Saturday, October 10, 2009

Petit Jehan de Saintré

Steve Muhlberger posts Phil Paine's review of Petit Jehan de Saintré. I think Paine has misread the story on at least two points. Little Jehan doesn't go off to do deeds of arms when he is sixteen: his lady waits until he is twenty, and fully formed, before she encourages him to distinguish himself on the field. And when Jehan goes to fight the Saracens in Prussia, the geography and anthropology are not "somewhat vague". The author clearly had a fairly informed and detailed sense of where large Islamic armies might be raised, and where Prussia was. He knew he needed to set the fictional Christian victory somewhere on the borders of Christendom. He might have set it in, for example, Bulgaria, where clashes between the Christian and Islamic worlds were particularly plausible. Unfortunately, this theater was the site of a particularly notable Christian defeat at Nicopolis in 1396. Prussia was a setting where crusades happened but that wouldn't remind readers of that great defeat.

Of course, the politics and logistics of delivering enormous crusader and saracen armies to Prussia in the mid 14th century were challenging, which explains why neither actually happened.

Here is a somewhat frustrating 1862 English translation of the work. The translator has a tendency to omit many of the sections I'm most interested in. "The account of this combat is omitted." Thank you very much.

Updated: a recent translation, Jean de Saintre: A Late Medieval Education in Love and Chivalry, translates the work into lively and colloquial modern English, unlike the deliberately archaic style of the previous two English translations, and it translates content they omit.  The notes discuss how the novel mixes actual historical figures into the fictional romance.

Here is the the story in the original French.

The work is an early historical novel, set in the reign of John II of France about a century before it was written. The hero becomes a close friend of the historical Jean Boucicaut the elder. At thirteen little Jehan catches the eye of a noble young widow, who spends the next seven years training him into a suitable courtly paramour. She teaches him edifying maxims from Latin authors with a helpful translation, and gives him a reading list. She advises him how to spend largely but wisely on good clothes and horses, and on appropriate presents to gain the good will of others at court, and provides him with the funds to do it. At twenty she sends him off to win renown with deeds of arms, and advises him on the ceremonies and choice of opponents.

His martial career is described in great and generally plausible detail, although the customs are those of the 15th century rather than the 14th.

Eventually his lady transfers her affections to a worldly young abbot, large and muscular, who humiliates Jehan in a wrestling match. We learn that Jehan, although a successful warrior, has not been taught to wrestle, unlike wealthy monks like the abbot who "are adepts at the art, as at tennis, hurl-bat, pitch-bar, and every pastime of the sort. They are their only recreations when among themselves..."

Jehan later has his revenge on the abbot and his former lover with matter of fact cruelty that reminds me of Tirant lo Blanc. Like Tirant, Petit Jehan de Saintré combines chivalric and courtly ideals with frank sexuality and practical detail.

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