THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

30 August 2012

The Art of Chivalry: The Texts of the Talbot Shrewsbury Book

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Detail of a miniature of the storming of Corunna by Broadas, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 207r

 

The stunning images in the Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Royal MS 15 E. vi) are not the only treasure hidden between its covers (see our earlier post about the manuscript). Its contents are a unique collection of fifteen texts in French, compiled for a very important patron, the future Queen of England. Their subjects range from history to romance to military strategy - the common theme throughout is the art of chivalry. This was a fitting subject for a military commander such as John Talbot, the 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, who commissioned the work and presented it to Margaret of Anjou, future wife of Henry VI, probably on her arrival in Rouen in March 1445 on her way to England. Whether or not the young Margaret found the military manuals and statutes of the Order of the Garter as entertaining as the tales of Alexander and the romance of the Swan Knight, this was certainly a wedding gift to be treasured and passed on to future generations. Sadly, her only son, Edward, Prince of Wales, was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, but this manuscript was certainly in the Royal library in the reign of Charles II, two centuries later, and remained in the Royal collection until its donation to the British Museum (now, of course, the British Library).

Stories of heroes and heroines of the past, both real and imaginary, in the form of chansons de geste (troubadour’s songs) and chivalric romances, fill two thirds of the volume. These are followed by more didactic texts in the form of chronicles, instructional manuals and statutes. Each text begins on a new folio in a separate gathering, and were all joined together in a single volume, with a list of contents on the verso of the first folio.

Two of the greatest heroes of the past are the subject of the first six texts in the collection:

 

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Detail of a miniature of Alexander encountering blemmyae, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 21v

 

Alexander the Great

Le Livre de la Conqueste du Roy Alexandre is a French translation of the legend of Alexander, in which he is portrayed as the ultimate hero who conquers the known world, does battle with flying dragons, meets Amazonian women and horned men, and is lowered into the sea in a cask. Included here are tales of his childhood and legendary education by Aristotle, the murder of his mother, Olympias, and details of his successors. There are 81 colourful miniatures illustrating Alexander’s legendary exploits. The one above shows him meeting the Blemmyae, men-monsters with their heads in their chests.

 

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Detail of a miniature of Charlemagne and four kings, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 25r

 

Charlemagne

The next five tales are set in the time of Charlemagne, the great military hero and Holy Roman emperor, whose reign provides the background to a huge epic cycle involving a plethora of subsidiary characters. The first four texts are in the form of chansons de geste and the fifth is a prose romance.

Simon de Pouille relates the events in the war between Charlemagne and Christian Jerusalem on the one side and Jonas of Babylon, on the other. Simon, one of the emperor’s companions, is sent as an envoy to the Saracen leader, a task fraught with difficulties.

Aspremont tells of Charlemagne’s campaigns in Italy. Aspremont is one of the peaks in the southern Appenines though which the army advances on the way to Rome.

 

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Detail of a miniature of Charlemagne and Fierabras with the relics, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 70r

 

Fierebras is the tale of Charlemagne’s battles with the Saracens and of the encounter between his army and Fierebras of Alexander, in which the Crown of Thorns and other relics are recaptured for the Christians.

Ogier le Danois links the tales of Charlemagne with Arthurian legends, as common characters and places are introduced. Ogier, the Danish hero and enemy of Charlemagne, marries an English princess and becomes King of England, bearing a son by Morgan le Fee while he is shipwrecked on Avalon.

 

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Detail of a miniature of Charlemagne at a table; and Aymon's sons on Bayard, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 155r

 

Quatre fils Aimon or Le livre de Renault de Montauban tells the story of four brothers who flee from persecution by Charlemagne, going on a crusade on Bayard, the magic horse. Renault eventually becomes a stonemason at the cathedral in Cologne and after his death his body develops miraculous properties.

 

Other romances

Two prose romances of Anglo-Norman origin and a chanson follow:

Pontus et Sidoine, adapted from the French version of the Anglo-Norman romance, King Horn, tells the story of the son of the King of Galicia and the daughter of the King of Brittany and their love for one another. A tale of chivalry as well as a moral treatise, it glorifies peace as a worthy aim for all, even knights and soldiers.

 

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Detail of a miniature of Guy of Warwick as a courtier and pilgrim, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 227r

 

Le Romant de Guy de Warwik et d’Heraud d’Ardenne was one of the most popular romances in medieval England, judging from the number of copies that survive in both French and Middle English, mostly in verse. There are, however, only two known copies in French prose, of which this is one. Guy is an English knight who falls in love with a lady of high standing and must prove himself worthy to win her hand. He is taught chivalry by his foster-father, Heraud, and embarks on a series of successful adventures, but later comes to regret his violent past and goes on a crusade, then retires to a hermitage.

 

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Miniature of a knight in a boat drawn by a swan; miniature of a mother in bed, with seven children in a  cradle, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 273r

 

The last romance in the collection is a chanson called Lystoire du chevalier au Cygne, an abridged version of part of the vast Crusade cycle. The tale of the seven children turned to swans and of Hélias, the swan knight, was linked to the legendary origins of Godefroi de Bouillon, one of the leaders of the First Crusade (1096), who became the first ruler of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.

 

Didactic texts

The remaining third of the manuscript (from folio 293 onwards) contains texts which are more didactic in nature, perhaps intended for the instruction of Margaret of Anjou or of her future sons and heirs. There are three works on chivalry and warfare, an instructional manual for kings and princes, a chronicle and statutes.

Larbre des batailles is a treatise on war and the laws of battle, written for a wide audience in the style of a scholastic dialogue; a question is posed, both sides are debated and a conclusion follows.

Le gouvernement des roys et des princes is translated from Gilles de Rome’s De regimine principium, the Mirror of Princes, an influential text which interpreted (sometimes loosely) and promoted Aristotle’s political and moral philosophy to a medieval audience. It combined practical advice with philosophical guidance for rulers.

 

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Detail of a miniature of Aubert and Ide, Robert the Devil, and Charlemagne, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 363r

 

Chroniques de Normandie is a history of the region from the 8th century to 1217. It begins in the time of the legendary Aubert and his son Robert le Diable, during the reign of Pepin, father of Charlemagne, the early part up to 1189 being a prose version of Wace’s Roman de Rou. The sources of the continuation from 1189 onwards have not been established beyond doubt, though there are parallels with other chronicles of the period such as Ralph of Coggeshall and Matthew Paris.

Breviaire des Nobles is a poem on the values of chivalry, beginning ‘Je Noblesce, dame de bon vouloir…’.

 

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Detail of a miniature of Henry VI enthroned giving the earl of Shrewsbury the sword as constable of France, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 405r

 

Le livre des fais darmes et de chevalerie is a work on military strategy and the conduct of war, compiled by its author, Christine de Pizan in 1410, from a variety of sources, both ancient and contemporary, for the instruction of young knights. Although as a woman she had no direct experience of fighting, she succeeds here in producing an authoritative work on the subject, worthy to be translated and printed by Caxton in 1489.

The Statutes of the Order of the Garter (here written in French) are the rules for the government and organisation of the chivalric order founded by Edward III in the late 1340s. The original statutes do not survive and this version is slightly different from the four early texts which were printed by Ashmole in his comprehensive work on the subject in the 17th century. Included are rules pertaining to foreign travel by members of the Order, to uniforms and to the guardianship of the order in the king’s absence.

 

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Detail of a miniature of the Chapter of the Garter, a king and knights gathered around an altar surmounted by George and the dragon, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 439r

 

- Chantry Westwell

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