- Theorizing the Ideal Sovereign: The Rise of the French Vernacular Royal Biography
Biography was a difficult genre to write in the Middle Ages, despite the enormous and natural popularity of vitae written about all manner of persons. In the sacred and secular realm alike, hagiographies and biographies were intended to serve exemplary functions implicit in all forms of medieval historical writing, offering readers concrete embodiments—exempla—of moral, martial, political, and religious virtues to pursue and evil behaviors to avoid. For much of the Middle Ages, narratives of individual lives proved remarkably difficult to sustain, and even the best known texts, such as Helgaud's Life of Robert the Pious, Suger's Life of Louis the Fat, Daniel Walter's Life of Ailred of Rievaulx, and the Life of Christina of Markyate depart significantly from what might be thought to be a genuine biographical form. While ostensibly concerned with narrating the lives of their subjects, these texts fail to fulfill, both in their literary structure and in their content, the principal criteria defining modern biographies, most notably in their tendencies to skip over the youths of their subjects and to veer away from a linear, chronologically framed, account of the lives, deeds, and character of those under consideration in favor of the thematically structured illustrations of underlying motifs and ideological principles that biography promoted. If anything, hagiography came closer to what a modern reader might consider a formally proper biography, at least to the extent that it concerned itself with the childhood of the saint in question. But the impress of models of sanctity and other exemplarist goals in hagiographical texts were, if anything, even more powerful in shaping the final [End Page 519] character of the narrative, notwithstanding the important claims by Felice Lifshiftz, Thomas Head, and others that these texts also provide significant, realistic, and verifiable historical evidence.
In her insightful and instructive new book, Theorizing the Ideal Sovereign, Daisy Delogu is fully aware of the generic ambiguities of vernacular biographies in the Middle Ages, influenced, as she notes, "by a range of literary discourses, notably hagiographies, chansons de geste, and Arthurian romances" (5). For Delogu, it is the very generic hybridity of these texts that provides "an opportunity to consider the ways in which the canonical genres of the high Middle Ages evolved and recombined in subsequent centuries, and how they interacted with chronicles, vitae, and miroirs du prince" (5). Added to the generic complexity of royal lives were the multiple purposes they were intended to serve, both by articulating ideal notions of kingship and by addressing the particular political contexts in which they were composed. Indeed, one of Delogu's core concerns is to illustrate precisely how such texts managed (or, in the event, failed to manage) the inherent complexity of their often conflicting aims, using royal biographies to describe the deeds and character of kings at the same time that they functioned as vehicles for broader, and she claims, theoretically informed visions of kingship.
Focusing on secular, vernacular texts of the fourteenth and fifteenth century, Delogu examines five royal biographies written in Middle French, beginning with Joinville's Vie de Saint Louis and concluding with Christine de Pizan's Livre des fais et bonnes meurs du sage roy Charles V, a text whose very title already signals its departure from strictly biographical concerns. Between these framing works she also investigates the quite remarkable Chanson de Hughes Capet, of unknown authorship; Guillaume de Machaut's Prise d'Alixandre, a conquest effected by Pierre I, king of Cyprus, who is the biographical focus of the text; and the Herald Chandos's Vie du Prince Noir, his account of the life and deeds of the Black Prince, Edward, the eldest son of Edward III of England. The texts encompass a century of vernacular biographical endeavor, from Joinville, who composed his Vie of Saint Louis in 1309, to Christine's 1404 biography of Charles V—both works written considerably later than the lives they...