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21— Good Democracy: A Pastoral Vision? (Book VI)
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Good Democracy:
A Pastoral Vision? (Book VI)

The Layout and Format of the Program

In several respects the illustrations for Book VI of the Politiques (Figs. 70 and 71) are unusual. For the first time in the cycle the picture field of a large-scale frontispiece remains undivided and permits the depiction of a continuous landscape. The naturalistic style of these illustrations is a landmark in the development of this genre in late medieval art. In fact, the aesthetic and formal aspects of these images are so engaging that they obscure the textual basis of Oresme's program. Nevertheless, as in previous frontispieces, a close relationship exists among the representational mode, the text, and Oresme's interpretation of its content.

The surprising format and formal qualities of Figures 70 and 71 are related to Aristotle's move from the two previous books, where he treats the typology, destruction, and preservation of actual states, to problems of constructing constitutions in ways that will enable states to survive securely.[1] In Book VI Aristotle discusses the types and suitable structures for oligarchy and democracy, two of the six paradigmatic regimes that he had classified as the vitiated forms of rule by the few and the many. At the beginning of Book VI, however, Aristotle considers combinations of forms of regime, a possibility not previously considered.

While the unbroken picture field in Figures 70 and 71 lends the illustrations a feeling of monumentality, the miniatures are of normal dimensions. Both occupy about two-thirds of the text block. The extraordinary format and formal qualities of these images eclipse the splendid mise-en-page and decorative layout. Free of inscriptions, the undivided rectangular space of the illustrations gives them the appearance of small panel paintings. Except for the foliate, scroll-like pattern of the geometric background at the top, human figures and animals are freely set within a continuous landscape sloping gently upward in a series of three diagonally sectioned planes. Strategically placed trees, animals, and implements lead the eye from the foreground eating and plowing scenes to the grazing horses and shepherd guarding his flock in the middle distance. The third plane contains a group of figures in the upper left, and in the center and upper right planes, thatched buildings nestle among trees.

In Figure 70 (also Pl. 11) the Master of Jean de Sy creates a persuasive naturalistic space. Although figures and objects do not diminish consistently in size as they recede into the distance, the illuminator creates the effect of a harmonious


relationship between figure and natural setting. The unbroken perspective also has the effect of empowering the reader to gain visual control over the subjects portrayed. The men eating in the lower left are set within an ample pocket of space marked off on the top, bottom, and side by plants and a tree; on the right, by a vigilant dog. To the right of this scene, and also on the front plane, the Master of Jean de Sy creates another pocket of space occupied by a steeply raked plot of ground being harrowed by a farmer and his horse. Also convincingly placed in the middle ground are two grazing horses and a flock of sheep, a gamboling goat, and a shepherd. The diminished scale of figures and animals in the middle distance is skillfully executed. Less successful are the spatial relations of the farthest plane, in which the figure groups, trees, and houses seem too large.

The illuminator's judicious use of color also creates the effect of spatial unity. An overall gray-green tone encompasses the entire landscape, with the only exception being the beige and black area of the plowed furrows. On closer inspection this dominant tonality is shaded by stony outcrops painted in a lighter gray. The dark green of the distinctive tree clumps punctuates and marks off planar subdivisions of the picture space, as do the lightly brushed-in, brown forms of vegetation. The same dark green sets off a planted area in front of the three buildings set at sharp angles to one another. Except for the brown of the foremost grazing horse, a contrasting white tonality defines all the animals. White is also used for the walls of the buildings, whereas brown is used for the thatched roofs. A more neutral grayish rose depicts the costumes of all but three of the human figures. The man eating bread, the farmer harrowing the field, and the central figure of the group seated under the tree furnish bright red accents picked up by the background motif and the foliate initial and rubrics below. The Master of Jean de Sy both enlivens and unifies the picture space with this subtle use of color. Although his range is more limited, in Figure 71 the Master of the Coronation Book of Charles V employs similar means. Here a deeper greenish blue delineates the fields and trees of the landscape. Only the gray-brown diagonal swath of the plowed area in the foreground and two gray-blue areas occupied by the grazing horses and the figure groups of the middle and farthest zone relieve the dominant color chord. The grisaille of the figures offers the other major color tonality. Muted tones prevail elsewhere: implements and buildings, yellow-brown for the roofs, whitish brown for the horses, and bluish white for the sheep.

The simplification of color in Figure 71 is echoed in the abbreviated elements of the overall composition. Except for one tree in the middle distance, landscape features are reserved for the farthest zone. Missing also from Figure 71 are several groups of sheep, the gamboling goat, the dismantled cart, and the figure stepping on his spade in the middle distance of Figure 70. Another facet of the reductive character of Figure 71 is the flattening of the spatial recession. The clear definition of the three planes accentuates the sharp, rapid tilt upward. Furthermore, the larger size of the figures and animals decreases the harmonious relationship of men and nature that is a hallmark of Figure 70. Yet in Figure 71 the Coronation Book Master makes positive changes in the composition. For example, the extension of the plowed strip adds coherency to the foreground plane. The same holds true of


Figure 70
Bonne democracie. Les politiques d'Aristote,  MS  B.


Figure 71
Bonne democracie. Les politiques d'Aristote,  MS  D.


the relationship among the grazing horses and the cart or plow in the middle ground and the harrowing taking place in the foreground. Two charming touches added by the Coronation Book Master are the upraised head of the dog and the pipe played by the strolling shepherd. Altogether, Figure 71 maintains the convincing representation of figures and animals within a unified landscape setting.

Both images communicate the miniaturists' sympathy for these scenes of rural pursuits. The labors of the peasants and shepherd are portrayed in a positive way. The Master of Jean de Sy seems particularly aware of the plight of agricultural workers, the poor, and politically marginal, as the illustrations for Books IV and VII (Figs. 64 and 74) show. The intensity of expression and the freedom of movement of the men eating and plowing are but two examples of this type of sympathy. Even more marked is the naturalistic observation and representation of animals. Both illuminators effectively convey their different movements and expression. Particularly noteworthy are the absorption of the grazing horses, the patience and suffering of the horses attached to the harrow, the vigilance of the dog, and the sprightliness of the goat. By way of contrast, the men on the upper left of both miniatures seem stiff in pose and gesture. The observations of Schapiro and Panofsky that the lower classes of society and animals are more naturalistically represented than sacred, royal, or aristocratic figures seem to hold true in the context of the Politiques cycles.[2] Panofsky's further observation that the upper classes enjoy the genre rustique as an ironic and parodic commentary on their own pursuits seems appropriate in view of the primary readers of the Politiques .[3] Recent scholarship has raised additional questions about the extent to which this representation of the peasantry expresses the ideology of the ruling classes. These points will be discussed in the concluding section of this chapter.[4]

Visual Definitions and Textual Linkage

Thus far analysis of Figures 70 and 71 has focused on their formal qualities as related to the single-register format. As noted above, the change from an overtly didactic and diagrammatic representational mode closely tied to verbal descriptors to one free of such ties may appear to mark a striking departure from the previous illustrations of the Politiques cycle. Yet these appearances are deceptive, since Oresme follows the same procedure of linking text and image noted in previous programs. Since Figure 70 lacks any inscription, the reader must turn to the introductory paragraph below the miniature to identify the essential concepts discussed in Book VI. Oresme offers the following summary: "Ci commence le sixte livre ouquel il determine de l'institution des especes de democracie et de olygarchie. Et met les princeys ou offices des policies. Et est aussi comme perfection et acomplissement du quart livre. Et contient .xiii. chapitres" (Here begins the sixth book in which he defines the requirements of the [different] types of democracy and oligarchy. And he sets forth the ruling powers or functions of these forms of government. And it [Book VI] is in a sense like the completion and fulfillment of Book IV. And it contains thirteen chapters).[5]


Since democracie and olygarchie , the two principal terms, are neologisms, the reader could turn to the glossary of difficult words to recall their meaning:

Democratie est une espece de policie en laquele la multitude populaire tient le princey a leur profit. Et ne est pas bonne policie. Et olygarchie, ou les riches qui sunt en petit nombre le tiennent, est pire, et tyrannie tres malvese. Et de democracie est determiné ou .iv.e livre ou quart chapitre et ou tiers livre ou .xi.e chapitre. Et est dit de demos en grec, qui est peuple; et de archos , prince ou princey.

(Democracy is a kind of regime in which the people [at large] rule for their own benefit. And it is not a good regime. And oligarchy, in which the rich who are few in number rule, is worse, and tyranny is very bad. And democracy is defined in the fourth chapter of the fourth book and in the eleventh chapter of the third book. And it [the term] is derived from demos in Greek, which is people; and from archos , ruler or rule.)[6]

Because the definitions of both terms link them with Aristotle's corrupt constitutions, the reader might have been puzzled by an apparent contradiction between the positive qualities conveyed in Figures 70 and 71 and the negative connotations of these terms. To avoid such confusion, an inscription was added above Figure 71: Bonne democracie . The unusual placement of the inscription between the ivyleaf sprays of the upper border and the enframement indicates its likely addition after the completion of the miniature. The irregular shape of the rectangular band and the faint color of the ink also point to an unplanned intervention by the scribe, Raoulet d'Orléans. Perhaps he and Oresme responded to a suggestion—possibly from Charles V—that the reader needed verbal guidance to understand the scope of the miniature.

The term Bonne democracie is helpful to the reader in several ways. First, the adjective bonne indicates that it is a species or subdivision of the generic term that has positive qualities. The reader could then recall that Democracy is the least bad of the three corrupt regimes and not so far removed form the good from of Polity, visually defined in the illustrations of Book IV. Furthermore, the means of connecting the phrase "Bonne democracie" with a positive connotation occurs directly below the miniature in the heading for Chapter 4 of Book VI: "Ou quart chapitre il determine de queles gens et de quele maniere est la melleur espece de democracie" (In the fourth chapter he defines what kind of people and what manner of organization yield the best type of democracy).[7] When the reader turns to Chapter 4, the first sentence contains the phrase "Bonne democracie": "Comme les especes de democracie soient .iiii., celle est tres bonne qui est la premiere en ordre, si comme il fu dit devant" (As democracy is of four types, the one [that] is best is the first in rank, as was said before).[8] The next passage further clarifies the social classes of the population of Bonne democracie: "Et je di celle estre premiere si comme se aucun distinguoit ou divisoit les peuples, cellui qui est tres bon et le melleur, ce est le peuple qui est cultiveur de terre" (And I declare


that one superior, as if someone were distinguishing among the various peoples, to be the one that is very good and the best, that is, the people who cultivate the earth). According to Aristotle's classification, the second-best type is pastoral democracy. Thus, the second group that figures in Bonne democracie appears in the next section of text: "Et pour ce avient il que democracie est legierement faicte la ou la multitude vit de labeur de terre ou de pasturage" (And for this reason it happens that democracy is easily instituted when the multitude makes a living from tilling the soil or from raising herds).[9] In turn, these passages lead to further references to these social classes and their characteristics in the index of noteworthy subjects under the headings Cultiveurs de terres, Multitude , and Pasteurs .[10] In short, the beginning of Chapter 4 identifies the best type of democracy with the conditions of an agricultural and pastoral economy in which the inhabitants are farmers and shepherds.

The Visual Structure of Bonne Democracie

Beyond the function of a visual definition of a specific type of democracy, what other insights about the character of Bonne democracie does the structure of Figures 70 and 71 afford the reader? The undivided, single-register format frames and bounds a united political community, Bonne democracie. Quotations from Chapter 4 of Book VI cited above provide the clues. The sequence of text passages sets up a parallelism between the order of discussion of the four subtypes of democracy and their quality: the first one (Bonne democracie) is also the best. The composition of the illustration follows the same system of sequence and parallelism: the inhabitants of the best type of democracy are the cultiveurs de terres . Oresme's program literally "foregrounds" their activities in the front plane of the miniature. As in previous illustrations, the program adopts the same strategy of updating the activities of the social classes discussed by Aristotle. The outdoor setting, dress, farm implements, and animals define the nature of the work. Even the vignette of the peasants' repast reveals their life-style. Seated directly on the ground next to the plowed field, they eat simply with crude implements.

The second group of inhabitants mentioned in the text occupies the middle ground. As the text suggests, the activities of the pasteurs literally overlap those of the cultiveurs de terres . The index of noteworthy subjects indicates: "Que les melleurs populaires apres ceulz qui cultivent les terres sunt ceulz qui vivent de pasturage—VI, 5" (That the best people after those who cultivate the earth are those who raise herds.—VI, 5).[11] In Chapter 5 a text passage reads:

Et le peuple qui est tres bon apres la multitude qui cultive la terre, ce est la ou il sunt pasteurs et vivent de bestail. Car tele vie a en soi mout de choses sembiables a la cultiveure des terres et as actions ou operations de elle.


(And those who are very good after the people who cultivate the earth are those who are shepherds and make their living off their herds. For such a life has many things in common with the cultivation of the earth and shares actions or operations with it.)[12]

It is, therefore, appropriate that the second type of inhabitants of Bonne democracie in Figures 70 and 71 follows the text sequence and appears on the second plane, or middle ground, of the illustrations. Their walking posture conveys the nomadic and solitary character of their labors. Unlike the collaborative enterprise of the agricultural workers, the shepherds commune only with their flocks. The pasteur of Figure 70 seems particularly solitary, as he bends his head in the direction of his sheep. The gesture of his crossed hands further expresses weariness and resignation. In contrast, the forward stride and piping of the shepherd of Figure 71 give a jauntier tone to his demeanor.

To the modern reader the shepherd's pipe and the peaceful setting suggest an early form of arcadian imagery. Indeed, Oresme's second gloss in Chapter 4 of Book VI regarding cultiveurs de terres seems to confirm such an association:

La vie et l'estat de teles gens descript et recommande Virgille ou secunt livre de Georgiques , et dit: O fortunatos nimium sua, si bona norunt agricolas, etc. Et estoient jadis teles gens en la terre de Archade mesmement.

(The life and calling of these people Virgil describes and commends in the second book of the Georgics , and says, "Oh happy husbandmen! too happy, should they come to know their blessings!" And in former times these people were in the very land of Arcadia.)[13]

Likewise, Oresme's gloss on Chapter 5 that explains the virtues of shepherds cites Virgil's Bucolica and biblical examples of "pluseurs bonnes gens" (many good people) who "anciennement vivoient de pasture et de bestail; si comme Laban, Jacob et ses filz, et Job et pluseurs autres. Et a teles gens annuncia le angel la nativité Nostre Seigneur" (in ancient times made their living from raising sheep and livestock; such as Laban, Jacob and his sons, and Job, and various others. And to people like that the angel announced the birth of Our Lord).[14]

Although Oresme shows an awareness of the arcadian and bucolic tradition, both the text and glosses of Book VI reveal another aspect of this attitude related to the personages of the third zone of Figures 70 and 71. Oresme explains in his third gloss on Chapter 4 how the best form of democracy depends on the moral and political character of cultiveurs de terres and pasteurs : "Apres il met les causes pourquoi cest peuple est habile a ceste policie; et sunt .iiii., car il ne est pas machinatif ne conveteux ne ambicieux, et est obedient" (Afterwards he sets out the reasons why this people is predisposed toward this form of government; and there


are four: because they are not manipulative, covetous, or ambitious, and they are obedient).[15] The next gloss explains further:

Car il convient que il entendent a leur labeur pour avoir leur vie. Et ne ont cure de assambler souvent. Et es assemblees sunt faictes les machinations ou l'en peut parler et soi alier ensemble. Et ainsi tel peuple ne fait pas machinations ne conspirations contre les riches ne contre les princes.

(First, it is necessary that they attend to their work in order to live. And they are not interested in meeting together often. And it is in assemblies where people can speak and form alliances that plots are made. And thus such people do not plot or conspire against the rich or against rulers.)[16]

Thus, the obedient, contented character and busy lives of this population prevent them from taking part in political activity. The text states that these classes prefer labor to political activity of any kind and are patient and tolerant under oligarchies and tyrannies.[17] Farmers and shepherds prefer working to participating in politics and earning money to receiving the honors of office. In some forms of democracy, Aristotle states, instead of serving themselves, they are content to elect officers, such as magistrates. In the city-state of Mantinea, Aristotle continues, the populace was content merely to deliberate with the magistrates, who were "selected from the body of the people on a system of rotation."[18]

The two groups on the upper left of Figures 70 and 71 refer to the practice in agricultural democracies of the majority's election of, or consultation with, judicial or deliberative bodies. By their implements and costume the standing figures on the left in Figure 70 are identified as agricultural workers. On the other hand, although one man holds a spade, the three seated figures clad in hooded, full-length mantles seem to belong to a somewhat higher social class. The two groups are apparently debating a controversy. The miniature may refer to the example in Mantinea of agricultural workers deliberating along with magistrates or, more generally, of electing counsellors of higher social status than themselves rather than insisting on participating directly in these activities. In the first of two glosses on Chapter 4 of Book VI that refer to Mantinea, Oresme explains:

En aucunes democracies les cultiveurs des terres et autres populaires eslisent les officiers comme dit est, et ne sunt pas esleus, mez les riches. Et en aucunes il ne esli sent pas, et sunt esleus selon partie; car tous ceulz d'une office ne sunt pas de tels genz, mes aucuns.

(In some democracies the tillers of the soil and other men of the people elect the officeholders, as is stated, and they [themselves] are not elected, but [only] the rich. And in some [democracies] they do not elect [officeholders] and [such men] are chosen according to qualification, for not all those would be of this class, but only some.)[19]


In the second gloss Oresme elucidates the following text passage: "T. Et en mont de democracies il souffist a telz gens ce que il sunt seigneurs de conseiller ou du conseil" (And in many democracies, it is sufficient for such people that they are magistrates or counsellors). "G. Car il sunt appellés as conseulz des grandes choses" (For they are called into consultation on important matters).[20] Or the debate in Figures 70 and 71 might refer to a procedure discussed in Chapter 3 of Book VI called sortition : "a means of settling disputes."[21] Thus, the scene on the upper left alludes to a council, court, or assembly in which agricultural workers have an elective or consultative voice.[22]

Iconographic Sources

The political participation of the cultiveurs de terres and pasteurs of Bonne democracie adds a distinctive character to the landscape setting of Figures 70 and 71. The insertion of the two groups on the upper left prevents the scene from being interpreted simply as an illustration of peaceful agricultural pursuits. Rather, the hybrid character of the miniatures poses a challenge in discovering their iconographic sources. Yet the derivation of the scene in terms of its associated political content and representation of the landscape, agricultural labor, and peasant life are worth exploring as guides to interpreting the meanings and reception of the images.

Scholars base the association of political content with representations of peaceful work in the fields on the depiction of Good Government from the twelfth-century English City of God manuscript discussed in Chapter 16 above (Fig. 52). Recently, Michael Camille and Robert Calkins have grounded the image in the concept of the secure social order founded on the three-class system of medieval society: the oratores (clergy), the bellatores (knightly class), and the laboratores (working class).[23] The next image that fosters the associations of work in the fields with good government is the fourteenth-century fresco of the Effects of Good Government in the Country by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena (Fig. 72). As in Chapters 9 and 16, my opinion remains that there is only a thematic but no direct connection between the Oresme programs of illustrations in the Ethiques and Politiques and the Italian paintings.

As for the morphology of the landscape, recent studies support its derivation from calendar illustrations, occupations of the months, and seasons of the year not only in liturgical manuscripts, such as books of hours, but also cathedral sculpture.[24] In France, and in northern Europe generally, the third quarter of the fourteenth century witnessed an accelerated naturalism in the depiction of landscape that reached its height in the first two decades of the fifteenth century. François Avril has sketched these developments during the reign of Charles V. He finds the delight and pleasure of the miniaturists in representing the natural world not only in books of hours but also in other religious texts, such as Gauthier de Coincy's


Figure 72
Ambrogio Lorenzetti , The Effects of Good Government in the Country.

Figure 73
The Enchanted Garden.  Guillaume de Machaut , Le dit de lion.


Miracles de Notre Dame , and secular works illustrating the poems of Guillaume de Machaut, like the miniature of the Enchanted Garden from Le dit de lion (Fig. 73), which is among the earliest landscapes without figures.[25] The Jean de Sy Master himself executed scenes from Machaut's work (Fig. 59) in which the landscape settings have many features in common with the Politiques illustration of Figure 70.[26] The Jean de Sy Master also executed the charming, but more stylized, landscape setting of Le songe du vergier (Fig. 58).[27]

Studies by Michael Camille and Jonathan Alexander discuss the social and political context of the representations of agricultural labor and peasant life.[28] These scholars raise many new questions regarding the hidden assumptions about issues such as the value of work, the role of agriculture and technology in medieval culture, and the effect of class bias in representing peasant life. Such considerations are applicable to the interpretation of Figures 70 and 71, in which the relationships between text and image and patron and translator provide further guidelines. As a whole, the insights of Camille and Alexander contribute to understanding the representation of agricultural laborers in both positive and negative terms by their royal patron and aristocratic readers. The spatial organization of the miniatures emphasizes the social distance from, and control of, these viewers over the subjects represented.

Paradoxical Relationships

The illustrations for Book VI of the Politiques present several paradoxes. As unusual as the absence of inscriptions within the picture field are the unified subject matter and the naturalistic representation of landscape. The lyrical tone of Figures 70 and 71 encourages a formalistic and positive reading of them as glorifications of the virtues of rural and pastoral pursuits. Consistent with such an attitude is the association of earlier images of the peace and harmony of agricultural life with a secure social order.

At the same time, negative aspects of the representations arise from the context of the Politiques in general and of Book VI in particular. The inscription "Bonne democracie" alerts the reader to a specific definition of a regime that Aristotle considers generically corrupt. Initially the inscription seems to be a contradiction in terms. But "Bonne democracie" can refer to Aristotle's definition of the best of the four types of democracy that he classifies. Furthermore, in the text and glosses of the Politiques Oresme maintains Aristotle's practical considerations for favoring the type of democracy in which agricultural and pastoral workers are the characteristic social classes. In short, the political malleability or lack of interest in politics on the part of its population is what makes this kind of democracy good.

Nicole Oresme may have had other reasons for selecting the workings of Bonne democracie as the subject of the illustrations of Book VI. On a personal level, Oresme may have had firsthand experience of rural pursuits. Although little is known of his early life, scholars generally agree that he came from a Norman family of humble origins.[29] He could have observed and appreciated the character


and virtues of the ways of life followed by peasants and shepherds. In a gloss he notes their desire and ability to rise to a more honorable estate.[30] By contrast, Oresme stresses the political docility of this group. In a gloss on Chapter 4 he updates Aristotle's text about the patience of the peasants in tolerating the injustices of tyranny and oligarchy: "Il seuffrent et prennent en gré les oppressions des tirans et des princes olygarchiques, comme sunt tailles et exactions et teles choses ne mes que l'en lesse labourer et que l'en ne les pille" (They suffer and accept willingly the oppression of tyrants and oligarchical rulers, such as the taille, exactions, and such things, if only they are allowed to work and are not robbed).[31]

If Oresme's views on Bonne democracie remain enigmatic, it is even harder to understand how the primary audience of the manuscripts may have read and reacted to the images. Charles V and his counsellors could have understood the message of the programs in several ways. One possibility is the contribution made by farmers and shepherds to the stability of a political regime, including a kingdom. In this respect, the political inactivity of these groups is a great asset. Another is an indirect exhortation for favorable legal treatment of this productive socioeconomic group. At the same time, the concept of Bonne democracie might have appeared ironic and paradoxical given the inferior social position of agricultural and pastoral laborers in medieval culture. Here the proximity of men and animals or the rude repast of the peasants in Figures 70 and 71 may well have appeared puzzling, if not grossly comic. The notion that in the past these classes held political power under a democratic regime may also have provoked an ironic reaction. Charles V's experience during the 1350s with rural unrest may have also inspired a dubious attitude toward viewing any version of Bonne democracie as a stable political regime. Such a response is later supported in the text and images of Book VII by the exclusion of the cultiveurs de terres from citizenship in the political community.

Thus, Figures 70 and 71 present several potentially contradictory interpretations. To modern eyes, the images may seem to offer a picture of a medieval communitas perfecta . Yet Oresme's text and glosses suggest a more negative context for understanding the character of this political and social community. In an oral explication Oresme may have clarified the various meanings of Bonne democracie in ways that permitted him to illuminate what may have appeared to his audience a puzzling juxtaposition of terms. Indeed, Oresme may have adopted the rhetorical strategy of posing a paradox as a means of explicating a politically acceptable position on the notion of Bonne democracie.


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