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19.01.12 Morrison, ed., A Knight for the Ages

19.01.12 Morrison, ed., A Knight for the Ages

The knight Jacques de Lalaing is not nearly as well-known now as some, for example the twelfth/thirteenth-century knight William Marshal. But in the late Middle Ages, Jacques (d. 1453) was considered the epitome of knightly valor and chivalry. During his short life he established a glowing reputation as a tournament fighter under the dukes of Burgundy, whose territory then included his native Flanders. He supposedly announced his intention to win thirty tournaments before he turned thirty, a feat he accomplished successfully, and went on to sponsor jousting contests himself. He triumphed in tournaments in Burgundy, France, Spain, and Scotland, and made a pilgrimage to Rome as well. Perhaps ironically, his death came from artillery fire during a siege, when he was still in his early thirties.

Some twenty years after his death, The Book of Deeds of Jacques de Lalaing was composed in Old French, giving a biographical overview and celebrating his prowess. A lavishly illustrated copy of the Deeds was produced on parchment in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, that is two or three generations later. It remained in the Lalaing family until the seventeenth century, when a countess of the lineage married into the Westphalian princely lineage of Salm, which family kept the manuscript until the twenty-first century. The J. Paul Getty museum acquired this illustrated copy in 2016, and it is now catalogued as MS 114.

The present volume is a detailed study of the Getty manuscript through articles by eight specialists in late medieval art, romance, and military techniques. The articles seek to place The Book of Deeds in the context of contemporary concepts of chivalry, the nature of warfare and tournaments, and the art of the Burgundian and Flemish courts. A family tree shows Jacques de Lalaing's collateral relatives, who were responsible for the manuscript's production and who kept it in the family for generations. The volume includes the manuscript's illustrations, beautifully reproduced in full color (though the illuminated initials are essentially ignored). An English translation of the text accompanying those illustrations is provided by Zrinka Stahuljak.

In spite of the varied specialties of the contributors, this volume is primarily intended for art historians. Understandably, given the lavish illustrations in the manuscript, the focus is principally on their production and content. Historians who might be more interested in Jacques de Lalaing himself will find little discussion beyond paraphrases of what is recounted in the Deeds. There is no effort to analyze the purposes of the anonymous author who wrote these Deeds, or even to ask where the author found his material, much less the extent to which he might have been creating an ideal knight rather than simply describing the historical Jacques. No one even asks why Jacques' collateral relatives, half a century or more after his death, would have commissioned such an elaborate manuscript of their great-uncle's activities. The suggestion is made that the various chapters of the Deeds might have been written originally by multiple authors, then compiled into one account (91), but no evidence is given for this idea. It seems based primarily on the fact that the narrative appears to be a mix of genres, including elements of chronicle, romance, poetry, moral fable, and travelogue, but this would only be a problem if one believed that medieval authors tried to fit their works into preexisting genres. Even the date of the Deeds (c. 1470) is mentioned only in passing.

The illustrations were the work of two artists. Simon Bening, already considered a master of Flemish religious art, provided a frontispiece showing a Burgundian author writing the Deeds. This author is purported to be Jean Lefèvre de Saint-Rémy, who also played a crucial role in the recently established Order of the Golden Fleece. A second anonymous artist, referred to here as the Master of the Getty Lalaing, provided illustrations for seventeen scenes. Elizabeth Morrison, who also served as the volume's editor, discusses these two artists' approach and technique, including comparing their style and approach to those of contemporary artists. Most of the illustrations of the Lalaing manuscript, here reproduced in color for the first time, show scenes of jousting and hunting. They are richly detailed, specific enough to give a good deal of information on what armor, clothing, castles, lists, horses, and hunting dogs were expected to look like in the sixteenth century.

One of the most interesting essays, by Margaret Scott, discusses the clothing portrayed in the manuscript's images. She examines how clothing was used both as a form of display and as a marker of status, and thus how the artist was able to position Jacques de Lalaing and other members of the court in what would have been seen as the proper social order. She provides numerous illustrations by other sixteenth-century artists to give a fuller sense of the importance of clothing at the time. Curiously, however, she draws no distinction between what dress might have been like in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, the time of the manuscript's production, and dress a century earlier, during Jacques' lifetime. Tobias Capwell contributes another interesting essay on warfare and weapons as seen in the manuscript's illustrations. He points out the differences between the fifteenth-century norms of the Deeds and some of the details in the sixteenth-century images, for example the heavy horse armor in the latter; his indeed is the only essay that focuses on the changes over the hundred years from Jacques' birth to the manuscript's production.

Other essays give some context for the Burgundian court in which Jacques flourished and in which his Deeds were composed, and provide comparisons to other chivalric biographies, starting with that of William Marshal. One of the questions with which the various contributors felt they had to deal, most explicitly Zrinka Stahuljak, was how to place this manuscript in its proper period. On the one hand, Jacques lived during a time usually characterized as medieval (at least for northern Europe), and yet the sixteenth-century illustrations seem to belong properly to what is called the Northern Renaissance. He triumphed in jousts and was renowned for his chivalry--both medieval attributes--yet was killed by artillery fire, which seems more a feature of the early modern period. However, given that jousting continued well into the sixteenth century, and that cannons had been in use since the middle of the fourteenth century, it is probably not worth making Jacques, the author of his Deeds, or the illustrators fit into temporal categories they would not themselves have recognized. Rather, this volume substantiates (perhaps inadvertently) how artificial is the c. 1500 date for the end of the Middle Ages, just as historians have concluded that there is nothing crucial about c. 500 for its beginning.

This beautiful manuscript has only very recently become available to scholars, so one can hope that this is just the beginning of studies of what it has to offer. As far as I can tell, the text has never been given a proper critical edition. A good next step might be such an edition, based on the twelve known fifteenth- and sixteenth-century copies, accompanied by an analysis of the purpose and approach of the author (or authors).