Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York
 


     
  The French of England:
Multilingualism in Practice, c. 1100-c. 1500
 
     
 
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“Que vous n’oubliez pas le françois”:  The Shrewsbury Book and the Circulation of French Chivalric Material in Fifteenth-Century England

Andrew Taylor, University of Ottawa

 
     
 

In 1445 John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury commissioned a massive compilation of French chivalric material, now B.L. Royal 15 E VI, to present to Margaret of Anjou on the occasion of her marriage to Henry VI. In addition to the initial dedicatory poem, which Talbot appears to have composed himself, the book contains chansons de geste, romances, including a prose version of Guy de Warwick, a chronicle of Normandy, political and military treatises including Christine de Pisan’s Fais d’armes, statutes of the Order of the Garter, and genealogical tables setting out Henry’s claim to the French throne. Although the manuscript has attracted some attention from art historians, it has been largely ignored by editors, most of whom dismissed it (when aware of its existence) as a late, foreign compilation. Nor has the manuscript had much impact on literary history, either English or French, for which works such as Fierabras, Ogier le Danois, or the Chevalier du Cygne still belong to twelfth and thirteenth-century France. But the manuscript, which appears to have been copied from exemplars that came from England, testifies to a significant circulation of French epic among fifteenth-century English aristocrats. Much work remains to be done on the texts, but Emmanuel Mickel, Jr. and Jan Nelson showed as early as 1971 that at least one, that of the Chevalier du Cygne is not a garbled abridgment but rather a coherent version of three branches of the First Crusade Cycle, which collates “perfectly with the other extant manuscripts.”

It seems very likely, as Catherine Reynolds has suggested, that Talbot had already commissioned copies of the texts for a personal collection, which were then either transferred or recopied to make a hasty wedding present. (Talbot had only eight months before Margaret was to arrive in Rouen and all the goldsmiths in the city were already working flat out.) This massive French compilation can thus be seen as a witness to an act of chivalric self-fashioning that was then abandoned in favor of more direct act of courtly self promotion. Reynolds has concentrated on the latter, noting in particular how the volume as it now exists stresses Henry’s claim to France and thus promotes Talbot’s hawkish politics. In this paper I wish to concentrate on the former, considering how the reading program in Talbot’s personal collection as it was originally conceived reflects on his sense of identity and, in particular, why Talbot, who seems to have been something of an English nationalist, chose to draw exclusively on French materials.

 

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