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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Jean Froissart (c. 1337–1410?)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by George McLean Harper (1863–1947)
 
FROISSART is the artist of chivalry. On his pages are painted, with immortal brilliancy, the splendid shows, the coronations, weddings, tourneys, marches, feasts, and battles of the English and French knighthood just before the close of the Middle Ages. “I intend,” he says in the Prologue of his chronicle, “to treat and record history and matter of great praise, to the end that the honorable emprises and noble adventures and deeds of arms, which have come about from the wars of France and England, may be notably enregistered and placed in perpetual memory, whereby chevaliers may take example to encourage them in well-doing.”  1
  Chivalry, in the popular understanding, is the fine flower of feudalism, its bloom of poetic and heroic life. But in reality it was artificial, having grown from an exaggerated respect for certain human qualities, at the expense of others fully as essential and indeed no less beautiful. Courage is good; but it is not rare, and the love of fighting for fighting’s sake is made possible only by disregarding large areas of life to which war brings no harvest of happiness, and over which it does not even cast the glamor of romance. The works of civilized communities—agriculture, industry, commerce, art, learning, religion—were nearly at a standstill in the middle of the fourteenth century, when Europe was turned into a playground for steel-clad barbarians.  2
  This perversion of nature could not last. The wretched Hundred Years’ War had run but half its course when the misery and disgust among the real people, who thought and wrought, drove them to such despairing efforts as the Jacquerie in France and Wat Tyler’s Rebellion in England. It was the English archers, as Froissart reluctantly admits, and not the knights, who won the battle of Poitiers. Gunpowder and cannon, a few years later, doomed the man-at-arms, and the rise of strong monarchies crowded out the feudal system. The thunder of artillery which echoes faintly in the last pages of Froissart is like a parting salvo to all the pageantry the volume holds. From cannon-ball and musket-shot the glittering procession has found refuge there. Into the safe retreat of these illuminated parchments, all the banners and pennons, lances, crests, and tapestries, knights and horses under clanking mail, had time—and but just time—to withdraw. We find them there, fresh as when they hurried in, the colors bright, the trumpets blowing.  3
  Jean Froissart was born at Valenciennes in Hainault, about 1337, the year of his birth almost coinciding with Chaucer’s. He tells us in his long autobiographical poem, ‘L’Espinette Amoureuse,’ that he was fond of play when a boy, and delighted in dances, carols, and poems, and had a liking for all those who loved dogs and birds. In the school where he was sent, he says, there were little girls whom he tried to please by giving them rings of glass, and pins, and apples, and pears. It seemed to him a most worthy thing to acquire their favor, and he wondered when it would be his turn to fall really in love. Much of this poem, which narrates tediously the love affair that was not long in coming, is probably fictitious; but there is no doubt of the accuracy of his description of himself in the opening lines, as fond of pleasure, prone to gallantry, and susceptible to all the bright faces of romance. From love and arms, he says, we are often told that all joy and every honor flow. He informs us elsewhere that he was no sooner out of school than he began to write, putting into verse the wars of his time.  4
  In 1361 he went to England, where Edward III. was reigning with Philippa his queen, a daughter of the Count of Hainault. His passport to the favor of his great countrywoman was a book, the result of these rhymings, covering the period from the battle of Poitiers, 1356, to the time of his voyage. This volume is not known to exist, nor any copy of it. The Queen made him a clerk of her chamber. He had abundant opportunity in England to gratify his curiosity and fill his note-book, for the court was full of French noblemen, lately come over as hostages for King Jean of France, who was captured at the battle of Poitiers.  5
  In 1365 he took letters of recommendation from the Queen to David Bruce, King of Scotland, whom he followed for three months in his progress through that realm; spending a fortnight at the castle of William Douglas and making everywhere diligent inquiry about the recent war of 1345. In his delightful little poem ‘The Debate between the Horse and the Greyhound,’ beginning, “Froissart from Scotland was returning,” we have a lifelike figure of the inquisitive young chronicler, pushing unweariedly from inn to inn on a tired horse and leading a footsore dog.  6
  Between his thirtieth and his thirty-fourth year he was sometimes in England and sometimes in various parts of the Continent. In August 1369, while he was abroad, his patroness Queen Philippa died. She had encouraged him to continue his researches and writings, and he had presented her with a second volume, in prose, which has come down to us as a part of the chronicle. He admits that his work was an expansion of the chronicle of Jean le Bel, Canon of Saint Lambert at Liège, for he says:—“As all great rivers are made by the gathering together of many streams and springs, so the sciences also are extracted and compiled by many clerks: what one knows, the other does not.”  7
  On hearing of the Queen’s death, Froissart settled in his own country of Hainault. There he won favor from princes, as was his custom, by giving them manuscripts of his chronicle, which was growing apace. By the middle of 1373 we find him become a churchman and provided with a living, in which he remained ten years, compiling fresh history and correcting what he had already written and put in circulation. A little later, 1376 to 1383, he made a more thorough revision of his chronicle, going so far as to modify its spirit, which had been favorable to English character and policy, and make it more agreeable to partisans of France. Although Froissart was not a Frenchman, his writings are all in the French language, which was of course his native tongue.  8
  About the beginning of 1384 he was made a canon of the Church, at Chimay, a small town near the French frontier, and in this region he observed the military movements then going on there, and recorded them immediately in Book ii. of his chronicle. Four years of quiet were however too much for his mobile and energetic spirit; and in 1388, hearing that the Count Gaston de Foix, in the Pyrenees, was a man likely to know many details of the English wars in Gascony and Guyenne, he set out to visit him, taking among other presents a book of his poetry and two couples of hounds. When he still had ten days to travel he met a gentleman of Foix, with whom he journeyed the rest of the way, beguiling the time with talk about the sieges the various towns upon their route had suffered.
          “At the words which he spoke I was delighted, for they pleased me much, and right well did I retain them all; and as soon as I had dismounted at the hostelries along the road which we traveled together, I wrote them down, at evening as in the morning, to have a better record of them in times to come; for there is nothing so retentive as writing.”
  9
  Count Gaston received him hospitably, and filled his three months’ sojourn with stories of great events. Then Froissart visited many towns of Provence and Languedoc. These peregrinations furnished much of the material for Book iii. Little more is known of his life, except with respect to a visit to England which he made in 1394, and which enabled him to collect material for a large part of Book iv., the last in the chronicle. He is supposed to have died at Chimay, later than 1400, and perhaps, as tradition asserts, in 1410.  10
  It is an engaging picture, this, of a genial, sharp-eyed, somewhat worldly churchman, riding his gray horse over hill and dale in quest of knowledge. We can fancy him arriving at his inn of an evening, and at once asking the obsequious host what knight or other great person dwells in the neighborhood. He loses no time before calling at the castle, and is gladly admitted when he tells his well-known name. He is ready to pay for any historical information with a story from his own collection. He is welcome everywhere, and for his part does not regret the time thus spent, nor the money,—several fortunes, by his own count,—for he has the light heart of the true traveler. It is always sunshine where he goes. The clangor of arms and the blare of trumpets hover ever above the horizon. Around the corner of every hill sits a fair castle by a shining river. From town to town, from province to province, his love of listening draws him on. To realize the charm of journeying in those days, we must remember that the local customs and qualities were almost undisturbed by communication; two French cities only a score of miles apart would often differ from each other as much as Nuremberg does from Venice.
          “And I tell you for a truth,” we read, “that to make these chronicles I have gone in my time much through the world, both to fulfill my pleasure by seeing the wonders of the earth, and to inquire about the arms and adventures that are written in this book.”
  11
  So to horse, good Canon of Chimay! Throw aside books; there is news of fighting in the South; after the battle, soldiers will talk. There have been deeds of courage and romance. Hasten thither, while the tale of them is new!  12
  If he were not so celebrated as a chronicler, Froissart would be known as one of the last of the wandering minstrels. He had the roving foot; he lived by charming the rich into generosity with his recitals. And he wrote much poetry, which is little read, except where it has some autobiographical interest. We possess the long poems, ‘L’Espinette Amoureuse,’ ‘Le Buisson de Jeunesse,’ ‘Le Dit du Florin,’ and several shorter pieces, with fragments of his once famous versified romance ‘Méliador.’  13
  His great prose work, while professing to be a history, in distinction from the chronicles of previous writers, is however not an orderly narration, nor is it a philosophical treatment of political causes and effects. It is a collection of pictures and stories, without much unity except the constant purpose of exhibiting the prowess of knighthood. There is not much indication even of partisanship or patriotic feeling. Froissart generally gives due meed of praise to the best knight in every bout, the best battalion in every encounter, regardless of sides.  14
  The subjects treated are so numerous and disparate that no general idea of them can be given. They cover the time from 1326 to 1394, and lead us through England, Scotland, Flanders, Hainault, France, Italy, Spain, and Northern Africa. Among the most interesting passages are the story of King Edward’s campaign against the Scots; his march through France; the battle of Crécy; the siege of Calais; Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, which Froissart the well-fed parasite treats with an odd and inconsistent mingling of horror and contempt; the Jacquerie, which he says was the work of peasant dogs, the scum of the earth; the battle of Poitiers, with a fine description of the Black Prince waiting at table on poor captured King Jean; and the rise and fall of Philip van Artevelde.  15
  Froissart’s chronicle used to be regarded as authoritative history. But as might have been expected from his mode of inquiry, it is full of geographical, chronological, and other errors. Getting his information by ear, he wrote proper names phonetically, or turned them into something resembling French. Thus Worcester becomes “Vaucestre,” Seymour “Simon,” Sutherland “Surlant,” Walter Tyler “Vautre Tuilier,” Edinburgh “Hedaimbourch,” Stirling “Eturmelin.” The persons from whom he got his material were generally partisans either of France or of England, and often told him their stories years after the events; so that although he tried to be impartial himself, and to offset one witness by another, he seldom heard a judicial account of a battle or a quarrel. He seems to have consulted few written records, though he might easily have seen the State papers of England and Hainault.  16
  It is useless to blame him, however; for the writing of mere history was not his purpose. With all his fine devotion to his life work,—a devotion which is the more admirable when we consider his pleasure-loving nature,—with all his attention to fairness, his great concern was not so much to instruct as to delight, first himself, secondly the great people of his age, and lastly posterity, on whom he ever and anon cast a shrewd and longing glance. To please his contemporaries, he several times revised his work. Posterity has nearly always preferred what might be called the first edition, which is the most unconscious and entertaining, though the least precise.  17
  But if we must deny him much of the value as a political historian which was once attributed to him, we may still regard him as a great authority for the general aspect of life in the fourteenth century. Manners, customs, morals, as well as armor and dress, are no doubt correctly portrayed in his book. We learn from it what was deemed virtue and what vice; we learn that although religion was sincerely professed by the upper classes, it was not very successfully practiced, and had amazingly little effect upon morals. We are struck, for instance, with the absence of imagination or sympathy which permitted people to witness the horrible tortures inflicted on prisoners and criminals, although their minds were frequently filled with visions of supernatural beings. Froissart unconsciously makes himself, too, a medium for studying human character in his time, by his negative morality, his complacent recording of crimes, his unconcerned mention of horrors. Yet from his bringing up as a poet, and his scholarly associations, and his connection with the Church, it is likely he was a gentler man than nine-tenths of the knights and squires and men-at-arms about him.  18
  There is an indifference colder even than cynicism in his failure to remark on the sufferings of the poor, which were so awful in his age. It is the result of class prejudice, and seems deliberate. The burned village, the trampled grain-field, the cowering women, the starved children, the rotting corpses, the mangled forms of living and agonizing foot-soldiers,—all these consequences of war he sees and occasionally mentions, yet they hardly touch him. But he is forever mourning the death of stricken knights as if it were a woeful loss. Yet for all his association with the governing class, we never find ourselves thinking of him as anything but a commoner raised to fortune by genius and favor. He has not the distinction of Joinville, who was a nobleman in the conventional sense and also in the truest sense.  19
  Froissart’s merit, then, is not that he is a great political historian, nor even a great historian of the culture of his time. He did not see accurately enough to be the first, nor broadly and deeply and independently enough to be the second. But kindly Nature made him something else, and enabled him to win that name “which honoreth most and most endureth.” She gave him the painter’s eye, the poet’s fancy, and it is as the artist of chivalry he lives to-day. His chronicle may be often false to historical fact, it may not display a broad and sympathetic intelligence or a generous impatience of conventionality, but it does please, it does enthrall. It is one of those books without moral intent, like the Arabian Nights, which the boys of all ages will persist in reading, and which men delight in if they love good pictures and good story-telling. No more lasting colors have come down to us from Venetian painters than those which rush out from the words on his pages. His scenes do not take shape in our minds as etchings or engravings, but smile themselves into being, like oil-paintings. Sunlight, the glint of steel, red and yellow banners waving, white horses galloping over the sand, flashing armor, glittering spurs, the shining faces of eager men, fill with glory this great pictorial wonder-book of the Middle Ages.  20
 
 
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