Our book today is most commonly translated into English as the Chronicles of the great fourteenth century historian Jean Froissart, who was born (somewhere in the 1330s) in Valenciennes, a French-speaking Netherlander town in what was then the independent kingdom of Hainault. He was that familiar writerly pattern, an unusually clever son of unimaginative but well-off suburban parents, and the wide world beckoned. At first, Froissart’s timing was impeccable – in his twenties, good-looking, exceptionally smart, memorably articulate, ambitious without being grating: he was able to make himself known at court, and since 1361 saw the dawn of peace between England and France, a person could travel around without necessarily risking getting killed (bandits still haunted every forest road, but that’s what armed guards were for).
Froissart travelled to England, perhaps on a low-level embassy from John of Hainault (uncle to the Count) or perhaps on his own speculative dime – in either case, he was soon attached to the household of that most famous Hainaulter of all, the short, boisterous, utterly wonderful Philippa, who became the queen of King Edward III of England. Froissart began his service to the Queen in the fairly conventional manner of churning out pages and pages of gawd-awful verse, but the whole time he was doing that, he was talking and especially listening to everybody around him, including all the veterans of England’s late wars with France (and not just English veterans – any number of French veterans were hanging around London in the 1360s, hoping – or not – to be ransomed back home). He quickly conceived that there was an epic story to be told here, and since he had the essential knack of making friends, he set himself the task of telling that story. He travelled all over England, ventured into Scotland and Wales, ransacked every royal or ecclesiastical archive he could get his hands on, and began amassing the materials he’d need to write the Chronicles, all with the royal blessing (since the pure of heart are seldom afraid of history’s verdicts).
He was travelling on the Continent in 1369 when the news reached him in Brussels that Queen Philippa was dead. The news broke his heart, of course (that was its universal effect), and it also changed his plans: instead of returning to England, he began hunting up wealthy patrons closer to home – and he began writing his Chronicles. He took advantage of earlier written accounts (as well as all those first-hand testimonies) and used his own abundant literary talents to bring everything vividly to life, including those events that long pre-dated his arrival in England, like the epic sea-battle King Edward fought against the Spaniards in 1350 at Winchelsea:
On that day, I was told by some who were with him, he was in a lighter mood than he’d ever been seen before. He told his minstrels to strike up a dancing tune which Sir John Chandos, who was standing beside him, had recently brought back from Germany. Out of sheer excited happiness, he made Sir John sing with the minstrels, to his own vast amusement. At the same time, he kept glancing up at the look-out he’d posted to watch for the Spaniards. While the King was enjoying all this fun (and his knights were enjoying seeing him enjoy himself), the look-out shouted, “Ship, ahoy! And she looks like a Spaniard!”
His book has something of the sweep of panorama, but its most charming and memorable segments almost all on a smaller scale. More than one critic over the centuries has compared Froissart’s abilities in this vein to those of his contemporary Chaucer, and the comparison is apt; Froissart the chronicler tried his best to verify events and square accounts, but Froissart the dramatist breaks loose of the annal-form whenever possible in order to shed some human light on his proceedings – as when he describes one little moment during John of Gaunt’s frustrated 1373 expedition to France:
The English struck camp and moved off in the direction of Soissons, always staying near both rivers and fertile farmlands. As they went, they were continually flanked by some four hundred lances led by the Lord of Clisson, the Lord of Laval, the Viscount of Rohan and others. Sometimes they rode so near each other that they could easily have fought if they’d wanted to, and often they talked to one another. For example, Sir Henry Percy, one of the most gallant of the English knights, was once riding across country with his men, and Sir Guillaume des Bordes and Sir Jean de Bueil were riding with theirs, each keeping to his own path. Sir Henry, who was on a white charger, said to Sir Aimery of Namur (the son of the Count), who was alongside him on the left, “It’s a fine day for hawking! Why don’t you go for a kill, since you’re used to flying?” “Yes,” said Sir Aimery, dancing his horse a little out of line, “it’s true – a good day for hawking. If it were up to me, we’d certainly go a-hawking on some nearby prey.” “I think you would, Aimery,” replied Sir Henry. “Just persuade your men to take off – there’s good game to be had!” In this bantering mood, Sir Henry Percy rode for some time alongside the French, talking to that splendid young soldier, Aimery the Bastard of Namur. The two sides could have come to it many times if they’d wished, but instead they rode forward with perfect discipline.
There are hardly any modern-era English translations of Froissart’s Chronicles, alas, and the few we have often as not manage to strangle the jingling, nimble cadence of his prose (that above excerpt is by yours truly, only because every existing English version I could find had taken worldly raillery and made it dull). And to add insult to injury, most of the English-language editions ever made of the Chronicles abridge the hell out of the work, essentially leaving in the battles and the jousting and cutting everything else. The original Froissart is broadly discursive, enormously enjoyable, and as thick as a cinder block – maybe some enterprising publisher will craft a gorgeous, limited-edition unabridged hardcover one of these days. I’d buy a copy.