- The Chivalric Biography of Boucicaut, Jean II le Meingre eds. by Craig Taylor and Jane H. M. Taylor
'Chivalric biographies were a flourishing genre', the translators and editors note in their introduction, which 'often echoed chivalric romance' (p. 7). This volume is a welcome addition to the available in-translation literature of the European Middle Ages, not only for what it offers English readers about the life and times of its continental subject, but also by serving as a pointed reminder that the ideology of chivalry went beyond fantasy and ideal. The life described and translated by Craig Taylor and Jane Taylor, that of Boucicault, Jean II Le Meingre, is not that of some mere medieval cosplayer, inhabiting a fantastical society overlaying his own, but a complex document about 'a colourful, sympathetic figure who was central to the chivalric world of the later Middle Ages' (p. 19). As far as readable documents go, it cuts to the heart of many of the nuances that make the medieval world both foreign and familiar. It makes for fascinating reading, and is to be recommended for personal edification or educational deployment.
Boucicault's life was framed in chivalric tropes. His childhood was reportedly filled with signs of leadership, amorous potential, martial skill, and physical aptitude. His adulthood seemed to affirm these hints, as he fought and crusaded throughout great swathes of territory in the service of the King of France, jousted with and for honour, and even helped found a knightly order for the assistance and protection of ladies in need. If Boucicault sounds like something of knightly Jack-of-all-trades, this is probably what the author intended, and the editors suggest it is 'highly likely that the biography was written as a very careful defence of the actions and policies of Boucicault, and a response to his critics' (p. 9). But rather than becoming worthless for being such a contrived text, Boucicault's life is made more fascinating for being written while its subject still lived, and for highlighting the blending [End Page 259] of narrative conventions with lived realities. Here the literary and the literal Middle Ages overlap and interplay, making this text useful for the study of both.
Literary and political elements aside, the text also offers much historical material worthy of attention. It particularly highlights the mobility of a medieval military career, and goes some way to illuminating battle tactics and strategies. The protagonist tourneys with Englishmen, fights Turkish galleys, besieges castles, and so on. Boucicault's life offers vignettes of crusading in Hungary, captivity in Damascus, strategizing in Cyprus, and the pitfalls of governing Genoa, among other activities and contexts. When read through the perspective of a single character, the interplay between Western Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean that was such an important feature of the medieval world comes through nicely and in a nuanced and unforced fashion, as does the interplay with the deeper past and then present. This alone means that this volume carries enormous teaching potential, made more so when coupled with the methodologically useful tensions around questions of authorship, bias, argument, and readership that make for a good primary source analysis. Ditch the heavy burden of teaching through context-laying secondary scholarship, build a unit around Boucicault!
This text also offers material for the more spiritually-minded. The grief over the papal schism, the virtuous example of giving alms to poor people and hospitals, and other conventional pieties of a man of his position serve as entry points into analysis of the uniquely religious flavour of medieval chivalry. Even the everyday analogies used to illuminate the narrative highlight religious ubiquity, like the author's reference to paintings of Herod on church walls as a way of commenting on the brutalities of Bayezid (p. 69). This sort of passing comment helps put colour back in the everyday environment, not just in the big banner-filled set piece scenes.
The editors are to be commended for an introduction that is...