Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Two books on Charny!

Wilson, Ian; Nigel Bryant, ed. and trans. The Book of Geoffroi de Charny with the Livre Charny. (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2021). Reviewed by Steven Muhlberger Nipissing University (retired)

Over the last two generations there has been a boom in the publication of medieval biographies and memoirs of knights and treatises on chivalry written by knights. These works, which have lurked for centuries in their original languages in archives and exclusive libraries, are increasingly being made available in translation. Chivalry, a classic topic in the study of the Middle Age is (again) a hot topic for scholars, and scholars of chivalry are glad to have more accessible versions of these difficult texts. They preserve memoirs (some mildly or extensively fictionalized) or didactic treatises which provide rare insights into the values of active knights.

Foremost among these author-knights is the now- famous Geoffroi de Charny, a prominent French knight of the mid-14th century who died at the battle of Poitiers (1356), while defending the Oriflamme and King Jean II. Geoffroi de Charny has long been credited with the authorship of three works on chivalry. The verse Livre Charny (which I call “Charny’s Book”) is an account of the difficulties of adopting and following the ‘Profession of Arms.’ The well-known translator Nigel Bryant has provided both an edition and an English translation of Livre Charny (pp.-53-128). The Demandes -- Questions Concerning the Joust, Tournaments and War -- are a collection of mostly legal case studies which were meant to illustrate problems of the law of arms. A third book is The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny a prose treatment which overlaps material in Charny’s Book.

Between the three books we are given some of the most serious thoughts of one of France’s foremost knights of the 14th century.

Charny was a member of the lesser gentry (and a third son at that); nevertheless he rose through the ranks. Early in his career he depended on patrons to provide him with the large sums of money necessary to replace lost equipment and, twice, to pay very large ransoms. But some people seem to have thought him worth it. His appointments to military office speak to how he was rated as a practical man-at-arms. Charny’s rank and his personal influence did not entitle him to any largely patronage-motivated appointments. We can imagine that he had a big and fierce personality much appreciated by his military colleagues. Further, Charny’s success as a diplomat and a royal counselor shows that he had flexibility and charm as well.

In the last years of his life Charny was close to King Jean; both men were concerned with the apparent decline of chivalry in France and they worked together toward fixing it. The king founded a chivalric order, the Order of the Star; Charny was commissioned (6 Jan 1351) to compile the Demandes so that the Order could answer the questions and agree on the standards that should establish chivalry. Charny’s Book must have been finished at least by 14 Aug 1352, when French warriors, many members of the Order of the Star among them, were defeated by the English at Mauron. These men of high rank were slaughtered because they held to the “no retreat” doctrine of King Jean and Charny. The loss of so many knights of the Star took the air out of the king’s project but did not divide the two men; Charny remained the bearer of the Oriflamme until he was killed at Poitiers in 1356.

Perhaps Wilson’s most important goal is offering a “revised understanding” of Charny based on a wider collection of manuscripts which preserve information about Charny’s military career and the chronology of his writings. The relevant manuscripts, regarded by Wilson as “ understudied” are the “Oxford” manuscript (Holkham ms. 43, at the Bodleian) and the “Madrid” manuscript (Biblioteca Nacional de España ms. 9270) . Using these and better-known Brussels, Paris and Swiss manuscripts, Wilson builds an “alternative understanding” of Charny’s career and writing. It is interesting to see how illustrations made The Book of Geoffroi de Charny a heftier text, one of which probably involved Charny working with a prestigious illustrator, Jean le Noir. Wilson shows that the works of Charny constituted a substantial codicological project that caught a moment at the French royal court.

Wilson’s revised understanding includes a rejection of the

existing scholarly consensus that the prose Book of Chivalry of was written by the knight we have been discussing, the same author of Charny’s Book and the Demandes, who died at Poitiers. Rather, Wilson contends that the Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny was written at a later date by another man of the same name, the first Charny’s nephew, who had reason to revive his uncle’s tradition as a pious and determined knight. The Book of Chivalry was an elaborated presentation of ideas first presented in Charny’s Book. Whether Wilson’s reconstruction of the relationship between the two “books” is ultimately accepted will depend on hard work and luck. The evidence is difficult and limited in scope. I found the detailed and careful work done by Wilson impressive but not conclusive.

But this book has more to offer than the complex puzzle surrounding the three works attributed to Charny. What can be said about the excellent translation except that it is excellent? Bryant’s contribution may well attract readers with diverse interests, and give them a lively text with which to examine the concept and practice of chivalry.

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