Craig Taylor, A Virtuous Knight: Defending Marshal Boucicaut (Jean II Le Meingre, 1366-1421) (Brian Ditcham)

Craig Taylor

A Virtuous Knight: Defending Marshal Boucicaut (Jean II Le Meingre, 1366-1421)

(York Medieval Press, 2019) 203 pp. $99.00

Sometimes a book’s title can summarise its contents very neatly. In this case it is the subtitle which tells the tale. The core of Craig Taylor’s argument is that contemporary historiography from Johann Huizinga onwards has been fooled about the purposes of the anonymous chivalric biography “Le Livre des Faits du bon Messire Jehan le Meingre”. Rather than being a work for all time designed to instruct a rising generation of knights in proper chivalric behaviour through the example of its hero, he argues that it was produced for much narrower and more specific reasons- as in effect a defence brief for Boucicaut in French court circles.

There were always some oddities about “Le Livre des Faits”. The fact that it only survives in one copy is interesting, if not decisive- other core chivalric texts have an equally tenuous manuscript tradition. It is however intriguing that the sole manuscript exemplar shows all the signs of being a presentation copy which was never presented to its planned dedicatee, with empty spaces for illuminations that were not added. It is also unusual for its genre in dealing with a living individual; other chivalric biographies either dealt with individuals who were dead at time of writing or were heavily fictionalised affairs.

And Boucicaut clearly stood in need of a defence. Despite the claims in the biography, there is plenty of independent evidence to suggest that he was far from being a consensual figure in the France of the 1390s-1400s. Michel Pintoin, the quasi-official chronicler of the Valois realm, blamed Boucicaut personally for the catastrophic crusading defeat at Nicopolis in 1396. The biography went out of its way to shuffle responsibility off on to the allied Hungarian forces and stressed that he was a cautious and disciplined soldier in addition to being a paragon in combat. It also grossly exaggerated his achievements around Constantinople in 1399 to suggest a kind of happy ending to the fiasco. Others depicted him as a greedy and self-seeking individual engaged in looting the royal coffers during Charles VI’s bouts of insanity.

Above all Boucicaut’s years in Italy, acting as governor of Genoa on behalf of the French crown, left him vulnerable. He stood accused of heavy handed and autocratic rule in Genoa itself. His attempts at crusading had amounted to little more than quasi-piratical raids along the Syrian littoral which had ultimately led him into conflict with Venice and a crushing naval defeat. Revealingly, his actions here were in effect disavowed by the French court, which conspicuously failed to open formal hostilities against the Venetians. He had botched the diplomacy surrounding the potential acquisition of Pisa by France. Above all, he had failed to bring about a meeting between the rival popes Gregory XII and Benedict XIII in the context of attempts to resolve the Great Schism.

Admittedly he had his excuses (not all of which could plausibly be deployed in “Le Livre des Faits”). Genoa was faction ridden and notoriously ungovernable. Boucicaut was to be just the first of a series of externally appointed governors in the course of the fifteenth century who struggled to keep their footing in the chaotic world of Genoese politics and eventually failed. It would have been little comfort for him to note that the Genoese were equally incapable of establishing a stable regime among themselves- and one legacy of his time in office, the Casa di San Giorgio, was eventually to become the nearest thing to a fixed point in Genoese politics that existed. Others let him down on the crusading front. Even a more skilled diplomat than Boucicaut would have struggled in the complex cross-currents of Italian politics- especially in a situation where issues in Italy intertwined with the conflicting interests of the quarreling French princes and “official” French policy shifted to and fro. The same could have been said over the church politics of the Great Schism (indeed conflicting policies within France on the Schism were one of the complicating factors over alignments in Italy)- though here Boucicaut’s defenders had to engage in some fancy footwork as a major issue undermining attempts to bring the rival popes together was Gregory XII’s distrust of Boucicaut, who had a reputation for being a partisan upholder of the Avignon line.

“Le Livre des Faits” is anonymous. Taylor argues, convincingly, that it was primarily written by Nicolas de Gonesse. He was Boucicaut’s confessor and, crucially, had part-translated the works of Valerius Maximus into French. “Le Livre des Faits” is full of citations from this classical author, deployed to show Boucicaut as a peer of the great figures of antiquity, especially in the final section of the work dedicated to enumerating Boucicaut’s virtues. Gonesse has been suggested as the author before. Taylor, however, argues that he did not work alone but rather operated as a kind of script doctor adapting a rather more traditional chivalric biography written by one of Boucicaut’s military associates to fit in with the latest intellectual fashions in the French court. The result was at times uneven (for instance Boucicaut’s youthful enthusiasm for jousting arguably sat uneasily with some of the classical models Gonesse sought to fit him into)- though perhaps that mirrored all too faithfully the rather complex and contradictory positions held in courtly society at the time. Taylor suggests that Boucicaut might have lived up to at least some of the claims made on his behalf- or at least did not depart from them so grossly as to make the book an exercise in meaningless flattery.

Taylor does not try to identify the potential dedicatee of the work- probably one of the Franch royal dukes, he guesses (Boucicaut had links with both Burgundy and Berry). Nor does he speculate on how successful it was with its audience. One might indeed go further and wonder if it was ever presented to anybody. By the time the text was completed in March 1409 matters had already moved on with the Council of Pisa about to open; by the end of that year things had got even worse for Boucicaut when Genoa rose against him and forced him out of the city. In 1410 he was ordered back to France- though he clearly had not fallen out of favour as he was given further official missions and even managed to get the French crown to repay some of the debts he had run up in its service. Perhaps in the end it proved unnecessary to stage a written defence of Boucicaut and there may never have been more than one copy. The text found its way into the hands of Sébastien Mamerot in the mid fifteenth century (ironically- or perhaps revealingly-secretary to a later, equally unsuccessful, governor of Genoa) and influenced his writings on crusading themes. After that it vanished from sight until its rediscovery by historians of chivalry- who, Taylor suggests, have often exaggerated its contemporary impact.

Taylor’s account of the text and its suggested genesis seems broadly plausible and future historians will need to bear his analysis very much in mind when citing “Le Livre des Faits” . One must however raise a complaint about contemporary academic publishing conventions and the eye-watering price of such a slender work (just over 160 pages of text, including footnotes) which guarantees that, like its subject, it is unlikely to gain a wide circulation.

Brian Ditcham
Independent Scholar

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