By Yvonne Vermijn
Master’s Thesis, University of Utrecht, 2010
Excerpt: The goal of the present thesis is to study the reception of the Chanson de Bertrand du Guesclin by Cuvelier from the time of its creation around 1385 up to the publication in print of one of its prose versions around 1480. This text has a few distinctive features that make the study of its reception interesting and it also contributes to several recent sholarly discussions, especially about the use of prose in the later Middle Ages.
First of all, the Chanson describes the life of a man who had died shortly before it was written. Du Guesclin belonged to the lesser nobility of Britanny, but his military successes during the Hundred Years War against the English made it possible for him to climb up to the rank of constable of France. After his death in 1380 he seems to have been very popular. This influenced both the creation of the Chanson, which probably takes its basis in local oral traditions, and its succes. Cuvlier’s aim was to glorify Bertrand du Guesclin and he chose the epical form of the chanson de geste to achieve this. Even though Cuvelier took some liberty in relating the various historical events, the people who had known the constable and who had lived at the time of these events appreciated this strange mix of fiction and reality. This raises the question whether Cuvelier’s public saw his text as fiction (chanson de geste) or as historiography (chronicle).
Secondly, only a couple of years after Cuvelier had finished his original work, which was in verse, two persons, independently from each other, ordered a version in prose of the Chanson. Even though these prose versions eventually replaced the Chanson and have been very important sources for historians troughout the centuries, nobody has ever studied these or their manuscripts. The Livre de Bertrand du Guesclin, as I call the prose versions, is a rather early exemple of a verse text which was turned into prose. For a whole century there is the extraordinary situation of two parallel active manuscript traditions – one in verse and one in prose. This allows us to study the technique of ‘mise en prose’ and the way medieval literature was disseminated. The popularity of the Livre lasted for more than a century at least, as it is also a rather early instance of a vernacular text in print. Looking at the available material the following questions rise: why was the Chanson put in prose, how was it done and what were the consequences for the reception of the whole work of Cuvelier – both the Chanson in verse and the prose texts.
Francais: Avec la Chanson de Bertrand du Guesclin Cuvelier nous a légué un texte problématique sur divers points. L’auteur nous présente un long poème de plusieurs milliers de vers dans lesquels il relate la vie du connétable de France Bertrand du Guesclin.
Il s’est choisi un beau sujet, car la vie de cet homme se prête bien à une chanson de geste. Du Guesclin naquit vers 1320, d’une famille de petite noblesse bretonne. Quand la guerre de Cent Ans éclata, il opta pour la partie française et il ne quitta jamais plus le service du roi de France. Il obtint beaucoup de succès militaires, au point que, en 1370, Charles V le promut à la fonction importante de connétable de France. Quand Du Guesclin mourut, en 1380, les Anglais avaient perdu presque toutes leurs possessions sur le continent.