18.06.02, Tayor and Taylor, trans., The Chivalric Biography of Boucicaut, Jean II le Meingre

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Lorraine Attreed

The Medieval Review 18.06.02

Taylor, Craig and Jane J.M. Taylor, eds. The Chivalric Biography of Boucicaut, Jean II le Meingre. Woodbridge:Boydell Press, 2016. pp. xii, 232. ISBN: 978-1-7832-7166-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Lorraine Attreed
College of the Holy Cross
lattreed@holycross.edu

Anglophone scholars and teachers setting undergraduate readings have cause to celebrate this translation of an anonymous French-language biography of one of the most notable military leaders and chivalric models of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Surviving in only one manuscript, the work came to an end in April 1409, thirteen years before the death of its subject Jean II Le Meingre, otherwise known as Boucicaut ("fishing basket"). Written in prose, the text presented not only the milestones of a military career but also an account of ideal chivalric conduct. The translators have used the most recent version of the biography edited by Denis Lalande, revised its scholarly apparatus, included a helpful glossary (mostly of military and naval terms), and provided a succinct introduction. [1]

Part I opens with the identification of Knighthood and Learning as the two pillars that uphold the divine and human ordinances that govern humankind. The brevity of life demands commemoration of valiant deeds in books such as this one, brought into being at the request of knights and noblemen who knew Boucicaut. From childhood, Boucicaut showed his honorable character and self-possessed nature, winning all the war games into which he pressed his companions. Raised at the court of the dauphin, the future Charles VI, the youth displayed an eagerness for combat that made him the butt of the older courtiers' jokes and ridicule by his enemies. He dedicated himself to physical exercise, which soon enabled him to leap fully armed onto his horse and climb the undersides of scaling ladders. [2] Love spurred him to greater accomplishments, which included literary compositions. Dubbed a knight just prior to the battle at Roosebeke, Boucicaut served in various campaigns against the English in France, and during truces traveled to Prussia to join the Teutonic Knights' activities, to Constantinople, Hungary and Jerusalem. Some of his time in the Near East was spent as a prisoner, trying to rescue the king's cousin and suffering arrest and the frustration of ransom-raising himself. But in battle, the author assures us, he was always first up the siege ladder and the subject of all ranks' praise.

Perhaps the best-known event of his early career was his organization of the Saint-Inglevert jousts of 1390, and the biographer provides pages of detail of the pavilions, feasting, challenges, and of course Boucicaut's unrivalled prowess. His unalloyed success culminated in his appointment as marshal the next year. While the onset of Charles VI's mental problems is brushed over, the author concentrates on the disaster of Nicopolis in 1396, when malicious Fortune, envious of the fame and valor of the French, decided to take a hand. Despite Boucicaut's energy and valor, and the inspiration he gave to simple knights and princes of the blood alike, the Ottoman sultan's forces were successful, and casualties were high. The author is anxious to affirm that it was not the French who fled the field that day, but their cowardly Hungarian allies: "those who were present have reported to me--and it is their accounts that I use..." (65). Boucicaut and many nobles and princes were held for ransom, resulting in complex negotiations with the rich merchants of the eastern Mediterranean. While those able to be ransomed returned in relief to France, Boucicaut did not forget the losses that took place at the battle, and he instituted an order of knighthood to defend those widowed and orphaned by the disaster.

Part II takes us to Italy, torn by Guelph and Ghibelline factionalism and populated by faithless men and licentious women for whom the author has no respect. As Charles VI exercised sovereignty over the city of Genoa, he needed a trustworthy governor on the scene and Boucicaut naturally fit the bill. The author insists on the marshal's fair, generous, and judicious rule, but his military presence and demands that the Genoese disarm down to their dinner knives cannot have been welcome. Attacks on Genoa's far-flung colonies took Boucicaut to Cyprus, whose proximity to the Muslim-held Near East tempted the marshal into further engagements. These activities in the Mediterranean brought him into conflict with the Venetians, defined here as jealous of Genoa's prosperity under the wise governance of Boucicaut and eager to undermine his reputation. Venetian galleys warned Muslim ports of Syria and Egypt of the marshal's arrival, but even against such stiffened resistance he generally won the field: "if you had been able to see how bewildered those rats of Saracens were you would have had a good laugh: they had no idea how to defend themselves..." (116). Arriving at Beirut, as usual the Muslims were ready for him, but he and his men took the city, pillaged the town, and burned the warehouses, in an act that would come back to haunt him. By the end of the campaign season of 1403, having threatened Egypt as well, Boucicaut became the object first of Venetians' complaints that he had damaged or stolen their goods in the Beirut warehouses, then of an outright attack while sailing home to Genoa. This creates another instance in which the author is anxious to excuse Boucicaut, and the section ends with a copy of the marshal's letter to the Venetian doge defending his actions and offering trial by combat to any who disputed him. So impressed was the biographer with the contents and argument of the missive, he insists upon observing that Boucicaut dictated the letter himself, with no professional help, as accomplished in learning as he was in arms.

Italian affairs continue in Part III, and grow more complex. Pisa gets into the act, seeking the help of Genoa and France against Florence. Boucicaut decides that the papal schism needs his attention and tries to convince all his allies and rivals that the Avignonese papacy should be followed, later realizing that all the rival popes should resign. At the darkest moments, it seems as though Charles VI would totally lose his foothold in Italy, then the perfidious Italians change sides and the French seem to be gaining the alliance of Pisa and Florence. Juggling so many themes challenges the talents of the author: "much as I might wish to, I cannot tell all my history tidily; I must deal with matters one at a time, even though many of those that I wish to recount were happening simultaneously" (152-153). Worse, the Italian situation revealed the limits of Boucicaut's influence and the power of envy and gossip against him at the French court: "and you who read this book should note that no-one can be so perfect in word and deed as to be universally beloved...those who are envious will always attempt to recast anything that the admirable do for good and worthwhile reasons as improper and ill-intentioned" (164).

Part IV is more like a didactic manual than a chivalric biography, as the author turns to drawing lessons from Boucicaut's life and experiences for his readers' inspiration. After a physical description of the marshal, we learn of his piety, excellence in strategy, abstemious habits, and diligence. To the author, there was no fault in the man, and all who knew him wished to be like him: "my account of his good works is not intended as vainglorious, but rather to make him a role model for those who hear them spoken of and who might read the present book" (188).

The introduction contains a balanced discussion of the possible identity of the author, lay or clerical, concluding that we can be certain only that he had the assistance of those closest to Boucicaut and access to the documents he includes in the text. Extensive footnotes throughout the work help readers understand the complex political environment. The broad extent of French diplomacy in Italian, Ottoman, and Near Eastern affairs during Charles VI's reign may come as a surprise to those accustomed to identifying the king solely with either his mental problems or the period's combat against the English. The translators are careful to point out what events the author omitted and the significance of those silences, particularly as they relate to the portrayal of an ideal knight. Given that the work may have served as a formal defense of Boucicaut's actions in Italy and the Mediterranean, it is understandable why he was characterized as a paragon of virtue, even though his perfection may strike us today as the arrogance of an insufferable prig.

The account remained unfinished in April 1409, its subject still alive to endure the end of his influence in Italy and to fight at Agincourt in 1415, where he suffered captivity and eventual death in England six years later. The author hoped someone would take up the pen and complete the task. With confidence that is both poignant and inspiring, he claims that he has "erected a monument...that will survive fire, water, earthquake, or any corruption, for nothing is more enduring, nothing more difficult to destroy than what is written in books once they are copied and distributed widely" (213). This extremely valuable translation brings the marshal and his biographer to vivid life, to endure and inspire into our own age, needful as it is for grace and justice.

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Notes:

1. Denis Lalande, ed., Le livre des fais du bon messier Jehan le Maingre, dit Bouciquaut, mareschal de France et gouverneur de Jennes (Geneva: Droz, 1985).

2. For a modern display of Boucicaut's training and flexibility in full armor, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-bnM5SuQkI (accessed 10 March 2018).

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