VII. LETTERS

Among the ruins men and women continued to write books. The Postillae perpetuae (1322–31) of Nicholas of Lyra were major contributions to the textual understanding of the Bible, and prepared the way for Erasmus’ New Testament and Luther’s German translation. The fiction of the period favored light erotic tales like the Cent nouvelles nouvelles—one hundred novel novels—of Antoine de la Salle, or romances of chivalry like Flore et Blanchefleur. Almost as fictitious was the book of a Liége physician, Jehan à la Barbe, who called himself Sir John Mandeville, and published (c. 1370) an account of his alleged travels in Egypt, Asia, Russia, and Poland. John claimed to have visited all the places named in the Gospels: “the house where the sweet Virgin went to school,” the spot where “the water was warmed with which Our Lord washed the feet of the Apostles,” the church in which Mary “hid herself to draw milk from her worthy breasts; in this same church is a marble column against which she leaned, and which is still moist from her milk; and wherever her worthy milk fell the earth is still soft and white.”52 John of the Beard is at his best in describing China, where his eloquence was least cramped by erudition. Now and then he verges on science, as when he tells how a “man traveled ever eastward until he came to his own country again,” like Jules Verne’s M. Passepartout. He drank twice at the Fountain of Youth, but returned to Europe crippled with arthritis, which perhaps he had caught by never leaving Liége. These Travels,translated into a hundred languages, became one of the literary sensations of the later Middle Ages.

By far the most brilliant production of French literature in the fourteenth century was the Chronicles of Jean Froissart. Born at Valenciennes in 1338, he lapsed into poetry at an early age; and at twenty-four he crossed to London to lay his verses at the feet of Edward Ill’s wife, Philippa of Hainaut. He became her secretary, met English aristocrats, and admired them too frankly to be impartial in his history. Lust for travel soon uprooted him, and drew him to Scotland, Bordeaux, Savoy, and Italy. Returning to Hainaut, he became a priest and canon of Chimay. Now he decided to rewrite his book in prose, and to extend it at both ends. He traveled again in England and France, sedulously gathering material. Back in Chimay he dedicated himself to finishing “this noble and pleasant history .... which will be much in request when I am gone... to encourage all valorous hearts, and to show them honorable examples.”53 No romance could be more fascinating; he who begins these 1,200 ample pages with intent to leap from peak to peak will find the valleys inviting too, and will move gladly and leisurely to the end. This priest, like Julius II, loved nothing so much as war. He was allured by action, gallantry, aristocracy; commoners enter his pages only as victims of lordly strife. He did not inquire into motives; he relied too trustfully on embellished or prejudiced accounts; he made no pretense of adding philosophy to narrative. He was only a chronicler, but of all chroniclers the best.

Drama marked time. Mysteries, moralities, “miracles,” interludes, and farces occupied the stages temporarily erected in the towns. Themes were increasingly secular, and the humor was often scandalous; but religious subjects still predominated, and the people never tired of spectacles representing the Passion of Christ. The most famous theater guild of the time—the Parisian Confrairie de la Passion de Nôtre Seigneur—specialized in acting the story of Christ’s brief stay in Jerusalem. One such Passion Play, by Arnoul Greban, ran to 35,000 lines.

Poetry, too, had its guilds. Toulouse set up in 1323 a Consistori de la gaya sciensa, or Academy of the Gay Science; under its auspices public competitions in poetry sought to revive the art and spirit of the troubadours. Similar literary societies were formed at Amiens, Douai, and Valenciennes, preparing for the French Academy of Richelieu. Kings and great lords had poets as well as minstrels and buffoons attached to their households. The “good René,” Duke of Anjou and Lorraine, and titular King of Naples, supported a bevy of poets and artists at his courts in Nancy, Tarascón, and Aix-en-Provence, and so rivaled the best of his rhymers that he received the title of “Last of the Troubadours.” Charles V took care of Eustache Deschamps, who sang the beauty of women, married, denounced matrimony in a 12,000-line Le Miroir de mariage, and bemoaned the misery and wickedness of his time:

Age de plomb, temps pervers, ciel d’airain,
Terre sans fruit, et stérile et prehaigne,
Peuple maudit, de toute douleur plein,
Il est bien droit que de vous tous me plaigne;
Car je ne vois rien au monde qui vienne
Fors tristement et à confusion,
Et qui tout maux en ses faits ne comprenne,

Hui est le temps de tribulation .*54

Christine de Pisanu reared in Paris as the daughter of Charles V’s Italian physician, was left with three children and three relatives to support when her husband died; she did it miraculously by writing exquisite poetry and patriotic history, she deserves a passing obeisance as the first woman in Western Europe to live by her pen. Alain Chartier was more fortunate; his love poems—like La belle dame sans merci, which melodiously chided women for hoarding their charms—so captivated the aristocracy that a future queen of France, Margaret of Scotland, was said to have kissed the lips of the poet as he slept on a bench. Étienne Pasquier, a century later, told the legend charmingly:

When many were astonished at this—for to speak the truth Nature had placed a beautiful spirit in a most ungraceful body—the lady told them they must not be surprised at this mystery, for it was not the man whom she desired to kiss but the lips whence had issued such golden words.55

The finest French poet of the age did not have to write poetry, for he was the nephew of Charles VI and the father of Louis XII. But Charles, Duke of Orléans, was taken prisoner at Agincourt, and spent twenty-five years (1415–40) in genteel captivity in England. There, heavy of heart, he consoled himself by writing tender verses about the beauty of women and the tragedy of France. For a time all France sang his song of spring:

Le temps a laissié son manteau,
De vent, de froidure, et de pluye,
Et s’est vêtu de brouderie
Du soleil luyant, cler et beau.
Il n’y a beste, ne oyseau
Qu’en son jargon ne chante ou crie:
Le temps a laissié son manteau.*56

Even in England there were pretty girls, and Charles forgot his griefs when modest loveliness passed by:

Dieu! qu’il fait bon la regarder,

La gracieuse, bonne et belle!

Pour les grands biens qui sont en elle

Chacun est près de la louer.

Qui se pourrait d’elle lasser?

Tout jour sa beauté renouvelle.

Dieu! qu’il fait bon la regarder,

La gracieuse, bonne, et belle!*58

Allowed at last to return to France, he made his castle at Blois a happy center of literature and art, where Villon was received despite his poverty and his crimes. When old age came, and Charles could no longer join in the revels of his young friends, he made his excuses to them in graceful lines that might have served as his epitaph:

Saluez moi toute la compaignie
Ou a present estes a chtère lye,
Et leurs dites que voulentiers seroye
Avecques eulx, mais estre n’y pourroye,
Pour Viellesse qui m’a eu sa baillie.
Au temps passé Jennesse sy jolie
Me gouvernoit; las! or ny suy ge mye.
Amoureus fus, or ne le suy ge mye,
Et en Paris menoye bonne vie.
Adieu, bon temps, ravoir ne vous saroye!...
Saluez moi toute la compaignie.59

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