Eustache Deschamps Essay - Critical Essays

Deschamps, Eustache


Eustache Deschamps c. 1340-1404

(Born Eustache Morel) French poet and essayist.

Deschamps was a prolific French poet of the Medieval period and a shrewd surveyor of human behavior. The corpus of his work encompasses over 1,500 ballades, virelays, and chansons; a treatise on poetry, L'Art de dictier (1392; The Art of Poetry); and a long poem debating the virtues and pitfalls of marriage, Le Miroir de mariage (1398; The Mirror for Marriage). Collectively these works provide a panoramic cross-section of society in late fourteenth-century France.

Biographical Information

Deschamps, also known as Eustache Morel, was born in Verus in Champagne around 1340. Before beginning a career at court, Deschamps studied law in Orleans where, by his own admission, he indulged in debauchery and was never awarded a degree. In 1367 he began what would become a thirty-three year career as a courtier in the service of Charles V and Charles VI. In 1373 he married and sired two sons and a daughter; his wife died during the birth of the latter, in 1376. He was appointed bailiff of Valois in 1375 and huissier d'arms for Charles V in 1378. His diplomatic skills, however, likely played a less significant part in his successful career than did his poetry—Deschamps was a disciple of the poet-composer Guillaume de Machaut until the latter's death in 1387. Deschamps's service in the court allowed him to travel widely, both within France and throughout Europe. His chronicling of his travel experiences, in fact, significantly broadened the subject range of medieval French verse, and his assertion that verse need not be directly linked with music—as his mentor, Marchaut, had maintained—widened the scope of French poetry. Deschamps died in June of 1404.

Major Works

Despite a massive corpus of short comic verse, Deschamps's most important works, in terms of scope and content, remain L'Art de dictier and Le Miroir de mariage. L'Art de dictier, the first book on prosody n French, severs what had then been the traditional tie between lyric poetry and musical accompaniment. In his treatise, Deschamps avers that poetry has a “natural music” of its own and can therefore exist without music being played in the background. Perhaps most importantly, Dictier offers a prescriptive guide for composition. With his characteristic zeal, Deschamps encourages the creation of poetry in the vernacular and the versifying of everyday events. Dictier exhorts poets to achieve a sense of verbal polyphony, even when treating everyday occurrences. In addition, Dictier functions as a treatise on the liberal arts of the Middle Ages—of special interest are the four touchstones Deschamps provides for the ideal piece of rhetoric: brevity, boldness, wisdom, and succinctness.

Deschamps's Miroir is an allegorical antifeminist tract. In this unfinished poem of over 12,000 lines, Franc Vouloir (True Heart) ponders whether to marry. While some passages describe the difficulties of matrimony as equally burdensome for both men and women, the overall tone of the work is strongly misogynistic: the narrative includes duplicitous wives, spendthrift mistresses, and interloping mothers-in-law. The work has been the subject of significant critical debate, based largely on its socio-political stance.

Critical Reception

Deschamps was largely forgotten before the nineteenth century. Early critics of Deschamps, like Julleville de Petit and Gustave Lanson at the end of the nineteenth century, and Johan Huizinga sixty years later, generally regarded Deschamps as a mediocre poetic journalist. Criticism in the later part of the twentieth century, however, has tempered this early assessment of Deschamps. Early in the period critics stressed Deschamps's influence on Chaucer. However, more recent critics, such as James Wimsatt, have minimized the Deschamps/Chaucer connection, arguing that the influence was bilateral because of the shared body of knowledge during the Middle Ages and each author's likely familiarity with the other's work. Feminist critics in the past decade have often focused on Deschamps's antifeminist verse, especially in the Miroir. Deborah Sinnreich-Levi argues that the poet was far more sympathetic to women than was previously supposed. Michelle Stonebrunner explains that because Deschamps was a courtier for Charles VI and gravely concerned with the Crusade in Jerusalem at the time, his Miroir is not so much a misogynist rant against the evils of marriage as it is a call for England and France to unite and direct their energies against the Muslim threat. Political concerns aside, however, many critics praise Deschamps not only as a leader in early French verse, but as a gifted poet, able to create characters filled with humor and life, and able to show readers a glimpse of the everyday life of a long-dead society.

Principal Works

L'Art de dictier et de fere chançons, balades, virelais et rondeaulx [The Art of Poetry] (treatise) 1392

Le Miroir de mariage [The Mirror for Marriage] (poetry) 1404

Oeuvres complètes d' Eustache Deschamps. 11 vols. [edited by Auguste Henri Edouard, le Marquis de Queux de Sainte-Hilaire, and Gaston Raynaud] (poetry and treatises) 1878-1903

L'Art de dictier [edited and translated by Deborah M. Sinnreich-Levi] (treatise) 1994


I. S. Laurie (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Laurie, I. S. “Deschamps and the Lyric as Natural Music.” Modern Language Review 59 (1964): 561-70.

[In the essay below, Laurie investigates Deschamps's assertion in that poetry is an art form independent of music, finding the poet's views derived from his own poetry.]

In his exegesis of the passage in the Art de Dictier in which Deschamps describes poetry as ‘musique naturele’ and music as ‘musique artificiele’, Dragonetti points out that Deschamps' belief in poetry as an art form independent of music marks a break not only with the whole of French lyric tradition, in which the chanson is the synthesis of word and music, but also with that transcendental view of music which medieval theoreticians borrow most commonly from Boethius.1 Dragonetti's argument is based entirely on Deschamps' theoretical work and on the treatises of his predecessors. It is worth examining Deschamps' theory in order to determine whether it had any practical application to his own work and to that of his contemporaries.

Deschamps explains that he describes music as ‘artificiele’ because it consists of nothing more than rules which can be learnt by the most insensitive of men and distinguishes it from poetry, a ‘musique naturele’ with which the poet is endowed by nature and which cannot be learnt. A musical accompaniment, so far from being necessary to poetry, is a disadvantage whenever it is desired to read poetry in private and without the services of several performers. There is an even more fundamental difficulty: poets, according to Deschamps, ‘ne saichent pas communement la musique artificiele ne donner chant par art de notes a ce qu'ilz font …’ (vii, 271). The importance of this admission may be appreciated when it is remembered that Deschamps was in this position himself and that he belonged to the first generation of French lyric poets, Froissart, Wenceslas de Bohême, and Oton de Grandson, who finally abandoned music as a constitutive element in their work. It is at this point that Deschamps' intention becomes most clear: he is attempting to justify not only his own practice but that of his contemporaries. Poets like himself have lost nothing at all by their incapacity to read or write music and their poetry has a better claim to be called music than what usually goes by this name.

Yet music has a claim to a special position amongst the arts. Deschamps describes it as ‘la medecine des. VII. ars’, an aid to relaxation and a distraction from the other arts (vii, 269). Dragonetti argues that this place should have been assigned to poetry, described in the Art de Dictier as the pre-eminent category of music, and believes that there is an illogicality in this part of Deschamps' argument. It is possible that there is no illogicality, for the place assigned to music by Deschamps is relatively inglorious: the last of the arts and the servant of them all; an escape from more serious matters. Dragonetti points out that there is precedent for Deschamps' non-transcendental view of the pleasure afforded by music in Roger Bacon and in Jean de Crocheo but does not note that there is a closer parallel for it in Machaut's Prologue:

Et Musique est une science
Qui vuet qu'on rie et chante et dence;
Cure n'a de merencolie
A chose qui ne puet valoir,
Eins met telz gens en nonchaloir.
Par tout, où elle est, joie y porte;
Les desconfortez reconforte,
Et nès seulement de l'oïr
Fait elle les gens resjoïr.(2)

Machaut includes music amongst the free gifts of Nature and considers that one of its chief glories is its place in the services of the Church on earth and in the praise offered to God by the angels and saints in heaven, but he is as far from making music a transcendental philosophical principle as Deschamps and reduces music to the level of an entertainment or even a pick-me-up.

Yet Machaut and Deschamps are more articulate in their praise of the aesthetic pleasure to be derived from the sound of music than from the sound of poetry. If there is an illogicality in this part of the Art de Dictier it might be explained by Deschamps' dependence on Machaut for his conception of the aesthetic qualities of vocal and instrumental music and by his separation from his master over the question of whether this music was, like poetry, a free gift of Nature. It is, however, improbable that this passage reveals nothing more than an editorial oversight on Deschamps' part. It is often argued that medieval poets had little appreciation of the possibilities of the mere sound of words as a means of conveying emotion.3 The fact that Deschamps, like Machaut, was well aware of the pleasure to be derived from the sound of music can give the critic no guarantee that he had anything more than a rudimentary appreciation of this aspect of the musicality of verse. Poetry seems to have this quality principally when it is provided with a musical accompaniment: ‘Et semblablement les chançons natureles sont delectables et embellies par la melodie et les teneurs, trebles et contreteneurs du chant de la musique artificiele’ (vii, 271-2). The fact that Deschamps describes poetry as music at all might be explained without any reference to the musicality of his own verse: Deschamps was arrogating to poetry alone the position which had belonged to poetry and music in earlier theoreticians, for example, in Roger Bacon. According to this view, again expounded in the fourteenth century by Philippe de Vitry,4 rhetoric and poetry are branches of music and it is not surprising that Deschamps should have continued to describe poetry in these terms in his treatise.

Yet Deschamps does attempt to explain the theory of poetry as music. Poets have the right to call their work music ‘… pour ce que les diz et chançons par eulx faiz ou les livres metrifiez se lisent de bouche, et proferent par voix non pas chantable, tant que les douces paroles ainsis faictes et recordées par voix plaisent aux escoutans qui les oyent …’ (vii, 270-1). Poetry is: ‘une musique de bouche en proferant paroules metrifiées …’ (vii, 270). It ought to be read aloud: ‘… pour ce que neant plus que l'en pourroit proferer le chant de musique sanz la bouche ouvrir, neant plus pourroit l'en proferer ceste musique naturele sanz voix et sanz donner son et pause aux dictez qui faiz en sont’ (vii, 271). In these statements Deschamps returns to the same idea: poetry is music because it is read aloud and the human voice establishes its metre, rhythm, and stress. By ‘son et pause’ Deschamps may be referring to the stress on or pause after the syllables forming the caesura and rhyme. Music itself often played an auxiliary role in establishing the ‘pause’ on caesura and rhyme, sometimes by stressing both these points in the line with long notes. Deschamps may be referring to these advantages of music as a means of emphasizing metrical accents when he praises the accompanied lyric: ‘Et aussi ces deux musiques sont si consonans l'une avecques l'autre, que chascune puet bien estre appellée musique, pour la douceur tant du chant comme des paroles qui toutes sont prononcées et pointoyées par douçour de voix et ouverture de bouche …’ (vii, 271).

It is clear that the abandonment of music in the French lyric involved the loss of one of its most important auxiliary metrical elements. Deschamps' concept of the musicality of verse as residing in metre and competent elocution, and his insistence on the necessity of reading aloud, may indicate that he was aware that the lyric was in danger of becoming impoverished by the loss of a musical accompaniment on the one hand and the growth of silent reading on the other. If so, and if he had anything more than a superficial conception of the musicality of verse, it might have been expected that he would have interested himself in compensatory devices in order to avoid the dangers of an indeterminate metrical structure and ensure that his verse was not read like prose.

To judge by the Art de Dictier the chief device of this kind which appears to have interested Deschamps, apart from the regularization of the fixed lyric forms themselves, was the development of rhyme. He attempts to define grammatical rhyme, illustrates the meaning of the words equivoque, retrograde, leonine, and sonant, and recommends a mixture of masculine and feminine rhymes. He also explains the construction of the balade equivoque, retrograde et leonine and describes these poems as ‘les plus fors balades qui se puissent faire’ (vii, 277). This passage is the subject of an extraordinary piece of exegesis by Lote:

[Deschamps] donne la mesure de son esprit frivole. … Il mesure donc l'intérêt que présentent les poèmes à la difficulté de leur facture, ce qui apparaît de la manière la plus évidente au cours du développement qu'il consacre à la Ballade equivoque, retrograde et leonine. Il ne nous cache pas l'admiration qu'il ressent pour de pareils tours de force, où se manifeste l'habileté de l'ouvrier. … Ces raffinements le transportent et le ravissent. Son bonheur, quand il songe à d'aussi prodigieuses merveilles, ressemble à celui d'un poète parnassien qui aurait écrit un sonnet sur des rimes rarissimes, ou à celui d'un enfant qui aurait mis la main sur quelque jouet compliqué. …5

Hoepffner's comment upon the same passage is that Deschamps reveals a typical medieval outlook and that it led him to compose worthless poems which are frequently contorted and incomprehensible.6 None of Deschamps' critics have done him the elementary justice of pointing out that in the total number of his one thousand and fourteen7 ballades only “Ballades 461” and “477” are equivoques, retrogrades and leonines, and only “Ballades 9” and “18” are retrogrades. In “Ballade 999,” which is used by Deschamps as an example of grammatical rhyme (vii, 277-8) the technique is used consistently only in the first strophe. Even when “Rondeau 618,” which is equivoque and retrograde and “Rondeaux 930-1,” which are equivoques, are included, the total is astonishingly small for a form which Deschamps is supposed to have considered as the summit of his art. Elsewhere in the Art de Dictier, Deschamps does not hesitate to make express recommendations about the length of line and strophe, the position of the rhymes, the mixture of masculine and feminine rhymes, the structure of the envoi, the number of strophes in the virelai, etc. (vii, 274-81). Yet when describing the above word-games, he does not explicitly recommend their use but contents himself with describing them as extremely skilful. In this respect his own practice accords with his theory: acrostics and other word-games make no more than an occasional appearance (“Ballades 73,” “460,” “540,” “947,” “1312”; “Rondeaux 655,” “1326”; “Virelai 743”), the rime retrograde and grammaticale are rare curiosities and even the rime equivoque is seldom used in more than two lines of any rondeau, virelai or ballade. The sparing use made of grammatical rhyme is typical; Deschamps tends to use it, not as a frivolous ornament but to emphasize the subject of a poem in the first two lines:

Qui faire veult aucun fort edifice,
Neuf choses fault a son ediffier

“Chanson Royale 391,” ll. 1-2 (cf. “Ballades 1458,” “1476,” “1485,” “1486,” “1491,” “1492”)

In these respects he is as restrained as the trouvères and as Guillaume de Machaut.8

Deschamps' account of rime leonine and rime sonnante and his recommendation of a mixture of masculine and feminine rhymes (vii, 274-6) have more relationship to his own practice. The rime leonine bears on two vowels and the rime sonnante on one (described by Deschamps as ‘entiere sillabe’ and ‘demie sillabe’ respectively). He does not follow the Leys d'Amors in distinguishing between perfect and imperfect rime leonine and rime sonnante, according to whether they are preceded or not by a supporting consonant. As he reckons the feminine ending in mute ‘e’ as an additional vowel in the line, but not as a sufficient rhyme without a supporting vowel, every feminine rhyme is also leonine: homme, Romme. Only masculine rhymes are sonnantes: clamer, oster; in order to become leonine the masculine rhyme, like the feminine rhyme, must bear on two vowels: defenir, maintenir.

Two of the three ballades given by Deschamps to illustrate these distinctions contain only leonine rhymes, and present an irregular mixture of masculine and feminine rhymes. The remaining example, which consists of a regular alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes, is described as ‘moitié leonime [sic] et moitié sonant’. A mixture of masculine and feminine rhymes is explicitly recommended in the paragraph immediately following: ‘Et se doit on tousjours garder en faisant balade, qui puet, que les vers ne soient pas de mesmes piez, mais doivent estre de .ix. ou de .x., de .vii. ou de .viii. ou de .ix., selon ce qu'il plaist au faiseur, sanz les faire touz egaulx, car la balade n'en est pas si plaisant ne de si bonne façon.’ Raynaud notes that Deschamps gives no indication as to the proportions in which masculine and feminine rhymes ought to be mixed,9 and Lote argues that these lines are merely a recommendation of ‘un mélange à peu près équilibré’ and must not be mistaken for the late fifteenth-century rule of regular alternation.10 According to Lote, alternation is never more than an exceptional and rare phenomenon in medieval French verse, but Reaney argues that ‘the alternation of masculine with feminine rhyme seems to have been almost an accepted thing in the fourteenth century, though it was not yet a rule’ and illustrates this from Machaut.11 In view of the subsequent importance of this rule it is worth while analysing Deschamps' ballades and chansons royales in order to discover how close he had come to it himself and what practical importance may be attached to his own recommendations in the Art de Dictier. Only one hundred and fifty-four of his one thousand and fourteen ballades and fifteen of the one hundred and thirty-eight chansons royales have only masculine rhymes; eleven...

(The entire section is 5991 words.)

Kenneth Varty (essay date April 1965)

SOURCE: Varty, Kenneth. “Deschamps's Art de dictier.French Studies 19, no. 2 (April 1965): 164-68.

[In the following essay, Varty argues that Deschamps's primary object in L'Art de dictier was “divorcing lyric verse from music and claiming as much prestige for the composition of the verse as for the music, if not more.”]

Most of the comments one reads in literary histories on Deschamps's Art de Dictier tend to lead one away from what may well be its main point. The fault is partly Deschamps's because he wrote so badly. Indeed, Georges Lote's brief study of the Art de Dictier is devoted entirely to its imperfections, mostly to be...

(The entire section is 2392 words.)

Glending Olson (essay date October 1973)

SOURCE: Olson, Glending. “Deschamps' Art de dictier and Chaucer's Literary Environment.” Speculum 48, no. 4 (October 1973): 714-723.

[In the following essay, Olson examines the views on poetry expressed in L'Art de dictier and explores their possible influence on Chaucer.]

Written in 1392, Eustache Deschamps' L'Art de dictier et de fere chançons, balades, virelais et rondeaulx defines lyric poetry as a species of music and describes, with examples, the formal requirements of various lyric types.1 Perhaps because it is so much a manual and so little a theoretical examination of poetry, its ideas and implications, and their...

(The entire section is 5694 words.)

Laura Kendrick (essay date winter 1983)

SOURCE: Kendrick, Laura. “Rhetoric and the Rise of Public Poetry: The Career of Eustache Deschamps.” Studies in Philology 80, no. 1 (winter 1983): 1-13.

[In this essay, Kendrick analyzes the theory of rhetoric addressed in L'Art de dictier and demonstrated in several of Deschamps's ballads in an effort to elucidate changing definitions of rhetoric in the late fourteenth century.]

Western society has viewed or defined rhetoric in different ways during different historical periods. Changes in ideology usually accompany changes in the political and socioeconomic structures of a society. Classical rhetoric, the art of oral persuasion, depended upon a public...

(The entire section is 5263 words.)

Laura Kendrick (essay date spring-fall 1990)

SOURCE: Kendrick, Laura. “Transgression, Contamination, and Woman in Eustache Deschamps's Miroir de mariage.Stanford French Review 14, no. 1-2 (spring-fall 1990): 211-30.

[In the following essay, Kendrick analyzes the misogynistic elements of Le Miroir de mariage.]

Toward the end of the fourteenth century, probably in the 1380s or early 1390s, the most prolific medieval French poet, Eustache Deschamps, a household and judicial officer with a long career in the service of French kings Charles V and Charles VI and of the royal line, composed a didactic treatise over twelve thousand [lines] long, the Miroir de mariage, in which he argued for male...

(The entire section is 7275 words.)

Deborah M. Sinnreich-Levi (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Sinnreich-Levi, Deborah M. “The Female Voice of the Male Poet: Eustache Deschamps' Voix Féminiśe.” In Voices in Translation: The Authority of “Olde Bookes” in Medieval Literature, edited by. Deborah M. Sinnreich-Levi and Gale Sigal, pp. 207-18. New York: AMS Press, 1992.

[In this essay, Sinnreich-Levi refutes the notion that Deschamps was solely a misogynist poet by examining several poems written in a female voice and depicting women sympathetically.]

While the fourteenth-century French poet Eustache Deschamps is known for his anti-feminist stance, typified in Le Miroir de mariage, he did write at least fifty-two poems whose speakers...

(The entire section is 3617 words.)

Ian Laurie (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Laurie, Ian. “Deschamps and Comedy.” Romance Languages Annual 7 (1995): 107-11.

[In the essay below, Laurie defends Deschamps from the long-standing characterization as a humorless moralist by noting comic elements throughout a number of his works.]


At least since Deschamps's work was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, it has not been common to view him as a comic writer. On the contrary, his first modern editors, beginning with Crapelet, writing shortly after the Revolution of 1830, and Tarbé, publishing a year after the Revolution of 1848, viewed Deschamps primarily as a stern and uncompromising moralist...

(The entire section is 4667 words.)

Francesca Canadé Sautman (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Sautman, Francesca Canadé. “Eustache Deschamps in the Forest of Folklore.” In Eustache Deschamps: French Courtier-Poet, His Work and His World, ed. Deborah M. Sinnreich-Levi, pp. 195-207. New York: AMS Press, Inc. 1998.

[In the essay which follows, Sautman explores the ways folkloric motifs and themes suffuse a number of Deschamps's poems.]

Carl Lindahl's study of Chaucer and folklore felicitously reopens the question of the place occupied by folklore and folklife in great works of Western literature. A number of medieval and Renaissance authors and works have been interpreted in a variety of ways within this framework.1


(The entire section is 4563 words.)

Robert Magnan (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Magnan, Robert. “Eustache Deschamps and the Course of Life.” In Eustache Deschamps: French Courtier-Poet, His Work and His World, ed. Deborah M. Sinnreich-Levi, pp. 230-44. New York: AMS Press, Inc. 1998.

[In the essay below, Magnan outlines how Deschamps divides human life into different phases or periods in various poems.]

The course of life, the length and structure of human existence, is a neglected and misunderstood aspect of the work of Eustache Deschamps. The purpose of this article is to consider how Deschamps divides life into distinct periods in a half dozen poems, in an attempt to determine the nature of these divisions and to assess their...

(The entire section is 6024 words.)

Deborah M. Sinnreich-Levi (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Sinnreich-Levi, Deborah M. “Medicine and Music, Hygiene and Poetry: L'art de dictier Revisited.” Romance Languages Annual 10, no. 1 (1999): 164-67.

[In this essay, Sinnreich-Levi investigates Deschamps's view, expressed in L'Art de dictier, that poetry has therapeutic or “medicinal” qualities.]


In 1392, Eustache Deschamps produced the very first ars poetica in French, L'art de dictier, whose stated purpose is to teach the reader how to compose poetry and songs. L'art de dictier offers valuable insights into the mind of a...

(The entire section is 3336 words.)

Iris Black (essay date fall 1999)

SOURCE: Black, Iris. “Beyond Dietetics: The Use of Language of Food and Drink in the Allegorical Battles of Eustache Deschamps.” Dalhousie French Studies 48, (fall 1999): 3-18.

[In the following essay, Black focuses on images and themes of food and consumption in two of Deschamps poems that present comic allegorical battles.]

Food and drink, as elements of literature, are almost inevitably bound up with notions of social practice, individual consumption, or both. They are reminders of a world beyond the written text; they threaten to disrupt the integrity of the word. Yet even as they do so, they mirror and define its readers, bringing them closer to the literary...

(The entire section is 7533 words.)

Iris Black (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Black, Iris. “The Theatricality of Marriage in Two Late Medieval Narrative Texts.” Dalhousie French Studies 56 (fall 2001): 6-16.

[In this essay, Black compares the theatrical and misogynistic aspects of Deschamps's Le Miroir de mariage and the anonymous .XV. joies de Mariage.]


Written in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century,1 the two texts which we will examine in this article both feature scene-like vignettes of married life. The Miroir de mariage of Eustache Deschamps and the anonymous .XV. joies de mariage2...

(The entire section is 6488 words.)

Further Reading


Burrow, John. “Hoccleve and the Middle French Poets.” In The Long Fifteenth Century: Essays for Douglas Gray, Eds. Helen Cooper and Sally Mapstone. pp. 35-49 Oxford: Claredon Press, 1997.

Includes a consideration of “Ballade 902” as one example among many of Deschamps's supplicant poems that bear similarities to Thomas Hoccleve's pleas for money in Male Regle.

Cropp, Glynis M. “Fortune and the Poet in Ballades of Eustache Deschamps, Charles D'Orleans and Francois Villon.” Medium Aevum 58, no. 1 (spring 1989): 125-132.

Examines the role of the personified figure of Fortune in selected works of...

(The entire section is 296 words.)