Geoffroi de Villehardouin Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Geoffroi de Villehardouin c. 1150-54-c.1212-18

French chronicler.

An eyewitness observer of and participant in the Fourth Crusade, Villehardouin described his experiences in his Conquête de Constantinople (The Conquest of Constantinople). The work is believed to have been written in the early years of the thirteenth century, probably around 1207–12. Critical commentary on Villehardouin and his work centers on the author's style, often praised for being simple and direct, and on the debate regarding Villehardouin's motivation and honesty. Some critics believe that portions of Conquête attempt to conceal the truth about the diversion of the Fourth Crusade from Egypt to Constantinople. The work is frequently cited as the first French prose text of notable literary merit and as the first reliable account of the crusading expeditions written in French.

Biographical Information

Villehardouin was born between 1150 and 1154 into an aristocratic family of French crusaders which presided over a court at Achaea. In 1185, he was given the title of “Maréchal,” or Marshall, of Champagne, and in this capacity was selected in 1199 by the French barons as one of six delegates to travel to Venice and arrange with the Doge for the transportation of the crusaders to the Holy Land. The next years of Villehardouin's life are chronicled in Conquête, which takes the reader through the 1204 conquest of Constantinople and beyond, to 1207, when the baron Boniface de Montferrat was killed in Thrace. With the death of Matthieu de Montmorency, Villehardouin assumed the leadership of the Champagne faction of the French army, and in 1205 was named “Maréchal de Champagne et de Roumaine.” While the time and place of Villehardouin's death are not known, it is believed that he died between 1212 and 1218.

Major Works

Conquête de Constantinople begins in the year 1198, when a Fourth Crusade was being preached by Fulk of Neuilly, and ends in 1207, with the death of Boniface de Montferrat at the hand of Bulgars in Thrace. Villehardouin offers an explanation for the diversion of the crusade from the original destination—Egypt—to Constantinople. He maintains that the treaty with the Venetians, signed in 1201, had stipulated that the barons and their soldiers assemble in Venice in 1202. Many crusaders failed to meet this requirement, deciding to leave from ports other than Venice. Since they desired to honor their financial arrangements with the Venetians, the crusaders who had assembled in Venice, as agreed, were obliged to aid the Venetians in their attack on the city of Zara, and to help Prince Alexius Angelus restore his imprisoned father, Isaac, to the rightful position of Emperor of Constantinople. This accounting of events later became a source of debate among critics, Medieval through modern. The rest of the work goes on to describe, in simple, unencumbered language, Villehardouin's experiences as a crusader, and, as such, focuses primarily on military interests.

Critical Reception

From Medieval to modern times, many critics have questioned whether or not Villehardouin, in his treatment of the genesis of the Fourth Crusade, was acting in some way as an official apologist or propagandist. It has been argued that Villehardouin perhaps attempted in his account to conceal a plot devised from the beginning by military leaders to use the crusaders in an attack on Constantinople. Several modern critics have defended Villehardouin's veracity. Frank Marzials has expressed his belief in Villehardouin's “good faith and essential political honesty.” Other critics, such as M. R. B. Shaw, have acknowledged that while Villehardouin was guilty of presenting a somewhat biased interpretation of the expedition, the work on the whole is “fair and honest.” Colin Morris has agreed, maintaining that although some events are not treated fairly and may even be described as dishonest in their presentation, Villehardouin's reminiscences can safely be characterized as “substantially honest” and “accurate.” Paul Archambault has taken a different approach to the controversy, examining the literary aspects of the work, rather than viewing Conquête de Constantinople as a historical document. Archambault argues that Villehardouin's writing lacks visual interest; that he sees his own viewpoint as an “enlightened” one, which he contrasts with his enemies' “dark” motivations; and that Villehardouin habitually highlights the events he seeks to dramatize while omitting “morally embarrassing” details.

Other critics have offered another view of Villehardouin's literary talents. Marzials has lauded his style as “simple, strong, and direct.” Similarly, Shaw has argued that Villehardouin's work is notable for its “simplicity and lucidity,” and has observed that Villehardouin does not obstruct the progress of his story with personal intrusions, “flights of the imagination,” or lengthy, picturesque descriptions. In two separate essays, Jeanette M. A. Beer has provided detailed analyses of Villehardouin's style, taking a close look at the “clarity and brevity” for which Villehardouin is often praised, and observing how various stylistic devices, most notably repetition, antithesis, and tense usage, are used by Villehardouin in support of a simple and clear presentation of events. Beer has also examined the ways in which Villehardouin uses various features of the oral narrative tradition, including the use of stock conventions, the employment of “formulae of anticipation, recapitulation, and transition,” and the usage of exaggeration and repetition.