Alain Chartier c. 1385-1430
French poet, prose writer, orator, and epistler.
A courtier and diplomat, Chartier composed highly accomplished poetry and prose works in French and Latin, addressing the political upheaval of his time. He was also a greatly admired and frequently imitated writer of polished love poetry. As Edward J. Hoffman observed, for over a century after Chartier's death, his work was lauded for its elegance and nobility, and Chartier himself was hailed as the “Father of French eloquence.”
Little is known about Chartier's early life. He was born into a prominent middle-class family in Bayeux around 1385. He had two brothers, Guillaume, who would become Bishop of Paris, and Thomas, who, like Chartier, would become a royal secretary. He received his education at the University of Paris, where, some evidence suggests, he earned a Master of Arts degree. Chartier's earliest known works, including Le Lay de Plaisance, were composed around 1410. By the mid-1410s Chartier was a member of the entourage surrounding the Dauphin Charles (later King Charles VII); by the end of the decade he was a notary and secretary to King Charles VI.
During this period France was torn apart by civil conflict. Charles VI's mental instability created vacuum of power that opposing factions sought to fill. In addition, the English king, Henry V, took advantage of the turmoil and launched an invasion of France in 1415. When the dauphin was forced to flee Paris in 1418, Chartier accompanied him. He would remain in Charles's service until his death over a decade later, even after Charles's accession to the throne upon the death of Charles VI in 1422. Throughout this time Chartier was engaged in official correspondence and other duties of the chancellery, and he occasionally served as a royal envoy, seeking support for his employer. In the course of these diplomatic missions, Chartier wrote and delivered several orations in Latin, including Ad Jacobum regem Scotorum oratio (1428), which may be translated as Oration before James, King of Scots. The result of this embassy was the renewal of an old alliance between Scotland and France and the marriage of James's daughter to Charles's son. In the course of his service Chartier was awarded a number of ecclesiastical posts, including the rectorship of Saint-Lambert-des-Levées in 1424 and the chancellorship of Bayeux in 1428. In the late 1420s Chartier was promoted to royal counselor, a post he held until his death on March 20, 1430, in Avignon.
Chartier's varied output includes poetry, prose, letters, and orations. Notable among his love poems is the early piece, Le Debat des deux fortunés d'amours (1412-13). This work, which may be translated as “The Debate of the Two with Varied Fortunes in Love,” presents two knights, one fat and one thin, who hold differing opinions on love. The fat knight takes a favorable view of love, emphasizing its joys and the benefits it brings. The thin knight offers a darker picture of love, stressing the fear and jealousy it may engender. The vividness of his speech, which concludes with a string of paradoxes concerning love, overcomes the affirmative but conventionalized observations of the fat knight. Chartier would again employ the debate structure in a number of other works, both prose and poetry, and would, as he did here, present himself as an observer who merely reports what he has seen and heard. In Chartier's longest poem, Le Livre des quatre dames (1416)—which may be translated as “The Book of the Four Ladies”—the story of a melancholy poet trying to gain a woman's love encloses the tales of four women with varying fortunes in love. The details the women provide of their lovers' responses to a battle suggest that they were real people and that the battle was Agincourt (1415). After he fled Paris in 1418 Chartier composed few love poems, focusing more on prose works with political themes. Among the handful of late love poems is the widely admired and imitated La Complainte (c. 1424), in which the poet complains to Death, who has taken his lady and thus deprived him and the world of her beauty. When La Belle Dame sans mercy first appeared in 1424 it was harshly criticized for its perceived attack on courtly love and negative portrayal of women. A year later Chartier sought forgiveness and justification for his offense in L'Excusacion aux dames (1425).
In his prose works, Chartier often used allegory to explore political themes. Le Quadrilogue invectif (1422; The Quadrilogue Invective) presents a dream in which the author observes a dialogue between France and the three Estates—the Clergy, the Nobility, and the People—on the ruinous state of affairs in the country. Chartier explored similar themes in Dialogus familiaris amici et sodalis super deploracione gallice calamitatis (1426-27), which may be translated as “Familiar Dialogue of the Friend and the Companion Lamenting the Calamity of France.” The unfinished Le Traité de l'Espérance (1427-28; The Treatise of Hope) combines prose and poetry in an exploration of France's glorious past and its current disastrous situation. The narrator is visited by a series of allegorical figures, including Melancholy, Indignation, and Defiance, who declaim in progressively darker tones on the present state of affairs. The character Despair recommends suicide. These are followed by more comforting figures, including Understanding, Faith, and Hope (the titular Espérance), who dispel Despair.
Chartier wrote a number of letters in Latin, on a variety of subjects. Some address public issues, such as De libertate ecclesie epistola (c. 1411)—which may be translated as “Letter Concerning the Liberty of the Church” and Ad universitatem parisiensem epistola (c. 1418-19)—which may be translated as “Letter to the University of Paris.” Others treat more personal concerns. Letters such as Ad fratrem suum juvenem epistola (1410)—which may be translated as “Letter to his Young Brother”—and De vita curiali (1425-28)—which may be translated as “On Life at Court”—offer advice and counsel to their recipients. One of Chartier's last works was De Puella espistola (1429). This piece, which may be translated as “Letter about the Maid,” interprets Joan of Arc's achievements as evidence of divine intervention in the affairs of France.
The survival of some 200 fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts of Chartier's works is testament to the high esteem in which he was long held. A print collection of his works appeared as early as 1489, and several editions and reprints appeared over the next fifty years. As literary tastes changed, however, critics dismissed Chartier's works as stilted and artificial. Modern scholars have revived interest in Chartier and addressed a number of aspects of his writing. Critics such as Hoffman and James Laidlaw have examined Chartier's works within the literary context of his time, stressing his reception and influence. Julian Eugene White, Jr., and William W. Kibler, among others, have traced the relationship between Chartier's writings and contemporary political events. Several commentators, including Cynthia J. Brown and David F. Hult, have analyzed Chartier's use of allegory, while others, including Kibler and Robert Giannasi, have explored his innovative use of narrators. Throughout, modern critics have emphasized Chartier's formative influence on the development of French literary language and style.