Article abstract: A friar who wrote a chronicle recording the political and social events of northern France between 1340 and 1368, Jean captured the sense of urgency and distress of the times in which he lived, while criticizing those whom he thought to be partially responsible for the troubles.
Very little is known of Jean de Venette’s life, except that which can be gleaned from references in his chronicle and the records of the Paris convent where he lived much of his adult life. He wrote that he was seven or eight years old when the famine of 1315 struck Europe, indicating that he was born in 1307 or 1308, most likely in the provincial village of Venette, approximately one mile from the town of Compiègne, about fifty miles northeast of Paris, on the banks of the Oise River. Of peasant stock, Jean was reared in the rolling and fertile countryside of northern France. In the years following the famine of 1315, it is probable that Jean, having shown interest and promise, began his formal education, learning the basics of reading and writing Latin at a local monastery. In all likelihood he was the only individual from his village to acquire training beyond the memorization of prayers and psalms which the parish priest might have provided.
At some point, probably in his teens, Jean decided to devote his life to the Church and joined the order of Carmelite friars. The Carmelites, also known as the White Friars for their white cloaks, had originated in Palestine, where in the twelfth century groups of hermits lived on the slopes of Mount Carmel, having dedicated their lives to prayer. Members of the group soon migrated to Western Europe, and, in 1250, Pope Innocent IV formally recognized the order and approved their constitution. Each friar pledged to devote himself to prayer, preaching, and study and to live a humble beggar’s life in the urban centers of Europe. Rejecting the accumulation of property, the convents of Carmelites shared their meager resources and preached to townspeople about charity, humility, and the simple life of Christ. Jean’s early years as a Carmelite have escaped the records of history, but in the 1320’s or 1330’s he joined the Parisian convent of Carmelites on the Place Maubert and studied theology at the University of Paris. After studying theology for several years, he became a master of theology; by 1339, he had become the prior, or head, of the Paris Carmelite convent.
As prior of a Carmelite convent in the capital city of France, Jean likely had many official duties to fulfill, such as running his own convent and inspecting the smaller convents in towns near Paris. He held this post until 1342, when the Carmelites selected him as the head of the order of the province of France, a post which he apparently held until his death. Despite his official duties, which undoubtedly consumed much time, Jean developed an interest in past events and historical accounts. He stressed the importance of historical study to the younger friars and likely enlisted their aid in collecting evidence and stories about the history of the Carmelite Order. In 1360, Jean compiled this information in a brief history of the order from its legendary founding by Elijah until the mid-twelfth century, when two English barons brought to Europe some Carmelite hermits from Palestine.
Jean’s historical avocation further appears in Chronicon (The Chronicle of Jean de Venette, 1953), a book better known than the history of the order. The chronicle, which describes events from 1340 to 1368, contains many eyewitness accounts and tidbits of news that Jean received in Paris or on his travels to other convents throughout northern France. The chronicle’s narrative—like most medieval chronicles—consists of entries for each of the years recorded by the author. In these yearly summaries, Jean wrote of weather conditions; political events; military campaigns, victories, and defeats; the wartime condition of the cities, villages, and countryside of France; and the social conflicts present in the France of his day. While parts of the book appear to have been written on a day-to-day basis, most of the Latin manuscript was written after Jean had spent some time reflecting on the dramatic events of the mid-fourteenth century. Throughout the text of the chronicle, Jean’s sensitivity and humaneness are apparent. Coming from peasant stock, he understood the hardships and sufferings of peasants during times of war, famine, and plague and was clearly proud of the endurance and fortitude of his social class. As one who dedicated himself to a life of humility, he was sharply critical of the fourteenth century French nobility, whom he perceived as lax, vain, and impotent. Jean particularly criticized the aristocracy for their inability to protect the French from the English during the repeated invasions of the Hundred Years’ War. Unlike many medieval chronicles or historical accounts, Jean’s history comes alive with feeling, giving his audience the sense that Jean was often in the middle of the events he describes or was at least deeply concerned about their outcome.
Jean’s history has a stately unity in that it begins and ends in years when Jean reported that a comet was observed in the skies above France. Despite this astronomical coherence, the years between 1340 and 1368 were years of social and...
(The entire section is 2224 words.)