Aug 3, 2006

Book Review: Jean Froissart and the Fabric of History - Truth, Myth, and Fiction in the Chroniques


Jean Froissart Ainsworth, Peter F.

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, 329 pages

Ainsworth is Professor of French and a Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield, specializing in medieval prose and verse narrative; the author, in particular, works with chronicles and other historiographical literature. Since 1997 Ainsworth has also held the post of director of the Jean Froissart Project, which, among other projects, is involved in the digitization of Froissart’s works. Jean Froissart and the Fabric of History examines Froissart’s Chroniques with an eye toward the literary merits of the material; Ainsworth is more concerned with textual analysis and interpretative criticism that with the historical accuracy of the Chroniques. Ainsworth argues that Froissart should be understood as a writer seeking “the moral truth behind the events he writes about.”

Ainsworth presupposes that readers have prior acquaintance with the Chroniques, and a working ability with Middle French> is essential to follow the subtle interpretations of passages from Froissart. Readers would be advised to have at least read the Chroniques in advance, while keeping handy a French dictionary to assist with unfamiliar phrasings. While heavily footnoted, Ainsworth’s text is written for the specialist, and readers without knowledge of French will find little help in the notes.
Froissart writing Chronicles Left: Fifteenth-century depiction of Froissart writing the Chroniques

The author maintains that Froissart should not be seen merely as an inheritor of an existing European tradtion of historiography, but also as the legatee of a “more complex literary tradition” including dits narratifs, ballades, virelais, and >chansons. Ainsworth argued that, despite Froissart’s declarations of his impartiality and veracity, “no truly rigorous distinction between fiction and reality is maintained” in the Chroniques. Froissart was less concerned, claimed Ainsworth, with cause and effect than he was with explaining “the moral truth underlying the events” contained in his Chroniques. Ever the aficionado of chivalric icons, Froissart sought to “fix for posterity the image and recollection” of the individual he profiled in a manner more akin to eulogy than dispassionate observation. Ainsworth described Froissart’s writing as a sort of rhetorical dichotomy:
The Chroniques sit provocatively and most appealingly betwixt the Muse of history and her poetic Sisters, and who is to say that they should not? In any case, the ‘configured’ meanings of the Voyage and its outré-textes are surely related to one another at an elevated level of significance where poetry and allusive suggestion have something to say, after all, about the ‘history’ of human fallibility, whether this be in the sphere of aristocratic ambition, pride, or moral weakness.
Black DeathFroissart devoted little attention in the Chroniques to the Black Death, economic problems, or famine, all of which were prominent – and recurrent – themes in the history of the fourteenth century. Ainsworth posited that Froissart’s privileged position may have spared him some of the more gruesome manifestations of these natural disasters, and also suggests that he might have minimized unpleasant details “because the plague was so obvious and appalling a phenomenon that elaborate coverage would have seemed otiose.” This reviewer takes issue with the first explanation, because the bubonic and pneumonic manifestations of Yersinia pestis respected no social or economic boundaries.

Ainsworth argues that Froissart had little sympathy for spiritual movements of the fourteenth century, viewing as “heretical” and “subversive” such teachings as those of John Wyclif. At the same time, Froissart refused to take sides in the Rome-Avignon conflict of the Western Schism; he decried the politicization of the Papcy, and was sorrowful that the Church should suffer because of the “pride of those princes of this world.” Nonetheless, argues Ainsworth, Froissart’s writing on the Schism should be viewed within the context of his role as a chronicler whose patron owed much to the largesse of antipope Clement VII.

The author devotes a lengthy chapter to the issue of three redactions in different extant versions of the Chroniques in which Froissart chose to rewrite his account of the reign of Edward III. Ainsworth argues that Froissart was attempting to show in a more dramatic fashion the political machinations of such nefarious characters as John III, Duke of Brabant. Ultimately, Froissant intended the updated version of the Chroniques to serve as a moral guidebook for current and future monarchs.

Jean Froissart and the Fabric of History raises provocative questions about Froissart’s legacy as a writer and historian. Ainsworth depicts Froissart as an artist who struggled to achieve balance between the ideals and realities of a world in which standards of chivalry were held up, but less often upheld. Froissart remains something of an enigma, but Ainsworth’s work brings us decidely closer to understanding this fourteenth century literary icon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Off topic: your site still isn't working in Netscape.