Antoine de La Sale Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.