Jean de Joinville Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Jean de Joinville 1225-1317

French crusader and chronicler.

Joinville was a crusader turned chronicler. After fighting in the Seventh Crusade (1248-54) with King Louis IX of France, Joinville composed an account of his adventures with King Louis, who was canonized in 1297. The historical account, entitled Vie de Saint Louis (1309), or the Life of Saint Louis, is written more as an autobiographical account of Joinville's shared experiences with the King, rather than as an objective biography of Saint Louis. In the Vie, Joinville's reverence for his King is obvious, yet it is not blind; in some instances Joinville's criticism or questioning of King Louis is apparent. Joinville has been praised by critics for his vivid description of the era in which he lived and the war in which he fought with Saint Louis.

Biographical Information

Born in Champagne to a noble, crusading family, Jean was the second son of Simon, Lord of Joinville. After the death of his father and older brother, Jean—still in his teens—became Lord of Joinville. As a youth he served as a vassal to his lord, the Comte de Champagne. In 1239, Joinville married Alix of Grandpré; the couple had two sons. Following the lead of King Louis IX, Joinville took the cross in 1244. Sailing with the fleet from southern France, Joinville joined the Seventh Crusade and followed King Louis to Cyprus. He fought in the battle of Mansourah in 1248 and along with King Louis was captured by the Bedouins. After the King paid a large ransom, he and Joinville were released from prison. From 1250 to 1254, Joinville lived near King Louis at Acre, Caesarea, and Jaffa, serving as the King's counselor. They returned to France in 1254 and Joinville retired to his estate. At some point, perhaps as early as 1272, it is believed that he began writing down an account of the events of 1248 through 1254. Around 1298, King Louis’s Grandniece, Jeanne (Countess of Champagne and Queen of Navarre), requested that Joinville write an account of King Louis's life. Great interest in King Louis had been generated by his being canonized by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297. Joinville complied and began dictating the Vie de Saint Louis. Although there is some question of when different portions of the account were written, the work was completed by 1309. Joinville died in 1317.

Major Works

Before writing the Vie de Saint Louis, Joinville composed a religious pamphlet in which both texts and illustrations are used to expound upon the Christian Creed. Credo was written between 1250 and 1251, although the only extant version is dated 1287. There is some conjecture related to the nature of the revisions made in the later version. The Vie de Saint Louis covers the years 1248 through 1254, when Joinville accompanied King Louis on the Seventh Crusade. In general, Joinville speaks reverently of the king and emphasizes throughout the work the virtues of loyalty and preudome. (Preudome has been described as a religious interpretation of the concept of chivalry.) Filled with Joinville's anecdotes, descriptions of people, as well as moralizing, the Vie de Saint Louis is comprised of three sections: an introduction, which includes a dedicatory letter and the teachings of Saint Louis; the central section, which focuses on Saint Louis's early life, his reign as King, and his deeds during the crusade; and a closing section, which discusses the King's later years and also includes a postscript.

Textual History

There are three primary extant manuscripts of the Vie de Saint Louis. The earliest, known as the Brussels manuscript, may date from as early as 1320, according to some scholars. The two others are believed to date from the sixteenth century. Most scholars agree that the two sixteenth-century manuscripts have a common source, but one which does not predate the Brussels manuscript. Although the first printed edition appeared in 1547, edited by Antoine de Rieux, the manuscript on which he based the edition has not been found and is believed to be corrupt. The first edition, which scholars believe may closely resemble Joinville's original, was printed in 1761, following the discovery of the Brussels manuscript and one of the sixteenth-century manuscripts. What has become the standard edition of the text appeared in 1874, in French, edited by Natalis De Wailly.

Critical Reception

Critical discussions of the Vie de Saint Louis are centered on two main areas: the dating of the work and Joinville's writing style. Alfred Foulet divides the work into five sections, and suggests dates of composition for each section. The five sections he identifies are: (1) the dedicatory letter; (2) the teachings of Saint Louis; (3) the life and reign of Louis IX including his later years; (4) the postscript; and (5) the final date of the book. After analyzing specific portions of the work, Foulet concludes that sections 1 and 5 were probably composed in 1309; sections 2 and 3 in 1305-06; and section 4 between 1306 and 1309. Foulet finds it highly unlikely that, as some scholars contend, approximately three-quarters of the book consist of personal recollections composed as early as 1272-73. Rene Hague, on the other hand, in his introduction to De Wailly's edition, suggests that Joinville had began writing his account in 1272. Maureen Slattery reviews the dating debate, summarizing the two schools of thought on the subject. Slattery notes that a large group of scholars maintain that the work was composed in two stages, with the main account of the Crusade having been written around 1272. In 1304-05, when Joinville was asked to compose a biography for the court, he officially dictated his original account and added sections to the beginning and end. Slattery explains that a smaller group of scholars, including Foulet, believe that the bulk of the work was composed around 1305-06, not earlier. Having outlined both views, Slattery emphasizes what both schools have in common: both use internal textual date references to date the work's final form (a method which Slattery finds to be inconclusive), and both agree that the work “emerged from stages of both oral and written development.” Slattery stresses that the visual and oral sources deserve more weight than the written sources which informed Joinville's text, as the work is “one of a witness who saw and heard about the king, then dictated his memories.” Other critics have focused their attention on the style of Joinville's Vie de Saint Louis. In the introduction to her translation, Ethel Wedgwood praises the “directness and simplicity” of Joinville's style, although she also comments that he is neither an accomplished chronicler, nor a storyteller. In describing the anecdotal and moralizing tone of the book, Frank Marzials observes that Joinville's account is colored by the fact that he wrote about his days as young soldier when he was an elderly man. Helmut Hatzfeld examines both the style and language of the Vie, observing that Joinville's method of description employs the linkage of a “few well-observed features by a ‘pale’ line of action.” In addition, Hatzfeld notes that Joinville avoids epithets, lengthy descriptions, and similes, but he does make use of exaggeration. Joinville prefers consecutive clauses, a habit characteristic of early French prose. Taking a different approach to Joinville's language, Newton S. Bement analyzes the way in which Latin remnants infused the French used at the time Joinville wrote the Vie. Bement explains that while such remnants are often viewed by modern critics as disorderly or confusing elements in the text, the remnants were common to thirteenth- and fourteenth-century speakers and writers of French.