previous part
15— Contrasts and Continuities
next chapter

Contrasts and Continuities

If Oresme's translation of the Ethics stems from the moral side of the Mirror of Princes literature, those of the Politics and Economics speak to their primary readers as guides to the theory and practice of political and domestic life. In his brief prologue to the Politics , Oresme stresses that of all forms of worldly knowledge, the science of politics is the most fundamental for princes:

Et donques, de toutes les sciences mundaines ce est la tres principal et la plus digne et la plus profitable, et est proprement appartenante as princes. Et pour ce, elle est dite architectonique , ce est a dire princesse sus toutes.

(And thus, of all the sciences of the world, this is the most basic, the most noble, the most useful, and properly concerns princes. And for this reason, it is called architectonic , that is to say, reigning over all the others.)[1]

The translator emphasizes that the Politics is the most perfect of Aristotle's works and, since the time of its composition, the most authoritative and universally regarded guide to the subject. For these reasons, Oresme continues, the Politics has achieved almost the status of a book of natural law in its explanation of how all other legal systems—universal, local, or temporal—are ordained, instituted, interpreted, corrected, or changed. He explains further that because the text of the Politics is so valuable, and difficult matters are more easily and agreeably understood in their native language, by command of Charles V, he (Oresme) undertook the translation of the text.[2]

Continuities between the Politiques and the Ethiques

Continuities are deliberate between King Charles V's first two illustrated copies of the Politiques (including the short pseudo-Aristotelian Yconomique ) with those of the Ethiques . As sister texts, conceived as a unity, the counterpart of A (the Brussels Ethics ) is B , a manuscript in a French private collection, completed be-


tween 1374 and 1376. They share a common physical format in size, page layout, and graphic design. B , like A , is an official, library copy, lavish in all aspects of its writing and decoration. In both A and B the text is separated from the glosses, which are written on both sides and in the lower margin.[3] A companion to C , King Charles's smaller copy of the Ethiques , is D , a manuscript of the Politiques and the Yconomique , now in Brussels. Like C, D was written by Raoulet d'Orléans, completed by 1376, and also shows the intermingling of text and gloss. D lacks certain important textual features present in B , such as the prologue and the two instructions to the reader.[4]

The two sets of manuscripts also share the same ateliers of miniaturists patronized by Charles V. For B , major shares went to the Master of Jean de Sy, whose shop was responsible for all the miniatures in A , and the Master of the Coronation of Charles VI, later assigned the cycle in C . The last two miniatures of B were entrusted to the Master of the Coronation Book of Charles V, whose shop executed the cycle in D . Familiar from work on other Charles V manuscripts is the hand identified with Perrin Remiet, who executed the two small preliminary miniatures of B .

Textual Differences from the Ethiques Manuscripts

Beyond these and related similarities to Charles V's Ethiques manuscripts, those of the Politiques show important differences regarding both texts and images. First, the fact that the Politics was the favored text had various implications. Documents reveal that Oresme received generous payments from Charles V for this translation and that the king intervened with the canons of Rouen cathedral to excuse Oresme's absence from his post as dean there. Oresme worked on the translation from 1370 to 1374 and made three redactions of the text, compared to only one of the Ethics .[5] Delisle was the first to recognize the original copy of Oresme's text in MS 223 of the Bibliothèque Municipale in Avranches.[6] This manuscript contains all three redactions, the fragments of a fourth one, the author's corrections and modifications, and the ex libris of Henri Oresme, Nicole's nephew, who inherited the volume.[7] The Avranches manuscript must have been accessible to the scribes who copied the text during its various stages of corrections and emendations.

Oresme worked from the translation of the Politics from Greek into Latin made by William of Moerbeke in 1269. Unlike the Ethics , the Politics was not known in earlier medieval translations.[8] Oresme drew heavily on the influential commentaries that had been produced in the century since Moerbeke's Latin text appeared. The first of these commentaries was by Albert the Great and was the one most frequently cited by Oresme. Although he sometimes disagreed with his predecessor, Oresme shared his adventurous attempts to provide etymologies and identification of historical personalities and places.[9] In his efforts to apply the Politics to medieval institutions, Oresme appreciated Albert's attempt to do the same, as well as his more colorful style. While undoubtedly well acquainted with the commentaries of Thomas Aquinas, completed by Peter of Auvergne, Oresme used them


sparingly.[10] Oresme's attempt to present the Politics to a lay audience in a vernacular language led him to prefer the gloss/ commentary form rather than the paraphrases or analyses of Aristotle's arguments. He was thus able to provide step-by-step guidance for his readers. It is worth mentioning again Babbitt's classifications of the types of glosses Oresme used. These include references to, and locations in, the text, "identifications and definitions," "etymologies," "explanatory examples," and his own judgments or "critical observations." In addition, Oresme provided extensive commentaries, some several folios in length, that Babbitt terms "small treatises or essays." Such expositions frequently reveal Oresme's opinions on crucial contemporary social or religious issues, such as reform of the church or voluntary poverty of the clergy. Other subjects deal with political institutions, such as forms of kingship and universal monarchy.[11] As is noted in Chapter 3 above, the translator also expanded the number of terms included in the glossary of difficult words to almost three times the number in the analogous feature of the Ethiques . To facilitate the reader's understanding of key terms, Oresme added a new verbal aid to the vernacular version of the Politiques : an index of noteworthy subjects organized in alphabetical order and placed at the end of the volume. So concerned was Oresme about the intelligibility of the neologisms and other unfamiliar terminology that in the first redaction he included a separate glossary and index of subjects after several books of the Politiques .

Oresme gives precise directions to the reader in the first instruction that follows the prologue. He begins by stating that the contents of the work are clear from the chapter titles and the index of noteworthy subjects at the end of the book. Next he mentions the glossary of difficult words as a source for learning the meaning of unfamiliar terms. He then names four specific terms that are essential for understanding the treatise.[12] He ends the instruction by explaining the different methods of citing a chapter in an individual book in which a reference is made, as well as in other books of the text. In short, Oresme employs the techniques of academic translation and commentary to make intelligible to his lay audience the difficult Latin version of William of Moerbeke. As noted above in Chapter 3, Oresme thus appropriates for the vernacular the prestige of the Latin translation and commentaries.

As Babbitt points out, Oresme's efforts to apply this version of Aristotle's text to contemporary problems and institutions give his translation its particular value and interest. Oresme uses Aristotle's text in one area vital to his primary readers: confirmation of the public sovereignty of the territorial nation-state, viewed as an instrument of the common good. In discrediting universal monarchy, linked with the Holy Roman Empire, Oresme exploits Aristotle's arguments for a geographically and linguistically surveyable territory. Like other medieval commentators, Oresme elevates kingship to the apex of the hierarchy of political communities. But he also emphasizes the special claims of the French monarchy by virtue of its quasi-religious character, its distinguished ancestry, and its distinctive national symbol, the fleur-de-lis. Oresme's treatment of the church as a political community not only leads him to define its rights but also allows him to treat it as a subject open to criticism and reform. The Aristotelian concept of the mean permits him


to urge the church to avoid the extremes of too great wealth or absolute poverty. Oresme also takes a middle position in affirming the temporal independence of the king from the church while recognizing the political and judicial rights of the church over the clergy.[13]

Differences in the Programs of Illustrations

In various ways the programs of illustrations of B and D also reflect the greater attention devoted to the text of the Politics . To be sure, the density of illustration—one miniature at the beginning of each of the eight books of the Politiques and the two of the Yconomique —is the same as that of the Ethiques . Yet in terms of scale, the illustrations of B are larger than those of A , its sister manuscript. In B the miniatures occupy about half the height and the entire width of the folio. Furthermore, B and D have bifolio frontispieces and another miniature of full-page dimensions. The rest of the illustrations of B and D are no longer confined to a column format, as are nine of the eleven miniatures in A . The limiting quadrilobe frame appears only in four text illustrations in B and three in D . Also more complex in B and D than in A and C are the visual structures of the miniatures. Only one miniature of the Ethiques cycle in C (Fig. 41) includes the three-register format adopted in two illustrations of the Politiques . Also, A and C offer only two instances of the two-register type (Figs. 7, 10, 24, and 29), in which the relationships between the upper and lower zones are less complex than the three examples in B and D . The latter also offer two unusual examples of single-register scenes that occupy the width of the text block and produce the effect of panel paintings (Figs. 70, 71, 80, and 81).

Oresme's Role as Designer

Oresme's greater involvement with the program of B may have resulted from his or his patron's dissatisfaction with the cycle of A . As mentioned above, Oresme's second instruction to the reader in B affords proof of his design of the Politiques ' programs.[14] Two other aspects of his involvement also deserve comment. First, he created visual links to the Ethiques cycles in two of the Politiques miniatures, where the illustrations of Books III and IV contain references to the concepts of the mean and proportionality established in Books II and V of the Ethiques . Second, unlike the marked revisions between the programs of A and C , those of B and D show relatively minor differences that result mainly from the smaller size and the more regular, simpler format of the second manuscript (D ).

Evidence of Oresme's increased personal and textual authority emerges from several features of the Politiques translation. Already noted is the expansion of his explanatory glosses to include his individual opinions and critical observations, either separately or in relation to disagreement with previous commentaries. Like Oresme's commentaries, the illustrations of the Politiques also had the important


function of making Aristotle's text intelligible in terms of the political life of his own day. Essential to this process is imagery that updates and concretizes Aristotelian concepts.[15] Also relevant as a sign of the translator's authorial identity is the feature in D (as in C ) of the scribe's designation of Oresme's glosses and commentaries by abbreviated (O or Or ) or full references to his name instead of the more customary use of the impersonal G for "Gloss."

Confirmation of Oresme's increased self-confidence is found in the first sentence of his prologue, in which he refers to his official ecclesiastic positions and his relationship to the patron:

A tres souverain et tres excellent prince Charles, quint de ce nom, par la grace de Dieu roy de France: Nicole Oresme, doyen de vostre eglise de Rouen, vostre humble chapellain: Honeur, obedience et subjection.

(To the very sovereign and very excellent prince, Charles, fifth of this name, by the grace of God king of France: Nicole Oresme, dean of your church of Rouen, your humble chaplain—honor, obedience, and subjection.)[16]

An analogue to Oresme's increased visibility is the first of two portraits that accompany the introductory matter in B . Although Figure 44 is a conventional likeness of the translator, Oresme is pictured alone, in his function as a writer; his visual identity does not depend on his relationship to the king. In this respect, the portrait follows a medieval iconographic tradition in which the translator of a text, and not its original author, is the subject of the portrait. The appropriation of language seems to create a visual analogue in the transfer of authorial identity to the translator.

Also by Perrin Remiet, Figure 45 is an intimate dedication portrait like that of A (Fig. 6), on which it is modeled. The occurrence of Figure 45 in the text after the prologue, the two instructions to the reader, the bifolio frontispiece, the table of contents, and the chapter headings for Book I reinforces the translator's didactic position as master of the text. The dedication portrait also may allude to the longstanding mentor relationship between Oresme and Charles V. In this connection, a passage in Oresme's prologue mentions another work by Aristotle (Liber de regno ), written for his pupil Alexander the Great, that has the specific function of teaching the latter how to rule.[17]

Oresme's greater involvement with the illustrative program for the Politiques may also have resulted from the difficulties of finding both a suitable representational mode and an existing iconographic tradition. The context of the Politics focuses on collective social and political relationships and institutions of ancient Greece. There were no readily available, comprehensible visual and verbal equivalents for these in contemporary France. The translator had to develop concrete and updated imagery related to the contemporary historical experience of his readers. Unlike the moral and spiritual imagery of the Ethiques , for which the rich iconography of virtues and vices provided an accessible typology, existing models


Figure 44
Nicole Oresme Writing. Les politiques d'Aristote,  MS  B.

Figure 45
Nicole Oresme Presents the Book to Charles V. Le s
politiques d'Aristote, MS  B.

for the Politics in the Mirror of Princes literature and relevant examples from legal iconography were less abundant. Although simplified in content, a precedent for the representation of certain political themes exists, however, in the Morgan Avis au roys .

Moreover, the didactic purpose of the Politics translation called for a more diagrammatic and lexically oriented program of illustrations. As indicated in the first instruction, Oresme was concerned with the reader's understanding of generic and specific terminology. It is not surprising, then, that the inscriptions, which mark the intersection of the verbal and visual languages of the translation, play a prominent role in Oresme's strategies for re-presenting Aristotle's text. The glossary of difficult words contains explanations of essential terms of Aristotelian logic, such as difference, diffinition , and gerre (genus).[18] This emphasis on definition, a primary task of the translator, carries over into the programs of illustrations. Oresme's frequent citation of Aristotle's Rhetoric in his translation of the Politics shows his awareness of the various strategies that writers employ in enlightening and per-


suading their audiences. As the probable oral commentator on the text, Oresme would have known how to convey his interpretation by means common to verbal and visual exposition. Certain rhetorical devices such as parallelism, contrast, juxtaposition, paradox, and irony are combined with visual definitions of both generic and specific terms in the cycles of the Politiques and Yconomique .[19] Always concerned with inventing effective mnemonic structures, Oresme provides special architectural enframements that set apart the most important illustrations. In several cases, he also carries over from the Ethiques programs the triadic scheme of organization connected with Aristotle's theory of the mean. More broadly, Oresme seems conscious of how sequence and order within images play important roles in the reader's association and recollection of complex verbal and visual concepts.

In contrast to the more allusive representational modes of personification and allegory chosen for the Ethiques cycles, Oresme adopts a paradigmatic type for the Politiques . The term paradigm or example is defined by Aristotle in the Rhetoric (I.2 1356b) as one of two main types of persuasion or argument. As a rhetorical figure, a paradigm has a double sense of serving as both model and illustration.[20] Compared to the cycle of C , in which scenes drawn from everyday life serve as examples of individual virtues and vices, in the Politiques cycles Oresme uses a paradigmatic mode in both ways. Like the operation of language, the paradigmatic mode is appropriate for transferring meaning between verbal and visual language. Oresme's application of paradigms was essential in providing both contemporary models and specific examples of the various bodies politic so carefully defined in Aristotle's text. Indeed, the persistent and powerful metaphor of the state as a physical body was certainly well known to Oresme's politically aware readers.

Another challenge in presenting a coherent overall program of illustrations is the confusing order of the books and the overlapping subject matter of all versions of the Politics text. Where, how, and in what order to present and visually highlight key concepts was as demanding a task as constructing verbal aids for the readers. On the plus side, the varied subject matter gives the program great diversity and range. Using the various verbal and visual strategies mentioned above, Oresme needed to apply Aristotle's text to the historical experience of his readers. Sometimes the relationships are overt; on other occasions, potentially dangerous references are disguised. Of course, the translator was again dependent on the imaginative and expressive resources of the illuminators entrusted with carrying out his verbal instructions. Oresme also had the considerable help of Raoulet d'Orléans, whose intervention in clarifying the textual and visual program of D reveals his crucial role in supervising the production of the manuscript.

Although the differences between the programs of B and D are not as great as they are between A and C , the method of discussing the illustrations of the former group, established in Part II of this study, remains the same. Comparing the cycles of B and D will again offer further insights into the dynamics of contemporary Paris book production. The revisions, editing, and reformating of King Charles's manuscripts of the translations of Aristotle's Politics and Economics illuminate the different functions and uses of text and image by their primary readers.


previous part
15— Contrasts and Continuities
next chapter