Jean Froissart Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Froissart was a seminal figure in fourteenth century European historiography. In his Chronicles, he offered a vivid panorama of an age in transition that relied for its inspiration on waning codes of chivalry and a growing spirit of Humanism.

Early Life

Jean Froissart, the son of a painter of arms, received a clerical education and entered the service of Margaret of Hainaut sometime between 1350 and her death in 1356. This was the first of many court appointments that enabled him to establish a network of contacts in aristocratic circles, primarily in France and the Low Countries. In 1362, he went to England in order to serve as secretary to Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III. He remained in her entourage as court poet until 1369, during which time he traveled to Scotland with King David II, to France and Spain with Edward, the Black Prince, and to Italy in the bridal party of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, who married Yolanda Visconti of Milan in April, 1368. It was on this trip through Italy, as he visited Ferrara, Bologna, and Rome, that Froissart apparently made the acquaintance of Geoffrey Chaucer, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Petrarch.

Upon his arrival in England, Froissart presented to the court a verse chronicle of the Battle of Poitiers which had been warmly praised by Robert of Namur, Lord of Beaufort and nephew to Queen Philippa. Froissart’s early poetry was popular at the court and two works in particular, “L’Éspinette amoureuse” and “Le Joli Buisson de jeunesse,” contain allusions to his childhood. In addition to long narrative poetry, he produced short poems with fixed rhyme patterns in the tradition of Guillaume de Machaut, as well as lais, rondeaux, and ballades, before concentrating on what became his principal literary achievement—the four books entitled Chroniques de France, d’Engleterre, d’Éscoce, de Bretaigne, d’Espaigne, d’Italie, de Flandres et d’Alemaigne (1373-1410; The Chronycles of Englande, Fraunce, Spayne . . . , 1523-1525, better known as Chronicles).

Froissart learned the art of chronicle writing from Jean le Bel, canon of Liège, whose example he followed in relying not only upon original documents but also upon eyewitness accounts and interviews. Froissart was essentially interested in passing the traditions of chivalry to succeeding generations. Once his reputation was established, members of the aristocracy sought to provide him with the financial resources and protection necessary to gather research material. As a result, his writing reflects his patrons’ system of values. He was ordained sometime after leaving England and, under the patronage of Wenceslas of Luxembourg, Duke of Brabant, he obtained a sinecure as rector of Les Estinnes-au-Mont, where he remained for approximately ten years.

Life’s Work

Froissart’s Chronicles was widely reproduced throughout the fifteenth century, and numerous manuscripts have been preserved. Two of them include paintings made by Froissart himself that show him presenting a copy of the work to aristocratic patrons. Even though he was a priest, Froissart was completely at ease in sophisticated society, and his writing accurately depicts the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies in speech and dress that characterize the period.

In writing Chronicles, Froissart was carrying on a French tradition of secular historiography that began with the Crusades and continued into the fifteenth century in the works of Georges Chastellain and Philippe de Commynes. The primary concern of these scholars was to preserve the memorable events of the Hundred Years’ War. Froissart classified himself as a historian, not merely a chronicler. The distinction he makes between chronicle and history is based on the amount of information supplied. Chronicles, particularly those following the thirteenth century annalist school established at the monastery of Saint-Denis, present a fairly simplified narrative account, whereas history demands depth and detailed description.

Froissart’s Chronicles covers significant events in European history from 1326 until 1400. The first volume, completed before 1371, begins with the coronation of Edward III and the accession of Philip of Valois to the crown of France, thus setting the stage for the Hundred Years’ War. Book 1 was later revised considerably and its scope was extended to include events up to 1379. Since Froissart annotated book 1 throughout his life, it serves as a valuable indicator of his development as a historian and provides detailed information about his methods of composition.

Book 2, written between 1385 and 1388, recapitulates the events of the last three years of the preceding volume, adding new information, and concludes with the Treaty of Tournai (December, 1385) between Ghent and Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. After the death of Wenceslas in 1384, Froissart became chaplain to Guy de Châtillon, Count of Blois, in whose honor he wrote numerous pastoral poems. In 1388, Froissart visited the court of Gaston Phoebus, Count of Foix, near the Spanish border in Béarn, in order to obtain information concerning wars in Spain and Portugal. This journey, in particular, testifies to the vigorous health that Froissart enjoyed; he had to endure numerous hardships while traveling for several months over difficult terrain. Froissart’s curiosity was relentless, and he worked late into the night recording from memory conversations with knights and dignitaries.

Book 3, finished in 1392, relates events that had occurred since 1382, but it gives a fuller account of them. This work ends in 1389 with a three-year truce concluded between France and England, and it anticipates the entry into Paris of Isabella of Bavaria as Queen of France. In his study of the political events in Portugal between 1383 and 1385 that led to the invasion by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Froissart made considerable use of Portuguese narrative sources and anecdotal information provided by Gascon knights at Orthez who had served under Edmund Cambridge, Duke of York.

The first fifty chapters of book 4 follow closely upon the material of book 3 as Froissart reexamined...

(The entire section is 2569 words.)