Translations are sometimes seen as a lesser form of scholarly endeavor. This is to my mind quite unfair. Medievalists should be among the first to acknowledge that we all bump up against our linguistic limitations and have to turn to translations for help. Translations allow us medievalists to decide, after mastering four or five languages, whether material in a sixth is going to be relevant to our research question. Of course without translations we would have no way of introducing our students to the evidence on which we build our historical reconstructions. The best translations are running commentaries on some historical subject, which provide far more than a literal representation of the original text. The best translators are expert guides to whole past cultures. Finally, translators are literary artists who (in perhaps their most contentious role) create a modern analog of a premodern aesthetic experience.
Jean de Saintré (1456) has long attracted the attention of scholars and ordinary readers. It survives in ten manuscripts and numerous printed editions starting in 1517. Indeed there have been two previous English translations, the most recent being from 1965. Non-specialist readers have been attracted by Jean de Saintré as a portrayal of the chivalric, courtly culture of the fifteenth century--what has been called an early historical novel. Scholars have found and continue to find the book as capturing an important moment in French literary history. Roberta L. Krueger and Jane H. M. Taylor have given this text a new and approachable form.
Jean de Saintré draws much of its value from the fact that it portrays chivalric and courtly culture from the inside. Its author, Antoine de la Sale, is himself a fascinating subject for scholarly investigation. The son of a Gascon mercenary, La Sale spent most of his long life as a courtier in the retinues of the houses of Anjou and Luxemburg, working most of that time as a preceptor or tutor for various young princes. His duties provided him with motivation to write. His three major works, of which Jean de Saintré is one, have a strong pedagogical component, combining moral instruction with discussion of chivalric customs and courtly manners and lighthearted storytelling.
La Sale combined these various elements into Jean de Saintré, which has been called the first historical novel. The eponymous hero was a real warrior of the fourteenth century but little of his actual career found itself into La Sale's book. Jean de Saintré the character is a young nobleman who over the course of the book advances from being a bashful and uncultivated youngster to being a perfect knight, expert in chivalric competition, courtly intercourse, and war. He owes his transformation to the patronage of an older woman, a rich widow whom the author calls the lady of Belles Cousines. This lady spots young Jean in court one day and decides to take him in hand. After teasing him unmercifully about his ignorance of love and his lack of a lover, she begins to train him up to be a knightly figure who attains such courtly grace that by his mid-teens he is wildly popular with all and sundry. Even kings feel privileged to associate with him.
His relationship with the lady of Belles Cousines is more complicated. To judge by her rather cool public interaction with Jean, her fellow courtiers might easily conclude that she of all the ladies is the least impressed with him. While others are full of praise for the wonderboy she has hardly a good word to say to or about him. But she meets him in secret to share pleasure and delight; and perhaps more importantly, she lavishly dresses and equips him and funds his training in chivalric combat. Parts of the book reads like a catalogue of luxuries that most nonfictional noblemen of La Sale's time could hardly hope to obtain. For the modern reader, these passages give an idea of the attractions of the royal court--clothing, weapons, horses as well as good company and good food. Not that this can be taken as reportage. Jean lives a dream-like existence and enjoys the best of everything and the approval of all the best people.
Young Jean, with the encouragement of his lady, matures into an impressive warrior. Much of the book is devoted to describing Jean's tremendous success in the lists and on the battlefield. This is the ultimate test of Jean's worth as a man and of the quality of the secret and intense love affair he enjoys. The lady of Belles Cousines is his silent partner, imperiously telling him when and whom he will fight, praying and weeping for him when he goes out to do her will.
Eventually, however, the partnership breaks down when after many years Jean arranges a deed of arms without consulting the lady. She takes tremendous offense at this and without a word of explanation withdraws to the country where she begins an affair with a rich abbot. The book ends with Jean following her to her rural retreat, where he finds out how the land lies. Unsurprisingly, the two lovers of the lady come to blows and Jean defeats the abbot, though not without difficulty. His revenge on the lady is more subtle; he traps her into betraying herself before the entire court as an unworthy lover.
Roberta L. Krueger and Jane H. M. Taylor have created in Jean de Saintré a work that has many valuable characteristics. First, the translation makes available a rich source for those interested in the culture of chivalry in the later Middle Ages. For me, the depiction of the role of the lady in the education and success of an aspiring knight was particularly interesting, a theme that gave me new material to think about, and one that might well be very useful in a number of different teaching situations.
Second, the translators' apparatus is effectively mustered. The introduction briefly and clearly covers the essential information; it should be understandable and accessible to all potential readers. There is a valuable glossary, and a good discussion of some of the choices the translators made, e.g. their very sensible decision not to translate heraldic terminology.
Third, the style of the translators is neither obviously modern nor obnoxiously archaic. They have not, in other words, produced a new set of barriers that readers must jump over.
Fourth, unlike some earlier translations, the entire text is translated, including two long catalogues, one of the heraldry borne by important families of France, another of families that supposedly accompanied Saintré to Prussia on crusade. These catalogues and other long passages devoted to description of the court, luxurious gifts exchanged between important courtiers, and blow-by-blow coverage of Saintré's deeds of arms, could be and sometimes have been abridged in earlier versions of the book; the result being, however, that what La Sale and his fifteenth-century readers thought was edifying and enjoyable is obscured.
It is too bad that the publishers have decided to charge the same price for the e-book as they do for the hardback. For years I have taught a seminar on the history of chivalry and this book is an obvious candidate for the reading list. At its current price, however, I would probably pass it by the next time I teach it.