on 30 November 2002
Jean Froissart (1337-1410) was a contemporary of Chaucer's (it is likely that they met on several occasions, but there is no evidence they were friends. Chaucer is often cited as the leading poet of the 14th Century and Froissart its ranking historian. Geoffry Brereton does an excellent job of rendering an abridged translation of Froissart's multi-volume work. Using the same method employed in the one-volume Penguin edition of Gibbon , many sections of the original text, covering relatively minor events and battles, are rendered in precis form. What we get therefor, is essentially "the best" of Froissart. Brereton also does a good job of providing just the right amount of footnotes and warns the reader when Froissart's account veers from more reliable sources. Froissart was gathering most of his information second-hand, primarily from noblemen of the era who were witnesses to the events, but whose viewpoints may have been colored to some degree by natural biases, and were sometimes themselves reporting information from what they had heard, not necessarily what they had seen.
Froissart delivers a marvelous panorama of a fascinating era. He tells his story from the perspective of the nobility, to whose households he attached himself. He traveled from castle to castle, through several regions of France, Flanders and England, adding to his chronicles as he went. This was a turbulent period, covering a large stretch of the Hundred Year War (between France and England primarily). It begins with the deposition of Edward the II (unforgettably dramatized by Marlowe) and ends with the deposition of Richard II (likewise, by Shakespeare). Sandwiched between these bookends are some of the most unforgettable scenes in written history. Froissart infuses his descriptions of major battles (Poitiers, Roosebeke, Otterburn, etc), great tournaments (Saint-Inglevert) and feasts (the entry of Queen Isabella into Paris) with great color and panache. What makes the Chronicles so moving, however, is his treatment of incidents in which humanity is limned in a much dimmer light. The siege of Calais, for instance, is rendered quite graphically and one can readily see how the event inspired Rodin's monumental bronze, "The Burghers of Calais," depicting the town fathers being led out of the gates with iron collars fastened around their necks. Edward III, whom Froissart generally reveres, is cast in a none-too-heroic mold, both during and immediately after the siege. The Black Prince's desire for revenge is seen as undeservedly implacable. Finally he is brought around to reason by the supplications of his Queen.
Equally moving is Froissart's account of the Count of Foix' ill-fated relationship with his son and sole heir.
The trouble starts when the King of Navarre, brother-in-law to the Count of Foix, renigs on a ransom promise. The Count sends his wife (the King's sister)to Navarre to collect his money. The King refuses and she is afraid to return home without it, so she stays on at her brother's court for several years. When the Count's son, Gaston, is about 15, he decides to visit his mother. He asks her to return home, but when Gaston tells her it's his request, not the Count's, she remains where she is, still earful of her husband . Gaston, before returning home, stops to pay his respects to the King of Navarre. Before Gaston leaves, the King gives him several gifts to take home with him, the last of which turns out to be a locket containing poison. After Gaston returns home, the locket is eventually discovered around his neck and the Count imagines that Gaston meant to poison him. He has him imprisoned in a tower, where Gaston wastes away and dies. The story is rendered quite simply and movingly and comes as close to Greek Tragedy as any account in medieval literature, calling to mind the curse upon the House of Atreus.
Also noteworthy are Froissart's depictions of the two great Peasant Revolts of the era, that of the Jacquerie, in France and "Wat Tyler's" in England. Of the two, the Jacquerie created a great deal more damage and put the gentry in mortal fear of their lives. The English revolt is the result of a much more spontaneous event, a sudden conflagration ignited by the proletarian preaching of "a crack-brained priest of Kent, John Ball. Ball was a firebrand who liked to end his sermons by exhorting the commons to take what was rightfully theirs. Eventually, the peasants do haphazardly organize and march into London, where they make demands on Richard II. They cause a degree of mayhem, but eventually reach a settlement with Richard, where after they disperse to their homes and their leaders, John Ball, Jack Straw and Wat Tyler end up with their heads displayed atop pikes on London Bridge.
Froissart covers a great deal of ground in his Chronicles, and again, the Penguin edition offers a fine sampling of the much larger work. If you are at all interested in medieval literature or history, this is a "must" read. One cautionary note. Froissart does go on at some length when it comes to lists of personages who were at a particular event. It's apparent he doesn't want to offend anyone by leaving them out (not forgetting that many of the people he was writing about were still alive at the time). The roll-calls themselves, however, have a certain charm and poetic quality to them. All in all, there's very little in this book not to recommend. Besides being colorful and informative, it's a grand read.