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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Philippe de Commines (c. 1447–1511)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE LAST in date among the great French chroniclers of the Middle Ages was Philippe de Comines (also written Commines or Comynes). He was the scion of an old and wealthy family that attained to nobility by marrying into the house of the barons of Comines, the privilege being a reward for faithful allegiance in the times of trouble and warfare. His birthplace is not known with certainty, though it may be assumed to have been either on the estate of Comines, near Lille in northern France, or at the Château de Renescure, near Saint-Omer. He lost his mother in 1447, and his father died in 1453, leaving an entangled inheritance that netted a sum of about two thousand five hundred livres, which in those days sufficed to defray the child’s current expenses and provide for his education. Under the guardianship of one of his relatives, Jean de Comines, the young orphan was brought up in the true spirit of the feudal times to which he belonged, and was taught the profession of arms. Reading and writing he also acquired, but whatever intellectual training he received beyond this point was owing altogether to his own efforts and exertions.  1
  It was a matter of sincere regret to him that his education never included the study of Latin. He became skilled with the pen, but used it for his own amusement, not with a thought of leaving anything more than notes that might serve others as a basis for fuller historical descriptions. His style is terse, and not devoid of charm; for he was not lacking in imagination, and by quaint simile or other rhetorical effect enlivened many a page of his Chronicles. His vocabulary, without being very rich, is carefully selected, but his syntactical constructions are often abstruse and obscure. On the whole, however, this justice must be done to Philippe de Commines: that what he may lose for want of natural ease of expression is compensated for by his virility of speech and true eloquence. His chief merit lies in his pithy remarks, replete with suggestion. But literary pursuits were not his proper field. In his days such occupations were left almost exclusively to the clergy, in whom alone was supposed to be vested the need and uses of book learning.  2
  He sought, as he grew up, to remedy the shortcomings of his training, and acquired through contact with the numerous foreigners he was in a position to meet, a fair knowledge of Italian, Spanish, and German.  3
  “On coming forth from childhood,” he writes, “and being old enough to ride horseback, I was led to Lille before Duke Charles of Burgundy, then Count of Charolais, who took me in his service; and this was in the year 1464.” Philippe de Commines was then in his twentieth year, a youth polished in manners, refined in tastes, and above all, a most acute observer,—and these qualities stamped him as a coming diplomat of rare natural ability, in touch with his time, and understanding himself and others sufficiently well to moralize and philosophize about men and things, to reach many a sound conclusion, and to utter many a true and wise saying. He is among the first thinking men of France who committed to paper the results of his labors as a moral philosopher, as a statesman, and as a trusted adviser to royalty.  4
  For eight full years Philippe de Commines remained in the confidential service of the Duke of Burgundy, by whom he was sent, young as he was, on various diplomatic missions of the greatest importance,—first to London, then to Brittany, finally to Orange and Castile. In the course of these expeditions he came in contact with Louis XI., King of France, and knew how to ingratiate himself into his favor. Whatever the reasons for his rupture with the Duke of Burgundy, whatever the special inducements offered by Louis XI., the fact remains that he suddenly left his former master; and possessed of knowledge of the utmost political importance to the King of France, he entered the royal service and remained there until the King’s death in August, 1483. His work was generously recognized by Louis XI., and even after his noble patron’s death Commines retained his court position for a time. He gradually fell away, however, from his allegiance to the royal cause, and threw himself heart and soul into a movement, set on foot by a number of the feudal lords and directed by the Duke of Orleans himself, against the person of the young King Charles VIII. Arrested on a charge of conspiracy, he spent over two years in various prisons (1486–1489), with ample time to think over the vicissitudes of human happiness. A light sentence was finally passed upon him, and having regained his liberty he was so far restored to favor as to be sent on diplomatic missions, first to Venice and then to Milan.  5
  Though he lived in honor under Louis XII., he retired shortly to private life on his estate of Argenton, where he died.  6
  It was in the solitude of his prison that Philippe de Commines began to write his reminiscences. The ‘Chronique et Hystoire Faicte et Composée par Messire Philippe de Comines’ (Paris, 1524) was written between the years 1488 and 1493. It deals with the history of France from 1464 (when Commines went to the court of Charles the Bold) to the death of Louis XI. in 1483. The sequel, ‘Chroniques du Roy Charles Huytiesme’ (Paris, 1528), written subsequently to 1497, relates the story of the famous expedition to Italy undertaken by Charles VIII. In the pages of ‘Quentin Durward,’ where Walter Scott has given a graphic portrayal of the great men of that turbulent time, Philippe de Commines stands out beside the crafty and superstitious Louis XI. and the martial Charles of Burgundy as one of the most striking figures of a picturesque age.  7
 
 
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