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13.04.16, Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Petkov, eds., Philippe de Mézières and His Age

13.04.16, Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Petkov, eds., Philippe de Mézières and His Age

This volume represents the fruits of a symposium held at Nicosia in June 2009. The editors state that Philippe de Mézières is a "key node, a pivotal figure in whom fourteenth-century political, spiritual, and literary currents converge and are carried throughout Europe and the Mediterranean" (15). As the book's title suggests, the range of articles (twenty-two in all) extends beyond Philippe to the political, cultural, religious, and economic context of his world. Taken together, they offer a helpful if also frustrating entry into the career and writings of the chancellor of Cyprus and adviser to the king of France, Philippe de Mézières.

Despite his centrality to fourteenth-century politics, literature, and spirituality, Philippe is poorly understood. Over the last century, editions of his works have slowly appeared, sometimes with translations, though some of his works remain in manuscript. To my knowledge, there has not been a single monographic overview of Philippe since the nineteenth century. Philippe is indeed a significant figure, but that message has yet to reach the editors of our basic tertiary sources. He receives two paragraphs in the Lexikon des Mittelalters and no entry at all in the Dictionary of the Middle Ages. [1]

Perhaps that has something to do with his lack of success, for indeed Philippe had enough failures to distinguish the resumé of a dot-com pioneer. He achieved modest success on crusade at Alexandria, but then everyone went home. His diplomatic efforts were mostly failures. He mounted a campaign to canonize Pierre Thomas, but that failed too. He planned a new knightly order made up in part of married couples who would colonize the Holy Land, the Order of the Passion: another failure. He failed to convince France and England to join in a crusade--not one failure but two. He wrote a great deal, but few people read him except for his translation of Petrarch's telling of the Griselda story. His one clear success, establishing the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin, duplicated a feast in the Greek Church. Perhaps Philippe's greatest achievement was in making friends: kings, princes, popes, humanists like Petrarch, theologians like Gerson, and many others. He traveled all over Europe, he gained membership in one of the most important confraternities in Venice, and he spent the last twenty-five years of his life in semi-retirement with the Celestines in Paris, where he wrote many of his works and watched the world pass him by.

How then to organize a volume such as this? The editors arrange the articles under four rubrics. Five articles fall under the heading "A Tangled World: Literature of Connectivity in Mézières' Age," seven under "Politics as Spiritual Allegory," four under "A Soldier and a Diplomat," and five under "Affinities and Contrasts: Mézières, His Fellow-Travellers, and His Others." A closing "special note" discusses Philippe and the university. The volume offers little in the way of an overview of Philippe's career or writings beyond one paragraph in the Introduction (1-3). Otherwise the nearest thing is the first article, Philippe Contamine's meditation on Philippe's sense of East and West: how to navigate between them, how they intersect, which takes precedence. Philippe saw the East as a place of riches and power but also infidelity. Its very existence was a rebuke to Western kingdoms, for Christians there--even schismatic Christians--were under the yoke of pagan bondage. At the same time, West and East exchanged goods with each other. But the East also possessed a spiritual strength in the form of the Feast of the Presentation. In short, the East was for Philippe a source of spiritual inspiration, a rebuke, a military goal, and an object of desire.

The four remaining articles in the first section address in various ways the connections that literature makes possible in Philippe's world. Michael Hanly shows how Philippe was at the center of "a system of artistic transmission" between Italy, France, and England (63). Hanly suggests that the members of Philippe's Order of the Passion made up a "peace movement" and that their travels around Europe helped to transmit the works of Italian poets to France and England (72-74). Evelien Chayes explores three letters in a Paris manuscript from Petrarch to Philippe and from Philippe to Bonifazio Lupi, all on the subject of the death of the knight Giacomo dei Rossi in 1369. She shows that for Philippe, Rossi was the ideal knight, a type that he would later have welcomed into his order (111-112). According to Chayes, Petrarch helped to elaborate Philippe's ideas for the order. These were public letters, clearly intended for posterity, to promote a Christian ideal of knighthood. The final two contributions come from Sharon Konoshita on a common Mediterranean culture in the literature of this period, and Lori Walters on a common approach to contemplation shared by Philippe, Christine de Pizan, and Jean Gerson.

The next section consists of interpretations of Philippe's writings, with six of the seven articles focusing on the Songe du vieil pelerin. Kevin Brownlee emphasizes the exemplarity of Cypriot history in the Songe, and especially of the king of Cyprus, Peter I of Lusignan (1359-1369), whom Philippe proposed as a model for the young French king, Charles VI. In Book One of the Songe Peter is the model crusading monarch, a new Joshua. But just as Joshua was betrayed by the Israelites, so King Peter was betrayed by the Cypriotes (Peter was assassinated by one of his courtiers, apparently with the consent of Peter's brother). The young King Charles can avoid a similar fate if he follows the example of his own father, Charles V, and heeds the advice of the Old Pilgrim, Philippe himself.

In a similar vein, Stefan Vander Elst investigates the historical models that Philippe proposes to Charles for reforming the shameful state of French knighthood. Many of these belong to the Judeo- Christian tradition (David, Joshua, Judas Maccabeus), but Philippe also recommends the writings of the Greeks and Romans, and, as more recent models, the examples of Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon. On the other hand, he warns against following the example of Arthur's knights or the deeds of Alexander. He dismisses the stories about Arthur and his knights as "apocryphal" and considers them follies (197). Vander Elst describes Philippe's argument against Arthur as a kind of literary criticism: Arthur was a great man, but the stories about him have been corrupted (198). But the case against both Arthur and Alexander is also moral, since the stories about them appear in romances, which corrupt the reader (199). Ultimately the problem is courtly love itself, which brings "war, dissent, and treason," and thus defeats Philippe's great plan to form an order that would launch a new crusade (205).

Four more articles explore different facets of the Songe. Daisy Delogu shows that Philippe extended Aristotle's understanding of the roy naturel beyond "birth or essential qualities" to include the exercise of kingship, in this way leaving space for the large number of didactic treatises directed at princes, including those written by Philippe himself (152). Catherine Gaullier-Bougassas examines a basic contradiction concerning Alexander the Great in the Songe, that he is both acknowledged as an exemplary warrior but also damned and punished. Joël Blanchard explores the handling of alchemy in the Songe, which Philippe reconfigures as a means to forge not gold but the perfect king. And Andrea Tarnowski ponders the question, why did Philippe uses a vocabulary of money and marketplace and usury to describe a spiritual quest?

Anna Loba explores to great effect one of the lesser studied works of Philippe, his Livre de la vertu du sacrement de mariage et reconfort des dames mariées, written early during his stay with the Celestines (1385-1389). Like his contemporaries, Philippe pictured marriage as an unhappy institution in need of healing. But instead of ridiculing it, he transforms himself into a "physician" and "lapidary" to comfort the sufferings of married men and women. His remedy is for spouses to meditate on the Passion according to the seven canonical hours, a recommendation that derived from a work that circulated under the name of Bede, the Libellus de meditatione Passionis Christi per septem diei horas (257-259). In a striking paradox, the great moments of the Passion become for Philippe an image of marriage. The Passion is so important that it should be imprinted on the heart as a kind of stigmata, an idea that Philippe adapted from Suso and Ruysbroeck.

The third section turns to Philippe as soldier and diplomat. Michel Balard investigates Philippe's attitudes toward Genoa and Venice. From his arrival in Cyprus in late 1347 or early 1348, Philippe had dealings with the Genoese community on the island, and he also traveled to Genoa with Peter I in 1363. He visited Venice more often, admiring its government, its fleet, its participation in crusade (even its role in the Fourth Crusade), and the organization of its finances and credit. He imagined both cities helping to launch the new crusade, proposed by Pope Gregory XI in 1374, that he hoped would be spearheaded by his new knightly order. But his hopes foundered on the economic realities of the Italian republics. How was it possible anymore for Genoa and Venice to go to war against countries that welcomed their merchants? Not for the first time, Philippe seems a bit out of touch.

Perhaps the most important source for Philippe's diplomatic efforts is his Epistres au roi Richart, which Anne Curry explores in her contribution. The work has received very little attention despite a new edition and translation of the work into English in 1975. Philippe wrote to encourage the English king to remain at peace with France; the resulting peace would set the stage for a new crusade, in which (as mentioned in other essays) Philippe's new order would take the lead. In this way Philippe also hoped to gain the support of Richard and other family members for his order. The letter also refers to a proposed marriage between Richard II and Isabella, the daughter of Charles VI. Curry argues that the diplomatic effort to arrange the marriage only came to Philippe's attention after he had nearly finished the work, and therefore that Philippe did not originally intend the work to persuade Richard to marry the princess.

Articles by John France and Adrian Bell complete the section. France concedes that Philippe's project for crusade was more practical than he once thought, but maintains that Philippe himself knew that the dream was much too ambitious to be realized. Bell scrutinizes the list of members of Philippe's Order and ponders what inclusion on the list might signify. He admits, however, that we do not really know if this list was anything more than "a figment of Mézières' imagination" (325). It thus seems contradictory to claim, as Bell does later in the article, that several of the people on the list "had promised to become members" (330).

The five articles in the final section, "Affinities and Contrasts," extend the scope of the book to the margins of Philippe's world. Angel Nicolaou-Konnari compares the portrayal of King Peter I of Cyprus in the writings of Philippe and in those of the Cypriot historiographer Leontios Makhairas. Whereas Philippe portrays Peter as an ideal king, and therefore as a model for Charles VI, Makhairas draws a more complex portrait of the monarch. Above all, he is much more sensitive to contemporary politics and to the importance of trade to the Western powers, especially Genoa and Venice. There is some overlap between this article and the previous one by Peter Edbury, who considers four accounts of Peter I, adding those of Guillaume de Machaut and the anonymous Chronique d'Amadi to the accounts by Philippe and Leontios Makhairas.

Three articles focus on Alexandria. David Jacoby explores the history of the Western presence there beginning with the Italian funduks in the twelfth century. In contrast to what scholars have argued for other locales, Jacoby concludes that quotidian commercial transactions did little to promote understanding and social intercourse. Henri Gourinard then examines the growing Muslim awareness of the need for surveillance of Western pilgrims in Alexandria and the measures taken to assure the safety of the city. These measures took definitive form in the 1380s. Finally, David Joseph Wrisley compares Western sources for the sack of Alexandria with the principal Arabic source, which he sees (in contrast to Aziz Atiya) as an "unexploited window of opportunity for the intercultural analysis of the period" (457).

A concluding article by Sylvain Piron on Philippe and the university contends that Philippe did not get his training in Latin and his classical culture at Paris, as argued in 1981 by Olivier Caudron, but instead at Amiens from a future Paris master of arts, when Philippe was ten to twelve years old.

Where then does this leave us? The editors have achieved something remarkable by drawing into a single conversation scholars from fields as diverse as literature and military history. This diversity has certainly enriched and strengthened the present volume. Yet despite all of this, the reader will find it difficult to get a sense of the big picture from this collection, and in fact one of the lessons that I took away from these stimulating articles is the enduring value of a monograph that imposes a single vision on a figure as complex as Philippe. The scholarship in this volume should one day help us to arrive at some estimation of Philippe's place in fourteenth-century Europe, but unless I am mistaken, that day is not here yet. At the most fundamental level, it remains an open question to me whether it is better to characterize Philippe as a fascinating representative of the major trends of this period, or instead as a brilliant eccentric lost in a world of his own imagination, full of hairbrained schemes with little connection to the realities around him. Perhaps he was both. Or perhaps the answer is somewhere in between, or maybe that is the wrong way to frame the problem in the first place. In any case, as we await a study that can master this complex figure, the essays here should broaden and deepen our understanding of Philippe even as they make it possible to see new connections in the world around him.



1. A better place to start is the article by Olivier Caudron in Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique 12:1 (Paris 1984), cols. 1309-1316.