features, though the poems are printed in a lay-out that echoes the French text. Latin phrases in the French text are translated without comment into English. The volume also contains textual notes; a detailed description of the manuscript; and several appendices: a list of lyrics in the duke's hand; a list of other manuscripts containing substantial parts of Charles's works; biographical sketches (authored by John Fox) of the numerous other poets represented in the duke's manuscript; a bibliography; an index of first lines cross-referenced with the Champion edition and the page of the manuscript; explanatory notes; and a glossary.
At 957 pages and several pounds this is not a volume readers may want to carry around with them. But the scope and completeness of this edition (as well as the sheer beauty of Charles's poetry) make it a must-have for anyone interested in and captivated by late medieval poetry.