- Philippe de Commynes
For the past fifteen years, Joël Blanchard has lived in "continuelle résidence" with the diplomat and memorialist Philippe de Commynes. The expression, used by Commynes to describe his familiarity with Louis XI of France, evokes an intimacy born of personal affinity and long habit. This new biography of Commynes provides a synthetic reconsideration of Blanchard's numerous [End Page 1215] publications, including the monumental Commynes l'Européen (Geneva, 1996), as well as multiple editions of Commynes's Mémoires and correspondence.
Philippe de Commynes possesses the distinction of being the only medieval author to have been continuously read and appreciated from the fifteenth century to the present day. Despite the personal testimony contained within his Mémoires, the private Commynes has remained elusive. Blanchard's biography unites the fragmentary documentation published by erudites of past centuries with the results of his own excavations in libraries and regional archives across Europe. The resulting narrative offers a broader-reaching, less polemical account of Commynes's life than any of those previously available.
The book is divided into two panels of unequal length. The first, "Le chemin d'une vie" takes the reader from birth to death, with a little extra on either end. The second, "Le bilan d'une vie," reexamines a series of persistent interpretive issues surrounding the Mémoires, notably questions of political utility, the idea of balance, Commynes's religious sensibility, and the genesis of the Mémoires. A long postscript, "Les mésaventures posthumes de Commynes," surveys the appropriation of the Mémoires by early modern political theorists.
Blanchard rejects as anachronistic and artificial the Romantic idea that Commynes was haunted by his betrayal of Charles the Hardy, and that writing the Mémoires constituted nothing less than an act of vengeance. Instead, he argues that, neither an isolated case nor a cause for ostracism, Commynes's path from the Burgundian court to that of Louis XI, and from the royal court into the orbit of the Medici family, reflects a recognizable pattern of mobility and ascension. The memorialist shared his status as a "transfuge" with many other key players in Louis XI's court.
If Commynes's status as a "transfuge" left him vulnerable in certain regards, it also contributed to his value as an actor on the European stage. Blanchard highlights Commynes's place within a network of diplomatic and financial interests, demonstrating his skill as an actor particularly adept at a mode of behavior at once mercantile and political. The forces shaping Commynes's childhood, professional life, and personal setbacks can be summarized in one breath by the words "diplomatie, argent, procès" (12). These words reflect the extent to which Blanchard's narrative is source-driven, but they also describe a range of attitudes and modes of action at play in both public and private spheres. A complementary series of principles — bilanza, crédit, pratique — governs the praxis described by the first trilogy.
The pragmatism Blanchard recognizes in Commynes leads him to assert that in the Mémoires, "Le critère d'utilité y prend le dessus sur toute autre considération" (452). Several of Blanchard's analyses return fruitfully to well-known pages of the Mémoires. However, those chapters that address episodes ignored by the Mémoires make the most outstanding contributions to our knowledge of Commynes. Studies devoted to the Guerre Folle, Commynes's family history, litigation affecting his possession of Argenton, or the deftly arranged marriage of his only daughter, each deserve mention for their depth of analysis. [End Page 1216]
The advantage of the Fayard biography series lies in its ability to reach a broad readership. The disadvantage lies in the awkwardness of meeting the conflicting requirements of so many different readers. It is regrettable that no footnotes accompany the passages cited from rare and unpublished sources. In contrast, even the specialist will occasionally encounter references to events and people which would have benefited from further explanation. These lapses are made...