12.09.34, Varvaro, ed., La Tragédie de l'Histoire

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Peter Ainsworth

The Medieval Review 12.09.34

Varvaro, Alberto. La Tragédie de l'Histoire: La dernière œuvre de Jean Froissart. Recherches Littéraires Médiévales, 8. Paris:Classiques Garnier, 2011. Pp. 202. ISBN: 978-2-8124-0326-2.

Reviewed by:

Peter Ainsworth
University of Sheffield

Autumn 2012 should see the publication of Alberto Varvaro's long-anticipated edition of Book IV of Jean Froissart's Chroniques based on Brussels, Royal Library MS IV.467 (a copy executed in 1470, just after the text had begun to circulate) by the Académie Royale de Belgique in their Collection des Anciens Auteurs belges, superseding at last the long-serving but no longer adequate edition by Baron Kervyn de Lettenhove (1867-1877). The monograph reviewed here is thus a curtain-raiser to what promises to be a major event in Froissart studies; it enshrines the editor-critic's long-meditated thoughts on the last great prose work of the chronicler of Valenciennes. Varvaro makes a strong case for Book IV being posterior to Froissart's other late prose work, the final recension of Book I of the Chronicles surviving in Vatican Library MS Reg. Lat. 869 (edited by George Diller and published in Droz's Textes Littéraires Français series in 1972). Varvaro argues that what we know as Book IV, which remains incomplete, was undertaken just after the chronicler's death, circa 1403-1404. The materials found in his "forge" provides the content for an archetype to which the most closely related extant manuscript copy is Brussels, Royal Library MS IV.467. As for those who may have been responsible for saving the work for posterity, Varvaro suggests "un membre de la famille de Saint-Pol ou de celle de Croÿ" (32) on the grounds that they were associated with Monstrelet (and the latter's continuation of Froissart's Chronicles).

This landmark study contains the first sustained analysis of the Book IV text since Michel Zink's Froissart et le temps (1998). The first half opens with an introduction to Book IV, exploring the dating of its composition between 1389 and 1400, and possibly as late as 1403, the question of whether or not it was revised by the author or by a third party--Varvaro believes there was one, incomplete redaction, but that we have two manuscript families (19)--, the identities of the chronicler's patrons, protectors and informants, and details of the manuscript tradition. Modalities of composition are reviewed and the manuscript tradition delineated as comprehensively as can be managed here; one looks forward to additional detail and argument in the Introduction to Varvaro's forthcoming edition.

A second chapter first explores the historian and his sources and what we might make of Froissart's first-person interventions (40-41). This is followed by a thoughtful discussion of diegetic levels in the later Chroniques (42), by an exploration of errors of fact in the Book IV narratives, and by an impressive exploration of the modes of construction employed on the narratives themselves, including the uses of prophecy. Varvaro then turns to Froissart's own memory and its functioning as evidenced in the texts before closing the chapter with a discussion of a number of ill-informed modern assessments of the chronicler of Valenciennes (53-56), evaluations that have frequently failed to take account of the intellectual, aesthetic and historicising context within which Froissart himself was working. There are some acute insights here, for example: "Les Chroniques sont une élaboration littéraire des évènements, mais il est difficile de déterminer jusqu'à quel point cette élaboration doit être attribuée à Froissart ou si elle n'a pas déjà été amorcée par ses informateurs" (39).

The third chapter ("Les Structures du récit") homes in on the mechanisms whereby the chronicler illuminated his world through narratives spanning not inconsiderable geographical spaces and equally remarkable periods of time. Varvaro commendably points up the signal qualities and advantages of Froissart's "method," even as he relocates it within the context of fourteenth-century attitudes to the past. Varvaro is especially enlightening on Froissart's use of the supernatural (58-59), as well as on his lack of awareness of the "altérité" of human societies, e.g. the Frisians, Irish or Muslims (60-65). There is an excellent section on Froissart's Chronology (65-70), but equally impressive are the Italian critic's penetrating discussions of the "rupture" in the chronicler's perspective, occasioned by Froissart's growing awareness of a shift from the predominance of a "loi chevaleresque" to that of a "loi du roi" (70-79), and Varvaro's magisterial analysis of the "non-dit" in the later prose narratives (79-87). The chapter ends with a useful exploration of Froissart's "goût du concret," of his "delegation" of political analysis to the speeches of his major protagonists, and therefore of his frequently subtle use of (their) direct speech, or that of conveniently anonymous courtiers, to convey key political arguments or uncomfortable truths. Instructive contrasts are drawn, here, between the chronicler of Valenciennes and Philippe de Commynes, not entirely to the former's detriment (97-98). Varvaro's analysis of Froissart's depiction of Richard II's loss of his throne and liberty is wonderfully shrewd in its focus on the role of allusion and on what is not said in the narrative (101).

As the second half of the monograph, La Prouesse et son contraire--a lengthy but engrossing fourth chapter--gets underway, one wonders whether one is going to be provided with little more than an engrossing presentation of the major themes and episodes of Book IV, fleshing out--as it were--the synopsis provided later in Appendix II. This initial impression rapidly fades, for the critic is about much more than this; taking up some of the key findings of his previous chapters, Varvaro inaugurates a sustained re-evaluation of the chronicler's later manner, showing convincingly how Froissart's chivalric dream progressively evaporates in the face of a growing cynicism and ruthlessness evinced by so many of the protagonists of this late work. There are fine sections on "Fêtes" and their significance (112-120); on the "duel chevaleresque" and on how modern readers might best make sense of the Jousts of St Inglevert or the Smithfield Tournament (120-128), the increasingly prominent place occupied by brigands in Book IV, and the prevalence of the "trompeur-trompé" scenario (130-137), the depiction of siege warfare, of battles such as Kosovo Polje in 1389 and of course Nicopolis in 1396, and the growing prevalence of "orgueil, despit, presuntion" and "oultrecuidance" displayed by Westerners over-confident about their invincibility. Varvaro's demonstration of this "mise en doute" of Dame Prouesse continues as the book approaches the final episodes of Book IV (as we have it), and therefore the deposition of King Richard II of England. Varvaro writes persuasively about Froissart's duke of Gloucester and his close relationship with the Londoners, and about the chorus-like role they play; on the theme of "envie" and "oiseuses" too (152-153). Varvaro is careful to remind us of the important contribution made to the arts by the doomed king (154), even as he shows us how Froissart taxes Richard with the error of heeding "mauvais conseil" (157). There are some fine pages here on episodes involving Pierre de Craon and Yvain de Foix; all of which tend to show how "la perfidie s'établit partout" (161). The last section of this final chapter explores the tension between freewill and predestination--as modern moralists would characterise it--illustrated in the later narratives of Book IV, and looks at the roles played here by prophecy and Fortune.

In his thoughtful and nuanced Conclusion, Varvaro underscores his conviction that, whilst Froissart "n'a à sa disposition aucun instrument conceptuel" that would allow him to evaluate analytically or rationalise the sombre events of the final decade of the fourteenth century, what he did have at his disposal was an extraordinary ability to use narrative to evoke response, invite reflection, and stimulate thought. "Et, comme narrateur, il était l'une des meilleures plumes de son temps" (171).

Appendix I provides a guide to the manuscript tradition; Appendix II offers a synopsis, chapter by chapter, of the content of Book IV. Varvaro provides a substantial bibliography of primary and secondary sources, though this might be usefully supplemented by the addition of Katariina Närä's study and part edition of the Philippe de Commynes manuscript, "A study and partial edition of Froissart's Chronicles Book IV, based on BL MS Hartley 4379–4380" (thesis, University of Sheffield, Department of French, 2007). The volume concludes with an index of names of persons; a second index covers places referred to in the monograph.

This is an important contribution to Froissart studies and to our growing understanding of how most profitably to evaluate historical narratives of the fourteenth century. It offers a master class in how to interpret Froissart to best advantage, namely according to the evolving ideologies and moral, political and social parameters of the very society that the chronicler strove to portray. Without seeking to pass over the flaws in Froissart's historical vision, Varvaro points up the manifold ways in which the chronicler managed nonetheless to convey to his readers a sophisticated awareness of the stakes and issues underpinning the events he observed. It is all the more regrettable, in consequence, that the book has not benefited from the close attention to detail that it merited. There is more than a sprinkling of typos: an Italian language spellchecker is most plausibly the source of the "di"s and "da"s encountered along the way (11, 17, 24 and 178); "Autorship" [sic] (16); "l'Hardi" [sic] for le Hardi (21). There are not a few grammatical errors in the French produced by Varvaro's translator, who otherwise does full justice to our Italian colleague's persuasive and absorbing arguments: "n'a pas eu le temps juger" [sic] (15); "il s'agit d'un copie" [sic] (16); "dans ls territoires" [sic] (17). "Robert d'Anjou" turns up incorrectly (22) rather than Robert d'Artois, and "Édouard," not "Henri," usurps Richard II's throne (24); "marchant" is used for "marchand" (27), "complère" for "complète" (29), "ecc" for "etc" (30); "chroniquer" is used for "chroniqueur" (32), on which page the phrase "comme véritable un plagiat" also occurs; the Isle of Wight becomes the "île de White" [sic] (44); "Huntindgon" needs transposing to "Huntingdon" (46); on the same page "de Chester et Londres" should surely read "de Chester à Londres," whilst "Guidhall" should be corrected to "Guildhall." "Chepside" (48) should be "Cheapside"; the phrase "un lien approximatif avec à la leçon" betokens someone's hesitation (55), but "au mois" should surely be corrected to "au moins" (57), and "Costantinople" to "Constantinople" (65). An active verb is missing from the first line of page 68, and "Pleshy" (84) should read "Pleshey," whilst "Estanes" (90) is surely "Staines"? In addition, "Henri si distrait" (86) should read "Henri se distrait," and "que Froissart pourraient..." (92) should read "que Froissart pourrait...". "Discorse" (92 n.1) should be "Discourse," "longs et difficile" should be corrected to "longs et difficiles" (118), and "se présent à" needs changing to "se présente à" (122); "se délite" (128) needs revisiting, and "aux dépends" should read "aux dépens." The person "Guillaume le Bouteillier" is spelled four different ways, Mérigot Marchès three, despite Varvaro's ostensible clarification (133 n.2); and "épisode" is masculine in French, not feminine (133, n.1). "Comme pourrait-on admettre" awaits correction to "Comment pourrait-on admettre" (137), and "leus" to "leurs" in Varvaro's transcription of Froissart's text--which looks strange in this unemended state (146). "Thomas Mawbray" should read "Thomas Mowbray" (155); "poule" in French is assuredly feminine, not masculine (158); "opérations possible" is missing its agreement in number (159); "est hérétique" (160) should read "était hérétique"; "il mais ne lui attribue" needs transposing to read "mais il ne lui attribue" (163 n.2), and "échapper à ce que devait être" needs correcting to "échapper à ce qui devait être" (167 n.1). One feels inclined to quibble also with Varvaro's uncharacteristically ungenerous dismissal of George Diller's monumental, scholarly, and frankly invaluable, 1010-page edition of the Rome MS of Book I, not to mention his 5-volume edition of the Amiens MS (or indeed the reviewer's more modest efforts on Book III), as "une solution utile mais insuffisante" (8)!

It may appear churlish to highlight these deficiencies, but this is a book that every scholar of Froissart ought to read, enjoy and profit by; as it goes into its second and third impression one would like to see these unfortunate errors removed from what is in every other respect a distinguished and scholarly piece of work.

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Peter Ainsworth

University of Sheffield