The Plight of a Warrior in Changing Times

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Michelle Szkilnik

It is a joyous thing, is war . . . . You love your comrade so in war. When you see that your quarrel is just and your blood is fighting well, tears come to your eyes. A great sweet feeling of loyalty and of pity fills your heart on seeing your friend so valiantly exposing his body to execute and accomplish the command of our creator. And then you prepare to go and die or live with him, and for love not to abandon him. And out of that, there arises such a delectation, that he who has not tasted it is not fit to say what a delight it is.

Jean de Bueil, Jouvencel c. 1461

At first, the hero of the 15th-century romance, Jouvencel, appears to be at odds with the tradition of other such medieval narratives because of his contempt for flamboyant knights who engage in court intrigues and wear sumptuous outfits on the battlefield. But, says Michelle Szkilnik, all does not go well with the Jouvencel (the Youth).
"He finds that he has been used by the king and the court. Although he pretends to take it lightly, one is left with an ambiguous message. Could it be, after all, that political intrigues are a better means to social ascendancy than military prowess? The Jouvencel thus reflects with some unease on the place and the role of the warrior in the changing society of the late Middle Ages, on his relation to the prince and the court."

A Research Fellow and professor of French literature at the University of Nantes, Szkilnik is working on a new critical edition and study of the Jouvencel, a romance written between 1461 and 1468 by Jean de Bueil, a well-known knight who fought many battles against the English. The tale, which enjoyed immediate popularity, is preserved in fourteen manuscripts and five early editions. In a previous book, Jean de Saintre, une carriere chevaleresque au XVe siecle, Szkilnik was concerned with showing how the image of the knight shifts in the late Middle Ages and how the ideal knight becomes a courtesan whose principal interests are court politics, dress codes and complex combat rituals.

Through analysis of many late medieval romances, Szkilnik found that most fall into one of two categories: those which imitate 13th-century Arthurian romances; and those that, though seeming to show deference to Arthurian literature, go on to undermine its principles. "Jean de Bueil's romance does not fit these categories. Indeed, the term 'romance' is barely appropriate for a narrative that, albeit following the adventures of a young knight, also amply deals with war techniques and ethics."

The protagonist of Jouvencel is a poor nobleman who, through bravery and audacity, quickly rises in the military hierarchy. Sent to rescue a foreign king, he succeeds in saving him and marries his daughter, thus becoming regent of the kingdom. "His remarkable career at first seems to contradict my findings about what makes a successful knight in the 15th century. While staying away from the court and refusing to abide by its social practices--in one instance he says he would rather spend money ransoming a bowman than buying clothes--he does manage to reach quite an enviable social position. He owes his success not to some courtly favor, but to personal qualities extolled by the narrative, notably austerity, modesty, and bravery combined with shrewdness."

The ongoing literary impact of Jouvencel is of particular interest to Szkilnik. "I believe that its influence can be felt in the image that 17th-century war memoirs, such as those of La Rochefoucauld, Campion or Bussy-Rabutin, give of the ideal military leader." Also of interest is the "complex reworking of sources. Medievalists have long acknowledged that rewriting is the basis of literary production in the Middle Ages." Jean de Bueil, for instance, drew on texts that agreed with his own reflections on war, strategy, and military duties.
Preparing a new critical edition of the romance is complicated by the existence of numerous manuscripts scattered around Europe, as well as by the length of the text. One important copy fills 122 folios (this includes notes by Guillaume de Tringant). Some of the manuscripts were lavishly illustrated, one by the 15th-century painter Jean Fouquet.

The only available edition of Jouvencel dates from the 19th century (reprinted in 1996), but "the edition is hardly a critical one. While containing a long historical and biographical introduction, it provides very few variants, no glossary, no analysis of the language, no critical notes and no justification of editorial decisions." Szkilnik's new critical edition is under contract with Champion (Paris), to be issued in the Classique Francais du Moyen Age collection.