Craig Taylor and Jane Taylor (trs.), The Chivalric Biography of Boucicaut (Albright)

Craig Taylor and Jane H.M. Taylor, tr.

The Chivalric Biography of Boucicaut, Jean II Le Meingre

(Boydell, 2016) 244 pp. $99.00


Fair-minded English-language readers interested in the Hundred Years’ War may often have cause to lament the fact that there are few accessible French language sources that give the other side of the picture during that time. This particular book manages to serve that gap by providing an excellent translation of a somewhat obscure and anonymous French-language source of one of the most notable French military leaders of the second half of the 14th century, whose career ended quite appropriately after being taken captive at Agincourt. Readers who are not familiar with chivalric biographies will find in this book both sides of that particular phrase. The book is a partial biography of Boucicaut running up to around 1410, and it shows that the career of this gentleman was particularly broad. The biography highlights that he was continually involved in some kind of trouble, which shows the diverse interests of men of his class and time. The book also focuses on the chivalric nature of his career, having been written with a keen eye towards defending his conduct (given that it was very contentious). The fact that the book itself came from a fortuitous encounter between the two translators at a conference in Michigan is all the more to be appreciated, given that this book shows itself as a labor of love that gives a great deal of credit to those who have previously worked with the text before. If the original author of the text was clearly deeply biased, the translators are fair-minded and judicious in their approach.

Indeed, the translators do an able job showing the purpose of this book and placing it in its proper context: “In short, the biography of Boucicaut served as a highly-detailed defense of the marshal’s career, and in particular of the decisions that he had made during his service as governor of Genoa. The obvious audience for this was the French royal court. Indeed, the author acknowledged as much when he denounced the envy motivating those at court who were undermining Boucicaut and misleading the royal dukes. Such opposition posed a very grave risk to Boucicaut who had long depended on the goodwill of the royal princes who effectively ruled France during the mental incapacity of King Charles VI (11-12).” To be sure, though, as able a defense as the book is, the anonymous author clearly exaggerates the military prowess of its subject. After all, twice in his life, at Nicopolis and at Agincourt, Boucicaut found himself a prisoner of opposing military forces, the first one requiring a considerable ransom and the second time ending his political and military career, to say nothing of his inability to keep Genoa for the French crown in the face of local political and military difficulties. In light of this uneven career, it is an exaggeration for Boucicaut’s biographer to write: “But the wise marshal, who had nothing to learn about military tactics, guessed what trick they were intending, and therefore declined the pursuit (122).”

Nevertheless, the book is very ably written, despite the occasional cases where the author goes beyond the truth in his desire to protect the reputation of its subject. In terms of its structure and organization, the chivalric biography consists of four unequal parts. The first part of the book looks at the background of Boucicaut and his early career, including some success in the raids that characterized that period of the Franco-English conflict, and his disastrous experience in Nicopolis during that abortive crusade on behalf of the Hungarian monarch, which perhaps predictably spends a great deal of space talking about the Marshal’s supposed chivalric devotion to an unnamed woman. The second part of the book examines the career of Boucicault from his governorship until his return from Syria. The third part of the book looks at his experiences from his return from Syria to about 1409 or 1410, and contains a great deal of discussion about the issues of the Papal Schism and the attempts of various leaders to engineer a peace between the feuding sides, which was not resolved until the Council of Constance around the time of Agincourt. The fourth part is perhaps the most interesting and strikingly unusual part of the book, and it is a brief section that covers the virtues and good habits of the Marshal in the eyes of the anonymous biographer. After the main contents of the work there is a substantial bibliography and an index for the convenience of the reader.

This book will be particularly useful for a variety of English-language scholars of the late 14th and early 15th century, especially because its subject was a far-ranging leader who was involved in the Hundred Years’ War, the Baltic Crusades, the Nicopolis Crusade, the Great Schism, and various military efforts involving the Byzantine Empire, Cyprus, and Italy. Many of these efforts are obscure and contentious, and the author of this text certainly had a strong bias but a perspective that is worthwhile to consider and to add to our understanding of the French chivalric perspective of the time. Although the book glosses over some of the failures of its subject’s military and political career, the book does present an able perspective of the political and military elite of the French during the period between Poitiers and Agincourt. As a notable and obscure source that provides a vivid French perspective of the times, this is a book that will be of worth to students of late crusades, the Hundred Years’ War, or the politics of France and Italy during the Great Schism. Those readers will greatly appreciate the efforts of the translators in bringing this truly remarkable and intriguing source to the wider attention and greater knowledge of English-language medieval scholars.

Nathan Albright
Norwich University

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