Eustache Deschamps Critical Essays

Introduction

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.