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21.01.09 Bryant (trans.), Cuvelier, The Song of Bertrand du Guesclin

21.01.09 Bryant (trans.), Cuvelier, The Song of Bertrand du Guesclin

Bertrand du Guesclin, who rose from obscurity as the son of a minor Breton noble to become one of the most powerful men of the realm as Constable of France, is one of the most remarkable characters of the Hundred Years' War, a period certainly not lacking for noteworthy figures. Unfortunately, the original 24,000-line poem in Middle French written by Cuvelier to commemorate Bertrand just after his death in 1380 is not a readily approachable work to the modern reader. Bryant himself points out that in addition to its length, the verse is unwieldy and inelegant in its style (2–3), and it is perhaps telling that the poem was already rewritten into more compact prose (on two separate occasions, no less) by the end of the decade. [1] But these same prose adaptations, as well as the seven manuscript copies of the poem proper, attest the contemporary popularity of this work, and so it is exciting to see an English translation that finally puts this text before a wider audience in an engaging and readable fashion.

Cuvelier's panegyric follows Bertrand du Guesclin from his earliest years to his death, focusing especially on his successive battles and campaigns (though with a happy disregard for strict accuracy if it made for a better story). The early episodes show Bertrand's growth from an ugly wild child reviled by his parents to a respected and admired (though still ugly) tourneyer and captain in the Breton War of Succession (1341–1365). Following his exploits in Brittany and Normandy, the narrative shifts to Spain, where Bertrand took up the cause of Enrique de Trastámara against his half-brother King Peter of Castile. Despite the setback of the battle of Nájera in 1367, where Bertrand was captured and ransomed, his ultimate success in this endeavor earned him widespread recognition and the position of Constable (leader of the French armies) under King Charles V. Glossing over Bertrand's less politically comfortable return to Brittany in the 1370s, the story winds down with the expulsion of the English from the Poitou region, and culminates in Bertrand's somewhat incongruous death by illness during the siege of Châteauneuf-de-Randon, which he nevertheless manages to bring to a successful conclusion. To help structure this lengthy recitation, Bryant has divided the poem into twelve chapters of unequal length that pull together the major narrative arcs, as well as running page headers that identify individual episodes more precisely. These breaks do not always reflect those indicated by the text itself, where Cuvelier stops rather at random to address his audience and reset the scene, but Bryant's schema gives the narrative greater coherence.

Throughout, Bertrand is shown to be both a paragon of chivalric virtues such as generosity, loyalty, and bravery--sometimes to the point of excess--and also a brutal, even frightening figure, such as might be used to warn disobedient children: "Hush, or you'll pay for it! Bertrand du Guesclin's here" (22)! This tension alone would make this work an interesting access-point to the aristocratic culture of the late Middle Ages and it offers an intriguing case study in the construction of knightly reputations during this period. In addition, Cuvelier writes particularly vivid descriptions of combat that will be of great interest to students of medieval warfare and tournaments (as I have already been able to confirm first-hand in the classroom). These include a number of striking details, from the act of "pulling up hauberks and haquetons" so as better to run an enemy through under their armor (118) to the female camp followers who kept the knights supplied with water and wine during battle (115, 380), that give an almost cinematic insight into elite attitudes towards violence.

But while Bertrand is undoubtedly the subject of the poem, Bryant argues persuasively that the work is about French knighthood itself, and the pursuit of (supposedly) just causes elevated to the status of holy wars. Indeed, Bertrand himself seems to fade into the background for large stretches, leaving the stage to these wider themes. This work is thus an effective source for examining the social history of religious and nationalist interactions, especially in their darker manifestations. Cuvelier's polemic, especially during Bertrand's "Spanish Adventure," is aggressively and often shockingly anti-Semitic and Islamophobic, although rare illustrations of cooperation among the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian populations of Spanish towns shed light on the legibility of the complex socio-religious dynamics of the Iberian peninsula to an outsider such as Cuvelier. In fact, by explaining away these views as "standard" (10) Bryant misses the opportunity to reflect on their specific contextual appeal, both to Cuvelier's intended audience (mentioned in passing by Bryant but left undefined) and to Cuvelier himself (here left incognito but in all probability a clergyman associated with the French court). Similarly, there is ample scope in this work for exploring Cuvelier's inconsistent and even at times paradoxical depiction of gender dynamics, which speaks to recurring contradictions within medieval society itself.

Bryant is well-known for producing sharp and usable translations of medieval French texts, and the Song is no exception. In his short introduction, Bryant emphasizes Cuvelier's skill as a dramatic storyteller in the epic tradition of the chanson de geste (while defying strict generic classification). It is this narrative spirit which Bryant sets out to capture in the English rendition, and he does it well. His translation sensibly takes Faucon's critical edition as its base, [2] although Bryant explains that in the interest of clarity and completeness he has preferred readings from other manuscripts where appropriate (these are not individually indicated in the text). Much as his medieval predecessors, Bryant has chosen to transmute the poetry into prose, an effective decision that foregrounds the liveliness of Cuvelier's account. He also adopts a relatively colloquial register which is largely responsible, I think, for his remarkable success at delivering a lively read while by and large faithfully preserving the literal sense of the clumsier original.

There are of course moments where his flair for idiomatic turns of phrase leads him perhaps slightly astray: "Lady, you're losing the plot" (29)! is a stretch where "you're being unreasonable" would be both perfectly clear and closer to the original; likewise, "Bertrand of such renown" becomes "big noise Bertrand" (209). Nor is he consistent in choosing either to preserve unfamiliar--if often quite comprehensible--medieval expressions in the text along with an explanatory note, or to replace them with an alternative idiom (with or without noting that he has done so). There are a few outright errors, such as his translation of "Bretaigne Galo" as "Celtic Brittany" (40), a contentious choice even if it were accurate, but in fact it is the standard term for the upper or eastern, Romance-speaking portion of Brittany (in contrast to Breton-speaking lower Brittany to the west, referenced elsewhere in this text). A recurring phrase, "A Dieu le veu," Bryant renders as "God wills it!" (104, 304, 329, 398, 414); while perhaps this resonates with the quasi-Crusade on which Cuvelier imagines Bertrand, the contemporary sense (seen for instance in the poetry of Eustache Deschamps) was rather "I swear to God!", an expression that better reflects Bertrand's penchant for bombastic oath-making. A few longer clauses also become a bit muddied, such as "He [Bertrand] called the herald who'd brought the message--Longueville was his bailiwick--and said..." (304): a stronger reading would be "Bertrand, who had Longueville in his governance, called the herald who'd brought the message and said...", to make it clear that the reference is to Bertrand's county of Longueville in Normandy (cf. 123), not some domain of the herald's. However, I point to these examples not in the spirit of nit-picking, but to give a better sense of the scale on which deviation from the French occurs, which is to say, relatively incidental: nearly all that is essential is here. In fact, I was impressed with how effective this translation will be as a guide for researchers wishing to quickly and easily navigate the lengthy poem, especially since Bryant's preservation of Faucon's stanza numbers make for very convenient cross-referencing with the original.

Given the commentary already available in Faucon's edition, Bryant's relatively light touch with remarks throughout is justified to streamline the narrative experience. His footnotes focus especially on providing helpful contextual information such as the identification of people, places, and events, especially where Cuvelier himself got these wrong. If there are a few slips here and there in the details (e.g. identifying the "lord of Laval" at the 1363 siege of Bécherel as Fulk rather than Guy XII [80, note 75], or misrepresenting Charles de Blois's abortive canonization as an annulment [141, note 142]), these remarks remain an effective complement to the translation. Bryant's frequent cross-references in these notes help navigate the somewhat repetitive text while also offering enough reminders that shorter excerpts may be read and understood on their own; at the same time, the text may also be enjoyed without reference to this unobtrusive apparatus. Three maps of France, Brittany and western Normandy, and the Poitou region also help orient the reader, though Cuvelier's highly inventive approach to Spanish geography defies any cartographic aid for that portion of the account. An index of people and places completes the set of tools at the reader's disposal.

Taken all together, this translation is a thoroughly valuable resource for medieval social, political, and cultural historians, from undergraduates up through experienced scholars. For teaching, it is a vibrant addition to the all-too-short list of accessible English translations of Middle French sources, one that offers scope for studying quite diverse aspects of life and thought amidst the violence of the Hundred Years' War. The price, which is more consistent with an academic monograph than with student-friendly offerings, may prove the only limitation on its accessibility in the classroom. For more advanced research, it offers a welcome alternative to tackling Cuvelier's verse, but is especially practical as a sort of gloss of the edition that vastly enhances the approachability of this sprawling epic.



1. Yvonne Vermijn, "Trois traditions manuscrites parallèles: La Chanson de Bertrand du Guesclin et ses mises en prose de 1380 à 1480," in Pour un nouveau répertoire des mises en prose: roman, chanson de geste, autres genres, eds. Maria Colombo Timelli, Barbara Ferrari, and Anne Schoysman (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014), 348.

2. Jean-Claude Faucon (ed.), La Chanson de Bertrand du Guesclin de Cuvelier, 3 vols.(Toulouse: Éditions Universitaires du Sud, 1990).​