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A Model Historian

How to read this phenomenal history by a truly great medieval man . Translated into modern (almost) English by another really good guy.

Be charmed first: try this excerpt--

"The king of England ordered ten knights bannerets, and forty knights bachelors, in company with the bishop of Lincoln, who was a right valiant man, to cross the sea, and to go straight to Valenciennes, to treat with those lords of the empire, whom the earl of Hainault had named, and to act as he and his brother John might advise. When they were arrived at Valenciennes, all were emulous of the state they should hold, and spared no expenses; for if the king of England had been there in person, they could not have done more, by which they gained great renown and reputation. There were among them many young knights bachelors, who had one of their eyes covered with a piece of cloth so that they could not see with it. It was said they had made a vow to some ladies in their country, that they would never use but one eye until they had personally performed some deeds of arms in France; nor would they make any reply to whatever questions were asked them; so that all marvelled at their strange demeanour."

Of course, it goes without saying, the best way to start is to avoid the introduction and scholarly appendages at the beginning. Go straight to Froissart himself. Sometimes, thereās nothing like the lofty, scholarly view to take all the joy out of history and you can avoid it by jumping right in:

Froissartās History

If you do like that sort of thing before you get started (don't say I didn't try to warn you and it's not proofed yet, nor complete), go here:

A Memoir and an Essay on Froissart

If you want a hint before you get started, or just my opinion on the best way to approach this my favorite History, then read on:

(Although, this page too, probably ought to be at the end-- along with the other commentaries, but I kind of think that since I typed, marked it up for the web, proofread endlessly, gently emended and scanned all the pictures of the 1600 pages myself, there has to be a perk.)

(Also note that I soon discovered why all those scholars had such long prefaces, Torey [my kid, and sternest critic] says this is far, far, too long and could have been said better in about 4 sentences--Sigh! It's true, too, and she's right.)

Despite all that, or just ignoring good advice, or maybe in my own defense, I am ranting on anyway:

(Since this guide of mine really is too long, and I am feeling a little guilt about it--feel free to go straight to the good stuff--)

Froissartās History

Remember . . . because I did do all this work, for free, though, you are reminded that I must think it is very special, especially because it is great History. In fact, it was the reason I started Elfinspell. One of my purposes is to find examples of wonderful History (read Enjoyable History here), and this is my top example. I also know it is important history. It just happens to be the most significant and important primary source document of the fourteenth century as well. It is also fun.

My reason for this Intro is to give you a few hints to best appreciate Sir John and his words before you meet him. Consider it good manners maybe, or like a little chat outside the room before the formal introduction of new friend to old friends by me -- the friend in between -- whoās drumming up support, and who wants everybody to welcome the stranger into our midst.

As usual, once you are intrigued by the work itself, and want to know what others think about the man and the book, you can come back and read the the other folks' (sometimes stifling) words that can give it some perspective. But it could kill any interest in proceeding if you start off with those ivory tower guys right off. These words, by those far less talented at writing readable material, are useful, but they donāt whet the appetite for Froissart and his book by a long shot.

After reading enough of the Chronicles and should you find that you agree with me about the importance of Sir John, now you can better appreciate those essays. By then, though, you will have the correct opinion -- that this is great history, and great literature. When you have reached this point, now you might be interested in what some experts think. At this point it wonāt change this basic view that you have formed on your own. Plus, you will be far more tolerant and forgiving of the high-falutinā, tedious language in the essays because these experts do love this work and its author (as you do by now) but like a lot of us, they canāt convey this appreciation and affection very well.

About their opinions. . . Donāt take their views as gospel, or those of any of the critics of Froissart, because, -- and especially in Froissartās case -- your view is just as important as anybody elseās, and your judgment is as sound as theirsā, too.

Why is that, you ask?

Well, itās because Froissart has so little competition as a primary source for the time of which he writes. After reading him you will know almost as much as anybody on the planet about this period in history.

You have a chance to to be a better critic than some of them. With a few reminders, you can also be a fairer judge (if you want to be, and I sincerely hope that you do!) than many who take a stand on the value of this text. With these few hints, you will draw the correct conclusions as you read. The following reminders are those that some of his critics forget, or didnāt bother to remember.

1. First, don't judge by a page or two, or a chapter or two.

My impression is that many of the critical attacks came from those who formed their opinion of Sir John from excerpts. Excerpts are like statistics, you can use āem inappropriately and often unfairly to make any case you want to make.

One of the main examples of a critical misrepresentation of this Chronicle is by those who state that Froissart is Pro-British, Anti-French. Those who say this probably have read the excerpts published in English by the English, which for some reason (you figure it out) make it look pro-British. I defy anybody to read the first 400 pages of unexcerpted Froissart, and pay attention, and think that this is pro-British.

In fact, after going past excerpts to the full text, I now question much of my beliefs on English history, not to mention the glorious age of chivalry, after reading Sir John's work. But then partisanship has always been the bane of history and the curse of historians.

Froissart is less partisan, by far, than the majority of historians throughout the ages. Those that excerpt him unfairly to give that impression of partisanship have done both the work, and the man, and all his readers a significant disservice. (But almost anybody that reproduces any primary source material at all is wonderful, donāt get me wrong, or I would never have been led to the entire Froissart in the first place.)

2. Secondly, remember Froissart's job and his bosses.

Realize that the man who wrote this history, Sir John Froissart, to give him his full name and title, lived during most of the time about which he writes: the fourteenth century-- the 1300ās-- smack in the middle of the Middle Ages.

Itās always a precarious prospect to write of the times and people who control your very existence. Bad press meant not only poverty but possibly death. Despite this, his history is far more honest and fair than most who wrote history before and after him. He could have been partisan and done well, but nobody else, outside the country whose side he took, would have talked to him and he would have failed in his goal of a complete accounting of the Hundred Years War. This is about as impartial as a contemporary chronicler can possibly get and live to write about it.

His first volume, being successful on all counts, was the beginning of a long career as the major historian we have of this huge portion of the age of chivalry, the Hundred Years War and the fourteenth century itself. He lived in the midst of most of the events he is writing, both the child and the key author of this time. It is the most complete account of 100 years of European society, politics, ethics, manners and morals of a period that is so attractive to us. That time that to so many seems to have been filled with the romance of knights in armor, damsels in distress, gallantry along with plague, brigandage, feudalism and your basic pillaging and murder as usual.

3. Third, the book he wrote is still around to read.

Judge him, by the proof of his success lying before you. His work has survived 700 years. Not only that, he was good enough at it to make a long, long career of it. It was no easier task to get published and to have a profitable career in writing or teaching than it is now. Very few authors or historians, past or present could, do, or will be able to make a similar claim.

4. Fourth, Compare his work to others with the same job.

Consider what he has done so well, and see if you can match it, should you wish to repeat his example. Or, as a wise reader, use his work as a touchstone: to judge others who attempt what he has done, to see if they can meet his standard.

Kings, queens, dukes, countesses and a lot of others of all ranks, from the ćPeerageä down to the ćCommonsä, have read Froissart by choice, both as entertainment and as history. If it had been boring, improbable or one-sided, you know what would have happened to him and his history.

What has Sir John done?

He has created a living, breathing History that people have read for 700 years for pleasure!

All who bought his work were rich enough to have had many, many choices on how to amuse themselves, and often they chose to read him in their spare time. The people who published his work did so to entertain folks and not to forced upon belabored, bored, disengaged students or for the rarified, world of academia.

This then is popular history at its best. Froissart is as accurate as he could be with the resources available to him and he is entertaining enough to slip in a whole lot of learning at the same time, without your being aware of it, as you move along.

Sure there are some boring facts and dates, and the requisite tedious details of history but it is all forgiven because this is inserted in and around the good stuff!-- what it takes to be a good knight, what it takes to be a worthy damsel, foolishness, horrors committed by the mighty and the lowly, some conversational tidbits, a little medieval gossip and a few legends. Some hilarious scenes of stupidity in armor, and buffoonery are there as well.

Any mistaken notions you may have of powerless peasants, invincible kings and lords, oppressed women, religion and chivalry in action (and the lack of it), as well as the powers of the merchant class will change forever. Now you can know and judge wisely the views that have been fed you by todayās history teachers (and let's not forget Hollywood) and most of the books easily available to us on these subjects.

5. Consider who Froissart was writing for.

Remember, that Froissart assumes that you are intelligent. He understands that anybody who reads for pleasure is smarter than the average bear (which you are). He expects you to draw the right conclusions from the facts he presents (which you will . . . I do believe in your good sense).

He also expects you, as a courteous reader, to consider a few of the dilemmas that faced him as he undertook his task. So ask yourself the same questions that he must have asked himself on how best to accomplish his goal. The questions were probably the same that you would ask yourself now, if you were trying to do the same thing he did.

The perfect example of a question you might ask yourself is this one:

How would you go about this thorough historical job of his if you were there? Especially if you hope (like he does) to be hired (which he was) by the Queen of England and your resumé, your party piece, has to include her husbandās massive defeat by the Scots. . .the touchiest of subjects.

How do you do this and get the job and the money to reimburse your expenses and a little more (and get to keep doing it for SIXTY years!)?

Read Froissart. He knows the answers to these questions. He did it. Sir John reported this humiliation in the first volume and the book was the start of his career, despite a full description of this incident.

6. Froissart had high professional and personal standards. In fact, he was an exemplar of untarnished chivalry.

Another question to ask yourself, as Sir John did:

If you want to get some live sources to talk to you to add all the detail necessary for an accurate history, how would you have to do it in about 1350 A.D.?

Sir John tells you. If your history is to include all of Europe and be given by the people involved on all sides of the war, there has to have been a high degree of faith by your sources that what was to be recorded was done so fairly and accurately. He did not betray their trust. The proof is 1800 modern printed pages long, in very small print to boot.

Since Froissart traveled all over Europe for eye-witness accounts and added to his histories for so many years, by boat, horse and foot, through terrifyingly unsafe paths, he had to have credibility. Nobody would have talked to him if he had ever failed them in his promise of fairness in reporting. That he survived his journeying, chose reliable traveling companions, made appropriate preparations and accommodations along his way, says a lot about his judgment, of his times as well as of his fellow man. It seems clear that he possessed not only excellect judgment but a quick-wittedness, adventure-loving, tolerant and flexible spirit.

How did he get this unbelievable level of cooperation from the highest people in his world?

The premise of his book was a pretty great inducement:

ćTHAT the honourable enterprises, noble adventures, and deeds of arms, performed in the wars between England and France, may be properly related, and held in perpetual remembrance--to the end that brave men taking example from them may be encouraged in their well-doing, ·ä

Who would not hope to be included? This man, low in the feudal hierarchy, a mere Sir, was patronized and invited and welcomed and dined with the most powerful nobles and royalty in Europe. And he was given safe passage to do so by the enemies of these same nobles, who had entertained him in their turn. They gave him money, presents, praise, and respect, no matter which side of the war they were on. Top that, all you writers and teachers, if you can, I dare you!

He had a grand time doing it as well. It was his work and his pleasure, he tells you so himself:

ćThe true reason of my undertaking this book was for my amusement, to which I have ever been inclined, ·ä

Reviewers who forget his main task, and the essential diplomacy required to pursue his job and thus make enough money to pay for parchment, ink and travel expenses have been unjustly critical of Froissart. They are being not only unfair, but insensitive as well--not too bright either, because they didnāt get It·. It being what Froissart expects from the reader -- an understanding of what his task was and how he must do it successfully.

7. To interpret the author a little more justly, read between the lines.

Because of the above constraints imposed on him, Sir John expects you to realize that just because he reports an act of outrageous brutality, it does not mean that he supports it. How long would he have been able to carry on his task, if he had labeled evil as evil, stupidity as stupidity, or called the far too frequent acts of cruelty, cowardice and betrayal by using these words?

You know the answer, and he expects you to know it.

Does this mean he makes no judgments?

Not at all. As he states from the git-go, if you (not You this time, but one of the people who gets to be in his book) do a good deed, if you are gallant, courteous, chivalrous, brave, moral and all the other best qualities of mankind (or womankind), he notes it, loudly and clearly.

So look for those simple adjectives as the proof that he does recognize the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, vice and virtue. When a battle was full of heroic deeds, then it was a fair fight (relatively).

On the other hand, the absence of the adjective is as good a condemnation as a curse. There is no mention of gallantry, chivalry or courtesy when people are put to the sword, towns burned to the ground, nuns raped or soldiers desert their comrades.

He also throws in some polite complimentary adjectives, carefully placed, while he then goes on to report the less admirable doings of his characters (often his employers or hosts). Without the occasional compliment, nobody would have tolerated the description of the bad deeds he wrote down. The oleā Spoonful of Sugar Method** works!

Sir John knows that you, an intelligent person, will draw the right conclusions and you will. You can supply the outrage and he expects you to do so --because he could not do so openly and be able to accomplish his task successfully. Because he didnāt (and couldnāt) condemn or berate or moralize, he was able to report these events as he heard them, from those who performed these same terrible deeds. But because he didnāt openly judge, the facts can be heard today, so that you can do so.

How Froissart continued to report all the evils done by so many, and for so long is truly amazing. He was able to do this partly because he would not blanketly condemn, whether a duke or a king or a country. Most could and usually did have good and bad deeds to their credit over the years he writes and both descriptions are there. I assume that the people were able to swallow any negative press they got because when they were gallant, he reported that, too. From the days when there was no freedom of the press, itās a pretty impressive example of the ideal journalist as well as the ideal historian.

8. Last but not least.

Finally, Froissart remembers the most important talent of any historian. The ability to get his work read. History unread is no history. To learn any of the lessons of history, and to profit by past lessons learned, requires reading it!

The historianās job is to make his history as accurate and as readable as possible, which means it has to be enjoyable. Froissart (along with Herodotus and Thucydides and Hollywood, once again) knows that itās the details of time, people and place, the quirks, peccadilloes, the oddities, the silliness of customs and manners-- these Īantiquarian detailsā-- that makes history teachable to most of us. People are history, as individuals and as a whole. Details about the personalities, the odd customs, the specifics of morality are the sweet and spicy examples that flavor the whole banquet.

In these pages, you will find yourself liking many people, hating others, laughing, weeping and sighing as you finding traces of yourself and of your own country in The Olden Time, as well as meeting many people you wish you had known personally as you read along.

Finally, Froissartās Chronicle is a testament of the nature of mankind and the glories and the evils of individuals and nations. Frequently, and sadly, he proves how little progress has been made from those days in humanity, civility and morality.

Many of the lessons his characters finally learned back then, have been forgotten by us who are still struggling with many of the same challenges. That is our fault as a society. We have made learning a chore, and history distasteful. We havenāt done as good a job as Froissart did. He did influence others when he was read. He needs to be read again. Maybe he can help us still, if we let him speak again where people can hear.

Oh, I forgot another plus, St. Johnesā has included PICTURES!

I hope, truly, that you like this friend of mine as much as I do. The trip to Froissartās Medieval Europe is a marvelous adventure.

Huic! huic!*!



* Huic is Latin for the equivalent, sort of, of 'Tally-ho' or 'Get ready, set, go!' Use it often and loudly,. . . I do.

Note (1)

** (Possibly paraphrased, this is from MY MEMORY [I'll double-check this later] of Mary Poppins, sung by Julie Andrews, Walt Disney Productions):

ćA spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,
The medicine go down,
The medicine go down,
A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,
In a most delightful way.ä


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