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Reviewed by:
  • The French Renaissance Court
  • Sarah Alyn Stacey
The French Renaissance Court. By Robert J. Knecht. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008. xxiv + 415 pp, ill., maps. Hb $45.00; £28.00.

As Robert Knecht points out in his Preface to this elegant and meticulously researched book, if the study of a number of European courts has in recent years attracted growing attention, the French Renaissance court, by contrast, has received relatively cursory analysis, or (at best) only fragmented aspects of it have been examined. An authoritative synthesis of the French Renaissance court's significance such as Knecht offers here is therefore long overdue, and consequently this book marks a precious milestone in sixteenth-century scholarship. As Knecht points out, '[i]n addition to being a political and cultural centre, the court was a microcosm of French society' (p. xxii); and we are reminded of this in the book's nineteen chapters, in which a balance is carefully maintained between focusing on the court itself, and on the court's impact on the broader society. Drawing on a wealth of primary sources, Knecht offers a rich and colourful survey of court life from 1483-1589, discreetly divided into two parts: 'The Golden Years', extending from 1483 to 1559, that is, from the Italian Wars up to the death of Henri II; and 'The Kingdom in Crisis', covering the aftermath of Henri's death up to the death of Henri III on 1 August 1589. Through frequently graphic passages that succeed in conveying vividly the climate of Renaissance France, Knecht engages with a broad spectrum of themes: the court's social and physical organization (very different, as Knecht emphasizes, from the more extensively studied seventeenth-century court, being essentially nomadic, with the king much more accessible to the commoners); its role in the governance of France; the social class of those who frequented it (all social groups with the exception of the peasantry were represented); ceremony; patronage and the arts; contemporary perceptions of the court; its role in the Wars of Religion; and the international political manoeuvrings of the day. Closely observed portraits of some of the leading monarchs — François Ier, Catherine de' Medici, Henri III — are offered, again with meticulous attention to detail and referencing of sources. The choice, range, and quality of illustrations are also to be commended, as is the useful glossary at the end of the book. My one (minor) criticism is that quotations do not appear in the original language, but this is likely to have been an editorial decision beyond Knecht's control (the trend among publishers to request translation into English and to omit the original language is lamentably widespread). This book complements very well Knecht's previous [End Page 482] magisterial publications on Renaissance France, notably The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France, 1483-1610 (2nd edn, Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), and, more obviously, his various monographs on the Valois. If these works have already distinguished Knecht as one of the foremost scholars of his generation in the field of French Renaissance studies, this latest offering, which should be compulsory reading for any third-level course on the period, confirms his authority and eminence.

Sarah Alyn Stacey
Trinity College, Dublin


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pp. 482-483
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