Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Steve Muhlberger has an interesting discussion of two of Charny's unanswered questions, part of which hinges on the meaning of desconfit in old and middle French, which would be translated as discomfited in Middle English. "Defeated" doesn't capture the full sense of the word, but neither does routed. Discomfited men are undone and utterly defeated. They may rout in disordered retreat, but one can also be discomfited without any suggestion of flight, like Du Guesclin at Auray or Najara or the the Flemish front rank at Roosebeck or the French at Nicopolis: in that case the discomfited men may continue to fight but their ranks are broken and disordered and they are eventually killed or captured.

One can get a sense of the different circumstances in which men might be discomfited by searching on the word in the Google Books copy of Lord Berner's translation of Froissart.

Here is an interesting quote from the desperate speech of Philip d'Arteveld to the people of Ghent:

'By my faith,' quoth Philip, 'then I counsel you, let us go with an army of men against the earl: we shall find him at Bruges, and as soon as he shall know of our coming, he will issue out to fight with us by the pride of them of Bruges and of such as be about him, who night and day informeth and stirreth him to fight with us. And if God will by his grace that we have the victory and discomfit our enemies, then shall we be recovered for ever and the most honoured people of the world; and if we be discomfited, we shall die honourably and God shall have pity of us and thereby all the other people in Gaunt shall escape and the earl will have mercy on them.'


Steve Muhlberger said...

An interesting comment and a useful one. I have just this morning looked again at the best online middle French dictionary, which has lots and lots of examples. Desconfire (the root verb) has a number of general meanings starting with breaking, smashing, and destroying (the first set of definitions A, A1,2,3); definition B1, the next definition and the first very specific one, is "mettre en deroute, vaincre," put to rout, conquer. This usage is backed up by examples from Machaut from his poem on the taking of Alexandria. I think we might agree that the word here means utterly defeated, but given Charny's interest in people running away and the fact that he is talking about warriors who are normally on horseback -- and hardly any others at all are mentioned in any of the questions -- I think my point is good.

In the context of the questions, the association of shameful defeat and running away, and complete defeat and running away makes me think that I'm right. Among the members of the order of the star, "desconfire" as "routing" would be a prominent connotation, and the most concrete one.

I like the idea of checking middle French usages against middle English usages, since it has often seemed to me that if you translate Middle French literally you get Middle English, or at least something with Middle English rhythms.

Will McLean said...

What is the best online middle French dictionary?

ruta said...

Sorry, I thought I'd told you:

Steve Muhlberger said...

Further reflection reminded me of this obvious point (obvious because I've thought about it a lot in other contexts): Charny doesn't give us his answer, but he does let us know that contemporaries disagreed. What did they disagree about? What *desconfit* effectively meant. And maybe if it was disgraceful in itself.