PHILIPPE DE COMMYNES was probably born in 1447 at the castle of Renescure in the county of Flanders. In 1453 his father died leaving him an orphan with an inheritance burdened with debts. In 1464 he went to the court of his godfather, Philip the Good of Burgundy, and entered the service of Philip’s heir, Charles. He was knighted in 1468 and became chamberlain to Charles the Rash. He was present at numerous military campaigns against the French and other enemies, and had ample opportunity to observe Charles and his counsellors. During the following years he played an increasingly important part in Burgundian court life and diplomacy but in 1472 he transferred his allegiance to Louis XI of France. Commynes lost all his possessions in Flanders but his losses were soon made good by his new master with a succession of gifts and pensions. More importantly, Louis rewarded him with his confidence, and Commynes became one of his most valued counsellors for several years. After a period of disfavour at court, when Commynes could not avoid entanglement in the devious power struggles of the French nobility, he was once more entrusted with official missions by Charles VIII from 1491 to 1495. From that date until his death in 1511, although still a very active man, he was given no more important assignments. He completed his memoirs in 1498, leaving a document of unique importance as a historical source for Western Europe in the second half of the fifteenth century.
MICHAEL JONES was born in 1940 and educated at Rugeley Grammar School, Leicester University and Trinity College, Oxford. He was a tutor at Exeter University in 1966-7. Since then he has lectured in history at Nottingham University. He became interested medieval Europe at Oxford and specialized in French history. He is the author of Ducal Brittany 1364-1399 (1970).
- Further Reading
- Note on Manuscript Abbreviations
- Map: France & Burgundy
- BOOK 1: The War of the Public Weal, 1465
- BOOK 2: The Wars against Liège and the Interview at Péronne, 1466-8
- BOOK 3: The Franco-Burgundian War, 1470-72
- BOOK 4: The Anglo-French War of 1475 and the Downfall of the Constable of France, the Count of Saint-Pol
- BOOK 5: The Overthrow of the House of Burgundy, 1476-7
- BOOK 6: The Last Years of the Reign of Louis XI, 1477-83
Commynes was probably born in 1447 at the castle of Renescure not far from Aire, at that time part of the county of Flanders. His family had been rising in the world through service to the counts of Flanders and their successors, the Valois dukes of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, John the Fearless and Philip the Good. The family’s modest fortunes were made when Commynes’s grandfather, Colard van den Clyte married Jeanne de Wazières, lady of Commynes, around the year 1374. Colard and Jeanne had two sons, Jean, the elder, who succeeded to the lordship of Commynes, and Colard, whose second wife was Margeurite d’Armuyden. This couple were the parents of Philippe.
Colard de Commynes had a relatively short and stormy career in the service of Philip the Good. His harsh administration was the cause of riots on one occasion and when he died in June 1453, his wife having predeceased him, his son Philippe found himself an orphan and his inheritance considerably burdened with debts. It does not seem too extravagant to suggest that Commynes’s later and very evident concern with money stems from the difficult times which he experienced in his youth. A law-suit over the costs of his father’s funeral was still being disputed some years after his own death, and there is evidence that although his cousin and guardian Jean did his duty, Commynes’s education and upbringing was limited by penury. The lordship of Renescure had been seized because of Colard’s debts, and it was not until 1464 that Philippe was allowed to regain it. On 1 October 1469 Charles the Rash, duke of Burgundy, who had succeeded his father Philip the Good in 1467, finally remitted the outstanding debts owing from Philippe’s succession to his father. While in Burgundian service Commynes was normally referred to as the seigneur de Renescure.
The first definite date we have for Commynes’s biography is 1464. In that year, probably in the late autumn, as he mentions in the first paragraph of his Memoirs, he went to the court of his godfather, Philip the Good, and was attached to the service of Philip’s heir, Charles, count of Charolais. It was in the company of Charolais, on the campaign which that prince led against Louis XI in the War of the Public Weal, that Commynes first experienced warfare, fighting beside Charolais at the battle of Montlhéry (16 July 1465). He was later present at the distruction of Dinant (25 August 1466) and at the campaigns against Liège in 1466, 1467 (when he was at the battle of Brusthem) and in 1468. But as young esquire — he was knighted in 1468 and became a chamberlain to Charles the Rash — Commynes had no important role in the formulation of Burgundian policy. He must, however, have had ample opportunity to observe Charles and his closest counsellors in the two years before he succeeded his father — men like Guillaume Hugonet, Guillaume de Cluny, Philippe de Crèvecoeur and Guillaume Bische, who are frequently mentioned in the Memoirs. In the very first months of his service with Charolais he also witnessed the humiliation of the Croy family, which had exercised considerable influence over Philip the Good in his dotage.
During these early years in public life there are few glimpses of Commynes. He is extremely reticent and guarded in the personal details which he gives us, and his career has to be pieced together from the snippets of court chroniclers — Olivier de la Marche, for example tells us that in 1468 Commynes took part in the jousts to celebrate the marriage of Charles the Rash to Margaret of York — or from occasional administrative documents. In 1467 Commynes was at Ghent, where he received forty-eight livres1 from the duke for his services, and in 1468 he was sent to Coutrai and Ypres on missions concerning the collection of ducal taxes. Then, in October 1468, came one of the most important events of Commynes’s life. At the celebrated interview between Charles the Rash and Louis XI at Péronne, he acted in such a way (in what way it is still not entirely clear from his own cryptic remarks and from the independent evidence of other sources) that Louis XI believed thereafter that he owed his life largely to Commynes. In the following years Commynes seems to have played an increasingly important part in Burgundian court life and in diplomatic affairs, though again it is difficult to discern whether he had any influence on the formulation of policies which he was called upon to represent. He was present at the meeting between Charles the Rash and Sigismund of Austria in 1469 and in 1470, he fulfilled a mission to Calais to the English governor, John Lord Wenlock. Most editors of the Memoirs have assumed that Philippe visited England and have attempted to date this visit to 1470-1. But there is absolutely no evidence to support this view, and my own belief is that such vague allusions as are made to this supposed mission in fact refer to the jounreys to Calais, which was, of course, under English rule at this time. Commynes’s acquainance with English conditions and politics may derive from the conversations he had with Lancastrian and Yorkist exiles at the Burgundian court, or from his meetings with English diplomats whilst he served Louis XI, and not from a personal visit to England. In 1471 he visited Brittany and Castile, probably on diplomatic business, though his stated reason was a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. There is evidence to suggest that it was on these missions in 1471 that Commynes again came into contact with Louis XI, that a sum of 6,000 livres tournois, which was deposited with Jean de Beaune, merchant of Tours, in Commynes’s name, probably came from the King and that the Burgundian was playing a double game. Again, the Memoirs say little or nothing about the purposes of these missions. The Castilian mission is alluded to simply in an aside when Commynes is describing a meeting between Louis XI and Enrique IV which took place in 1463.
The most important event in Commynes’s life is dismissed in a couple of sentences: ‘About this time in 1472, I came into the King’s service…. He was at Ponts-de-Cé, where he marched and was making war on the duke of Brittany’ (see Book Three, Ch.11,i) Commynes had been accompanying Charles the Rash on another campaign in northern France one which had left a trail of devastation behind it, when he suddenly left the duke beneath the walls of Eu on the night of 7-8 August 1472, and fled across Normandy to join the King on the Loire not far from Angers. Like so many events in Philippe’s life this one is open to several interpretations. It has usually been assumed that Louis XI had gradually been increasing his pressure on Commynes to win him over as he had been winning over other supporters of the duke of Burgundy and of his other enemies (See Book Three, Ch.1) . This interpretation seemed plausible after the publication of evidence to show that Louis XI had seized Commynes’s deposit with Jean de Baune shortly before his flight. Recently it has been suggested that this seizure (which can also be interpreted as an agreed ruse between Commynes and Louis XI to throw Charles the Rash off the scent of his chamberlain’s double-dealings) was Louis’s means of bringing to an end some even more subtle dealings on Commynes’s part in which he was trying to dupe both Charles and Louis. At the present time, since the evidence of such a view is completely lacking, we must return to a bare recitation of the known facts.
The duke’s anger at the flight of his chamberlain is seen by the speed of his reaction. At six o’clock on the morning of 8 August he ordered the confiscation of Commynes’s goods and gave them to the lord of Quiévrain. But if Commynes lost all his possessions in Flanders, his losses were soon made good by his new master, Louis XI. A succession of important gifts, pensions and grants (many of these of dubious legal validity resulting in years of expense and litigation for Commynes) quickly followed. On 28 October 1472 a pension of six thousand livres tournois was given to ‘Sir Philip de Commynes, knight, lord of Renescure, King’s counsellor and chamberlain’. In the same month Commynes received the principality of Talmont and the baronies, castles, castellanies, lands and lordships of Olonne, Curzon, Château-Gaultier, la Chaume and Berrye in Poitou. At about the same time the King gave him 30,000 gold crowns to help him purchase the lordship of Argenton (Deux-Sèvres) from his future father-in-law. On 27 January 1473 he married Hél;ène de Chambres and became lord of Argenton It is by the title ‘sire (or seigneur) d’Argenton that he is usually referred to in French documents. In the meantime he accumulated a series of titles and offices, including the captaincy of Chinon. In 1476 he became senschal of Poitou and captain of the castle of Poitiers in succession to Charles d’Amboise, lord of Chaumont. Over the course of some four years Commynes had thus obtained a considerable landed fortune and achieved status in France through the favour of the King. After 1477 the gifts to him continued but they were on a smaller scale. He received a rent of 262l. 10s. 11d. from the confiscated goods of Jacques d’Armagnac, duke of Nemours, in September 1477, from properties in Tournai, 1,000 livres tournois for the fortification of Argenton and payments as captain of Chinon. In the meantime he invested money with merchants at Tours and probably with the Medici bank which had a branch at Lyon. But besides showing favours to Commynes this material way Louis XI rewarded him, more significantly, with his confidence.
In a remarkably short space of time Commynes became one of the most valued counsellors, if not the most valued, of the French King. Between the end of 1472 and the beginning of 1477 he was almost constantly with the King, exercising what one commentator has called powers of an all-powerful prime minister. It is doubtful whether Louis XI ever allowed himself to be manipulated by his ministers during this critical period of his struggle with Charles the Rash, but the personal knowledge of the Burgundian court, Burgundian resources and Burgundian attitudes which Commynes possessed would be invaluable in planning and executing the complex diplomatic schemes which Louis was using to entrap the duke. Commynes thus played a leading role in the events which led to the downfall of the count of Saint-Pol, the Constable of France (a dominant theme in Books 3 and 4 of Memoirs); in the efforts to entangle Charles the Rash in German affairs; in the negotiations with Edward IV of England, leading to the treaty of Picquigny, after the abortive Anglo-Burgundian invasion of France in 1475; and in the exploitation of Charles’s defeats at the hands of the Swiss in 1476. His diplomatic horizons were broadened by his journey with the King to Lyon in 1476, over the problem of the succession of René of Anjou in Provence, and by contacts with Savoyard and Italian statesmen, especially Cicco Simonetta, the powerful adviser to the duke of Milan. During the last six or seven years of Louis XI’s life Commynes seems to have specialized in Italian affairs. He had many dealings with the Milanese ambassadors and, above all, with the Republic of Florence.
The tradition that Commynes remained the most trusted adviser of Louis XI from the time of his flight from Burgundy until the King’s death (a view which Commynes does little to refute in his Memoirs) has recently been very strongly challenged by M. Jean Dufournet. He has, to my mind, convincingly demonstrated that after a disagreement with Louis over the correct way in which to exploit Charles the Rash’s death at Nancy in January 1477, Commynes never again held the position of influence which he had had during the previous four or so years from September 1472. Although I do not agree with M. Dufournet’s ideas on the purporses and nature of the Memoirs, he correctly points out that Commynes’s appointment as captain of the castle at Poitiers, and secondment to Poitou by Louis XI in the middle of the campaign to capture the Flemish and northern French territories of Charles the Rash, broke the close links between two men who had seldom been out of each other’s company for five years. Like the reasons for Commynes’s original defection, the reasons for his dispute with the King remain difficult to fathom. Can we take him at his face value and accept that it was principally a disagreement over the proposed marriage of he Burgundian heiress to the Dauphin or another French prince, as he states in his Memoirs? Or was it, as M. Durfournet suggests, a dispute that had arisen as a result of Commynes’s wish to take advantage of Charles’s death to recover his own patrimony in Flanders, in return for rendering services to the Flemings by obtaining more favourable terms from Louis XI? Is it significant that Commynes after his mission to Picardy with the Admiral of France in January 1477 (see Book Five, Ch. 11) was never again given a commission to do anything in this region which he knew so well? Deceived in his hopes of restoring his personal fortunes in Flanders, did this give him added reasons for condeming the King’s lack of success in exploiting the Burgundian succession to the full? Louis had ignored his advice and listened to other agents whose incompetence he berates at some length. Commynes certainly admits to contacts with some of Louis’s enemies in 1477 and mentions that the King entertained some ‘small suspicion’ about him. Again, the evidence for Commynes’s role is lacking. On the other hand he definitely seems to have been displaced at court by a number of other leading counsellors. Among them were Jean de Daillon, lord of Lude, Louis d’Amboise, bishop of Albi (who is mentioned only once in the Memoirs: see Book Six, Ch. 6), Boffilo del Guidice, Jean Bourré, Ymbert de Batarnay, lord of Bouchage and by 1479, Charles d’Amboise, lord of Chaumont, Pierre de Rohan, lord of Gié and Marshal of France and another ex-Burgundian, Philippe de Crèvecoeur, lord of Cordes. All these men received more extensive gifts and favours than Commynes from Louis XI in the last years of his reign and their names appear much more frequently in documents, if not in theMemoirs.
Commynes’s fortunes began to revive in 1478. He was made a knight of the Order of Saint-Michel. He supported Boffilo in negotiations with Venice and in April he was sent on a mission to the duchy of Burgundy.2 But once more Commynes was in danger of disgrace. After receiving the submission of Dijon with the lord of Bressuire in May, he himself informs us that the King was displeased with him because he acted unfairly in assigning billets for the occupying troops; probably he had accepted bribes from leading citizens. Luckily just then Louis XI felt it necessary to send an envoy to Florence to congratulate Lorenzo dei Medici on his escape from death at the hands of the Pazzi conspirators. Without bothering to recall Commynes to court, Louis dispatched him post haste to Florence, thus removing him from Burgundy and the problems created by the attempt to incorporate the late duke’s lands into the kingdom of France. Travelling via the court of Savoy in Turin, and Milan, Commynes renewed on Louis XI’s behalf various promises, used his influence to strengthen opposition to Pope Sixtus IV and hurriedly passed on to Florence, which he reached in the last week of June 1478.
In Florence Commynes’s main task was, with the assistance of Lorenzo, to renew the French alliance with Milan. This was done on 18 August. But not a word of this appears in the Memoirs, although he does mention that when he returned through Milan he received the homage from the dowager duchess on behalf of her son for the duchy of Genoa, which the Milanese recognized was held from the King of France. Once more the discretion of the writer, his selective amnesia and a dearth of more reliable evidence make it difficult to judge what Commynes achieved by this mission. Certainly Lorenzo paid flattering compliments to Commynes in the letters which were sent to Louis XI, but the political crisis in Florence was not really stabilized in the struggle against the papacy and Naples until Lorenzo made his famous journey to Naples to meet King Ferrante in the following year. The military value of the Franco-Milanese alliance to the Florentines was minimal, despite its public reaffirmation of Milan on Commynes’s return from Florence. The eulogies which followed Commynes from Milan likewise fail to cover up the slender results of his embassy, although they may have served to strengthen Commynes’s advocacy of Milanese and Florentine interests once he was back in France. The death of Yolande of Savoy, Louis XI’s sister, just before Commynes returned to Turin again, may have presented him with an opportunity to promote Louis’s interests. He was in correspondence with the Milanese and others who were anxious about the fate of the young duke of Savoy. He may have helped to send the princesses of Savoy on to the French court and he gave evidence of his pro-Burgundian sympathies by intervening to help some Burgundian refugees, whom Louis XI did not want to employ, to get safe-conducts to go to Florence. On all these events theMemoirs are largely silent, or where they do recount aspects of the very complex diplomatic negotiations between France and the Italian states Commynes’s account sometimes conflicts with facts about which he has personal knowledge. As M. Dufournet has, for example, shown, he condemns Bonna of Savoy, dowager duchess of Milan, in his Memoirs for having applied a policy which he himself had advocated in 1478 and which had helped to bring about the death of Cicco Simonetta. Commynes was in correspondence with rivals in the Milanese state and his personal wishes may on occasion have led him to follow lines directly contrary to those Louis XI wanted to follow, as surviving letters suggest, illuminating his role where the Memoirs conserve a discreet silence.
Shortly after his return to court, where it seems that Commynes was welcomed more warmly than he had been by Louis XI for two years, the King suffered his first serious illness (see Book Six, Ch. 6). Commynes was able to serve him in a very personal and intimate way, looking after his bodily needs during his illness and interpreting the King’s wishes and commands to his other servants. Despite this renewed intimacy Commynes’s political influence seems to have been much reduced in comparison with the earlier years of their relationship, being confined almost entirely to Italian affairs. In 1479 he was giving his advice to the Milanese, informing them of plans to deceive the English ambassadors with regard to the proposed marriage of the Dauphin and Edward IV’s daughter (see Book Six, Ch. 1) and warning them to tread carefully as the Emperor and Louis XI were at loggerheads. On 11 March 1480 he wrote to Lorenzo dei Medici recommending a man to his service and referring to ‘several important matters concerning the King about which he has charged me three or four times to write to you on his behalf’. A little later he wrote a pass for Francesco Gaddi, the Florentine envoy in France, which shows he still had some influence and gives us a confirmatory glimpse of the extraordinary life at Plessis during Louis XI’s last years: ‘Master gatekeepers, allow Francesco Gaddi, bearer of these letters to pass, whenever he wishes to come to visit the King or me. Farewell…. Yours Commynes.’
Previously, in May 1479, when Louis’s illness probably served as a good excuse for him to avoid embarrassing diplomatic meetings and the Milanese ambassador was being frustrated in his desire to see the King, it was Commynes, together with Boffilo del Guidice, who showed him certain documents on their own initiative. Much of Commynes’s correspondence at this time takes on a cloak-and-dagger aspect. Many of his letters are short and cryptic, several contain a request that they should be burnt or otherwise destroyed by the recipient and we know that he must have destroyed many confidential communications sent to him. As the Memoirs are largely silent about this period an example may not be out of place and the following autograph to Gaddi, possibly dated September 1479, will serve as one:
Francesco, Jacques has written to me that you are coming on Wednesday and that you have been wanting to talk to me for a long time. I cannot come until Friday morning but you can write safely to me by the bearer [of these] for I throw all your letters on the fire and you can have a reply where you are or, if it is necessary, at Lyon. Farewell. From Montsoreau. All yours.
The letter is unsigned but it is in the characteristic large, angular handwriting of Commynes, writing which nearly all modern authorities have commented on adversely.
Besides his mental services to Louis XI and his involvement in the imbroglio of Italian politics, Commynes, in the last years of Louis, made journeys to Dauphiné in October 1479 and Savoy in the winter of 1481-2. Lorenzo dei Medici continued to address numerous letters to him. Louis XI favoured him by staying at Argenton in November and December 1481, after a second bout of illness and Commynes joined the King on his journey to Saint-Claude in 1482. But as the letters to Gaddi and other evidence illustrate, Commynes was not a constant companion of the King and on occasion he could be deceived by the King; he was not always aware of the King’s movements. There is considerable evidence to show that in the last years of Louis’s life, although on occasion he was found to be with the King, he was not a constant companion at Plessis, except during the last days of August 1483 when Louis lay on his death-bed. This helps to explain the strictures which Commynes both explicitly and implicitly levelled against those who were with the King when he was at Plessis. The death of the King, moreover, when Commynes himself was only thirty-six years old, inaugurated a period of misfortune for him which, since power in the state passed to the Beaujeus, his personal enemies began to recoup their losses now that his protector was dead.
This was not immediately apparent. Commynes continued to sit in the royal council until 1485 and he played an important part in the Estates-General called at Tours in January 1484. But shortly after Louis’s death sworn affidavits were drawn up in which it was testified that the late King had admitted that he had fraudulently dispossessed the heirs of Louis d’Amboise, vicomte de Thouars, of Thouars and the principality of Talmont. A few days before he died, the King had asked the Dauphin to reinstate them, compensating Commynes for his losses. This legal dispute with the powerful Trémoïlle family was but one of the processes which Commynes was forced to fight in an attempt to vindicate his claims to the various grants made to him by Louis XI. In this case, he was forced, in March 1486, to restore Talmont to Louis de la Trémoïlle, but already he had begun to side with enemies of the regents of the young Charles VIII, his sister, Anne, and her husband Pierre de Beaujeu, younger brother of John, duke of Bourbon. By early 1484 Commynes was aligning himself with the Orléanist faction which rivalled the Beaujeus. In April he was sent to Brittany to give Duke Francis II the official French answer to a number of complaints he had made and it may have been on this occasion that the league of dissident princes, Orléans, Alençon, Angoulême and Brittany, which was to oppose the Beaujeus in the Guerre Folle, began to form. By October 1484 the factions crystallized as the Beaujeus sealed alliances with René II, duke of Lorraine, the duke of Bourbon, the lords of Albret and Comminges and others, while by supporting the Flemmings hostile to Maxmilian they hoped to weaken the foreign support for the Orléanists. In Brittany the Beaujeus suborned dissident Bretons with huge pensions and supported them against the duke. Orléans put himself at the head of opposition in January 1485 and issued manifestoes condemining the regents for governmental malpractices, much as the rebel princes had done in the War of the Public Weal some twenty years before.
Commynes observed these manoeuvrings and he managed to steer clear of being identified with the rebels until, once more for reasons which are not clear, he fell out with René of Lorraine and was chased from court. He was forced to throw in with the Orléanists and, on their capitulation in September 1485, a sign of Commynes’s own renewed disgrace was his loss of the seneschalcy of Poitou and his replacement by Ypres du Fou. In October he sought refuge with the duke of Bourbon at Moulins where he was soon joined by René of Lorraine. He, in his turn, had fallen out with the Beaujeus and was about to pursue certain claims of his own in Italy. According to Lorenzo Spinelli, writing to Lorenzo dei Medici on 13 May 1486, Anne de Beaujeu had made an offer to Commynes that if he accompanied Lorraine to Italy he would have his office and lands restored. Commynes was in a quandary and he himself asked Lorenzo dei Medici for advice, ‘for in the state my affairs are in I have great need of counsel like yours’. But Lorraine had already missed his opportunity in Italy and so Commynes was forced to rely on the duke of Bourbon for protection. He accompanied the duke to the French court in the summer of 1486. Yet Bourbon was playing a devious game and as a result of a public reconciliation with the Beaujeus he dismissed Commynes from his service, so that he was once again forced into the Orléanist faction. He joined the still rebellious princes who formed a new league in December 1486. But their resistance was disorganized. The conspirators split up and Commynes was arrested at Amboise in the middle of January 1487.
The next six months were spent by Commynes in one of Louis XI’s famous iron cages at Loches castle, and then from July 1487 to March 1489 he was imprisoned at the top of a tower in the Conciergerie of the Palais de Justice at Paris where his conditions of imprisonment were only marginally better.3 Almost immediately on tranference to Paris, Commynes confirmed the confession of his guilt which he had made earlier. But though a number of accomplices, the bishops of Périgeuex and Montauban and the lord of Bucy, were released in 1488 it was not until March 1489 that Parlement finally pronounced on his case. He gave a caution of 10,000 gold crowns, forfeited a quarter of his goods to the King and he was exiled to one of his estates for ten years.
Dreux was chosen as the place for Commynes’s exile. He had obtained estates there through dealings with Alain, lord of Albret, in 1485. While he had been in prison the la Trémoïlle family had not only pressed ahead with their case over Talmont but had occuppied Argenton to compensate themselves for their losses in Poitou, and Louis de la Trémoïlle, leading the royal army, had finally defeated the duke of Orléans at the battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier on 27 July 1488. This completely crushed oppostion to the regents and confirmed Commynes’s enemies in power. Thus it was to Dreux that Commynes withdrew to begin his exile, to restore his private affairs to order and to prepare for he re-entry into politics. It was at Dreux that he began to write his Memoirs to while away what was left of his time. A few months later he was given permission to move around the kingdom again. In July 1490, for example, he left Lyon after a visit which was most likely connected with the claims he was pressing against the Medici branch bank there. A sentence in the Memoirs (see Book Five, Ch. 1.ii) may be translated as meaning that Commynes was at Lyon when he composed this part of his work.
In 1490 and 1491 he was gradually recovering favour at the French court. He accompanied Charles VIII to Brittany and was present at the handing-over of Nantes by Alain d’Albret in February 1491. His return to favour coincides with a general reconciliation of the various factions in the summer, and in July he received a gift of 30,000 livres to be paid in four instalments. In the meantime he tirelessly sought to establish his rights to his scattered estates against numerous rivals and to persuade the Medici to refund his deposits in return for offering them his political services.4His position at court was strengthened by the marriage of Charles VIII to Anne of Brittany in December 1491 which led to the reduction of Bourbon influence. But Commynes was more an observer on the periphery than a participant in policy-making. He may have been acting more cautiously after his bitter experiences since Louis’s death but he was probably also excluded beacuse he was not trusted implicitly. He was a participant in the negotiations leading to the treaty of Senlis (23 May 1493), in which Charles VIII came to terms with Maxmilian of Austria and arranged for the return of Marguerite of Flanders5 which was an essential preliminary if Charles were to invade Italy safely.
Everyone was aware, as the Italian ambassadors frequently pointed out, of Commynes’s considerable abilities, but he was not permitted to enter the closest councils of Charles VIII and his intrigues and posturings cannot hide his lack of real influence. He could be useful on occasion. The Italian states, particularly Florence, used him to represent their interests at the French court. There is some evidence to suggest he was open to bribery. In France he sensed the way the wind was blowing and, although he was not a passionate advocate of Charles VIII’s plans to invade Italy, he was ready to play his part, arming a galley for royal service and taking his place among the first to cross the Alps with the King. His most important task at this time was to represent France at Venice during the critical months October 1494 to May 1495. Yet even here Commynes was not really trusted. Charles VIII starved him of information and ignored his warnings and advice. He was outmanoeuvred by rival ambassadors and he could not prevent the sealing of the Holy League on 31 March 1495 between Maxmilian, king of the Romans, Pope Alexander VI, the king of Spain, the duchy of Milan, and Venice, to chase Charles VIII out of Italy under the cover of an attack on the Turk.
On leaving Venice Commynes visited Florence, where he met the famous Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola who had recently come to power in a revolt which had led to the exile of the Medici family. He promised to use what influence he had on the Florentines’ behalf in their dispute with Charles VIII over the future of Pisa, in exchange for promises relating to his own private financial interests. After rejoining Charles VIII on his return march from Naples, Commynes played a distinguished and courageous role in the battle of Fornovo (6-7 July 1495), both as a soldier and as a diplomatic negotiator. After the battle he was involved in very complex diplomatic overtures leading to the treaty of Vercelli (9 October) in which Ludovico il Moro, duke of Milan, was detached from the Holy League. Then Commynes was sent to Venice to try to obtain the Signory’s adherence to his treaty. But he was unsuccessful and on his return to Milan he found that Ludovico had gone back on many of his promises, alleging similar failure on he part of Charles VIII. What promises Commynes could obtain from him were extremely vague and he returned to France, his mission fruitless, in December 1494. At court the peace party was momentarily in the ascendant and Commynes was heavily criticized. He continued to be consulted on occasion but he was not given any important assignments, and it was in the three years after his return from Italy that he wrote his account of Charles’s expedition which makes up Books 7 and 8 of the full edition of the Memoirs. In the last years of Charles VIII’s reign (he died in 1498) and the first years of Louis XII’s reign Commynes cuts a rather pathetic figure. On the accession of his former rebel lord, Louis duke of Orlé, as King, Commynes’s failure to achieve recognition may have been due to his criticism of Louis’s plans to divorce his first wife, Louis XI’s deformed daughter. Still a very active man, Commynes is to be found pleading and intriguing for court favours, but although for ever optimistic that his services will be us use to his sovereigns, he gets little satisfaction. Most of his time seems to have been spent on his private affairs, administering his estates, quarrelling with his neighbours, arranging the marriage of his daughter, pursuing the Florentine government or contesting several long-drawn-out legal battles. In 1505 the favour of Anne of Brittany (now married to Louis XII) resulted in the restoration of a small pension and his appointment as an ordinary chamberlain of the King, and in 1507 he accompanied Louis to Milan. But his last years were chiefly spent contentiously dealing with domestic matters. He died at Argenton on 18 October 1511, aged about sixty-four.
In judging Commynes’s Memoirs it is important to bear in mnd the vicissitudes of his career, his imporverished youth, his service to Charles the Rash of Burgundy, his brief period of favour and importance under Louis XI from 1472 to 1477, the cooler relationship of the King’s last years, his political misfortunes in the mid 1480s, his imprisonment, his partial return to active political life and the frustrations of his last years. A number of dates, 1472, 1477, 1483, 1487, and 1495, plot this chequered career, and we must now turn to the Memoirs to see how they fit into this sketch of Commynes’s life.
According to the Prologue Commynes undertook to recount from his own experience what he knew of the life of Louis XI for Angelo Cato, archbishop of Vienne. Cato planned to write a history of the King’s reign in Latin and he had asked Commynes to provide him with some of the material. Cato was a Beneventan who had come into the King’s service as a doctor and astrologer in the late 1470s after coming north of the Alps in the entourage of Federigo, prince of Taranto, in 1475 (see Book Five, Ch. 3.i) He quickly established an important place at Louis’s court (the King’s increasing infirmities being one of the chief reasons for this) and he enjoyed a great reputation as an astrologer (see Book Five, Ch. 3.i). Louis rewarded him with the archbishopric of Vienne in 1482. But besides his scientific reputation Cato was also deeply interested in history. It was for him that Dominic Mancini wrote an account of Richard III’s usurpation of the English crown in 1483, shortly after a visit to England, and Commynes’s references to him in the Memoirs draw attention to this side of his career. 6
On the face of it, Commynes had a perfectly justifiable reason for writing his Memoirs. They were to be materials for a full-scale history and Commynes could afford to be more informal in the presentation of his account because this would later be shaped by other hands. But after a very short acquaintance with the work it can be seen that, despite occasional specific remarks addressed to Cato and references to events about which he knew Cato had personal knowledge, Commynes seems to be writing for a much wider public. Hence the lengthy didactic passages in which he directs remarks to princes, young noblemen and others who may read the Memoirs. In this respect, therefore, his belong to a long medieval tradition of ‘mirrors for princes’, a fashion which humanist scholarship was to adopt on a considerable scale in the next generation or so. In France alone Commynes was soon to be followed by the more formal treatises of Claude de Seyssel (La Monarchie de France, 1515) and Guillaume Budé (L’Institution du Prince, 1518) while in Italy the most famous tract for the times, Machiavelli’s Il Principe, was written in 1513. But besides the ostensible reason for his writing and the object which soon emerges from a study of his text, Commynes seems principally to have been writing to justify his own career. Far from providing a dispassionate survey of the events of Louis’s career, approximating as closely to the truth as he claimed he would in the Prologue (see Prologue, opening para.), Commynes’s account has been skillfully constructed to gloss over certain discreditable incidents in his own life, to hide facts about the changing nature of his relationship with Louis XI and the essential failure of his career. A case can be made for arguing that Commynes, in his Memoirs, was getting his own back on his numerous enemies. Far from being the simple, honest account of a faithful servant, it is the work of an extremely embittered, devious politician and the controversial textbook view — expressed as recently as 1966 by Professor Denys Hay — that Commynes ‘had a detachment which gives his pages the very highest authority’ and that he provides ‘an anstonishingly cool analysis of the reigns of Louis XI and Charles VIII’ is very wide of the mark. The great nineteenth-century German historian Leopold von Ranke noted that it was impossible for Commynes to be impartial and there is enough obvious criticism of Louis XI to make us aware that the bias is not all against his first master, Charles the Rash. The omissions and critical judgements on certain figures who are mentioned in the course of the work should make us wary about accepting them at their face value without a very careful scrutiny.
Commynes did not, as far as we are aware, use many of the traditional aids — earlier chronicles or documentary sources — for the compilation of his work though there are one or two interesting parallels between the account he gives of the battle of Montlhéry and some other contemporary accounts, which suggest that he may have had some earlier version before him when he compiled his own, and he could probably have had access to documents such as those in Cato’s collection. But Commynes chiefly relied upon his memory. Unfortunately no aide-mémoires, jottings or early drafts for the Memoirs have survived and there is no one archive which contains anything in the nature of a collection of his private papers, though a corpus of estate documents from Argenton has survived through their incorporation in the archives of the Penthièvre family, whose chief representative, René de Brosse, count of Penthièvre, married Commynes’s daughter in 1504.
Commynes possessed a library which contained an assortment of classical and medieval authors of a largely conventional type. The main feature of the surviving examples of this library are a number of de luxe manuscripts — a two-volume St. Augustine, City of God, in the French translation of Raoul de Presle, of which the first volume is at The Hauge 7 and the second at Nantes,8 is possibly the most sumptuous. There is a two-volume Froissart (British Museum, Harley MSS 4379-80) and the same library possesses another French translation of the Facta et Dicta Memorabilia of Valerius Maximus (Harley MSS. 4374-5) which once belonged to Commynes as can be seen from the armorial bearings in the miniatures. In the first volume his arms (gules, a bordure and chevron or, three escallops two and one argent) are quartered with those of his mother, while in Volume Two his arms appear alone, in some instances painted over the earlier quartered arms. Commynes possessed the translation by Jean de Vignay of James of Voragine’s Legenda Aurea 9 — a collection of saints’ lives — and part of an epitome of classical historians, Jena Mansel’s La Fleur des Histoires,10 as well as a number of devotional books — an Hours of Paris (B.N., MS. latin 1417) and another Book of Hours (B.M., Harley MS. 2863). It used to be thought that as early as Whitsun 1474 he commissioned Jean Foucquiet, the leading illuminator of his day, to execute a Book of Hours but this manuscript has not survived. Or, alternatively, it may have been confused with a very fine Hours of Paris now ascribed to Jean Colombe and his atelier (formerly in the Huth collection and still in private hands), done for Commynes and his wife, which was displayed as no. 327 in the exhibition ‘Manuscripts à Peintures en France du XIIIè au XVIè siècle’ at the Bibliothèque Nationale Paris, 1955.
Although Commynes commissioned a number of these works (the Froissart, for example), or obtained manuscripts which were not complete and had them finished (the City of God may have been begun for Jacques d’Armagnac, duke of Nemours, who was a great bibliophile), he does not seem to have had a great urge to collect books. At one stage in his dispute with the Medici he may have had an opportunity to obtain part of their library as a security but he did not take it. Nor did his acquaintance with humanist Francesco Gaddi, with whom Commynes had considerable correspondence, owned a rich library, which included both classical works and those of leading Italian writers of the previous two centuries, including Dante, Boccaccio, Lorenzo Valla and L.B. Alberti, and he was a friend of men like Politian and Ficino, Ermolao Barbaro and Pico della Mirandola, but there is nothing to suggest that Commynes was aware of this. His literary tastes were thoroughly conventional. His acquaintance with classical history was second and third hand. Valerius Maximus’ work has been described as ‘a multitude of more or less edifying anecdotes’ extracted from Livy, Cicero, Salust and other authors, while the part of Jean Mansel’s work which Commynes owned (Les Hystoires Rommaines) likewise contained extracts from these classical authors or from Leonardo Bruni’s fifteenth-century version of the first Punic war. There is little evidence that Commynes actually read any of these works, though there is a tradition that he did (see Intro. Footnote 28 and corresponding quote). None of the surviving manuscripts have any significant marginalia which could be attributed to him and several of them look in such suspiciously good condition that they do not appear to have received much use. Literary references in the Memoirs are very restricted — two mentions of Livy and one of Boccaccio in Books 7 and 8, those written after his visit to Italy in 1494-5. If he did, however, read some of them — the prologue to his copy of Mansel’s Fleur des Histoires, for example — they may have helped to crystallize some of his own ideas and confirm him in his view (see Book Two, Ch. 6) of the importance of history as a training and education for rulers. But this was not a novel idea in fifteenth-century thought.
Many, indeed, of the ideas which Commynes used in the moralizing and reflective parts of his Memoirs were common currency in the thought of his time. The following passage could easily be part of the Memoirs with reference perhaps to Ghent:
There was never a city, however, rich and flourishing, which did not fall into great dangers as a result of small errors. Some came to complete ruin in this way. Therefore if I seem to you and others to be hesitating and slow or even timid and diffident in these matters the reason is that I am deterred at the outset by examples from any conflict. A blessed and happy city should embrace peace and so avoid being exposed to fortune and mutability. But I think this is less dependent on the effects of fortune than on our own folly. Men who lack education and are not moderate in their attitudes can do a great deal of harm to their cities. They rule the state with more spirit than prudence and do not measure purposes or dangers.
It comes in fact from the preface to the Commentaria Rerum Graecarum, a translation from Xenophon by the famous early Florentine humanist Leondaro Bruni, written in about 1439. 11 Bruni goes on to say:
I have been persuaded by these considerations to write the Commentaries — for I prefer to tell of others’ errors than our own — in which you will see the diverse calamities and downfalls and the wonderful turns of fortune of the most powerful cities of Greece.
Such musings on Fortune and on the revolutions that occur in the lives of men find another mode of expression (but one which would be almost equally at home in the Memoirs) in this extract from a letter written by Sir John Paston a few days after the battle of Barnet in which the earl of Warwick was killed on Easter Day, 14 April 1471:
God hathe schewyd Hym selffe marvelouselye lyke Hym that made all, and can undoo ageyn whan Hym lyst; and I kan thynke that by all lyklyod schall schewe Hym sylff as mervylous ageyn, and that in schort tyme; and, as I suppose, offer then onys in cassis lyke. 12
In an interesting essay Jean Liniger 13 sought to show that for Commynes God provided the stable element he could not find in the world. God replaces Fortune as reason replaces arbitrary action. Liniger emphasized the masculinity of Commynes’s God. There is no mention of Christ inMemoirs (though when the ambiguous phrase ‘Our Lord’ is used such an assertion may be false) and there is little suggestion in his work of the tenderness expressed in the artistic representations of the Pietà which became popular in Commynes’s lifetime. He expected God’s punishment in this world as much as in the world to come. The Memoirs make no mention of the Devil. All this may reflect, indeed almost certainly does reflect, Commynes’s own experiences and his rationalization of them. Liniger tried to demonstrate that in the course of his imprisonment Commynes experienced some sort of conversion, that for the first time his faith, which had been superficial and typically representative of his social class, became something real. Readers may like to test this statement against the numerous discussions of Providence — whether it be God or Fortune — in this work. A few details of Commynes’s private life, such as the disgraceful attempts to defraud the widow of one of his agents in Tours over the farm of the gaballe which she was managing for him (before his ‘conversion’ in the early 1480s) and the petty episodes (after his conversion) in which he smashed some church windows because they bore the arms of one of his vassals, or took part in a seigneurial jurisdictional dispute over the disposal of a dead body, not to mention his constant attempts to regain his influential position, exhibit little of the equilibrium and moderation which Liniger suggests are the principal characteristics of our author. There is little here to confirm that Liniger is right in suggesting that Commynes was a man who thought out his actions thoroughly and did not act rashly. We cannot dismiss the possibility of a spiritual conversion and the fact that the period of imprisonment was one in which, perhaps for the first time in his adult life, Commynes had adequate time for reflection. But it is difficult to interpret most of his remarks on God in the Memoirs in anything but a conventional framework, and this is one more illustration of his drawing on a common fund of ideas when he was not specifically thinking about ot describing matters from his own experience.
Very little in the literary make-up of Commynes prepares us then for some of the novel aspects of his own writings. It has already been suggested that it is probably valid to compare him with the writers of more formal treatises on government, while his break with the traditions of historical writing, especially by chivalric authors, was brilliantly demonstrated by Huizinga. Wheras Froissart, Monstrelet, Chastellain, Olivier de la Marche and others all begin their accounts with remarks about their intention to glorify feats of knighthood, and then proceed to catalogue indiscriminately a whole series of personal encounters and not a few bloody and treacherous deeds which do little to support the authors’ high-sounding declarations, there is none of this in Commynes. Froissart’s prologue begins:
In order that the honourable enterprises, noble adventures and deeds of arms which took place during the wars waged by France and England should be fittingly related and preserved for posterity, so that brave men should be inspired thereby to follow such examples, I wish to place on record those matters of great renown.
However, from the start Commynes recognizes human imperfections: ‘In him [Louis XI], and in all other princes whom I have known or served, I have recognized good and evil for they are men just like ourselves and to God alone belongs perfection’ (See Book One, Ch. 1) Whilst when it comes to the description of a battle,
Commynes abstains from all heroic fiction: no fine exploits, no dramatic turns; he only gives us a realistic picture of comings and goings, of hesitations and fears. He takes pleasure in telling of flights and noting how courage returned with security. He rejects all chivalrous terminology and scarcely mentions honour, which he treats almost as an inevitable evil. 14
Contrast his account of the battle of Montlhéry (see Book One, Ch. 3 and 4) with that of the battle of Crécy, 1346, in Froissart 15 where,
it is true that too few great feats of arms were performed that day, considering the vast number of fine soldiers and excellent knights who were with the King of France. But the battle began late and the French had a long and heavy day before they arrived. Yet they still went forward and preferred death to dishonourable flight.
Foissart gives us a tragi-comic picture of the death of the blind King of Bohemia who demanded to be led into battle by his retainers so that he could strike a blow:
Because they cherished his honour and their own prowess his knights consented…. In order to acquit themselves well and not lose the King in the press they tied all their horses together by the bridles…. They were found the next day lying round their leader, with their horses still fastened together.
That these men about whom Foissart was writing were brave cannot be denied but their bravery was a form of charade masking political realities and plainly ignoring military science. Commynes mentions at the battle of Montlhéry some of the innumerable mêlées, which constituted the proper stuff of chivalric battles according to Foissart and his successors, but he did so not usually to single out individual feats of bravery, but to show in an objective way how the battle plans broke down. Yet at the same time he conveys a bird’s eye view of the way in which the battle was fought and of the actual topographical details of the battlefield which is unique in the literature of the later middle ages. Commynes appreciated recent changes in the art of war — the increasingly impersonal character of warfare because of the introduction of effective artillery, the use of massed archers (not such a recent innovation but one which chivalric writers referred to, if at all, only in slighting terms) and of infantry. In these respects, especially in his remarks about the value of artillery throughout the Memoirs, Commynes breaks with chivalric traditions and the nearest equivalent to his treatment of battles may be found in the factual newsletters which were frequently sent after them, where literary flourishes were not required. In a similar way Commynes’s character sketches with their analysis of defects and motivations, especially the famous chapter on Louis XI (see Book One, Ch. 10), strike a new sophisticated note, far from the conventional eulogies or deprecations of princes by earlier writers. His remarks on the conduct of diplomacy probe beneath the ceremonial and artificial aspects of this form of human intercourse to the basic underlying motives of the men involved. Commynes may not have been such an astute diplomat as he likes to suggest in the Memoirs but his exposure of diplomatic realities (and ruses) again strikes a new note in historical writing.
All the evidence for dating the Memoirs has to be derived internally in the absence of other sources. The conditions of Commynes’s imprisonment were hardly conducive to the composition of the Memoirs, although he may well have planned them in outline. Even at Paris steps were taken, when he was given permission to hear mass whenever he wished, to see that he did not speak to the officiating priest and we may suspect that every effort would be made to stop him sending letters to his friends by depriving him of paper. We do not know when he actually began to write though it can be seen from internal contradictions and allusions that the work was composed over a considerable period. John, duke of Bourbon, who died on 1 April 1488, was already dead by the time Commynes began to write (see Book One, Ch. 2, Footnote 8). In Book 2, Chapter 8, Commynes says it is sixteen years since the dispute between France and Aragon had broken out over Roussillon (see Book 2, Ch. 8). Since this began in 1473, it suggests that this chapter was written in 1489, while in Book 6, Chapter 12, Mathias Corvinus, King of Hungary, who died on 4 April 1490, is referred to as already dead. Hugues de Chalon, sire de Châteauguion, was alive at the time of the composition of Book 5, Chapter 2. He died on 3 July 1490. In Chapter 4 of the same book Charles de Savoie, who died 13 March 1490, is mentioned as alive. A passage in Book 6, Chapter 3, referring to the cession of the county of Ferrette by Sigismund of Austria to his nephew Maxmilian (see Book Six, Ch. 3) suggests an addition in 1493. From such indications it is generally accepted that the first six books of the Memoirs, those translated here, were composed between 1489-91 with a partial revision in the manuscript of 1493. By using similar internal evidence from Books 7 and 8 it has been agreed that the major part of them was written in 1495-6 with corrections as late as 1498.16
No autograph manuscript of the Memoirs, nor any part of them, nor any manuscript that can safely be ascribed to the lifetime of the author has survived. In the absence of such manuscripts there is plenty of room for hypothesis as to the actual process of composition and to the author’s original text. It is usually assumed that Commynes dictated his Memoirs — he must have been very used to composing orally since many of his letters were written for him and he merely added an autograph subscription. Composition by dictation goes some way to explaining the stylistic idiosyncracies of the work — the long disorganized sentences, with numerous sub-clauses, the way in which the author mentions a point which obviously sparks off a new (and often apparently irrelevant) train of thought which causes him to incorporate long digressions within the same sentence or paragraph, and the meandering nature of some of the narrative. Some of the obscure passages and inconsistencies could be attributable to bad handwriting (see above, Letter to Francesco Gaddi) but it is probably significant that one of the best manuscripts (that kept at the Musée Dobrée, Nantes) has a frontpiece showing Commynes dictating his Memoirs.
The Dobrée manuscript, which may be dated to the early sixteenth century, belonged to Jean d’Albret, lord of Orval, who in 1486 married Charlotte de Bourgogne, countess of Rethel, second daughter of Jean de Bourgogne, count of Nevers and a cousin of Philip the Good. We can easily understand why Jean d’Albret, who was once in dispute with Commynes over the county of Dreux and who died in 1524, thus had a copy of the Memoirs. The manuscript that can be most closely associated with Commynes, however, is one which was executed around 1530 and is the only one to contain the complete text of the Memoirs. This belonged to Anne de Polignac, niece of the author through her mother, Jeanne de Chambes, sister of Commynes’s wife. The manuscript is now in the Bibliothèque Nationale 17 and the same library possess two other important manuscripts of the Memoirs, dating from the first half of the sixteenth century, 18 while a fifth manuscript is still in the possession of the representative of the Montmorency-Luxembourg family. Another in private hands (those of the comte de Vogué when B. de Mandrot described it) bears the date 1520. This manuscript contains the first six books of the Memoirs and is the only handwritten one to have a date on it, but the text adds nothing to the others previously mentioned. One final manuscript must be mentioned, although it is now lost. It is the one which Denis Sauvage used when preparing his famous edition of 11552 and which he referred to as an ‘exemplaire vieil à la main’. Its text was very similar to that of the Dobrée manuscript, although in its original state the manuscript was a much rougher one. It had some passages, later deleted, not in the Dobrée manuscript, which Sauvage was still able to read.
While examples of Commynes’s Memoirs were still being produced in elegant manuscripts, with hand-written illuminations, the first published versions were appearing. The editio princeps came from the press of Balliot du Pré in April 1524 with the title Chronique et hystoire faicte et composée par feu messire Philippe de Commines. This contained the first six books, while the final two books appreared with the titleChronique de roy Charles huytieseme de ce nom in 1528. In 1539-40 a number of editions combining the two parts appeared, and in 1552 the first critical edition, with the printed text divided into books and chapters for the first time (the Dobrée manuscript has a rather similar set of divisions) was published by Sauvage. This edition formed the basis of subsequent seventeenth- and eighteenth-century versions in which the text was often very usefully augmented by documentary proofs. One such edition was that produced by the efforts of Theodore and Denis Godefroy in 1649 for which the young Louis XIV went to the press in the Louvre and drew the first sheet, and it is particularly the case of the edition of the Abbé Lenglet du Fresnoy, Mémoires de messire Ph. de Commines, 4 vols., Paris, 1747. Many of his documents were republished, in extensowhere necessary, by Mlle. E. Dupont who provided the earliest of the important modern editions of the Memoirs.19 She based her work on three manuscripts in the then Bibliothèque Royale. 20 In 1881 R. de Chantelauze produced an edition, based on the Montmorency-Luxembourg manuscript, which also contains useful remarks on syntax and a serviceable glossary. This was followed in 1901-3 by the remarkable edition of B. de Mandrot which was based on the Polignac manuscript. 21 This also took into account all the other important manuscripts and added very valuable notes, identifying those mentioned in the Memoirs and filling in the historical background. The final modern edition and the one on which this translation is based is that of J. Calmette and G. Durville which takes the Dobrée manuscript as its basic text.22 Ambiguities still remain. Perhaps some of them will be solved when M. Jean Dufournet has completed the new edition which he has promised, taking the orthography of Commynes’s surviving letters as well as the manuscript of his work into full account.
Linguistic studies of Commynes’s language tend to suggest that he preferred new and recent words to older ones, that he employed few latinisms (this of course ties up with his claim that he did not know Latin well, though it is unlikely that a leading fifteenth-century diplomat could have been entirely ignorant of this language) and surprisingly, in view of his upbringing in Flanders, he exhibits few traces of provincialism in his writings. Despite the use of homely and picturesque phrases and the constructural defects of the Memoirs they are written in what, for the late fifteenth century, was modern French. The most apparent defect, at least to the translator, is the limited nature of Commynes’s adjectival vocabulary and the range of meanings that can be assigned to words like grand, saige, fort, and tant. Conversely, difficulties can also arise because Commynes uses a large number of synonyms; for example, there are at least six forms of the verbs ‘to negotiate’ or ‘to think’, twelve forms of the noun ‘quarrel’ and so on. When Commynes does borrow words it is usually from Italian, which he came to speak with considerable proficiency. Such words are most noticeable in Books 7 and 8, naturally, but an early example in Book 1 is the use of conducteur, an obvious gallicization of the Italian condottiere. But these borrowings are on a very limited scale.
It was about Commynes’s writings that Michel de Montaigne, in his famous essay On Books,23 wrote, ‘You will find the language smooth and agreeable, and of a natural simplicity.’ He went on to give a critique of the author’s work which, with modification, has been most widely accepted until our own day (except by certain Flemish and Belgian historians who could never quite forgive Commynes for his desertion of Charles the Rash):
The narrative is clear, and the author’s good faith shines plainly through it. He is free from vanity when speaking of himself, and from partiality and malice when speaking of others. His speeches and exhortations show honest zeal and regard for truth, rather than any rare talent; and he displays an authority and seriousness throughout which proclaim him a man of good birth, brought up amidst great affairs.
Sainte-Beuve, in one of his celebrated Causeries du lundi, reviewing Mlle DuPont’s edition of the Memoirs, called Commynes the first truly modern writer and said that his work was the definitive history of his times, a monument of naïté, truth and finesse. His appreciation of the literary qualities of Commynes’s work has probably not been surpassed but dissenting voices were heard about Commynes’s historical veracity. These critics were roundly condemned by B. de Mandrot in an essay in the Revue historique (1900-01). This, while admitting minor imperfections (particularly with regard to inexactitude in the matter of dates — a serious enough fault in a historian), nevertheless sought to show that in terms of overall historical comprehension and judgement Commynes stood comparison with any of his contemporaries and that our own verdicts are remarkably like his. Far from providing us with a panegyric of his late master, Louis XI, he drew a portrait in which a lot more than warts appeared. His other judgements were equally judicious. Calmette, in his turn, was indulgent towards the errors of chronology and even rescued Commynes from unjustified slights on his reputation by showing that de Mandrot was at fault on occasion. For Calmette, too, the literary merits of the Memoirs were self-evident and already adequately covered in modern French literary criticism. He agreed with the views of Montaigne on Commynes’s impartiality.
What has occured to shake these traditional views of the Memoirs? Two scholars, working independently and largely in ignorance of each other (as far as can be told from their publications) have recently begun to give us the fruits of their very considerable reseraches. Perhaps it is surprising that Commynes has avoided so long the eager attention of thesis-writers whon so many less interesting and less significant writers have received critical assessment. What is now certain is that Commynes scholarship can never be the same again, even if the results of these researches are not fully accepted or assimilated.
With great thoroughness Karl Bittmann is examining Franco-Burgundian relations during the reigns of Louis XI and Charles the Rash in an attempt to test Commynes’s account against other documentary sources. His method was first demonstrated in an article in the Historische Zeitschrift,1957, in a critical analysis of the various sources for the interview between Louis and Charles at Péronne in October 1468. He found that the motives of the two men and the interpretation that could be placed upon their actions differed very considerably from the version given by Commynes (which may unwittingly be best known to English readers from Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward). According to Commynes the interview at Péronne appears to be one link in an unfortunate chain of circumstances (see Book Two, Ch. 5, Footnote 17). Louis XI, forgetting that he had sent envoys to Liège to stir up revolt against Charles the Rash, sought an interview with the duke. News of the revolt at Liège when Louis was in Charles’s power led to a furious outburst by Charles and only the King’s sang-froid saved him from possible death. Charles obtained only illusory profits from the meeting. But Bittmann was able to show that Charles, far from wanting to revive a league of princes against Louis (as at the the time of the War of the Public Weal) was seeking to obtain Louis’s neutrality so that he would be able to pursue his own designs on the Empire. The expedition against Liège can be seen against the background of a strategy in which Charles was attempting to extend his western borders. Louis had been outmanoeuvred and his main concern was to escape with his life, but Commynes’s account is much too favourable to him. It also omits some important facts.
Bittmann’s methods have since been elaborated in the first of several promised volumes, taking the story up to 1472.24 He particularly concentrates on the episodes like the War of the Public Weal and the beginning of the Franco-Burgundian war in 1471, besides the Péronne incident. He shows how in 1465 Louis XI, far from keeping to an established plan in dealing with the uprising of the princes, in which he tried to avoid the hazards of battle at all cost, had seriously underestimated the strength of the opposition and the dangers facing him until it was almost too late. Then, if we follow the accounts of the Milanese ambassador who was with the King, he went through a period of depression and hesitation. Although he acted energetically in his southern campaign into the Bourbonnais, by early July 1465 he was undecided as to whether he ought to stop the Bretons, who were approaching the Île de France from the west, or to go against the Burgundians approaching from the north-east, which he eventually did. Some sixty years ago P. Bernus25 showed that responsibility for fighting the battle of Montlhéry lay quite as much with Louis XI (which Commynes denies) as with Pierre de Breézé, Grand sénéchal of Normandy (whom Commynes blames for the battle). Similarly in 1471, when Commynes suggests that the two principals, Louis and Charles, were led into war by the intrigues of such people as the count of Saint-Pol and the servants of Charles of France, duke of Guyenne, who wanted to marry Charles the Rash’s daughter, Bittmann has been able to demonstrate that this is far from the truth. His own challenge to the traditional view that Louis XI was a monarch who always preferred to use diplomatic means rather than war to gain his ends can be questioned on the grounds that there are few military preparations before the war of 1471, which suggest that Louis had a long-term policy to declare war on Burgundy to avenge himself, as Bittmann argues, for the humiliation suffered at Péronne. But at the same time the explanation offered by Commynes is still inadequate because it can be shown that Charles the Rash, far form rebuffing the overtures of Charles of France for his daughter’s hand, was very sympathetic towards them and that it was on Guyenne’s part that there was hesitation. In all this very detailed examination of the available evidence, in order to corroborate or to criticize Commynes’s account, Bittmann has been able to show where the Memoirs fall short as a historical source of the highest quality for the establishment of an accurate narrative, or for divining the motives of the statesmen and politicians involved in the Franco-Burgundian disputes.
Why the Memoirs fall short in these respects has been the question which Jean Dufournet has tackled. His approach has in some ways been even more fundamental than Bittmann’s, because he seeks to analyse the motives of Commynes in writing the Memoirs, and the structure of them. He questions almost every phrase and shakes out of almost every sentence new and subtle meanings which have been missed or misinterpreted by readers in the last four hundred years. Besides a couple of useful articles and a brief résumé of his ideas in the Dictionnaire des Lettres Français: Le Moyen Age, ed. R. Bossuat et al., Paris, 1963, Dufournet has published two volumes of his projected four-volume work on Commynes, preparatory to the new edition he has promised. The first volume to appear26 examines at length (more than seven hundred pages) Commynes’s treatment of persons, theses and topics such as his two masters, Charles the Rash and Louis XI, treason, myths about princes and chivalry, women and young people, comparing his methods with those of other contemporary writers. Although use is made of some of the same material that Bittmann uses (ambassadors’ reports, Louis XI’s letters, etc.), Dufournet introduces a very much more subjective, literary attitude into the criticism of the Memoirs. On the historical side he is not always on such sure ground. For example, much of his thesis depends on a particular interpretation of Commynes’s desertion of Charles the Rash in 1472. For him Commynes committed treason against Charles because Burgundy was a state and Commynes joined the supreme enemy of that state. The rest of Commynes’s career is then interpreted against the background of this treason and the Memoirs are made to show some ‘treasons’ are premissible while others are not. It was as if Commynes suffered from an obsession with treason after 1472, particularly in view of the relative failure of his own ‘treason’ to benefit him substantially in the long run. Hence we get in theMemoirs the detailed analysis of the downfall of the traitor, the count of Saint-Pol, and linking of Charles the Rash’s ultimate defeat with the treason of Compobasso. Hence, too, the emphasis on lack of faith in the world where a man like Richard, duke of Gloucester, could swear allegiance to his liege lord and in almost the same breath give orders for his murder. But the idea of ‘the state’ when applied to Burgundy requires very careful handling. In practice, it may be argued that Charles the Rash, in setting up his own Parlement at Malines in 1471 from which to appeal to the Parlement of Paris was forbidden, was merely putting the finishing touches to a de facto independence in his duchy for which his predecessors had been striving for several generations. As Commynes himself points out, Burgundy’s resources made it equal of many states in fifteenth-century Europe and Charles’s attempts to gain the grant of a crown from the Emperor might, if they had been successful, have been decisive in establishing a new middle kingdom which could have altered European destinies. But from Louis XI’s point of view the duchy of Burgundy was an integral part of his kingdom and its ruler owed him obedience. Consequently Commynes in leaving Charles for Louis was not betraying his country but merely breaking off a personal tie of loyalty to his first master and acknowledging the ultimate sovereignty of the King of France. The word ‘treason’ has a modern connotation which hardly describes the subtleties of this change of allegiance. There were indeed current abstract notions about ‘the state’ in the fifteenth century, but relationships between people and allegiance to individual rulers were the real cement of society. A king like Louis XI could build up a team of advisors consisting not exclusively of ‘Frenchmen’ but men devoted to him and his interests because their own private fortunes derived from their service to him, not to France. In this sense, therefore, to condemn Commynes for committing treason may be justifiable on the grounds that he owed much to the partonage of the dukes of Burgundy, in return for the service that his family had given them, so that it was morally reprehensible for him to desert Charles. But such changes of allegiance were not uncommon. Self-interest was at stake. If the Memoirs help to make this fact about fifteenth century society more comprehensible, and Commynes draws our attention most strongly to it, we must not judge from a purely twentieth-century point of view. There is evidence to show that Charles felt animosity towards Commynes for his desertion — he was specifically omitted from the truce of Soleuvre in 1475, when a number of other ex-Burgundians were pardoned by Charles — but such pardons in themselves show that ‘treason’ was not an indelible mark on one’s career. We may more readily believe that the importance of treason for Commynes lay not in the moral stigma attaching to it but in his relative inability to exploit his change of side to the full.
It is here that Dufournet’s smaller volume, Le vie de Philippe de Commynes (Paris, 1969), is useful. It traces the stages of his career, filling in holes in the Memoirs or explaining why they were left there, by reference to other documentary sources. Dufournet often strains to read the most discreditable implications for Commynes into documents which are in themselves extremely ambiguous and on occasion one gets the impression that Dufournet’s machiavellianism has outstripped that which he imputed to Commynes. But the general outline of his career, as adopted in the earlier section of this introduction, is partly based on Dufournet’s evidence. We may legitmately disagree with him, but there cannot be final agreement until, perhaps, one day a manuscript of the Memoirs which indubitably comes from the hand of the author, or has obviously been scrutinzed by him, is discovered. Until then we have to use our judgement in reading the Memoirs. Are they written purposely, with extreme deliberation, in an apparently naïve and informal manner in order to disguise their venomous content? Are the contradictions, the repetitions, the chronological errors, the misintrepretations, the false judgements, readily observable in the Memoirs, the result of forgetfulness on the part of the author as he wrote down or dictated his recollections? Do the surviving manuscripts, apart from obvious clerical errors in copying, show signs of deriving from a very artfully constructed original? To follow M. Dufournet in some of his interpretations requires a very radical revision of views about Commynes. Referring to the famous pen-sketch of Commynes in the Recueil d’Arras,27 Liniger wrote, with the intention of paying high tribute to him: ‘When we see that the physical features correspond exactly with his written work, we must declare that we are in he presence of a singular coherence.’ Opinions may differ on what such a judgement means, but for Dufournet the unity of Commynes’s thought and actions do cohere to produce a work in which his own qualities as a counsellor of princes are by implication extolled against all his rivals. Little or nothing appears in the Memoirs, he contends, which is not directly linked to Commynes’s aim to denigrate other people, their ideas, their pollicies, their actions and the myths of his generation, in order to justify his own career. Some readers may think that the lack of detection of these curcial characteristics over a period of four hundred years is significant. If Commynes intended to gain his revenge on his contemporaries, the subtle means he chose have not served him very well until the recent revelations. That M. Dufournet has opened new perspective to our understanding of Commynes cannot be denied, even though we may not wish to accept the totalilty of his arguments. This summary can do scant justice to some very important new thinking and an almost overwhelming richness of hypothesis. In the final resort we must go back to the text.
The popularity of the Memoirs was soon apparent. Translation into Latin by Jean Sleidan, in an abridged form, of the first six books in 1545 ad the last two books in 1458 helped to bring the work to a European public. Sleidan added a brief biographical sketch to his edition, much of the information for which he picked ujp from one of Commynes’s old servants. Allowing for the pardonable hyperbole it nevertheless gives us an idea of Commynes’s character and temperment which it is well to bear in mind when considering Dufournet’s remarks:
Commines28 was tall, fair, well shaped, and of a comely personage. He spoke Italian, Dutch and Spanish incomparably well; but his excellence consisted chiefly in the French, and he had read all the histories that were extant in that language, especially that of the Romans. As he grew in years, he extremely lamented his deficiency in the Latin tongue, and complained of the little care that had been taken of his education in that respect. He had a prodigious memory, and such a wonderful facility in expressing his thoughts, that he would at the same time dictate to four secretaries different things, all of them of great importance, and with the same ease and dexterity as if there had been but one. His conversation was chiefly among foreigners, as he was desirous to inform himself of all things and places, and very careful of employing his time well; so that he was never known to be idle.
In 1544 an Italian version of Books 1-6 had appeared, to be followed by a German edition in 1551. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw Dutch, Swedish, Spanish and English translations and by 1643 the work had appeared in ten languages. In the last twenty years there have been important new German and Italian versions.
The first English translation was done by Thomas Danett, and Elizabethan, who in 1596 revised an earlier rough translation for publication. In 1712 one appeared by Uvedale, based on the Godefroy edition and in 1855 A.R. Scroble produced a translation based on Mlle Dupont’s edition. The most recent English version has been produced by a Franco-American collaboration between Isabelle Cazeaux and K. Kinser.29
This translation is based on the first two columes of the Calmette and Durville edition of the Memoirs, those covering the reign of Louis XI. As explained above, Commynes’s original intention was to provide materials for a history of this reign and although there is evidence that the final two books were also written for Angelo Cato, their interest and scope is more restricted, partly because Commynes never enjoyed the full confidence of Charles VIII and his advisers as he had enjoyed that of Louis XI and partly because he deals simply with the Italian expedition of 1494-5, recounting events circumstantially and in great detail with more open criticism of his enemies, including Étienne de Vesc and Cardinal Briçonnet. Nor do these last two books contain quite the same contrasts of personality as that between Louis XI and Charles the Rash, such dramatic episodes as the interview at Péronne or the more extended suspense of the Constable’s downfall, nor anything comparable to the horrifying account of Louis XI’s last years. They do not possess the artistic unity or literary ipact of the first flush of Commynes’s creativity in the first six books. These are good reasons for producing a full translation of the most important part of a work which is deservedly famous.
My main rationalization of what is a rather loosely constructed text — it has rightly been said that language was a just means to an end, not an end in itself for Commynes — has been to split his long sentences into more manageable ones and to omit pleonasms (the said court, or the above mentioned duke, etc.), superfluous phrases (some of the as I have just said variety), and titles (the count of Charolais) when they are used several times in the course of a sentence or paragraph and when they merely retard the narrative. I have inserted proper nouns where it helps to guide the reader through passages in which Commynes uses only pronouns, and have added within square brackets a few extra words or a date to make the sense clear when a sentence or phrase is left suspended. The spelling of names is based on the identifications in the editions of B. de Mandrot and Calmette and Durville, except that I have anglicized the Christian names of the leading figures where it would appear pedantic to retain the French, e.g. Philip not Philippe, duke of Burgundy. Chapter headings within square brackets are adaptations from Calmette and Durville’s headings, otherwise they are translated from the headings in the Dobrée manuscript and are not, as far as we know, the author’s, but since they do help to convey something of the spirit of his work I have kept them. For notes on technical phrases, coinage, measures and lengths used in this translation readers are referred to the Glossary.
I have tried to give a straightforward modern rendering but have preserved one or two phrases for which no satisfactory modern equivalent exists. The impact of the original has obviuosly been weakened where there is no appropriate verson of some fifteenth-century saying or proverb which the author uses. Inevitably, because Commynes’s French was very terse, there are some circumlocutions and it is sometimes difficult to convey the full irony or humour of a situation which is so destinctively, pithily or forcefully summed up by Commynes. But in other respects my difficulties have been the same ones that face all translators: questions of idiom, whether to sacrifice the style and flavour of the original in an attempt to preserve its meaning, and so on. I can only hope that where I have stumbled others will resort to the text and orry out the author’s meaning, but a Commynes translation devoid of ambiguities and inconsistencies would not be a would not be a true reflection of the original text at all.
- See Glossary.
- It must be remembered that the duke of Burgundy’s lands were divided into two main blocs: the lands in Flanders, northern France and the Low Countries, and those centring upon the duchy of Burgundy (with its capital Dijon), owing allegiance to France, and the county of Burgundy, the present Franche-Comté, which in the fifteenth century owed allegiance to the Empire. Hence the distinction of the Two Burgundies. The duchy and county lay across the courses of the rivers of Saône and Doubs. These two blocs were intermittently linked by a thin chain of lordships which it had been the policy of Charles the Rash to extend and consolidate; see Map following “Note on Manuscript Abbreviatioons Used in Footnotes.
- It is possible that towards the end of his period of imprisonment Commynes occupied a house within the confines of the Palais de Justice; see article cited in Footnote 16 below.
- The best treatment of Commynes’s confused financial dealings with the Medici is to be found in R. de Roover, The Rise and Decline of the Medici Bank 1397-1494,Harvard Univ. Press, 1963, pp. 103-6. By 1491 an agreement had been reached over the extent of the deposit (about 25,000 crowns) and by 1494 Commynes had recovered two thirds of this.
- Maxmilian’s daughter, to whom Charles had been betrothed at the time of his marrage to Anne and who is called Queen of France in the Memoirs; [See Book Six, Ch. 2, Ch. 6.iii, Ch. 11]
- On Cato’s death (probably in early 1496) it was found that he had an impressive list of documents in his possession which could have served as materials for a contemporary history. They included such items as a book containing an account of the differences between the King and the duke of Austria, letters from the Pope, numerous cardinals, bishops and chapters to the King, letters from the lord of Albret, Guiot Pot, the duke of Brittany and others to the King, a mémoire containing a list of statutes and ordinances relating to the Three Estates of Dauphiné, another mémoire relating to the embassy of the bishop of Lombez to Spain over the question of Roussillon and a list of the artillery of Paris. (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS. français 2896, fol. 103.)
- Meermanno-Westreeniamum Museum, MS. 10 A II.
- Bibliothèque Municipale, MS. français 8. This still retains its original red velvet and wooden binding, with copper conch shells at the corners and center.
- B.N., MSS. fr. 244-4.
- B.N., MS. fr. 727.
- Quoted in translation by G. Holmes, The Florentine Enlightenment 1400-50, p. 95.
- Paston Letters, ed. J. Gairdner, no. 668.
- Le Monde et Dieu selon Philippe de Commynes, Neufchâtel, 1943.
- J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, Peregrine Books, 1965, p.125.
- Chronicles, Penguin Classics, 1968, pp. 89-90.
- Dufournet (see Intro. Footnote 26) has recently offered more precise dates for the composition of the Memoirs: for Books 1-5, end 1489-90; Book 6, early 1493; Book 7, December 1495-spring 1496; Book 8, Chapters 1-22, end 1497; Chapter 23 and beginning of 24, spring 1498, and the rest of Chapters 24-7 end of 1498 (Mélanges… Jean Frappier, i (1970), 267-82).
- B.N., MS. nouvelles acquisitions françaises 20960.
- B.N., MSS. fr. 3879 and 10156.
- Three vols., 1840-47 for the Société de l’histoire de France.
- Now B.N., MSS. français 3879, 10156 and 23244 (which is in fact only a copy of the second printed edition of 1525).
- Mémoires de Philippe de Commynes…, in the Collection de textes pour servir à l’étude et l’enseignement de l’histoire.
- Mémoires, 3 vols., Paris 1924-5, reprinted 1964, in the series Les Classiques de l’histoire de France au Moyen Age.
- Penguin Classics, 1958, pp. 172-3.
- Ludwig XI und Karl der Kühne; die Memorien des Philippe de Commynes als historische Quelle, Göttingen, Vol. I in 2 parts, 1964. Vol. II, 1970, carrying the story to 1475, appeared too late to be taken into account here.
- Revue de l’Anjou, 1911.
- La destruction des mythes dans les Mémoires de Philippe de Commynes, Geneva, 1966.
- Bibliothèque Muncipale, Arras, MS. 266.
- Quoted from A.R. Scoble’s preface to his translation of the Memoirs, Bohn’s Classical Library, 1855, p.xxxvii.
- University of South Carolina Press, Vol. I, 1969.
The background to the Memoirs can now be obtained from R. Vaughan’s three volumes on the dukes of Burgundy, Philip the Bold,1962, John the Fearless, 1966 and Philip the Good, 1970; P.M. Kendall, Louis XI, 1971; and the more idiosyncratic but intensely readable book by P.S. Lewis, Later Medieval France: The Polity, 1968, while J. Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages remains a classic (Peregrine, reprinted 1965). The translation by Cazeaux and Kinser contains a long introduction which is weak and sometimes misleading on the historical background but appears to be sounder in its treatment of concepts and historical methodology, although Dufournet’s ideas get short shrift.
Besides the books referred to in the preceding pages G. Charlier’s brilliantly concise Commynes, Brussels, 1945, is still valuable while E.F. Jacob’s treatment of Anglo-French affairs in The Fifteenth Century, 1961, depends largely on J. Calmette and G. Périnelle, Louis XI et l’Angleterre,Paris, 1930. The main collections of documents concerning Commynes are to be found in Kervyn de Lettenhove, Lettres et négotiations de Philippe de Commynes, 3 vols., Brussels, 1867-74; E. Benoist, Lettres de Philippe de Commynes aux archives de Florence, 1863; and L. Sozzi, ‘Lettere inedite di Phillipe de Commynes a Francesco Gaddi’, Studi di Bibliografia e di Storia in onore di Tamarro de Marinis, 4 vols., Milan, 1964, IV, pp.205-62 (together with J. Dufournet, ‘A Propos des letres inédites de Commynes à Gaddi’, Bibliothèque d’humanisme et Renaissance, XXVIII, 1966, pp.583-604). The best account of Angelo Cato is in the two introductions by C.A.J. Armstrong to his edition of Dominic Mancini’s The Usurpation of Richard the Third, Oxford, 1936, pp.30-60 and second edition, 1969, pp.26-50. Finally, no one interested in the overthrow of Charles the Rash can afford to miss the magnificent catalogue by F. Deuchler, Die Burgunderbeute. Inventar der Beutestücke aus den Schlachten von Grandson, Murten and Nancy 1476/1477, Berne, 1963, unless of course, they can actually go to see the booty still conserved in Swiss museums.
- Bib.Nat., fr. 3879, cited as MS.B.
- Bib.Nat., fr. 10156, cited as MS.A.
- Bib.Nat., nouv. acq. fr. 20960, cited as MS.P[olignac].
- MS. Montmerency-Luxembourg, cited as MS.M[ontmerency].
The value of these various manuscripts is discussed in the Introduction.
Text copyright © , Michael Jones. This edition is still a work in progress. We are grateful to Professor Jones for permission to place this edition online while he completes a review of the text, and will correct any errors found by Professor Jones on completion of this review.