Antoine de La Sale Essay - Critical Essays

La Sale, Antoine de


Antoine de La Sale c. 1386-1461?

French fiction and nonfiction writer.

Often acclaimed for his realistic depiction of everyday life, La Sale ranks among the most studied fifteenth-century authors. The work for which he is most renowned, Le Petit Jehan de Saintré (1456; Little John of Saintré), blends several genres and has been hailed as the first modern novel. While some scholars dispute this distinction, the work nevertheless radically breaks from the established literary traditions of the day. In Saintré and in other works, La Sale portrays the behavior of aristocrats and members of the court. His views on the chivalric tradition are debated among scholars, who question whether his strong praise of chivalry is genuine or satirical. Critics additionally question the extent to which La Sale's experimentation with incorporating elements of various genres is successful.

Biographical Information

The illegitimate son of a nobleman, La Sale was born near Arles in Provence. In 1400, he was taken on as a page in the court of Louis II of Anjou and treated as the legitimate heir of his father, Bernard de La Sale. La Sale served Louis II, Louis III, and René d'Anjou, all of whom were contenders for the throne of Sicily and Naples, on a number of military campaigns in Italy. A squire with an impressive academic and military education, La Sale never became a knight but was appointed as a tutor to Jean de Calabre, René d'Anjou's heir. In this capacity, he traveled with the prince, providing a thorough academic education as well as instruction in chivalry. While visiting Naples with Jean de Calabre, La Sale married Lione de la Sellana de Brusa in 1439. He was about fifty-three; she was fifteen. When his education of the prince was completed, La Sale was dismissed from the court at Angevin in 1448, a surprising event considering La Sale's forty-nine years of service. La Sale later accepted a position with Louis of Luxembourg, tutoring his three sons. The last years of La Sale's life were dedicated to his writing.

Major Works

By far the most studied of La Sale's works is Little John of Saintré. The work is presented as the biography of the historical Saintré, a knight whose exploits were chronicled by Jean Froissart. In truth, La Sale appropriates only the name of his hero and the general time frame of the fourteenth century. In Saintré, the young protagonist is taken as the protégé and, later, the lover of the widow Madame des Belle Cousine. Under Belle Cousine's tutelage, Saintré becomes a knight. After Saintré undertakes a chivalric quest without his lady's consent, Belle Cousine takes a new lover, an abbot. Betrayed and humiliated, Saintré exacts his revenge by publicly exposing Madame des Belle Cousine and her duplicity. The first portion of the work is essentially a didactic treatise in which the appropriate moral conduct for a young knight is outlined. The remainder of the text takes a more fictional approach and incorporates a fabliau-type love triangle. Throughout the work, La Sale offers a detailed, realistic portrayal of court life. Similarly marked by this realism is Le réconfort de Madame de Fresne (1457), which was composed by La Sale in an effort to comfort a grief-stricken friend who had suffered the death of her son. Written in the tradition of the consolatio, established by Boethius, the work emphasizes the immortality of the soul and universal truths regarding the human condition. In the two narratives comprising the work, La Sale incorporates personal experience, pseudo-historical events, and moral teachings. La Sale's lesser works include La Salade (c. 1444), in which he collected and organized various texts for the educational program of a prince. This compendium treats such topics as governance, military strategy, and geography. In La Sale (1451), La Sale's aims are similar. The work is also a collection of texts organized within an allegorical framework and designed to shape the ethics and morality of a ruler. The author summarizes the writings of numerous classical authors and emphasizes such virtues as prudence, religious devotion, moderation, justice, compassion, abstinence, and liberality. Additionally, the work includes mythical stories and instruction on such matters as love, marriage, and friendship. La Sale's last work, Traité des anciens tournois et faictz d'armes (1459), is a treatise concerning tournaments and feats of arms and provides instruction on the proper conduct of tournaments and chivalric engagements.

Critical Reception

Chivalry and realism, the dual themes of La Sale's major works, are of primary interest to modern critics. In both Little John of Saintré and Le réconfort de Madame de Fresne, La Sale offers detailed accounts of the courtly life of French aristocrats. In Saintré, court manners are portrayed in a familiar and knowledgeable fashion, a style that Irvine Gray describes as naïve. Gray points out that the second portion of the work, in which Belle Cousine betrays Saintré and he takes his revenge, is sometimes cited as La Sale's mockery of chivalric ideals. Yet Gray contends that throughout the work, the author demonstrates his deep admiration for chivalric institutions. Regarding Saintré's reputation as perhaps the earliest example of the novel, Gray argues that the work is not entirely fictional and that it lacks true characterization. The work does, however, break with established tradition in its rejection of mythological elements, Gray maintains. Like Gray, Janet Ferrier observes that Saintré is distinctly different from its fifteenth-century counterparts. Ferrier describes the work as a full-length fictional treatment of contemporary life upon which La Sale overlays the familiar chronicle structure. Patricia Francis Cholakian takes a stance similar to Gray's in contending that the work is not wholly narrative fiction. Cholakian finds the first portion of the work to be a treatise which has been “disguised” as fiction. In the second half of the work, which is more overtly fictional, La Sale adds depth to his characterizations of Saintré and Belle Cousine. While Gray has defended the work's praise of chivalry, Cholakian's view is that the relish with which La Sale conveys Belle Cousine's fall reveals the author's dubious attitude towards the chivalric and courtly values dominating much of the plot. Commenting on La Sale's blending of genres in Saintré, Clifton Cherpack explains that the work combines the pedagogical with the chivalric and mixes elements of memoir, novel, and biography. Cherpack explores the ways in which the myths of Pygmalion and Prometheus inform Saintré and help to establish a sense of unity within the work. Guy Mermier centers his study of Saintré on La Sale's characterization of Belle Cousine and Saintré, finding that Belle Cousine is depicted as a maternal figure who ultimately fails in her education of Saintré. This failure, Mermier asserts, is essentially the failure of the work as a whole. While a number of critics have stressed Saintré's “otherness,” studying the elements which distinguish it from other narratives of the period, Karl D. Uitti explores the work within the context of the medieval practice of restoration. Saintré, Uitti explains, “restores” past events and recodifies these happenings. Uitti concludes that what is typically taken as Saintré's originality and modernity is actually its devotion to medieval poetic practices. Turning once again to Saintré's genre blending, Allison Kelly views La Sale's combination of history and fiction as “problematic,” and contends that it should be studied as a commentary on Jean Froissart's Chronicles. While Saintré appears on the surface to be a biographical treatment of the historical Saintré based on Froissart's work, La Sale distorts Froissart's history, Kelly explains. Furthermore, Kelly claims that La Sale stresses the artificial nature of courtly discourse by exaggerating and disparaging the chivalric ideals Froissart extols. Analyzing La Sale's treatment of courtly behavior in another manner, Anne Caillaud focuses on courtly love within a patriarchal society. While it may appear that a courtly lady such as Belle Cousine possessed a superior role in the selection and control of her suitors, Caillaud argues that this was a romantic ideal which in reality women did not possess. Caillaud compares Belle Cousine's behavior to the guidelines of courtly love outlined by Andreas Capellanus in the twelfth-century De amore, demonstrating the ways in which the lady fails to adhere to the established rules of appropriate behavior on several counts. As a result of her shortcomings, Belle Cousine is humiliated and barred from aristocratic society. Caillaud suggests that through Belle Cousine, La Sale seeks to denounce the idea of courtly love and to caution women who regard courtly love as a means of dominating their lovers.

According to Caillaud, La Sale chastises women such as Belle Cousine, but in Le réconfort de Madame de Fresne he finds much to praise in the female character Madame du Chastel, the protagonist in the first of the narratives comprising this work. Her bravery in response to the death of her son makes her a heroine, according to Erich Auerbach. Auerbach compares Le réconfort de Madame de Fresne with the anonymous Les XV joies de mariage, which some scholars have tentatively attributed to La Sale, and finds that while the wives in the two works are similar, Madame du Chastel possesses a greater purity. The marriage between Madame du Chastel and her husband is a true partnership, Auerbach assesses, whereas the couple in Les XV joies de mariage display no trust in each other. La Sale's work realistically depicts the domestic intimacy between husband and wife, states Auerbach. Thomas A. Vesce analyzes Le réconfort de Madame de Fresne as well, describing the way La Sale employs the techniques of the heroic epic and the romance traditions to explore the private pain of Madame du Chastel and her husband. Vesce goes on to explain that La Sale does more than offer a poignant tale of the death of the son of Madame du Chastel, and he does more than describe the historical events of the story, that is, the English army's storming of the city of Brest. Instead, Vesce contends, La Sale provides a skillful and polished examination of the challenges of living a moral life. Like Auerbach, Vesce sees in La Sale's portrayal of Madame du Chastel a glowing portrait of womankind.

Principal Works

*Le paradis de la reine Sibylle and L'excursion aux îles Lipari (travel narratives) c. 1437-1440

La salade (textbook) c. 1444

La Sale (textbook) 1451

Le Petit Jehan de Saintré [Little John of Saintré] (nonfiction and fiction) 1456

Le réconfort de Madame de Fresne (fiction) 1457

Traité des anciens tournis et faictz d'armes (nonfiction) 1459

*The dates given for each of La Sale’s works denotes the year of its composition.

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Erich Auerbach (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: Auerbach, Erich. “Madame du Chastel.” In Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, translated by Willard R. Trask, pp. 232-61. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1953.

[In the following essay, Auerbach studies Le réconfort de Madame du Fresne, comparing the work to the anonymous Les XV joies de mariage and finding the former composition to be more elevated and ceremonious than the latter work.]

Antoine de la Sale, a Provençal knight of the late feudal type, soldier, court official, tutor of princes, authority on heraldry and tournaments, was born about 1390 and died after 1461. For the greater part of his life...

(The entire section is 13765 words.)

Janet Ferrier (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Ferrier, Janet. “An Experiment in Adaptation: Le Petit Jehan de Saintré.” In Forerunners of the French Novel: An Essay on the Development of the Nouvelle in the Late Middle Ages, pp. 54-78. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press, 1954.

[In this essay, Ferrier characterizes Little John of Saintré as essentially an failed experiment, but defends the work's breaking with the traditional romance and chronicle genres. Ferrier praises La Sale's serious attempt at innovation in introducing the notion of a full-length fictional work.]

It is a curious fact that a work which has frequently been acclaimed as the first modern novel, and...

(The entire section is 7944 words.)

Patricia Francis Cholakian (essay date spring 1969)

SOURCE: Cholakian, Patricia Francis. “The Two Narrative Styles of A. de La Sale.” Romance Notes 10, no. 2 (spring 1969): 362-72.

[In the essay below, Cholakian, emphasizing the lack of unity in Little John of Saintré, and investigates La Sale's incorporation of the elements of two distinct genres—the novel and the didactic treatise—in the work.]


Every reader of Antoine de la Sale's Petit Jehan de Saintré must grapple with the lack of unity within the work. The second half of the novel, in which Belles Cousines makes love to a lusty abbot, seems a complete departure from the first, in which she has taken care to...

(The entire section is 3957 words.)

Clifton Cherpack (essay date fall 1975)

SOURCE: Cherpack, Clifton. “Le Petit Jehan de Saintré: The Archetypal Background.” The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 5, no. 2 (fall 1975): 243-52.

[In the following essay, Cherpack evaluates the problem of unity in Little John of Saintré, averring that the archetypal stories at the core of the myths of Pygmalion and Prometheus inform the characterization and development of the work.]

The reasons why Le Petit Jehan de Saintré is the most studied French work of its day are not hard to identify. Works of doubtful attribution which, at the same time, seem to be romans à clef are bound to attract the attention of...

(The entire section is 4381 words.)

Thomas A. Vesce (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Vesce, Thomas A. “Notes on Antoine de La Sale's Réconfort de Mme du Fresne.Mediaeval Studies XXXVII (1975): 478-93.

[In the following essay, Vesce studies the way in which La Sale focuses on private, familial concerns rather than public and political matters in Le réconfort de Madame du Fresne. Vesce also highlights La Sale's facility in the realistic depiction of every day life.]


The scene which Antoine de la Sale draws in the first of the two tales in the Réconfort de Madame Du Fresne is one which is reminiscent of the old...

(The entire section is 6375 words.)

Guy Mermier (essay date spring 1977)

SOURCE: Mermier, Guy. “Antoine de La Sale's Le Petit Jehan de Saintré: A Study in Motivations.” Michigan Academician IX, no. 4 (spring 1977): 469-82.

[In the essay which follows, Mermier assesses the motivations of Belle Cousine and Saintré in an effort to better understand the nature of Little John of Saintré, claiming that the work's failure is due to Belle Cousine's failure in her education of Saintré.]

After a reading of Antoine de La Sale's Jehan de Saintré (1456), a multitude of questions arises. Why does Belle Cousine reject the young knight, and why does she allow herself to become enamored by Damp Abbé, this vulgar,...

(The entire section is 6239 words.)

Karl D. Uitti (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Uitti, Karl D. “Renewal and Undermining of Old French Romance: Jehan de Saintré.” In Romance: Generic Transformation from Chrétien de Troyes to Cervantes, edited by Kevin Brownlee and Marina Scordilis Brownlee, pp. 135-54. Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College, 1985.

[In the following essay, Uitti examines the difficulty in classifying Little John of Saintré and contends that what some scholars view as the work's modernity is in actuality a faithful homage to the medieval literary tradition of restoring past events.]

The five centuries or so leading from the Old French Life of Saint Alexis to the completion of the prose narratives of...

(The entire section is 8860 words.)

Allison Kelly (essay date May 1986)

SOURCE: Kelly, Allison. “Abbreviation and Amplification: Jehan de Saintré's Rewriting the Artifice of History.” French Forum 11, no. 2 (May 1986): 133-50.

[In this essay, Kelly assesses Little John of Saintré as a commentary on Jean Froissart's Chronicles, focusing in particular on La Sale's treatment of Froissart's commendation of chivalry and his utilization of direct discourse.]

Ils sont bien des fumees sans feu, c'est a entendre que sont maintes faulses langues desliees de flacteurs a gecter les fumees sans feu, c'est a dire porter et rapporter faulses et mauvaises renommées a hommes et a femmes sans cause et contre...

(The entire section is 8726 words.)

Anne Caillaud (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Caillaud, Anne. “The Search for Power: A Female Quest in Antoine de la Sale's Petit Jehan de Saintré.” In Fifteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 24, edited by William C. McDonald, pp. 74-83. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1998.

[In the essay below, Caillaud analyzes the relationship between Belle Cousine and Saintré, demonstrating the ways in which the lady fails to adhere to the guidelines of courtly love as codified in Andreas Capellanus's twelfth-century treatise De amore.]

Courtly love is disturbing … it justifies and legitimizes adultery. It also places women in a position of supreme power. There are two unbearable transgressions...

(The entire section is 4870 words.)

Further Reading


Gray, Irvine. Introduction to Little John of Saintré (Le Petit Jehan de Saintré), pp. 1-27. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1931.

Provides a biographical account of La Sale's life and surveys his majors works, with special emphasis on Little John of Saintré.

Kelly, Allison J. “Jehan de Saintré and the Dame Belles Cousines: Problems of a Medieval Title.” French Forum 14, no. 1 (December 1989): 447-57.

Contends that the title of La Sale's Little John of Saintré is misleading on several counts, as it suggests the work is primarily concerned with Saintré, and that the work is similar to...

(The entire section is 499 words.)