At the end of my boyhood and at the age of being able to manage a horse, I was brought to Lille before Duke Charles of Burgundy, then called the Count of Charolais, who took me into his service. This was the year 1464.
A quarter-century after that meeting, Philippes de Commynes was released from imprisonment (he has spent two years in prison, including five months trapped in a small iron cage), and set about catching up on his correspondence. One of his most pressing concerns was responding to a request from an old friend, an archbishop named Angelo Cato, for a contribution toward a history book the latter was hoping to compile, and Commynes appears to have set about dictating a reply as soon as he was free to do so. That reply would take him several years, and was to be divided into six volumes – two further volumes offering an update concerning more recent events would follow in the subsequent years.
Commynes was not, he was at pains to point out, a historian himself. He lacked all of the necessary skills of a historian: he did not speak (at least not with any fluency) Latin; he did not have the literary skill to invent appropriate speeches and episodes to enliven his narrative; his scholarship was far too inadequate to allow him to appropriate finesse historical events into the required classical and Biblical analogies; and his reluctance to lie meant that at times his recollections would fail to give full and dutiful praise to his social betters. He was not a historian – merely a source of information for Cato, who would use it for respectable, literary and historical purposes (and even in that regard, Commynes recommends others who may recall some details more fully). Instead of producing a work of art himself, Commynes laments, “I am merely sending you what immediately comes to my mind.” In place of respectable, scholarly, history, all Commynes can do is describe what happened, and why.
As a result, the Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Commynes as “the first critical and philosophical historian since classical times”; others have called him simply “the first modern writer”. Closer to his own time, Emperor Charles V referred to his manuscript – published after the author’s death and quickly translated into languages across Europe – as “a textbook for princes”.
Although Commynes himself protests that he is providing source material for a biography of King Louis XI of France (and, in the final two volumes, of his successor, Charles VIII), his work soon came to be known by the publishers and scholars as Commynes’ “Memoirs” – understandably, given that the narrative begins before Commynes meets Louis, and continues after the latter’s death. In this edition, the final two books are removed, along with a few digressions, and the scholar responsible believes that they have in this way, as the title indicates, produced a biography – perhaps the first true modern biography – of the monarch known as The Universal Spider. In truth, Commynes’ history is considerably broader than that: a portrait, not of one man, but of an era.
It is an era of immense importance. At least three of the defining events in the last half-millennium of European geopolitics take place in these pages: the rise of a modern, centralised France; the foundation of the Hapsburg empire; and the resolution of the Wars of the Roses. We do not learn much, except implicitly, of the broader social currents of the times; but we are treated to intimate and incisive portraits of the men who shaped the times, not as Great Men, but as terribly flawed men – and above all, the book offers contrasting analyses of two men with whom Commynes was as closely familiar as anyone ever was: Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Louis the Prudent, King of France. The fate of Europe rests in the hands of these two men.
Let’s set the stage. Commynes is a Burgundian – a native of the confused border area between the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The Duchy of Burgundy has always been, in law, a vassal of the King of France – but as France has been brought close to ruin, by enemies foreign and domestic, Burgundy has become a de facto independent state, swollen by advantageous marriages to the point where the Dukes now dream of an empire that stretches from sea to sea, from their dominions in the Netherlands through to the possessions of their allies in Provence and Savoy. As our story begins, Burgundy is perhaps the richest and happiest nation in Europe: its rich soils thriving under light-touch taxation, it has been at peace for over three decades under the benign, wise rule of Philip the Good, one of the richest men in the known world. Philip is ailing, but the nation waits eagerly for his successor, the fearless, charismatic Charles, Count of Charolais. Philip was godfather to young Commynes, and when the latter is orphaned as a child, the Duke brings him to court, and places him close to Count Charles.
France, meanwhile, has undergone a far more traumatic succession, only a few years earlier. Charles the Victorious, who, with the aid of Joan of Arc, somehow managed to save the nation from English dominion, and from her own civil wars, quarrelled terribly with his son (who once chased Charles’ mistress through the palace with a drawn sword), exiling the young Dauphin, Louis, first to the Dauphiné, and then from France entirely – the young prince was forced to take refuge in, of all places, Burgundy, a glorified beggar at the ducal court. When Charles died, Louis returned to Paris with an avenging fury, purging and disinheriting all those who had wronged him – most of the nation’s wisest and most experienced statesmen have fled to neighbouring princes, and the mood of the nobility is angry and bitter; the king’s own brother plots against him. The king’s writ struggles to run beyond Paris, as feudal vassals like the Dukes of Burgundy and Brittany, and the Count of Provence, are independent in all but name. In 1465, the year after Commynes comes to Philip’s court, France rises up, the great nobles of the land declaring a ‘War of the Public Weal’, a war of nation against king, for the common good. France is on the verge of a final dissolution, and Burgundy’s triumph will soon, it seems, have no obstacle. At that moment, Charles, the Burgundian heir, rides for Paris at the head of a vast army, his godbrother, Commynes, at his side.
Twenty years later, Burgundy will no longer exist. Its core domains will have been reabsorbed into a resurgent France, along with those of Brittany; while its peripheral territories will have fallen into the hands of the rising Hapsburg dynasty, a geographical anomaly that, Commynes seems to recognise, will set the stage for centuries of war. It’s an astonishing reversal of fate. As Commynes puts it:
It seems to me that at that time [the Duke of Burgundy’s] territories could more truly be called lands of promise than any other domains on earth. They were overflowing with riches and in complete peace – as they never have been since. The standard of living and the clothing of men and women were extravagant; the feasting and banquets were on a more prodigal scale than in any other place I have known of; the bathing parties and other entertainments with women were lavish and lax – if a little on the seamy side. In sum, it then seemed to the subjects of this house that no prince was a match for them – at least that none was capable of oppressing them. And in this world today I know of no princely house so desolate.
This is, at heart, the question that plagues Commynes, the question that he sets out to answer through psychology, through military history, and through philosophy: how could it be that Burgundy could fall so rapidly from such grace?
Commynes’ answer, needless to say, is that God did it. And at first, that might seem like a cop-out, but of course it’s not: Commynes is not insisting upon faith in a Godless world, he’s using the concept of a God within a conceptual system in which God is unavoidable. He is, as it were, only rephrasing the question: if nations fall when they fall from God’s favour, why do nations fall from God’s favour? Commynes’ answer has nothing to do with scripture, and little to do with doctrine: again, Commynes’ God is not a creature locked within a bible, but the animating principle of the entire world. To understand the world is to understand God; and although that might be impossible, that’s not reason not to try.
Commynes never really offers a coherent ideology of fate – that would, after all, be hubris. But he believes in a system in which God helps those who help themselves, yet moderated by a sort of karma. Those who do wrong face justice – in the next life, but also often in this. Evil, foolishness, and violation of the constitutional norms of states and societies are often repaid in the same coin, whether on the land – a prince who breaks his word to others finds his subjects break theirs to him – or in the soul – a prince who plots against his courtiers himself plagued by irrational, paranoid fears of his best advisors.
So while his theories may be lofty and divine, their application is more down to earth, and at the heart of Commynes’ history is a pair of contrasting portraits, psychological and political sketches of the two ‘great men’ who he believes have shaped the fates of their nations, for better or worse: Louis and Charles. One French; one Burgundian. One the paragon of a bygone age; the other the herald of modernity.
Duke Charles the Bold (sometimes translated ‘the Rash’) was, we’re given to believe, almost the perfect mediaeval monarch. He is attractive, strong, and intensely charismatic, the kind of man who can turn a battle by riding through it and exhorting his men one by one. He has an indefatigable energy and, Commynes tells us, an almost supernatural ability to suffer: he asks no more of his men than he is willing and able to undergo himself, and his men know it. He is decisive, and courageous not only physically but politically. His ambitions are sweeping. He can be violent, but he is not unusually cruel for his age, and he is good company for his court.
Louis, on the other hand, is a coward. He is plagued, as even he acknowledges, by a big mouth and a sour wit, and he is constantly offending people. He is not physically impressive. He overtaxes his people, and appears to have little sense of shame; nobody likes to spend time with him. He can’t really be trusted – his nickname is ‘The Universal Spider’ after all – and he is instinctively a vindictive, occasionally mass-murdering, arsehole.
But Commynes’ at-the-time-controversial thesis is that it is Louis who is the great monarch, and Charles the deluded prince who dooms his people.
Put simply, Louis has two key strategies at all times: avoid any true military contest; and, if in doubt, bribe everyone. He’s a political and military cockroach, constantly retreating, constantly negotiating (with multiple people, in contradictory ways), constantly stalling for time. He reminds me, if you’ll forgive the fantasy/pop-culture reference, of George RR Martin’s Littlefinger: he doesn’t exactly have a plan, as such, but he continually sows chaos, knowing he will eventually, somehow, benefit from it. Every alliance is against him is turned against itself. He follows a terribly Christian theory of politics: if your enemy strikes you on one cheek… thank him, applaud him publically, write the man a great big cheque, and ask him to slap someone else for you.
This is why, partway through the book, Commynes abruptly flees Charles’ military encampment and becomes one of the King’s chief advisors. It’s not just him – everybody does it. The pay is better, and the life much easier.
Ultimately, Louis’ greatest strength is his willingness to appear weak. He may remember slights, but he publically forgives them, and promotes his enemies; he may be opinionated, but he listens to his advisors, and he corrects his mistakes. At times, he even uses his weakness as his trump card, and works to maintain it. He gives advice to his enemies on how to defeat his allies (because he wants his enemies to feel strong, and hence to feel able to wait, rather than weak, and hence desparate to act). At one stage, fearing an explosion among the common soldiers that will destroy an alliance, he intentionally makes himself visibly vulnerable, to shame his allies into de-escalating the situation. It’s behaviour Charles – who at one point humiliates Louis by in effect holding him prisoner – could never endure. Charles is a more traditional, vain prince who cannot abide disgrace – and it’s ultimately that stubbornness that dooms him, and Burgundy, when he first attacks, and then refuses to retreat from the seige of, Neuss, despite being needed urgently elsewhere. It’s what leads to him lying dead in a ditch, his corpse unrecognised. Throughout Commynes’ account, Louis’ prudence, his ruthless exploitation of his own impotence, is contrasted sometimes explicitly but more often between the lines with the vanity and vainglory of the other princes of his age: Louis’ willingness to be weak, whch Commynes suggests is a lesson from his time as a beggar at the Burgundian court, is in effect a form of power. Perhaps the most striking example is when Louis is “forced” to pay “homage” to a number of English lords – he obsequiously sends them regular tribute, via an intermediary who, naturally, needs their signatures to prove to Louis that he hasn’t stolen the money for himself. It’s humiliating for Louis and a clear win for the English, they believe, even if they allow that the transactions can remain secret for the sake of Louis’ dignity… …except that now, if those lords ever give their king advice that’s not in Louis’ best interests, he can reveal (to their king or their public) that they are secretly on the payroll of a foreign power, receiving a regular pension for their services, and he has the carefully-catalogued original receipts to prove it. Only Louis can make being conquered into a form of dominance.
Commynes never exactly gives us a rounded or deep portrait of his king, as we might expect from a modern writer. And yet, through descriptions and through anecdotes, he constructs a striking and understandable image – reading Commynes, we feel as though we know Louis, just as we know Charles. Other characters benefit in this way as well, although many – such as the Count of St Pol – are too historically insignificant for the reader to really invest in. Others are shown briefly, but brilliantly – one of my favourite moments is the only appearance of Emperor Frederick III, who responds to a detailed military-diplomatic proposal with a rambling parable about bear-hunting. It’s a moment that perfectly displays both why Commynes can’t stand the man (he’s over-cautious to the point of inaction, lazy, pretentious and not that bright) – and why he deeply respects him (he’s an old man whose experience has bought him considerable wisdom, and he’s the only ruler secure enough in his position to be able to fob off monarchs with irritating parables without any consequences).
After the two duelling princes, probably the third character in the story is Edward IV, whom Commynes sees only from a distance (it’s disputed whether he may have served as an ambassador to England at some point, but it’s not mentioned here in any case). Edward is a monarch famed for his military prowess and valour, but, unlike Charles, he’s really only in it for the quiet life, prioritising food, women and entertainments. Through overconfidence, he manages to lose his entire kingdom in only 11 days. But this is England, where, as Commynes constantly laments, politics is not very stable or sophisticated – so he’s able to invade England, win two major battles, overthrow and kill the Earl of Warwick, and Henry VI, and the Prince of Wales, and complete a round of mass executions of his enemies, all within the span of another 26 days. Everything hinges on his being welcomed, while still virtually without troops, into the city of London, and Commynes explains the three main reasons why, after some debate, he was given access: his wife had just given birth and, awh, a royal baby, how exciting and cute!; he was deeply in debt to many of the richest merchants in town, who realised that if he didn’t regain the crown he’d never be able to pay them back; and most importantly, he can rely on “the influence of many ladies of rank and rich citizen’s wives”, because after a decade of womanising they were all “very good friends indeed” of his, and they nag their husbands until they let him in. It’s a reputation that gives Louis pause, and one of his priorities in negotiating with the English monarch is ensuring that the man never, ever visit Paris: “He’s a very handsome king,” Louis worries out loud to Commynes. “He’s crazy about women. He could find some clever sweetheart in Paris who would say such nice things to him that she’d make him want to come back…”
It’s a bizarre conjunction of great affairs of state – seasoned with little philosophical asides – with the intimately personal. It’s not, perhaps, great history by modern standards – broader social developments get only a sentence here or there – but it’s a very entertaining way of writing. It’s half Macchiavelli, half gossip column.
That intimacy, indeed, is sometimes almost shocking in its modernity. Commynes is emphatically not writing a mediaeval hagiography – sure, he he doesn’t go into many details on the sexual side of things, and he glosses over many things that might be of interest to a modern reader. But he depicts his characters as human beings – human beings who he in many cases knew extremely well. This is particularly striking in the later parts of the narrative, when the fortunes of the princes decline in turn. Charles is beset by mental illness after a military defeat, and although Commynes never uses that exact term, there’s little ambiguity in his description – he’s not shy about calling it an illness, and he’s not shy about the fact it’s primarily an illness of the mind. He even hypothesises a little about the appropriate treatment. The doctors and priests of the day favour blood-letting, and making the man bloody well shave properly for a start; Commynes, on the other hand, suggests beginning with humility before God, before moving on to talking therapies, discussing one’s fears and shames openly out loud, not worrying about disgrace, in a safe environment with a trusted friend or advisor (as “it is ineivtable since we are men, that deep griefs stir violent passions”). Sadly, trust is a rare commodity for rulers, which may explain why so many of these princes are at least a little mad…
[It’s another example, incidentally, of how God is used in this world-view, not as a tool of superstition but as a call to reason. Commynes believes that when a man like Charles loses a campaign, it’s appropriate to ask what went wrong. But he mustn’t become lost in self-recrimination, and religion offers him a way out: instead of asking what is wrong with him, he can ask why God may have failed to favour him on this occasion. It allows reflection and consideration of one’s actions, without self-blame. Throughout the book, we see this mindset in which God is central not because of what he does – Commynes does not believe in a God who actively performs miracles willy-nilly, and does not even particularly stress God’s role as a rule-giver, except indirectly – but because of how human beings act toward Him…]
Similarly, Louis’s quality of life rapidly deteriorates when he suffers a series of debilitating strokes. At one point, Commynes literally has to hold the king as he spasms, and Louis’ speech is at least temporarily so impaired that Commynes has to translate what may be a deathbed confession to a priest who can’t understand what the king is saying. To say that Commynes was close to his subjects is an understatement.
It’s true that the book is closer to a series of anecdotes than to an academic historical analysis, although there are elements of the latter: Commynes does lay out a fairly detailed chronology of the wars and the diplomacy, and does his best to explain events in geopolitical, psychological and theological-philosophical terms. But it’s the anecdotes that stand out, combining a clear and personal touch with a lacing of dry, observational humour. It’s suprising just how modern Commynes feels in style, if not always in beliefs, and many moments continue to resonate with modern readers, either because of how things have changed (Commynes’ frequent exasperation toward the barbarian English and the way their leaders never fail to be equipped with a suspiciously convenient prophecy) or because of how they haven’t (Commynes’ old-man complaints about self-important minor celebrities these days constantly telling you to “speak to my people!”…). And while there are moments of tragedy, there are also a suprising number of moments of pure farce. At one point, for example, Louis is hosting a messenger from one of the Duke’s vassals, who is thinking of coming over to Louis; Louis, pretending joviality, baits the man into doing insulting impressions of the Duke, pretending to be a little deaf so that the man does his impressions as loudly as possibly; but, in the time-honoured traditions of Frence farce, what the messenger doesn’t realise is that Commynes is crouched alongside the Burgundian ambassador, hiding behind a suspiciously large screen in one corner of the room. The ambassador is outraged on the Duke’s behalf, and Louis succeeds in sowing even more disquiet between the Duke and his vassal.
[Other monarchs would have seen the vassal as an ally, helped him, and used him against the Duke. But Louis knows you can’t trust a traitor. Instead, by weakening the vassal still further by betraying him to the Duke, he forces the vassal to come to him in a more fearful, and hence dependent, state, while distracting the Duke, and pretending friendship with him. In Louis’ world, you help your enemies and you hurt your friends…]
[Of course, sometimes Louis sees the right time to strike directly. He summons one enemy/friend to court, for example, by pleading for his help in a difficult time, saying that he could really do with having “a good head” around to advise him at a time like this. He then, having dictated the letter, observes to his henchmen by way of explanation: “I do not mean us to have his body – only his head. The body can stay where it is…“]
The greatest virtue of this books, however, and of Commynes as an author, isn’t just his access, or even his deadpan wit (which is always interesting, and amusing, but too dry to really be lovable). Instead, it’s his wonderful honesty. Now, apparently in the 20th century it was fashionable, particularly among offended Belgians, to paint Commynes as a serial liar, fundamentally dishonest in every word – but while that seems hard to believe to me (or to the editor of this translation), it doesn’t really matter in terms of the book’s value as a narrative, rather than as a historical source. Because either Commynes is truthful, or else he’s the most gifted liar in literary history, and in either case it’s the impression of honesty that is so powerful in reading these memoirs. Commynes has his own opinions, but he is scrupulously even-handed in discussing even his personal enemies. His goal throughout – perhaps reflecting the origin of this project as source material rather than a published text – is not to definitively paint history, but to understand it, and that requires him to see both sides of every dispute, and recognise the virtues as well as the vices of every participant. The result is a far more complete and sympathetic portrait of his life and times than we might expect… and a more accurate depiction of the conflicting thoughts common in his age.
Because if the book is interesting as a specific history, and as a guide to statesmanship, it’s most fascinating as a window into a bygone age – a window refreshingly devoid of the usual stained glass. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this comes close to being absolutely required reading for any fan of fauxdiaeval fantasy or historical fiction, and should certainly be obligatory for anyone wanting to write a story set in a similar culture.
Most strikingly, Commynes provides a very different picture of twilight of the middle ages not because of differences in how he sees the ruling systems, but because of the context of those systems. Put bluntly: this is not a little world of feudal clockwork; this is a vast, largely empty world in which a tiny number of feudal overlords play their games amid a vast ocean of people who, most of the time, don’t care in the slightest. Yes, by modern standards all these rulers are brutal dictators. But what Commynes shows us, and which is essential to understanding that brutality, is the naked weakness of a mediaeval prince, and the near-total impotence of all their structures of power. Charles, after all, yearns to construct an empire, but even this great leader of a great nation cannot accomplish it; Louis’ driving ambition is to modernise and harmonise the French legal code and bring a universal rule of law to the whole nation, but even this intelligent and ruthless man cannot accomplish it. These are men beating their heads against unbreakable walls, while at the same time holding on for dear life.
Surprisingly, it is the people who are at the heart of Commynes’ perception of politics. He is not a great fan of the ordinary people trying to rule themselves – he rolls his eyes at the predictable brutality and naivity of the endless revolutionary committees of the Low Countries – but he believes unshakeably that power comes only through the consent of the people. He sings the praises of the Parliament of England and its democratic powers – while he has no time for commoners making decisions, he does see them as a valuable veto force standing in the way of tyranny and foolish monarchs. But for him, the question is not whether the people should have power – that is an absurd question, because it suggests that there is any way to remove power from the people – but how it can be better organised. The power of the people is omnipresent throughout this narrative. It’s the power that lynches dozens of nobles every day whenever anger breaks out in a Belgian town (the nobles may be bastards, but they’re mostly legal bastards, whereas the commoners send for the hangman the moment they’re in charge); it’s the power that slaughters every English straggler and leaves their bodies in ditches, regardless of what peace treaties may be made between monarchs, and the power that sends commandos creeping through the streets of Peronne, happily willing to murder both King and Duke in their beds. It’s the power that coalesces a bunch of Swiss peasant farmers into what will become the most feared military force of the age; it’s the power of the common soldiers, who in the end decide not only how to fight, but whether to fight, whatever their generals might want. When the Pazzi family decide to launch a coup d’etat in Milan, it’s the power that determines, in a matter of minutes, which family will have its entire membership swinging from the church rafters by the end of the day, and which family will be in power. Above all, it’s the power of cities to control their own walls.
Because again, this is a huge world, and these are very small kings. In all these wars, very few armies are ever larger than the militia that could be mustered by a medium-sized town: a city like Amiens or Liege is a major challenge even for a monarch to subdue, and a city like Paris or London is effectively impregnable – the size of army necessary to either beseige or storm such a city simply is not achievable in this era. The fate of kingdoms rests, therefore, on the whim of common townsfolk. It’s the people of London who choose to accept Edward IV – then almost without resources – as their king, and in so doing doom the Earl of Warwick; just as it’s the people of Paris who decline to yield to the Duke of Burgundy and his allies, and in so doing leave Louis as their king and France as a viable nation.
As for those princes – well, it’s not long into the book that we’re thrown into the Battle of Conflans, and we see its absurd chaos, its contingency, its nonsense. Commynes tells us quite explicitly; monarchs and generals may form up their strategies, but there is no monarch on earth who can direct a battle according to his plan. A general does not so much direct his army, as ride it. So too, a monarch sits in his saddle upon the roiling chaos of his nation, prodding here, whipping there, offering carrots in one direction or another, but by and large able to do no more than desperately keep his seat, or else fall and be unceremoniously trampled.
These men are half statesmen, half petty mafiosi. It’s very easy for simplistic accounts to see them as only one and not the other – all politicians, or all robber barons. But Commynes shows us how they can be both at the same time. “In all of them were good and evil” he warns us, speaking of the great princes of his day, “for they were human beings.”
The depiction of women is also of interest (among many other topics). Commynes is writing in an extremely male-dominated world, and most of the women of the story go entirely without mention (there’s no way to tell, for example, that Commynes himself is married, and you’d have to read very carefully to notice that either the Duke or the King were married). Commynes essentially takes it as read that it’s men’s role to dominate, politically and socially, just as that’s also the role of the upper classes. And yet there is a refreshing lack of misogyny. Commynes doesn’t have to insist that men are superior, or argue that women shouldn’t have power – because in his culture, those questions don’t even arise. God has simply willed that men have power – there’s not need anyone inventing notions like male superiority to explain why that may be. Which means that when individual women do have power, Commynes has no grounds to object. He may depict Marie of Burgundy as naïve – after all, she inherited one of the greatest empires of Europe when she was still a teenager – but he doesn’t fail to respect her goodness, her popularity, and the beginnings of a sharp intellect. He is almost fearful, yet respectful – and depicts Louis as almost fearful – of the intelligence and ruthlessness of the Duchess of Savoy. The autonomy of women seems greater than one might expect here: not only can women veto arranged marriages at least some of the time, they can even insist upon love-marriages, even when strongly against the interests of the families and nations. Louis, for instance, is forced to accept the marriages of the Duchess’s two daughters, which strengthen his enemies, when the Duchess points out that the women are in favour of the matches, and that they’re not just political ploys. Similarly, even at a time when Marie is tantamount to held hostage by commoners, they are unable to pressure her into marrying their preferred candidate (Commynes wryly notes that it was seeing him and getting to know him that probably doomed his suit with her…). There are also surprisingly hints at a chivalry out of keeping with the general violence of the world: during a war, when soldiers are being murdered on the streets, Louis has his secret messages conveyed by a young woman, on the grounds that a woman alone can travel freely without harrassment, where a man would be at risk of attack by brigands. [Commynes, interestingly, does not make clear that it’s actually a woman who ends up imprisoning him in a tiny cage for six months…]
In short, where these memoirs excel is in vividly, intimately and fair-handedly depicting this late-mediaeval world and its characters, and in doing so with wit and insight.
Where they fall down, however, is in the sheer complexity of the events under discussion. It’s here that Commynes does indeed fail to be a true historian: what we are given is not so much a narrative as a whole mass of information, in mostly (but not always) chronological order. Take any few pages, and the sequence of events appears clear, because Commynes writes clearly; but as the pages mount up, so does the sheer assembly of places, dates, titles and, every few sentences, shocking betrayals. [Betrayals that sometimes fail to betray anyone, because the betrayal is betrayed before it can betray anyone…*] It’s not unclear, it’s just… a lot. It’s very dense, and that’s why it too me a surprisingly long time to read through the book, because after ten pages or so of the count of this and the bastard of that and trying to remember which one is Corday and which ones is Cordres, I just needed a change of scenery. Of course, that’s partly my fault, for not being in the righ frame of mind – as I say, Commynes does try to make these confusing events understandable, and I’m sure if I were in an academic mood I’d have no trouble with it, but as light entertainment reading I found it was making my head hurt.
[It doesn’t help that Commynes adopts mediaeval naming practices, which is to say he usually called people by their titles. This means that the same person can be known by two different names in one sentence (at one point he notes something along the lines that a person has been of service to the Count of Charolais, and was rewarded by the Duke of Burgundy – the latter being the same person as the former, but several years later), while the same name can refer to multiple different persons (as the name is inherited when its holder dies). When you have people like the King’s brother, who wears about six different titles in six years, this can get confusing…]
Some help, to be fair, is provided by the translator/editor, Paul Murray Kendall, who remains largely on the sidelines but who does chip in with the occasional explanatory footnote. Those coming to the text for academic reasons may be frustrated at how little commentary is provided, but for the casual reader I think it’s about the right amount – enough to let us understand what’s going on, but little enough that the narrative still feels like the work of the original author. Further background information on the author and his time period are provided in a forward, which could perhaps be more detailed in places but does probably as much as is strictly required. As regards the translation itself, it’s pretty good – there are moments when it seems to veer too far into modern colloquialism, or else too far into stilted archaism, but this will be a problem with any translation of a historical text that attempts to retain something of its character while still fully conveying its original meaning. By and large, I think the tone is successful – it has a clarity and straightforwardness that suit the style of the author, without appearing to try too hard to be contemporary. One small irritation is the way Kendall edits out some of Commynes’ tangents, replacing them with brief summaries – this is either done too much, or else it’s done too little. I can understand why an editor would want to trim the fat here and there, as Commynes does ramble on a little at times; but Kendall includes so much of the original text that it’s a little head-scratching why he’s bothered to edit out the handful of extra pages that he’s excised, while leaving other things in – I think I’d have been happier either with a more ruthlessly focused text, or else the whole thing in all its glory. But as we do only lose a handful of passages, this is honestly a very minor quibble.
[Another such quibble: not only as the translator stuck on the striking but non-original title, “The Universal Spider: The Life of Louis XI” to Commyne’s text, but the SAME translator has also written his OWN biography of Louis XI, using the exact SAME title. This is understandable – “The Universal Spider” has to be one of history’s coolest soubriquets, and it’s understandable the writer didn’t want to waste it on just one book title – but also probably a bit of a pain for people trying to find this specific edition (which is, incidentally, the old Folio Society edition).]
*this is a book in which a vassal can attempt to murder his liege and their entire family with a cannonade, and the next page we can be told with a straight face that “never was any man more loyal to another than [vassal] was to [liege]”. Oh, and while he’s trying to murder his liege’s family with cannons, the vassal also sends out two flasks of wine, because the liege’s daughter is giving birth, and it seems the decent thing to do to ease her labour a little. I mean, obviously he’s not going to not murder her or anything, but it would be unchivalrous not to give a woman wine when she’s in labour…
In conclusion, in writing a text entirely for his age, without the pretenses of history (indeed, several times Commynes declines to describe some well-known event, because “you”, being people of the same era as him, will no doubt know just as much as he does…), Commynes has inadvertantly written something both invaluable as a historical document, and at the same time timeless. It’s a fascinating resource for anyone interested in the time period or its culture, not only for its intimate, first-hand account, but also for its combination of unvarnished honesty and wry irony; it is also remarkable as a study in political leadership, and one that has had a great deal of influence throughout the centuries. It’s dense with action and a little prone to tangents, and casual readers probably shouldn’t expect to skim through it all in an afternoon unless they have excellent heads for details, but fundamentally it’s an entertaining and understandable account, translated attractively. I thoroughly recommend reading it.
And if that’s my conclusion, what conclusion did Philippe de Commyne reach, half a millennium ago? In the end, this student of statescraft is left extolling the virtues… of the quiet life. By the end of the book, Louis is dead, his life crippled by paranoia – a king, Commynes says, who had so often condemned his enemies to dungeon cells is left, in his castle reinforced with iron towers, with no more freedom than a single courtyard, across which he is too frightened to walk to mass. Charles is dead, his lust for glory and military fame ending anonymously in the dirt – his mind and his courage stripped from him, and his body at the last left naked and unmarked in a common field. Marie is beautiful, witty, and phenomenally wealthy, held virtually hostage by her people, and dead of a tragic accident. Edward IV is dead; and his sons are dead, killed (Commynes believes) by his brother, and his brother is dead on the field at Bosworth. Charles, Duke of Berry, is dead, as is Francis, Duke of Brittany, and Frederick III will soon follow. Commynes, from being the closest friend and advisor to the king, is cast into an iron cage. France is set for a new round of wars, and Burgundy, Commynes’ homeland, has been destroyed and subjugated. So why, in the end, wonders Commynes, should anyone bother with ambition? Nobody can more fully subjugate a man than by his own fears; to be fearless is to treat others well, and that requires having as little to do with great affairs of state as possible. And so I’ll end where our author ends, and give Philippe the final words…
“Thus you have seen so many great men dying within a few years of one another, men who laboured so hard to increase their power and attain glory, but who experienced such sufferings and toils, and thus shortened their lives – and perchance their souls could be the worse for it…
…But to speak plainly, as a man who has no learning, save for some little experience he has gained, would it not be better for them and all other princes, and for men of medium station who have lived under these great ones and will continue to live under those now reigning, to choose the middle way in these matters? That is, to burden themselves with fewer cares, to work themselves less hard, to undertake fewer enterprises – and to have greater fear of offending God and persecuting their people and their neighbours by cruel means… …and, instead, enjoy ease and honourable pleasures? Their lives would be the longer for it, illnesses would come later, and their deaths would be the more regretted by a greater number of people, and looked forward to by fewer, and they would have less reason to fear death.
The most splendid examples of humanity give us to realise what an insignificant thing is a man, and how miserable and brief this life is. Neither the great nor the small, as soon as they are dead, are anything; and everyone holds the corpse in horror and loathing, while the soul, on the instant, must be judged. And already sentence has been passed upon it, according to the works and merits of the body.”