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21.01.08 Blanchard/Calvet (ed. & trans.), Philippe de Mézieres, Oratio tragedica

The Medieval Review

21.01.08 Blanchard/Calvet (ed. & trans.), Philippe de Mézieres, Oratio tragedica

Something went wrong somewhere in the course of the production of this book. Somehow two respected scholars, both experienced editors and translators, did not manage to produce, or at least print, a sufficiently accurate edition of the Latin text of Philippe de Mézières' Oratio tragedica. As a result, the occasionally superior French translation is further from the author's words than it should be.

Philippe de Mézières (1327-1405) was an outstanding military, administrative, diplomatic, spiritual, and literary figure of the second half of the fourteenth century. His life-long dream was to create a military Order of the Passion to assist in the reconquest of Jerusalem for Christendom, a goal he shared with the king of Cyprus, Peter I of Lusignan (1359-1369), and the Carmelite Master of Theology Peter Thomae, papal legate and Latin patriarch of Constantinople (†1366). The closest Philippe came to seeing his dream realized was in 1365 when, as chancellor of Cyprus, Philippe participated with Peter Thomae on King Peter's crusade, which took Alexandria, the most spectacular crusading achievement of the century. King Peter offered Philippe a substantial portion of the captured city to support his Order of the Passion, a step on the way to the recuperation of Jerusalem. But it was not to be: elements of the army forced a withdrawal from the city, carrying away the loot; the legate died in sorrow the following year; in early 1369 King Peter was murdered in his own bed, by his brother James, among others; Cyprus itself was invaded and partially occupied by the Genoese in 1373; the onset of the Great Schism of the West and the death of Emperor Charles IV and of Philippe's advisee King Charles V of France seemed to spell the end of the dream, and Philippe retired to live in the convent of the Celestines in Paris in 1380; worse still, by 1385 Peter I of Cyprus' son, Peter II, had died and his treacherous uncle, the regicide, was ruling as King James I. Yet Philippe's dream was rekindled, among other things, by negotiations for peace between France and England following the end of regency rule for Philippe's former pupil Charles VI and the return to power of Richard II of England in 1389.

This is the tragic but hopeful background that Philippe de Mézières describes in part IV of his Oratio tragedica, one of a pair of similar works that Philippe wrote in 1389-1390, the other being the FrenchSonge du Viel Pelerin, edited by Joël Blanchard with Antoine Calvet and Didier Kahn in 2015. Philippe composed major works from the mid-1360s to the late 1390s. Some of these texts were published long ago, including the 1993 edition by J.B. Williamson of Le Livre de la Vertu du Sacrament de Mariage, written around 1385, which Blanchard and Calvet see as part of a trilogy with the Songe and the Oratio. Along with Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Blanchard and Calvet have been at the vanguard of recent publications of works by or about Philippe in a push to complete the edition of Philippe's Opera omnia(listed on xxxvi-xxxvii). [1] It is thus a little surprising to find that their edition of the Oratio tragedica has the look of a work in progress.

The sole surviving witness of the Oratio tragedica is found in Paris, Bibliothèque mazarine, MS 1651, ff. 129r-210r, which is written in a very clear hand except for what the editors believe is likely an autograph section on f. 199r-v. Because of my personal interest in the autobiographical content of part IV of the five-part work (part VI was planned but not accomplished), I decided to check all of that part, on ff. 190v-199v, which includes the probable autograph section. Part IV covers the odd-numbered pages of pp. 416-487, just over 35 pages of text. For the 31 pages that are in the hand of the main scribe, I count about 150 transcription errors alone, while in the 4 pages of supposed autograph there are roughly half as many more. In addition, the punctuation is much too sparse, with 75-word stretches without any at all, and often the punctuation that is provided is unhelpful or misleading.

Let us look at page 417, where part IV, chapter 1, begins with a 61-word sentence without any punctuation, although the French translation has four helpful commas. In line two there are two minor transcription errors, one of which has the meaningless porit for parit, but the French renders it sensibly as "fait...naître." Either the translator guessed the meaning, translated directly from the manuscript, or was using a better transcription than what has been printed (see below on this). Next what we should have is either one 136-word sentence or two sentences of 93 and 43 words, the main clause of which reads idem veteranus...ipse quoque juvenis...ardua mente cogitabat. Instead, we first have a 50-word "sentence" without punctuation and without reaching the cogitabat, then a new 40-word "sentence" again without punctuation and still without reaching the cogitabat, since the editor decides to put a period after the only finite verb he sees, posset (actually possent in the manuscript), which belongs to a subordinate clause. We finally reach cogitabat in what is made into a third "sentence," after which verb, if we wished, we could actually end the sentence. Instead, ignoring the space between cogitabat and que, the editor reads the latter as an enclitic rather than as a pronoun, awkwardly forcing the continuation of a sentence that has only just been made to begin thus: Ardua mente cogitabatque omnia.... This third sentence goes on, this time rightly, for 46 more words--with two commas placed around testis est Deus--at the end of which "sentence" the scribe inserts a paragraph mark. In contrast to the two commas and the two unfortunate full stops in the Latin, the French has 18 commas, a colon, and a semi-colon. Wisely, the French breaks it up into four complete sentences, for example, taking the passive-plus-ablative construction magnificis operibus...animatus and making it active: "admirait...des oeuvres magnifiques," thus allowing the translator to end the first sentence. The translation, however, should not govern the punctuation of the original. Along the way the Muslim sect is described in the genitive as horiende, i.e., from "urge" or "encourage," but the manuscript has (admittedly with an unpleasant second "r") horrende, "horrible." Meanwhile, over in the French, the translator tacitly rejects horiende, interpreting it as an error for oriende, and renders it as "naissant." Poor Philippe, who described his young self as thinking ardua mente, is said in French to be "Doté d'un esprit lent."

The autograph section starts at the top of page 479 (f. 199r: see image on p. xli) near the end of chapter 8. On this page the going got tough for the editor, and here is a selection of the transcription errors, according to line numbers in that final paragraph of the chapter: 2: for veterani read instead dolentis || 5: for et ingredivisset read ac impedivisset || 5: for de hiis read dolus || 8: for pertinentis read perpetrata || 9: for qui read et || 11-12: for vero [qui]tentes juramenta scilicet read iniquitatem acumulando (after correcting the manuscript's iniquitentem) || 12: for portare immo occidere read peccare Domino occidendo || 14: forferentes hiis diebus read utique hiis duobus || 15-16: here the marginal ut tactus est superius should go above in line 14 after dominum, and in its place one should put the marginal per tantum regem, which is now missing || 21-22: for non alte incertum, quin eciam huic operi tragedice oracioni read non ab re incertum estimetur huic operi tragediceque oracioni (admittedly incertum should be understood as insertum, but the meaning is clear: Philippe does not consider the above an impertinent digression). There are a dozen other more minor transcription errors in the paragraph, all of which render the French translation something of a skilled approximation.

The transcription errors are of various sorts: completely different words, words omitted, words added, the failure to turn horizontal lines over vowels into the nasals they represent, incorrect expansions of basic abbreviations, misplaced marginalia, ignoring signs indicating that words are to be transposed, and in one instance neglecting to follow directions for moving entire passages: in chapter 6, the letters a, b, and c are employed to reorder the section from Et licet hec narratio near the bottom of page 465 to Videlicetincongruously starting a sentence at the top of page 467, producing a more sensible: Tantum etenim... "...te percussiat." Et licet hec materiam principalem hujus tractatus, videlicet ad petitionem tragedicam... (although here Philippe or his scribe still leaves in the accusative something that needs to be in the nominative).

The translator sometimes gets it right despite the edition. At one point in chapter 1 (423), where the manuscript first read in expugnatione solidam, the edition has the corrected text as in expugnatione soldam, but the French renders it "pour chasser le sultan," because, in fact, in the manuscript the Latin has been corrected to in expugnatione soldani. In chapter 4 (443), the editor has forgotten to follow the manuscript by writing Karolo before rege Francie Vo, but the translator renders it "Charles V sur la France." More mundane, in chapter 5 (449), where the edition wrongly reads sive causa, the translation tacitly corrects to "sans raison," and (451) where the editor wrote tanti peccat, two proper words, the translator made it "d'un tel péché," because the manuscript actually has tanti peccati. Numerous such minor errors in the Latin, often just typos, are tacitly repaired in the French.

Sometimes, however, the translator cannot possibly have been looking at the present edition. In the supposedly autograph section, chapter 9 (483), the Latin reads the senseless sine ascendendi, but the translator turns it into "sans ailes pour monter," which is hard to do without being aware of the omitted alisafter sine. In chapter 5 (449), where the edition merely has marinariis, the translator writes "avec les seuls marins," which I doubt he would have done had he not seen the cum solis before marinariis that the editor overlooked. Crucially, in what is said to be Philippe's hand in chapter 9 (481), the edition's rex Josias, puer David somehow ends up as "le roi Josias, Ézéchias, David enfant": the Latin should read rex Josias et citharida puer David, but the manuscript appears to have ec rather than et and citharida is capitalized; the translator thus made an educated guess at translating what never made it into the edition as printed.

That is not to say that the translator corrected all the simple transcription errors. For example, where in chapter 6 (459) the edition has pastorem maximum, an error for the manuscript's clear pastorem animarum, the French nevertheless has "suprême pasteur" following the faulty edition. In chapter 1 (421) the manuscript's inito consilio maturo, "a mature plan having been formed," is oddly transcribed nuncupato consilio maturo, something like the meaningless "called mature advice," but the translator rationalizes this as "après avoir annoncé sa décision bien mûrie." Many other examples could be given, but one more will suffice: in chapter 2 (425), where Philippe traces the journey of the crusade armada from Venice to Alexandria, before following the coast of Asia Minor toward the Kingdom of Armenia in Cilicia the ships pass what the edition calls civitatem Sanruensem, which the French renders as "la cité de Sorona," atwhich point the translation understandably has a footnote: "Sorona est appellée aussi Soroni sur la côte de Rhodes," a small village, in fact. Unfortunately for the present inhabitants of the village, who might wish to commemorate the event, the manuscript actually reads Smirnensem, i.e., the great city of Smyrna, which was in Latin hands at the time.

Clearly this book was not produced with enough care, but it is not just a matter of haste and a failure to double-check. Rather the translation has to have been made either directly from the manuscript, which is certainly possible, because the hand is so clear, or on the basis of a better transcription or a better edition, but still far from perfect. This is not the first time I have seen this phenomenon in a facing-page Latin-French translation. At some point the two texts may even grow apart, once the translator begins to polish. In the case of the Oratio tragedica, this is manifested in the fact that a number of italicized biblical quotations in the French (where they are also cited in notes) are left completely unmarked in the Latin. Since it is easier to spot biblical passages in Latin than after they have been translated into French, some have gone unnoticed, e.g.: preparate corda vestra, I Sm 7:3 (445); in merorem convertendo gaudiumrefers to Iac 4:9 (447); parere mensam in deserto, Ps 77:19, although the edition has mensem (475);Scriptum est enim: homo in facie videt, Deus autem cor intuetur, means I Sm 16:7 (481); ipse etenim scitqui sunt eius, eodem Apostolo atestante, is an explicit nod to I Tim 2:19, but since the edition rendered itipse etenim scit qui sunt cujus Ecclesie apostolice atestante, the reference was obscured (483).

Not everything has gone wrong in the book; others have already noted the strengths of the introduction, the accessibility of the French translation, and the aids to the reader. A reviewer has the luxury of concentrating on some aspects of a book rather than others, and many take it on faith that peer reviewers and series editors have already and adequately addressed basic questions such as how well a translation respects the edition or how well an edition reflects the manuscripts. In this case, an apparently sound and noble undertaking by seasoned professionals has suffered a tragedy, but we can only speculate on the cause and hope for a revised edition.



1. To this one should add the synthesis edition of the De la Chevallerie de la Passion de Jesus Christ(from Arsenal 2251) and La Sustance de la chevalerie de la Passion de Jhesus Crist en Francois (from Ashmole 813) in M. Brown, "Philippe de Mézières' Order of the Passion: An Annotated Edition," PhD Dissertation, University of Nebraska, 1971. To the main secondary bibliography, one can add two recent dissertations: A.M. Romine, "Saving Chivalry: Philippe de Mézières, Fourteenth-Century Crusaders, and the Order of the Passion," Saint Louis University, 2016; and T.R.P. Owens, "Philippe de Mézières and the Order of the Passion: Crusade Ideology, Propaganda, and Strategy in the Late Fourteenth Century," University of St Andrews, 2019. Owens is now working on Philippe's letters and other materials in Arsenal 499.​