Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Don't underestimate those little guys

Phil Paine has added to his ongoing reading list. I found this review particularly interesting:

Antoine de la Sale,[Petit] Jehan de Saintré [c. 1455]

This fourteenth century French prose work is an odd item. It's a "roman" — prose fiction. But it's nothing like the fantastic fantasies that dominated the era. No quests, no dragons, no trips to the moon. Instead, it's a realistic narrative focusing on tournaments and deeds of arms. In the first few chapters, the central character arrives at court as a page, at the age of thirteen. A Great Lady immediately begins a campaign of seduction, twisting and tormenting the lad until he surrenders his innocence. This is coyly, but still pretty blatantly recounted by the author. But the romance is meant to be edifying as well as titillating... she is given to quoting Greek philosophers while making love, and recommends a long list of books for him to read between carving the King's roasts, learning to fight, and providing her with stud service. Few teenagers have to face this kind of stress, today.

By sixteen, he becomes a star of the jousting circuit, albeit embarrassingly short and skinny for the role. This is continuously rubbed in, as contender after contender is fooled into under-estimating him. There's not a lot of plot, and not much character development. There's endless detailed description of clothing, meals, gifts exchanged between nobles, and, most of all, the pageantry of the tournament. Jousts are described blow-by-blow:

A la ije course le seigneur de Loisselench [a visiting Polish knight] actainct Saintré a la buffe tellement que a bien peu ne l'endormist, et Saintré l'ataint au front de son heaume et perça son buef d'argent tellement que au passer que les cahevaulz firent le sien tourna ce devant darriere, et a ceste course Saintré un peu se reposa.
A la iije course le seigneur de Loisselench, tout ainsin que Saintré l'avoit actaint, il actaint Saintré et lui emporta sur la pointe de sa lance son chappellet de byevre tout ainsin garny comme it estoit, et Saintré l'actaint ou hault de son grant gardebras qu'il lui faulsa avec son double et rompist les tresses, et le gardebras a terre vola, et alors recommença le cry et le bruit des gens et des trompectes tellement que a peine les pouoit on faire cesser.

Eventually, "little Jehan" goes off to war, joining the Crusade in Prussia, where he fights vast armies of "saracens" — the geography and anthropology are somewhat vague.

The riff on Jehan's small size reminded me of this French account by the Monk of St. Denis of the famous joust at St. Inglevert:

While a truce endured and there was hope of peace between the French and the English, Englishmen of the highest nobility were able to cross France freely for the sake of curiosity. There were always debates between the two groups concerning prowess and success in arms, and they argued about which of the two should be given more honor. The English were accustomed to keep silent about domestic calamities and to extoll their victories unendingly; which extremely displeased the French, who attributed that habit to presumption.

As a result those prominent knights and spirited youths, Reginald de Roye, Jean called le Maingre, alias Boucicaut, and the lord of Saimpy, aflame with zeal and vigor, resolved to settle the matter through an unprecedented deed of arms, which is worthy of being recorded. So that they might restore the worthy renown of the French chivalry and gain everlasting glory for the kingdom, they bound themselves by oath that they should measure their strength against any foreign men at arms; and they begged the king with the strongest entreaties and obtained permission with great difficulty, since in the judgment of all prudent men, they were attempting a task beyond their strength, since Saimpy was puny and thin, Boucicaut of the same stature but with better built limbs, and Reginald, likewise of medium size and superior to the others only in nimbleness. Thus the prudent advised the comrades that they should come to their senses and give up the project. They refused to do so, responding over and over that "Nature doesn't deny constant spirits to the small of stature." After gaining the king's support they had the deed of arms proclaimed to all lords and ladies in neighboring countries and especially in England by heralds accompanied by trumpeters. Without doubt this gave offense to the ears of many critics and incited envious statements: "Now, without doubt, the French are showing their pridefulness."



Of course, the three Frenchmen cleaned up.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Phil Paine said...

The works are somehow connected. One of the characters --- the hero's best friend, is "un josne escuir tres gracieux de la duchie de Thorainne qui nommez estoit le Meingre, qui par esbatement fut nomme Boussicault..." who was a valiant knight, cleverer and more prudent than him. And it quotes a verse:

Quant vient a un essault,
Mieulz vaut Saintre que Boussicault;
Mais quant vient a un traicte.
Mieulz vait Boussicault que Saintre.

The novel is obviously set in the past, for it mentions that the "Boussicaults of today" are descended from him. It's clearly a nostalgic recreation of the "good old day" back when the tournaments were really cool. Could "Saintre" have been a fictionalized Saimpy?

11:24 PM  

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