A Mirror for Princes? A Textual Study of Instructions for Rulers and Consorts in Three Old French Genres
By Erin Morgan
MA Thesis, University of Canterbury, 2008
Abstract: This study focuses on the literary subgenre of Mirrors for Princes. A number of twelfth-century works from three genres of Old French literature are examined in order to ascertain what forms any didacticism takes, and whether the texts can be read as Mirrors for Princes. The three genres studied are epic, romance and pseudo-historical chronicle. From epic, I discuss La Chanson de Roland, Le Voyage de Charlemagne, La Chançun de Willame and Le Couronnement de Louis. Chrétien de Troyes forms the study of Mirrors for Princes in romance, and for pseudo-historical chronicle I examine Wace’s Roman de Brut.
The didacticism present in the studied texts assumes two forms. The first is direct didacticism, in which the narrator or a character portrays an instruction or moral lesson through “speech”. This gives extra emphasis to the message, whether addressed directly to the audience or to another character within the narrative. The second form is indirect didacticism, which is more common in these texts. It consists of exemplary characters, their actions, behaviour and reputations. The Mirrors for Princes aspects of these texts provide not only examples of successful kings, but also of excellent vassals and queens. The mirrors for the women involve virtuous characteristics, where they fulfil their wifely and noble duties. They are addressed to regents and queens consort more so than to queens regnant, who were uncommon figures in the twelfth century.
As well as providing examples and lessons on what is optimal behaviour for the ruling class, there are characters who supply examples of behaviour that is to be avoided. With these ignoble characters, common methods of transmitting the didactic messages are through their lasting reputation, the consequences of their actions, or the nature of their deaths.
The study concludes that the examined texts can be read as Mirrors for Princes, despite most of them not being originally conceived as belonging to this subgenre. Lessons for vassals, noblemen and noblewomen, queens and kings are present to varying extents throughout these works using both forms of didacticism outlined above.