Jean Froissart, by being so much of his age, became a writer for all time. This unpriestly priest, this citizen celebrator of chivalry took such an intense joy in chronicling his times that he devoted an entire half century to traveling, interviewing, writing, and rewriting. He interviewed more than two hundred princes in various courts from Rome and the Pyrenees to Edinburgh, and with such zest that he was a favorite of the nobles on both sides in the Hundred Years’ War. In his own time his works were widely copied and illuminated.
Although he recorded the Hundred Years’ War on a colorful and unprecedented scale, he is not a reliable historian. Born in Valenciennes, now a city in France but at that time in the Low Country countship of Hainaut, Froissart was a Fleming who shifted his allegiance from one side of the conflict to the other, depending on the court that offered him patronage at the moment. Relying mostly on hearsay evidence from partisan observers, he never consulted official documents, many of which are still extant. As a result his history abounds in anachronisms, erroneous dates, garbled names, and impossible topography. Froissart was also, understandably, unaware that the fourteenth century marked the waning of the Middle Ages and that he was the last of the medieval innocents. The histories that follow his reflect a realism and disillusionment that are in startling contrast to Froissart’s chivalric naïveté.
Froissart’s purpose was clear: He wrote “in order that the honorable and noble adventures and feats of arms, done and achieved by the wars of France and England, should notably be registered and put in perpetual memory.” His remarkable career was auspiciously launched in 1361, when he went to England as Queen Philippa’s secretary and court historian. There he thoroughly ingratiated himself with the aristocracy and began a pro-English account of the wars from the time of Edward III in 1316 to the death of Richard II in 1399. Curiously enough, he makes no mention of English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, a rival at court. Chaucer reciprocated the slight. After the queen’s death in 1369, Froissart returned to Valenciennes, went into business, and completed book 1 of the Chronicles under the patronage of Robert of Namur, Philippa’s nephew. A very large proportion of that version was directly plagiarized from his pro-English predecessor, Jehan (or Jean) le Bel, but Froissart’s fame was such that Guy II de Chatillon, comte de Blois gave him first a prosperous living at Lestinnes and later a sinecure as a private chaplain. Under Guy’s patronage Froissart traveled through France, making an especially fruitful trip in 1388 to Gaston de Foix in Orthez. During this period, he rewrote book 1 and completed books 2 and 3, adopting a pro-French perspective on the wars. “Let it not be said,” he lies, “that I have corrupted this noble history through the favor accorded me by Count Guy de Blois, for whom I wrote it. No, indeed! For I will say nothing but the truth and keep a straight course without favoring one side or the other.”
In 1397, Count Guy, a drunkard who had sold his patrimony, died. Froissart gained a new patron in the duke of Bavaria, who sent him again to England. Although Richard II, the new king, did not receive him cordially, it is interesting to note that the chronicles again took on a somewhat pro-English turn, whether subconsciously or by design, when Froissart retired to his hometown eighteen months later.
Froissart more than returned the favors of his patrons by immortalizing them as heroes and heroines of chivalry, and he took immense delight in doing so: I have taken more pleasure in it than in anything else. The more I work on these things, the more they please me, for just as the gentle knights and squires love the calling of arms and perfect themselves by constant exercise, so I, by laboring in this matter, acquire skill and take pleasure in it.
What Froissart loved most was the...
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