RL, "Myth and Anti-Myth in Cuvelier's La Vie Vaillante de Bertrand Du Guesclin," Viator XVI (1985), pp. 259-275.


By the end of the thirteenth century, according to Felix Thürlemann, it was no longer possible to write a work of historical character in verse(1). In spite of constant expressions of no confidence in verse, however, a number of fourteenth-century writers continued to compose works of an historical character in verse: of the three men listed by Jean Favier as the dominant writers of la littérature historique during the Hundred Years' War, two composed in verse -- Chandos Herald and Cuvelier -- while the third -- Froissart -- composed prose chronicles that no professional historian now considers factually reliable(2).

In his attempt to account for the unfashionable persistence among certain historical writers in writing verse, Daniel Poirion argues that a decadent society, preferring the ideal to the realm, the individual to the society, and art to history, resorted to the sonorous, artificial world of poetry to insulate itself and its elegant courtly code against a brutal, banal world of historical reality(3). For the courtly arisotcrat's imagination, then, poetry functions as a refus, rather than a vision of reality. Machaut, for example, provides a convincing illustration of such a strategy in La prise d'Alexandrie, a versified biography of Pierre de Lusignan, the crusading king of Cyprus, in which the poet applies the cosmetic of octosyllabic couplets to a bizarre amalgamation of allegory, epic, patristic exegesis, panegyric, and discontinuous bursts of reality(4).

Machaut, however, is not among the three dominant writers listed by Favier. Chandos Herald is, and although his use of octosyllabic couplets to glorify the Black Prince is a more restrained, fastidious exercise than Machaut's poem (partly because the course of Edward's life did not oscillate as wildly as that of the Cyprian crusader), The Life of the Black Prince does not provide a convincing exception to Poirion's assertion. Jean Cuvelier's La vie vaillante de Bertrand Du Guesclin (1380's?) does provide such an exception, although, in the 144 years since the publication of the only edition of his poem, few have read him, and fewer have written about him. Among the major reasons for the neglect are the choice of protagonist, the choice of verse-form and genre, and the odd tone generated by Cuvelier's peculiar sense of literary decorum. In the context of expectations generated by the remarks of Poirion, Zumthor, and Thürlemann, La vie vaillante seems remarkably anomalous; composed not in the fashionable mode of octosyllabic couplets, but in the monorhymes, hexameters, and laisses of late chansons de geste, the poem offers a vivid, jagged vision of historical reality.

Cuvelier's choice of a fossilized genre had much to do with the social and political identity of his protagonist, an unattractive, questionably civilized member of the lower nobility of Britanny. The choice of subject matter, however, becomes less mysterious than the choice of genre, if we consider the mythologizing of Bertrand as part of a socio-political strategy set in motion by Charles V: Charles deliberately metamorphosed the ugly, ungifted, plebian little man into a hero, ransoming him at exaggerated prices, making him a count, and finally burying him with the kings of France at St. Denis(5). Divided by long-standing international political factions, constantly at the mercy of marauding bands of English, the loose federation of feudal despots who occasionally and grudgingly acknowledged a national fiction termed "France" stood in need of a further fiction: a nation and an aristocracy revitalized from below.

Cuvelier participates in the conspiracy to create the illusion of, and to reflect the aspiration toward, a unified culture and society, but his feeling for the drama implicit in historical reality prevents him from performing as smooth a cover-up as some of the other participants. Although Froissart and Chandos Herald also have a feeling for dramatic elements in the phenomena they describe, their visions of historical reality are less comprehensive than Cuvelier's at least partly because their political, social, and aesthetic sympathies lay comfortably with the upper, or courtly, nobility. Until recently, academic readers have tended to identify most enthusiastically with this segment of society, relegating texts with a more popular base and appeal to the domain of literature with a small "l."

For, example, the only reviewer of the only edition of La vie vaillante assured his mid-nineteenth century readers that the poem was the last monument of a genre -- the chanson de geste -- that provided a worthy object for study, but could not give pleasure. According to Avenel, the poems are too long, they lack any great, over-arching conceptions, and therefore they cannot survive comparison with Homer, Virgil, and Dante. In addition, Avenel found that composers of chansons de geste generally spend too much time insisting on their own veracity, and mocking their own inventions. He offered as their sole redeeming feature the naive representation of humble life; in this single area the domestic details of the lives of the protagonists give the poem an occasionally Homeric flavor(6).

La vie vaillante shows all of the characteristics listed by Avenel, but his evaluation of the effect of these characteristics relies too heavily on an imagined literary contest between ancient and medieval narrative poets. The critical judgement of the poem's editor are more useful, and more properly focused; Charriére describes the nature of the poem as mixed, neither biography nor general history, though participating in both genres. The poem seems carelessly shaped: facts are given without connections made between them, without logical or necessary order, but only according to the narrator's needs at the moment. Transitions from one subject to another are made arbitrarily, what an action means is not a primary consideration, and most of the rules of narrative are sacrificed for immediate effect. The result, however, is a work that certainly does not conform to the literal facts, nor to the decorum of Greco-Roman epic, but which does give a remarkably vivid sense of the emotions of the time. As Charriére points out, in this respect Cuverlier's work resembles that of Froissart, to whom one goes not to find out exactly what happened, but to find out what was the emotional reaction to what happened to a narrow, exclusive segment of French society in the fourteenth century.

Cuvelier may also function as an ilustration of the attitudes and emotions of a social class, indeed of a much larger segment of society than concerned Froissart: the gentry not in direct touch with the centres of political power, and those questionably or not quite gentry -- in effect, the non-courtly notables. By choosing to fashion "the last epic figure of the Middle Ages"(7) out of Bertrand Claquin, or Du Guescclin as he came to be known, Cuvelier selected a figura for a relatively broad segment of society, together with the peculiar set of problems that accompanied such a selection.

Among the problems generated by selecting Bertrand is the geographical region from which he comes. Heroically Arthurian associations with Britanny had been considerably dissipated by the fourteenth century; Jean Bodel, nearly two centuries before, had dismissed the Matter of Britanny as vains et plaisants(8). When they appear in chansons de geste, Bretons are typically gluttons, buffoons, boasters, and cowards(9). On the other hand, when the Bretons describe themselves, they find themselves admirably antithetic to the French. In Le libure du bon Jehan, Guillaume de Saint-André draws a clear contrast between des gentilz Franczois bien polis (l. 2786) and the manly Bretons, who drip sweat and blood in the heat of battle. While the Bretons strive heroically against their enemies, the French comb their hair, sing, dance, visit their tailors, and despise the Bretons:

Franczois estoient fricquez, mignoz,

Et les Bretons foulx, lours et sots(10).

This polarity is standard in courtly literature, but the values have been reversed by Guillaume:

The most fundamental opposition in all courtly texts ... is the opposition betwen what is courtly and that which is non-courtly, cortes and vilain ... courtly space is marked by beauty, youth, elegance and luxury(11).

Although Le libure du bon Jehan is in octosyllabic syllables, the normal form for romance narrative, the passage explicitly rejects the conventional values of romance, substituting instead some of those normally associated with chanson de geste. Cuvelier, then, goes one step further, adopting the prosody of chanson de geste as well; both Cuvelier and Guillaume seem to anticipate Erich Auerbach's pronouncement on the shortcomings of romance:

The courtly romance is not reality shaped and set forth by art, but an escape into fabled and fairy-tale...an absolute aesthetic configuration without practical purpose(12).

Like Poirion, although more judgmental, Auerbach detected in courtly decorum a dangerous exclusivity, that might lead to aesthetic sterility, and he turned to works reflecting the lives and language of a lower social stratum for signs of literary vitality(13).

By choosing an archaic genre and a Breton hero, then, Cuvelier seems to be changing the rules of the literary-historical game as it was played in the fourteenth century. Perhaps his most radical change, however, does not involve the choice of a Breton, or of a minor instead of a major aristocrat, but rather the choice of a figure from the poet's own time and place. Chansons de geste characteristically draw upon the eighth and ninth centuries for their subject matter, investing the material with the language, customs, manners, and concerns of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Cuvelier reverses the process, making Bertrand immediately mythic by moving his fourteenth-century Breton protagonist through a linguistic world of diction, laisse, hexameter,and monorhyme that conjures up for an audience trained by these forms hundreds of years of French poetic history.

"Poetic history" is a usefully ambiguous phrase, since this peculiar prosodic apparatus had served a variety of purposes from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries; it had served as the vehicle for chronicles, saints' lives, a mirror for princes, as well as chansons de geste extolling the deeds of Alexander of Macedon and roughly Carolingian protagonists(14). Cuvelier, however, shows less literary restraint than the chroniclers and none of the piety of the hagiographers; he also characteristically avoids the pious platitudinizing about fate and fortune to which courtly and monastic chroniclers were so partial. Instead, he tends toward dismissive generalizations, not much above the level of folk-wisdom, in keeping with the tastes of his intended readers(15).

That the audience be broadened is another significant change intended by Cuvelier; the apostrophe that begins the poem is far less exclusionary than those of earlier chansons de geste, which characteristically addressed themselves to seigneurs and barons, that is, male aristocrats. La vie vaillante is addressed both to men and to women, and to more than one estate:

Or me veillez oïr, chevalier et meschin,

Bourgoises et bourjois, prestres, clers, jacobins. (ll. 5-6)

In keeping with the demands of chansons de geste for a Christian or Christianized hero who destroys pagans, with the demands of the popular imagination which delights in the destruction of the Jews, and with the political necessities of the moment, Cuvelier promises an all-purpose figure:

Les Anemis du roy a moult vituperez;

Juifs et Sarrazins et puis Chretiennez

Redoubtoient Bertran en toutes héritez. (ll. 41-43)

In addition, Cuvelier offers a standard unpromising enfance for his hero:

Tant qu'ilfu jeunes homs, c'est bien la v€ritez,

Povres chevaliers fust en povrement rentez. (ll. 27-28)

Bertrand, however, is exceptionally unattractive:

Je crois qu'il n'ot si lait de Resnes à Disnant;

Camus estoit et noirs, malostru et massant;

Li pères et la mère si le haioient tant,

Que fust mors ou noiez en une eaue corant;

Garçon, nisce et coquart l'aloient appelant

The ugliness and blackness that aggravate his parents astound his enemies; at the siege of Rennes in 1356, Cuvelier tells us that one startled Englishman turned to another and said:

Regardez qu'il est fors, cons lespoins a quarrez;

Il est fort et poissant et moult noir et hallez. (ll. 1621-22)

Blackness is not often represented as a positive quality in chanson de geste, and is never represented in romance as a positive quality. Normally, blackness provokes either fear or laughter; when the Africans arrive on the scene of battle in the Song of Roland, the French recognize that all hope for survival is gone:

Quan Rollant veit la contradite gent

Ki plus sunt neirs que nen est attement

Ne n'unt de blanc ne mais que sul des denz,

Co dist li quens: "Or sai jo veirement

Que hoi murrum, par le mien escient."(16) (ll. 1932-36)

On the other hand, William of Orange must see through the charcoal with which his chief cook has covered Rainouart vilainement (Aliscans, l. 3196) to discover the true worth of the pagan who will eventually become his friend, ally, and Christian brother-in-law. Rainouart also has many black relatives, whom he regretfully kills in combat for the Christian, as well as for the French national cause(17).

Generally, in chanson de geste as well as in romance one expects to find a hero who looks like Gui de Bourgogne:

Et ot la char plus blance que argent cristal,

Les ieus vairs en la teste comme faucon grual;

Les cheveus avoit blons plus que ors ne metal(18).

However, the clearest exception to the standard of male beauty occurs towards the end of the Song of Roland Thierry, defending what is unequivocally the right cause in trial by combat that will settle the fate of the treacherous Ganelon, is dark and distinctly unprepossessing:

Heingre out le corse e graisle e eschewid,

Neirs les chevels e alques bruns le vis. (ll. 3820-21)

These are the physical details we find among those assigned to the ideally ugly figure in Alic Colby's study of twelfth-century literature(19).

The ordinary attitude of the aristocrat is expressed in Froissart's description of the Jacquerie's behavior at Meaux, when the Captal de Buch and the Count of Foix rescue the Duchesses of Normandy and Orleans and others, from the crowd of "villeins, small and dark "(20) Only an exceptional medieval poet like Wolfram von Eschenbach finds black regularly beautiful(21). Generally, black is a quality associated with forces outside of, or below, courtly society, a position in which Bertrand finds himself at the outset of La vie vaillante. Thierry's success in the Song of Roland implies a recognition by the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman poet that a force outside of the normal limits of Charlemagne's court must be invoked, a force deceptively humble, and somehow connected to divinity, for justice to triumph in this world.

That the use of Thierry conjures up the paradox of the Incarnation reminds us that the Song of Roland is likely to have been composed by a cleric, and in many instances the political interests of clergy and non-courtly nobility were at least momentarily congruent. In his Life of Saint Thomas, for example, Garnier de Pont Saint Maxence finds Henry II's attempt to increase the nobility's power over the church intolerable; the poet's rage leads him to compose a five-line stanza of monorhymed hexameters that looks like a radically democratic statement:

Fiz a vilain ne fust en nul liu ordenex

Sens l'asens sun seignur, de qui terre il fust nez,

E deus a sun servise nus a tuz apelez!

Mielz valt fiz a vilain qui est prouz e senez,

Que ne fait gentilz hum failliz e debutez(22).

For the purpose of Garnier's arguments, then, a vilein may be preferable to a courtier.

For Cuvelier, however, who devotes very little energy to Christian piety and politics, Bertrand's blackness and resemblance to a vilein had no suggestion of the paradox of the Incarnation. Furthermore, that he was ugly and dark-complexioned seems literally to have been the case(23). To incorporate this fact into his relentlessly aristocratic version of historical reality, Froissart records a story told to him by Guillaume d'Ancenis, ostensibly to explain why Bertrand's name was Claquin, not Guesclin(24). According to the story transmitted by Guillaume, an African king who came to Britanny in the eighth century fled when the forces of Charlemagne arrived, leaving behind him a one-year-old son, Olivier du Glay-Aquin, among whose descendants, to the initial great dismay of his parents, Bertrand appeared. Cuvelier, however, suspicious of aristocratic "image," stresses Bertrand's blackness and vilein- like qualities to emphasize the urgent need for a rough vitality at a time when the sterile fantasies of the royal court had vitiated the power and effectiveness of the nobility(25).

Bertrand's uncourtliness extends beyond his physical appearance. At the siege of Rennes he shows a cleverness and sardonic sense of humor, characterized by a particularly irreverent attitude toward heroic and feudal notions of decorum and language. After some comic shenanigans involving the entrapment of some English pigs (ll. 1180-1238), and after Bertrand has sufficiently displayed his martial prowess by triumphing in single combat over William Bramborough, the French and English are left with only one problem between them. Eager to abandon the siege, the duke of Lancaster must find some way to deal with the serement he delivered before undertaking the siege:

le serement que li ducs ot fait gant,

qu'il ne s'en partiroit jamais en son vivant,

s'aroit mis son pennon sur les crénaux vaillant. (ll. 1899-1901)

An ideal aristocrat, of course, could not break his word, although the fourteenth century was filled with less than ideal solutions of roughly similar predicaments. Perhaps the most glaring example is that of Edward III of England, who solved, in his own mind at least, the problem of finding himself the sworn vassal of the first Valois king of France by insisting on the superiority of his own claim to the hereditary throne of Charlemagne(26). Much further down the social ladder, Merigot Marches, on trial for his criminal activities at the head of a band of routiers, appealed to the Treat of Brétigny (1360), by whose terms the land feld in fee by his father passed from the French king into the possession of the duke of Lancaster and the king of England. According to Merigot's reasoning, by looting and pillaging the countryside, he was serving his feudal masters, carrying out a contract signed by his former feudal master, the king of France. His alleged criminal activity, then, should be seen as faithful adherence to a serement given both by the French king and by Merigot, who expected, at the expiration of the treaty, to return to performing more direct services for the king of France. In spite of his elaborate appeal to the serement, Merigot was decapitated, hanged, drawn and quartered(27). In literature the most sardonic attack on the aristocratic serement is, as B.J. Whiting demonstrated, in the Vows of the Heron(28).

In the face of the supposed predicament of the Duke of Lancaster, however, Cuvelier's Bertrand arranges a solution that involves no legalistic appeals to other contracts or serements; instead, the solution is to provide the letter of the serment, while violating its spirit with a wild whimsicality. Without surrendering the town to the Duke, without violating the honor of the inhabitants of Rennes, and, incidentally, without introducing the documented fact that the historical Duke of Lancaster exacted, for withdrawing the siege, an indemnity of 100,000 écus(29), Bertrand arranges for the unarmed and unaccompanied duke to plant his standard on the tow's crenallated battlements, while the residents stand at their doors and windows, holding their major weapons(30) in any siege -- abundant food -- in their hands:

(Quant) li ducs a véu la grande garnison

Et en la boucherie a véu à foison

Char de beuf, bons aigneaux, avec gras mouton,

Et dessus maint estal voit le salé mouton,

Et le pain, et le blef, et maint riche bacon (ll. 1969-73)

Infuriated, the duke nevertheless carries out the charade and departs, as Bertrand, playing wh the genre in which they are both appearing, fires a final joke at him:

Sire, se vous estiez la hors le sablon,

Jamais ne r'enterriez en ceste mansion.

Tant qu'il aroit cuens mangier .I. ongnon,

Car Charles de Bloiz est arrivez à Jugnon.

Je croi que vois veniez savoir no porcion;

Vous pensez à tenir le serment Mahun. (ll. 1977-82)

Bertrand's leader, Charles of Blois, here as elsewhere in the poem, by virtue of his name, his feudal position, and the alexandrines of Cuvelier, carries the resonance of Charles the Great. His opponents, then, are parallel to the Saracens of chansons de geste; the joke involves Muhammad's injunction (ironically termed serement), against eating pork, which the duke's men will obey, albeit unwillingly.

The frequent play with food (see ll. 4567-69, for example, for the play on "Chastel de Boeuf"), and particularly with pork, reflects a significant change of decorum from that of the stylized world of the Song of Roland, in which the appetites of Roland, Charlemagne, and Oliver played no part. When Ganelon is placed in the custody of the cook, the purpose is to humiliate him. Some change in decorum takes place in late chansons de geste, particularly in the figure of Rainouart, who, in a sense, comes out of the kitchen and onto the battlefield(31). Nevertheless, poets of chansons de geste do not generally associate their idealized characters with food, and certainly do not often find positive qualities in pigs(32). On the other hand, Guillaume de Saint-André, the poet of Bon Jehan, like Plutarch's Gryllus, does find some value in the behavior of pigs. He compares his own people, the Bretons, to a herd of squealing pigs, but non pas pour mal:

Car les Bretons, tres bien le sëoy,

S'entre-doivent touz d'un acort

Amer et craindre jucque la mort,

Pour ce sont-il en general

Nommez pourceaulx, non pas pour mal;

Car pourceaulx, telle nature ont:

Quant l'un fort crie, les autres vont

Tous ensemble pour l'aider(33).

Human beings, then, can learn something about the values of community from members of the animal kingdom not conventionally used as paradigmatic figures. Of course the passage expresses more contempt for human beings than fondness for pigs.

Cuvelier finds positive qualities not only in peasants and in pigs, but in excrement. At the siege of Melun (1359), for example, where Bertrand and Charles are the besiegers and not the besieged, while Bertrand and his men make strenuous efforts to take the town, Charles, the future king of France, produces a fourteen-line lamentation on the state of his kingdom. In Arsenal MS 3141 the speech is considerably expanded, to produce a dialogue between Charles and le Begue de Villaines. In the course of their exchange, Cuvelier again evokes Carolingian parallels, while adding material from the ubi-sunt tradition:

"Ahy! noble fleur di lys, yvrés-vous toute jus?

Ahy! .XII. per de France, qu-estes-vous devenus?

Rolant, et Oliver, et Ogier li membrus.

Et vous, sires dux Naimes qui festes eslus

De Savoir plus de sens c'onques ne fist Artus? ..."

... "Sire, ce dit le Bágue de Villaines vestus,

Se le roy Charlemaine estoit ce ravestus,

Rolant et Olivier seroient tost venus.

Sire, ce dit li Bágues, ne noiez pas esmaiez.

Se vous voulez régner comme preux et gentils,

Prenez en vous bon confort, conscience et airs.

Vous avez ou rouaume grant planté d'anemis

Ausi ot Charlemainne qui régna com hardis:

Rolant régna contre Turcs et Persis

Rolant ot à fere contre ses hommes subgis

Et encontre ses hommes ot guerre et estris;

Et tant l'ama le roy demourant en paradis

Que au desus se trouva de tous ses ennemis. (p. 128)

At the highest level of power, then, the only solution is rhetorical: rely on God and pray for a miracle. Bertrand, however, whose imagination we may assume has not been inflamed by literature, proceeds to take practical steps, climbing one of the city walls to negotiate with the Bascon de Mareul, leader of the besieged inhabitants. A stone dropped accurately from the top of the wall, however, sends him into the moat. Having retrieved their apparently lifeless leader from the moat, his men place Bertrand's body in a heap of animal dung, displaying a surprising faith in the pharmaceutical powers of excrement:

Adonc fust aportez, bien fu qui lui aida,

Et par dedens .I. fiens illuec on le bouta;

Tout couvert de fiens et illuec demoura,

Et li assauz fu grans jusques tant qu'il fina. (ll. 3652-55)

Great heroes are rarely associated with manure, although the Renclus de Moillins (following Job 2.8) tells us that a virtuous man remains virtuous whether he is in a palace, or in a pile of manure:

Job vesque sans deshonesté

Bons ou palais, bons ou fumier(34).

However, Cuvelier nowhere attributes particularly pious qualities to Bertrand. For a medieval audience, as well as for a modern one, excrement is a sign of debasement.

In the fabliau, "Du vilain asnier," a vilain accustomed to shoveling donkey manure walks through the street of the spice-sellers in Montpellier, and passes out, overcome by the fragrance. He can only be revived by some dung placed under his nostrils(35). As part of the ritual humiliation which he must undergo before becoming a satisfactory hero in Aliscans, Rainouart must find and retrieve from a fumier his favorite weapon, a club(36). Disguising himself as a pilgrim in Gui de Bourgogne, Charlemagne dips his dagger in a fumier.

Aware of the conventional fastidiousness of his audience, Cuvelier deliberately places his rough Breton hero in dung, to emphasize the need for practical, unpleasant remedies, rather than for grand rhetorical postures. The practicality of the remedy is stressed more clearly in Arsenal MS 3141:

Hors de la fu portez à force et à exploit

Et mis en un fumier qui chaux et bons estoit

Tant qu'il revint a lui et ses membres tiroit. (p. 132)

In addition to the warmth, the ammonia given off by the pile must have been considered likely to raise all but the dead(37).

Melun eventually capitulates, and Bertrand goes on to a series of further successes, until he is defeated and captured at Auray while supporting Charles of Blois' claims to the duchy of Britanny against those of John of Montfort. At this point in the poem, Cuvelier sketches the political background of the struggle for Britanny, offering a psychological explanation for the predicament in which the two contestants find themselves:

Devant chastel d'Alroy, qui fu nobles et grans,

Fu li quens de Montfortt, qui estoit chalengens

La duché de Bretaigne, qui tant est souffisans

Si comme li siens peres ot fait plus de XX ans,

Ceste guerre, seigneur, avoit duré lonc tamps.

Dont li pais fu moult courroucié et dolans;

Et si n'estoit prelaz ne sages clers lisans

Qui péust de la paix estre reins accordans,

Que chascum si disoit que ses drois fu si grans

C'on ne pooit avoir accort qui fust durans. (ll. 5397-5405)

In spite of these ungovernable territorial passions, Cuvelier's Charles is about to accept a compromise offered by Montfort, when Charles' wife, through whose hereditary right Charles derives his claim to Britanny, breaks in, to question her husband's manhood; like Chaucer's Dame Pertelote under roughly similar circumstances, she quotes Cato:

Charles de Bloiz l'eust accordé maintenant

Et en l'onnor de Dieu le Páre tout poissant

Et pour guerre cesser, qui si aloit coustant;

Mais de par sa moulier, co trouvons-nous lisant,

Li fust dit fiérement a une part traiant:

"Sire, que volez faire? pour Dieu le roy amant!

Vous n'avez pas le cuer de chevalier vaillant,

Qui le droit héritage de vo moulier plaisant

Volez ainsi donner à loi de recréant!

Terre ne doit tenir chevalier tant ne quant

Qui ne la veult défendre à l'espée trenchant.

Et Chastons qui fu sages le nous montre en rommant. (ll. 5568-79)

Bertrand himself utters antifeminine remarks earlier in the poem (ll. 2387-2389), and much later in the poem Cuvelier's antifeminism combines with his other antipathy -- also "popular" in more than one sense in the fourteenth century -- antisemitism, when the poet turns his attention to the mistress of Pedro the Cruel(38).

Attributing Charles' disastrous decision to fight at Auray to pressure exerted by his wife does not violate the laws of probability, but the attribution is supported only by the Chronique de Du Guesclin, a prose condensation of Cuvelier's poem, which, however, represents the duchess' decision as a laudable act:

La duchesse, qui de grant couraige fut, contredist

ces offres et les reffusa du tout en tout(39).

No other chronicler, eye-witness, or poet supports Cuvelier's version.

In the Chronique des quatres premiers Valois, probably composed by a cleric of Rouen, Bertrand himself is responsible for the decision to fight at Auray:

Ce traictié fut aporte par devers le duc Charles lequel estoit sur le point de l'acorder quant par monseigneur Bertran de Clacquin fut le dit traicté et acort rompu. Donc ce desplut moult aux haulx hommes et nobles de Bretaingne et par especial a monseigneur de Beaumanoir. Car alors dit le dit monseigneur Bertran, oyans tous les seigneurs et ceulx qui faisoient parlement de l'acort: "Sire, les veoies vous, les ordoux gars! Ilz seront desconfiz au jour d'uy. Jes vous rendroy la duchie de Bretaingne nettoyé de ces gars(40).

Uncommitted to fabricating a Breton hero, the chronicler offers a not improbable scene, with a Bertrand cursing like a trooper. That the force of Bertrand's rhetoric alone should carry the day, however, is unlikely, and no other chronicle, poem, or eyewitness supports the clerk of Rouen.

Geoffroi de Dinan, the only man described as an eyewitness of the event, attributed the decision enitrely to Charles, in a deposition he gave at the investigation undertaken in 1371 to determine the legitimacy of Charles' candidacy for sainthood(41). Guillaume de Saint'André makes approximately the same attribution in Le libure de bon Jehan, although his partisan sympathies press Charles and his men into the mold of miles gloriosus. In response to a pious request by John to delay the battle (recalling Philip Augustus at Bouvines), so that they will not fight on Saint Michael's day, Charles and his men deliver a challenge in the highly charged language of gab. John laughs at their insults, and in a variation of the remarks delivered by John of Beaumont in the Vows of the Heron, points out the powerful difference between language and action:

Quand Jehan ot trestout veu

Leur affaire, et cogneu,

Et ot ouy leur hault langage,

Soy print a rire comme sage:

Et va dire par grand deduyt:

"Or est-il foul qui n s'en fuit,

Nous suymes assez menaces,

Rompuz, brisez et tout cassez,

Il nous out dit tant de merveilles,

Qu'ilz m'ont casse les deuz oreilles.

De languez scevent mieulx menacer

Que ferit de fer ne d'acier;

Mais il fault qu'il cuille aultrement:

Plus ne vueill ouir leur tourment;

faut faire une autre dance. (ll. 1137-1151)

In his version of the encounter, Froissart places the blame for the decision not on Jeanette of Britanny, nor on Bertrand, nor on Charles; instead, he conjures up an elaborate series of dramatic exchanges by means of which a significant male aristocrat, Jean Chandos, with proto-Machiavellian guile, engineers the decision(42).

In the face of these significantly different version of the same event, one may sympathize with Jean de Venette's decision to refrain from guessing about the decision:

de quibus tractatibus nolo hic facere mentionem, quia error possem descriptione veridica, quod non vellem(43).

As a result of any, all, or none of the decisions taken before the battle, an encounter did take place at Auray in 1364. According to Cuvelier, everyone participated energetically and honorably, with Bertrand performing particularly well as an ironic preparer of food:

Le nobile Bertran fu ou chapple plainier,

Ou il assaut Engloiz à .I. martel d'acier;

Tout ainsi les abat comme fait .I. bouclier

Le buef, quant il est tamps c'on le doie escorchier. (ll. 6170-73)

In Arsenal MS 3141, the beef becomes pork:

Quant il fiert d'un maillet pour le porc empirier.

In spite of Bertrand's heroic butchery, Charles is struck down on the battlefield, regretting with his dying words the pain he has caused his followers:

Vray Dieu! pardonnez-moi la mort ma bonne gent

Qui ci muérent par moi à duel et à torment.

J'ai guerroié lonc-tamps oultre mon essient. (ll. 6261-63)

In Arsenal MS 3141's version of line 6263, Charles shares the burden of responsibility with his wife Jeanette, placing her in a long line of women going back to Eve:

Qui trop sa femme croit en la fin s'en repent.

Thus Cuvelier provides a misogynistic frame for his interpretation of what happened at Auray, consistent with the suspicion and distrust that his hero Bertrand expresses throughout the poem, and consistent with the antifeminine tradition as it was perpetuated in patristic writings, as well as in chansons de geste and fabliaux.

Even a formally ideal woman, for all her genuine benignity, may represent a threat to political order, as Cuvelier suggests when the Black Prince's wife asks her husband to remain by her side during the Spanish campaign:

Elle voldroit assez que fusse demourans

Et par de coste lui en ses chambres manans. (ll. 10708-709)

Edward replies by citing the rules of heroic behavior, drawing his models for appartenans both from chansons de geste and from romance:

Ce ne ferai-je pas: il n'est appartenance

Qui veult avoir le non des bon et des vaillans,

Il doit aler souvent à la pluie et au champs

Et estre en la bataille, ainsi que fist Rolans

E li bers Olivier, et Ogier li poissans,

Les iiii. fils Aymon, Charlemains li grans,

Li ducs Lion de Bourges, et Guion de Cournans,

Perceval le Galois, Lancelot et Tristans,

Alixandre et Artus, Godefroi li sachans,

De coi cil ménestrelz font ces nobles rommans. (ll. 10710-10719)

That the Black Prince proceeds to engage in a series of indecisive skirmishes, dying not long after of dysentery rather than of honorable wounds, certainly provides a stark contrast between aspiration and reality for the informed fourteenth-century reader or listener.

Another ideal woman in La Vie Vaillante is Bertrand's wife, Tiphaine Raguenel, who is 24-years old when he first meets her(44). Although she is of noble lineage and great wisdom, Cuvelier makes no mention of her beauty, and provides no effictio. More than a thousand lines later(45), she is described as une dame jolie, la plus sage, but Bertrand disregards her sensible advice about tactics at Auray, and is defeated. Cuvelier attributes wisdom to her again at l. 17983, and, at l. 18086, he attributes to her a corps gent. Her physical presence in the poem, however, is negligible; the absence of physical qualities, as it is in Chaucer's portraits of his pilgrims, may be a sign of an ideal character. Cuvelier's greatest efforts, however, to provide an ideal woman are not directly involved with praising Bertrand, but rather with attacking Pedro the Cruel.

Bertrand supported the Black Prince in his campaign to oust Pedro and install Henry as king of Spain. One of Cuvelier's tasks, then, is to bring charges against Pedro, whose behavior made the task not too difficult. According to a number of contemporary texts, Pedro murdered his wife, whom Cuvelier proceeds to idealize. First, of course, her lineage is laudable, particularly because of her French connection:

Pietres li roys d'Espaigne enhay la royne

Qui donnée li fu de la loial orine;

Car suer estoit germaine de la noble royne

De France, le païs où toute honnour s'afine. (6627-31)

In spite of these qualities, an evil woman, Jeanne de Castro, par euvre serpentine, like the women to be found in Liudprand and in Walter Map, devises a murderous plot against her; Cuvelier offers a clear antithesis between the diabolical, serpentine woman, and the beauty, comportment, and behavior of the queen:

A voit souspris le roy par euvre serpentine

Que donné li avoit, dont il prit en hayne

La meilleur, la plus belle, qui estoit si bénigne. (6632-34)

Opposed to the serpentine Jeanne and the deceived, self-destructive Pedro, is his brother, Henry, de grant orine, supported by Bertrand du Guesclin. Henry, however, was engendered questionably, and Cuvelier takes on the charges of bastardry. Following the scheme for panegyric, he insists that Henry is noble, pious, just, humble, charitable, and admired by all:

Mais gentilz hons estoit et chascun l'onnoura;

Et la foi catholique loialment il ama;

Justice et droit faisoit et orgueil ravala;

Et les poures vesti, les malades ama;

Des grans et des petis tellement s'acointa... (6668-72)

Later in the poem, Cuvelier will continue to counter the charges of Henry's bastardy, this time by introducing Jews who convert to Christianity. One such Jew comes to Henry, is baptized, together with his wife and son, to show his sincerity, and then tells a story to prove that Pedro, not Henry, is the bastard. According to the Jew, Pedro is a changeling, the son not of the rightful queen of Spain, but of a beautiful Jewish concubine, who converted, and, at the request of the fearful queen, exchanged her son for the queen's daughter, born at the same time:

Et ce fu véritez; d'un bel filz acoucha

Icelle convertie, dont on vous comptera;

Et la noble royne une fille apporta.

Tuit en une journée nasquirent cil .II. l‹,

Et pourtant la roynne, qui son mari doubta

Fist tant à sa filleule et si bel l'em pria

Que son filz pour sa fille de cuer li otroia:

Ens ou non de la fille icilz filz demoura. (7012-19)

Having set up a clear antithesis between the two half-brothers, Cuvelier proceeds to fabricate a death-scene for Pedro's wife. First he emphasizes the degree to which Pedro was in the hands of the Jews. When Henry advises his brother Pedro, ostez ces Juifs (l. 6806), Pedro's response is to banish him. A Jew named Jacob then taunts Henry, giving him a chance to denounce Jews for their serpent-like qualities, and for their power to cloud men's minds:

"Ha, faulz Juif! dit il, lerres envenimez,

Par vous et par les aultres est li rois enchantez." (6843-44)

Not content with a merely rhetorical attack on the Jew, Henry proceeds to stab Jacob to death, proclaiming that his motivation is two-fold: to avenge the death of Christ, and to prevent the Jew from doing his brother any further harm:

"Mais, foi que doi à Dieu, qui en crois fu penez,

Par les félons Juifs traveilliez et cloez!

Pour la mort Dieu vengier, qui de vous est blasmez,

Arez vostre paiement tel qu'avoir le poez;

Jamais le roi mon fráre ne forconsillerez."

Il a trait .I. coutel qui fu bien afilez,

I aerdi Jacob comme dpreux et osez,

Tout parmi la chevesse li a les dois getez'

Le coustel lui bouta tout parmi les costez,

Le cuer li a fendu et le foie delez,

A terre l'abasti.. (6845-54)

Henry proceeds to issue a challenge to all present, and his brother Pedro draws a knife, but is restrained by a chevalier, who tells him not to strike his own brother for the sake of a Juif félon (6863). Henry now orders his horses to be saddled, and invokes the vocabulary of games and chance to lament that he has done worse today than a gambler:

J'ai pis fait aujourd'ui que cilz qui joue auz dez (6867).

Killing one Jew, however, does not end the Jewish problem, since they are also responsible for the death of the good queen, of whose superb lineage Cuvelier again reminds his listeners, both to fulfill the requirements of meter and rhyme, and in accordance with the second topic of panegyric:

Or vous dirai comment la roynne de non

Moru et trespassa: Dieu li face pardon!

Par faulz Juifs mauvais de maise nacion,

A qui il commanda qu'ilz füissent son bon

De la bonne roynne du bon sanc de Bourbon. (6888-92)

When her chambermaid informs her that the Jews have arrived, the queen instantly realizes that they have come to murder her. In the course of composing 17-line speech on the topic, finée est ma saison, she displays ideal piety, commending her soul to the care of Jesus, whose death and resurrection she recalls. Invoking the apostles as well, she delivers prayers for her brother. her sisters, Charles V, and all her other relatives (ll. 6901-6917). Her rhetorical performance, then, is faultless.

When Abraham the Jew, .I. traïteur lanier, declares that Pedro has sent him to kill her, the queen, in accordance with the sixth topic of panegyric, declares with pious equanimity that she is ready to die like a martyr: La mort receverai de bon cuer et entier (l. 6923). In Arsenal 3141, the queen prays for her husband, modifying the words of Christ himself to "he knows not what he does," while shifting some of the blame to Jeanne:

Jeshu-Crist li pardoint qui tout puet justicier!

Car il ne set qu'il fait, si en doit-on prier.

Une folle lui a donné de son mestier.

The Jews now proceed to murder her in her own bed:

Dont prinrent li Juif sans point de l'atargier

La dame, et puis la vont dessus .I. lit couchier;

Et puis se gietent sur lui une coute à ormier,

Et puis vont les .II. coutes d'une corde lier,

Et à chascun coron pendirent .I. mortier;

Et puis se sont partis et ont fait tout voidier:

Adonc n'i avoit dame, chevalier, n'escuier. (6931-37)

Unless martyred, women and the erotic life they represent are dangerous and absurd. An event at the siege of Saint-sevére (in 1377) provides my final illustration of Cuvelier's interest in revealing the absurdity of heroic postures. After describing Bertrand's accomplishments in Poitou and Auvergne, the poet combines the topos of outdoing (in this case outdoing himself), with yet another claim of authenticity:


Tout quant qu'avez oy ne vault .I. ail pelé

Envers ce que dirai, qui m'ara ascouté.

Or escoutez, signeur, pour Dieu de paradis;

Istoire dirai qui est de noble pris. (ll. 19635-638)

The apostrophe to signeur may be a signal that the upper nobility should pay particular attention to the next incident, which occurs during the preparation for an assault on Saint-Sevére.

Geoffrey Paien, an aristocrat on Bertrand's side, accidentally loses his hache in the moat; negotiating with the English for permission to retrieve it, he expresses a passion that one of the English recognizes as para-sexual, even womanly:

"Sans ma hache ne puis ne boire ne mengier,

Ne je ne puis sans lui ne dormier ne veiller:

Avoir la me convient, coi qu'il doie couster."

Et respunt .I. Anglois qui ot non Audiger:

"Vostre hache amez mieulx, si con vous compter,

Que fame son mari, ne homme sa moillier."

If the comic connections are not sufficiently clear, they become transparent when the human chain formed by Geoffrey and his men to reach out into the moat collapses. Cuvelier compares the sounds that result to those made by pigs on a fumier:

Geoffroy Paien s'en va on fossé tout premier.

Par la main l'a saisi son compagnon entier.

Et le .II.e prist celui qui fu le tiers: T

out ainsi main à main se vont entrehachier

Dex XIII. en ala .X. ou fossé plainier,

Et li autre d'en haut prirent fort a hachier;

Mais pour chose qu'il facent ne se scevent gaitier

Que tous ne les convienge ens ou fossé plungier;

L‹ furent l'un sur l'autre con pourcel sur fumier. (ll. 19919-927)

Ironically embedded in laisses of monorhymed hexameters rich with the resonance of heroic and saintly deeds, the comparison of courtly aristocrats to pigs scrimmaging on a pile of excrement functions as the final debasement of a decorum no longer congruent with fourteenth-century reality. Cuvelier roughly adumbrates Marx's reworking of Hegel's observation about historical repetitions: everything happens twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce(46).



(1) Der historische Discurs bei Gregor von Tours, Bern, 1974, p. 36: "So ist es z.B. in Frankreich seit dem Ende des 13. Jahrhunderts nicht mehr möglich, ein Werk geschichtlichen Characters in Versen zu schreiben." Thürlemann seems to have gone a bit further than his authority, Paul Zumthor, who seems to be speaking about an illusion, not a fact, in Essai de poétique médiévale, Paris, 1972, p. 98. (2) La Guerre de Cent Ans, Paris, 1980, p. 617. (3) Le poéte et le prince, Grenoble, 1965, p. 23. For other useful speculations on the nature of the relationship between literary genres and social reality, see Maria Conti, An Introduction to Literary Semiotics, London, 1978, especially pp. 117 ff. (4) Guillaume de Machaut, La prise d'Alexandrie, ed. M.L. De Mas Latrie, Geneva, 1877. For heavenly machinery borrowed from the (ll. 5568-79)Anti-Claudianus, see the opening of the poem; for a pointlessly extended description of Pierre's sea-sickness, see lines 1638ff.; Machaut also attempts to finesse the brutality of the slaughter at Alexandria, ll. 3600ff, and makes a significant change in the woman who shares Pierre's bed the night of his assassination. (5) Desmond Stewart, The Hundred Years' War, New York, 1978; virtually the same judgement is made by Philippe Contamine in "Bertrand du Guesclin: la gloire usurpée," L'histoire 20 (1980), p. 49: "La figure du 'bon connétable' fut un des instruments de propagande utilisé par Charles V et son successeur." (6) Joseph d'Avenel, a review of Charrière, Journal des Savants (1844), pp. 672-693. For a survey of critical response to the poem, see Claude Tixier, Portrait littéraire de Bertrand du Guesclin, Paris, 1981, pp. 11ff. For a recent attempt to use Cuvelier's text as a source of historical information, see chapter VII (written by Joseph Gies) of Frances Gies' The Knight in History, NY 1984. (7) R. Delachenal, Histoire de Charles V, Paris, 1916, vol. III, p. 45. (8) As quoted by Jean Frappier, Histoires, mythes, et symboles, Geneva, 1976, p. 4. (9) Philippe Ménard, Le rire et le sourire dans le roman courtois en France au moyen age, Geneva, 1969, p. 127, n. 315, and pp. 729-730. (10) Charrière, vol II, ll. 2834-34. (11) K.M. Boklund, "On the Spatial and Cultural Characteristics of Courtly Romance," Semiotica 20 (1977), p. 2. (12) Mimesis, New York, 1953, p. 120. Although Auerbach expresses some sympathy for the laisse- form (p. 103), his remarks about the possibilities of chanson de geste are not hopeful, probably because they are based almost exclusively on the Song of Roland: "The style of the French heroic epic is an elevated style in which the structural concept of reality is still extremely rigid and which succeeds in representing only a narrow portion of objective life circumscribed by distance in time, simplification of perspective, and class limitations." Had he extended his study to include Aliscans, Gaydon, or a German variety of the genre, like Wolfram's Willehalm, he might not have had to insist that vitality could be found only in other genres. (13) Ibid, pp. 124 ff. (14) See the chronicles of Jordan Fantosme and Pierre de Langtoft, the saints' lives of Thomas Becket and of Edmund, and Watriquet de Couvin's Enseignements du jone fil de Prince, ed. A. Scheler, Dits de Watriquet de Couvin, Brussels, 1868, pp. 125 ff., for a representative but not exhaustive sample. (15) See Jean-Claude Faucon, "La sagesse populaire au service du roi: de l'utilisation des proverbes par un Chroniqueur du XIVe siècle," in La Richesse du Proverbe, Lille, 1984, vol. I, pp. 87-110. (16) ed. J. Bédier, Paris, 1937. (17) Aliscans, ed. F. Guessard and A. De Montaiglon, Paris, 1870. (18) Gui de Bourgogne, ed. F. Guessard and H. Michelant, Paris 1859, ll. 2208-2210. (19) The Portrait in Twelfth-Century Literature, Geneva, 1965, pp. 72-88. (20) p. 154, Brereton; Book One, 1358. (21) See R. Levine, "Wolfram von Eschenbach: Dialectical Homo Ludens," Viator 13 (1982), pp. 177-201. For examples in fourteenth-century chansons de geste of black as a sign of baseness, see Li Bastars de Bouillon, ed. A. Scheler, Brussels, 1877, ll. 5864-66, where the hero disguises himself as a carbonnier, and Girart de Rossilon, ed. E.B. Ham, New Haven, 1939. (22) La vie de saint Thomas Becket, ed. E. Walberg, Paris, 1964, ll. 2541-45. (23) See Contamine, p. 52. For more comments on Bertrand's looks, both by his enemies and by himself, see La vie vaillante 13478-13496 and 13723-13725. (24) See Jean-Claude Faucon, "Le nom de Du Guesclin, Révue internationale d'onomastique 26 (1974), pp. 164-65) (25) William Calin suggests, perhaps too timidly, that a passage in the Gaydon anticipates the use of Bertrand; when Gautier, the vilein-like secondary protagonist of the poem, rebukes Gaydon, the ostensible hero, for permitting chivalry to interfere with military effectiveness, Calin remarks: "We would be going too far to suggest that this passage reveals in embryo the spirit of Du Guesclin or Dunois opposed to that of the defeated generals at Poitiers and Agincourt" (The Epic Quest, Baltimore, 1966, p. 134. Like Bertrand, Gautier is a misogynist, but in his case, as Calin points out (pp. 159-60), the reasons are his age and his status as a vilein. Gies offers a similar intuition about Bertrand, when he suggests that some of the connetable's activities make him more akin to Pancho Villa than to Sir Lancelot (p. 148). (26) See Edward's letter to the Pope in 1339, in Historia anglicana 1, Rolls Series 28, London, 1863, pp. 201-215. (27) For the court record of the case, see Registre criminel du Châtelet de Paris, ed. H. Duplex-Agier, 2 vols, 1861-1864, vol. 2, pp. 188-189. (28) "The Vows of the Heron," Speculum 20 (1945), pp. 261-278. (29) Charrière II, p. 337, n. 15. (30) For food used literally as weapons, see Philippe de Novare, Mémoires (1228-1243), ed. Charles Kohler, Paris, 1970, p. 25, where Emperor Frederick II rides through Acre at dawn on May 1, 1229, pelted with meat by les bouchers et les vielles of la boucherie. (31) Aliscans ll. 3160 ff. (32) For praise of animals, See Plutarch, Gryllus (Mor 985 D ff.) and Lucian's Gallus, both of which offer sophisticated animals and praise of animal virtues. Plutarch gives many more examples. Coffey 93: "The 'Hippocratic' diatribe reveals its Cynic basis in the argument that animals having satisfied their appetite are immediately content, whereas man's passion for luxury is insatiable. " See Fraenkel 90-4. Coffey also quotes "bulls do not make pastries and fancy cakes nor do they wear diaphanous gowns." p. 233. Plutarch devotes considerable space in the dialogue (Gryllus to Odysseus) to sexual continence and fastidious eating habits of animals. Gryllus is the pig, of course. His remarks graphically condemn homosexuality and bestiality. "Beasts are Rational," in Plutarch's Moralia, ed. and transl. by Harold Cherniss and W.C. Helmbold, Cambridge, 1957, pp. 492-533, (33) Charrière II, pp. 436-437. (34) Li romans de carité, ed. A.G. Van Hamel, Paris, 1885, p. 113. Pierre Langtoft also invokes the commonplace when he reports the death of Pope Boniface in 1303: De tut le graunt tresor k'en son temps conquist Ne aveit plus ke Jop ou femer kaunt i(l) sist. RS 47.2 p. 350 (35) Recueil général et complète des fabliaux des XIIIe et XIVe siècles, ed. A. de Montaiglon and Gaston Raynaud, 6 vols, Paris, 1872-1890; vol. 5, no. 114. (36) Aliscans ll. 3457 ff. (37) Delachenal (II. p. 118) shows no concern about the decorum, describing he treatment as, "un remède héroique." The suggestion about the power of ammonia was made by Professor Per Nykrog in a chance exchange in Harvard Yard several years ago. (38) See below. For more on Cuvelier's anti-semitism, see Jean-Claude Faucon, "Un curieux duel judicaire rapporté par Cuvelier," Romania 100 (1979), pp. 382-397. See also La vie vaillante, ll. 6570 ff. (39) Chronique de Du Guesclin, ed. Fr. Michel, Paris, 1830, p. 127. (40) Chronique de quatres premiers Valois, ed. Siméon Luce, Paris, 1862, pp. 159-60). (41) As quoted by Simeon Luce in his edition, Chroniques de Froissart, vol 6, Paris, 1876, p. lxxii, n. 1. (42) Ibid, pp. 159 ff. (43) Chronique latine de Guillaume de Nangis, ed. H. Géraud, Paris, 1844, vol. 2, p. 35. (44) p. 85, ll. 2325 ff. (45) P. 121, l. 3436. (46) Cf. Lee W. Patterson's remarks about a similar phenomenon in another fourteenth-century poem -- the Middle English Morte Arthure -- in "The Historiography of Romance," Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 13 (1983), p. 25.