Article abstract: Chartier’s skillful use of the French language and his imaginative, elegant style significantly influenced the development of French poetry in the fifteenth century. As royal secretary to Charles VII of Valois, Chartier played an active role in the complex political world during the Hundred Years’ War, a world which he accurately recorded in prose works of extraordinary literary and historical importance.
Alain Chartier, the most famous poet of early fifteenth century France, the canon of the Notre-Dame de Paris, a chronicler of his time, and the creator of the literary school known as the Grands Rhétoriqueurs, was born in Bayeux, France, the eldest of three sons of a prominent Norman family. One of his younger brothers, Guillaume, became Bishop of Paris, and another, Thomas, like Alain, held a post as royal secretary and notary. Such distinguished service to the kings of France by the three Chartier brothers suggests that the family enjoyed a certain social and economic prominence. The young Alain attended the University of Paris and may even have been a maître (lecturer-teacher) at the University of Paris for a short while.
Although little is known of his youthful activities, by 1417, Chartier was well established both in his profession as royal secretary and as a poet. The office of “notary and secretary of the king” was a very desirable position. In addition to guaranteeing the holder a secure place within the court, it provided a rather substantial salary. A small number of notaries were also “secretaries”; that is, as the name implies, they were empowered to sign secret letters. In his position as secretary, Chartier had almost daily contact with the king while at court and, when serving as ambassador abroad, he would have been entrusted with the most sensitive matters of state politics.
For a writer and scholar such as Chartier, the secretarial post provided intellectual benefits far beyond financial security. During untroubled times he had time to compose his lyric poetry, he had easy access to the works of earlier poets through the king’s magnificent library at Paris and through the renowned papal library at Avignon, and he enjoyed the companionship, inspiration, and encouragement of other poets who resided at court.
Life at court, however, was not without difficulties for Chartier. On several occasions he vehemently criticized the self-serving interests at court. In De vita curiali (1489; The Curial, 1888), he wrote:
The court is an assembly of people who under the pretence of acting for the good of all, come together to diddle each other. . . . The abuses of the court and the habits of courtiers are such that no one lasts there without being corrupted and no one succeeds there without being corruptible.
From 1410 to 1425, Chartier moved regularly with members of the king’s household as they fled before the invading English armies led by Henry V. During most of Chartier’s career at court, France was ravaged by constant attacks from the English as part of the Hundred Years’ War, and by a virulent civil war. Chartier was deeply immersed in the political machinations of this most complex period in French history, yet he proved to be both an able ambassador and a talented and thorough chronicler. For example, his Epistola de Puella (letter concerning the Maid, Joan of Arc), written in 1429, describes in accurate and lengthy detail Joan of Arc’s exploits and victories, including the breaking of the siege at Orléans and the crowning of Charles VII at Reims.
The last four years of his life, Chartier served as royal ambassador on a number of important missions abroad, including one to the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg in 1425 and another to the court of James I of Scotland in 1428. These were troubled times to be serving as royal ambassador; the office called for men of great talent and even greater courage. As a direct result of the prolonged and bitter fighting between the French and English, royal ambassadors faced the constant danger of assassination or being taken hostage. Chartier often mentioned in his correspondence concern for his personal safety.
In 1428, while visiting the court of James I of Scotland, Chartier negotiated an alliance which would result in military support for France. Charles also authorized Chartier to arrange for the marriage of James’s daughter, Margaret Stuart, to Charles’s son, Louis XI. Chartier’s association with Margaret’s marriage contract led to one of the most famous, yet clearly apocryphal, anecdotes of the fifteenth century. According to this often-repeated story, the beautiful young Dauphiness secretly kissed the sleeping Chartier on the lips and offered these words in defense of her action: “I kissed not the man, but rather the precious mouth from which so much beautiful poetry and so many virtuous words have issued.”
The charming story of the youthful lady embracing the aging poet quickly seduced the court of Charles VII, for Chartier’s ugliness, like his lyric poetry, had become proverbial. While still in his early forties, the poet’s physical appearance already betrayed the effects of the rigorous and taxing life he had led as servant to the king. According to his own writings, his body had withered, his face had wrinkled, and he had become thin and pale. Nevertheless, Margaret did not appear at the French court...
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