The Quest for Chivalry in the Waning Middle Ages: The Wanderings of René d'Anjou and Olivier De la Marche

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Johan Huizinga's characterization of the fifteenth century as the "Waning" or "Autumn" of the Middle Ages has been as influential as it has been controversial, and despite the amount of criticism and skepticism the portrayal has elicited from its scholarly readers over the last ninety years, this conceptualization has largely stood its ground, invariably stimulating debate and further research. The present case study is at once a tribute to Huizinga's unique perceptiveness as an "intuitive historian," but also an attempt to flesh out some of his intuitions by focusing more sharply on two figures that in different ways may be seen as symptomatic of the wider process of transition and transformation which Huizinga describes. Both Olivier de la Marche and René d'Anjou figure prominently in Huizinga's account, but deserve to be isolated from Huizinga's master-narrative for a moment to be seen as critical observers of their immediate cultural environment, articulating their own sense of the "waning" of the chivalric ideal.

Both figures were closely involved with the courtly culture of their day: Olivier de la Marche (1425-1502) held a variety of offices at the Burgundian court under Philip, Charles, and Mary, later entering the service of Maximilian I. A remarkable practitioner and theoretician of Burgundian chivalry, he was also the author of the Mémoires as well as a number of ceremonial and more strictly literary works. René d'Anjou (1409-80), King of Naples and Jerusalem; Duke of Anjou, Bar, and Lorraine; as well as Count of Maine and Provence, was equally an enthusiastic patron of knightly culture who organized tournaments, founded the Order of the Croissant, wrote a treatise on the manner of conducting an ideal tournament, and also composed poetry in the courtly and romance tradition. The broad analogies between de la Marche's and Rene's situations are revealing: both move in circles close to the centers of power, are closely involved with aristocratic traditions and institutions of their day such as the orders of the Golden Fleece and the Croissant, witness the decline of the political framework of which they are a part, and most importantly in the present context, both articulate their own sense of the decline of knighthood by resorting to allegorical quest narratives. These narratives, rather than serving as romance-like quests in the conventional sense, become theoretical, speculative quests in search of the elusive nature of chivalry itself. Deprived of a clear objective to direct his efforts, the questing hero turns back on himself to scrutinize his own values, ambitions, desires, hopes, and delusions.

René d'Anjou in the Cuer d'Amour Espris and Olivier de la Marché in the Chevalier Délibéré0 reflect on the possibility of pursuing such a speculative "quest for knighthood" in the rapidly changing political, social, and ideological context of the later fifteenth century, and thus unwittingly provide highly revealing, precise, often intimately autobiographical contemporary "glosses" on the supposedly universal experience of disenchantment with traditional structures of thought that characterizes the fifteenth century, according to Huizinga. Written literary evidence articulating or problematizing such disenchantment is often left untapped by Huizinga, who in his identification of the dreamlike, aestheticizing nature of fifteenth-century chivalry is primarily visual. His sense for taking the pulse of the mentality behind practices and institutions such as the vows, pas d'armes, and orders of knighthood is masterful and perceptive, but mostly avoids taking into consideration the voices of the actors themselves, often, it is true, relegated beyond the margins of what constituted traditional historical evidence for the study of aristocratic culture and society in the earlier twentieth century: historical records, chronicles, descriptions of tournaments, statutes, armorials, and visual representations. Despite our now increased sensitivity to the complexities of medieval chivalric literature, and in the face of the many calls for inter- or transdisciplinarity voiced by recent generations of cultural historians, the writings of "minor" authors who are also primarily historical, "political" figures such as René d'Anjou and Olivier de la Marche, are still often confined to the province of the ornamental, thus becoming virtually dismissed as courtly delights affording a momentary escape from the more tangible realities of politics, war, and diplomacy. …