Preferred Citation: Sherman, Claire Richter. Imagining Aristotle: Verbal and Visual Representation in Fourteenth-Century France. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.



Commissioned by King Charles V in the 1370s, Nicole Oresme's French translations of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Politics , and Economics constitute an important episode in late medieval cultural history. By abandoning a simple linear definition of "translation" for a multifaceted concept, it became possible to map the king's translation project as a complex cultural process. An important starting point was the transfer to a lay readership of such authoritative texts into a vernacular language. A second feature of the process was the inscription of the translations in the material structure and finite space of the medieval manuscript book. Within this physical structure the linguistic translation formed part of a total system of communication among which the decorative and calligraphic elements served as visual means of organizing the presentation of verbal information. A further level of translation was the means by which verbal ideas were transformed into visual language. Integral to the cognitive and mnemonic representation of these texts were the new programs of illustration, which constituted a unique feature of the vernacular translations.

Oresme's work formed part of a larger undertaking of over thirty vernacular translations. Casting the French language as a vehicle for communicating and disseminating Aristotle's authoritative texts had significant political implications. Chief among them was the claim that under royal auspices the appropriation of the Aristotelian texts in vernacular versions marked the movement of political and literary power from the Latin academic, clerical elite to the secular authority of the monarchy. Nationalistic and dynastic goals also underlay the advancement of the French language during the struggles of the Hundred Years' War and motivated Charles V's translation project, as did his attempts to legitimize the new Valois monarchy as a promoter of art and culture. The translatio studii theme constituted a bold framework for such ambitions based on Oresme's statements that the transfer of linguistic authority from Latin to French was the equivalent of the movement of political and cultural authority from Greece to Rome.

Charles V's patronage showed a shift of monarchical style from military leadership to one modeled on the ideal of the wise ruler. By personal inclination, too, he favored an intellectual approach to ruling reinforced by diplomacy, personal eloquence, and the support of learned advisers able to interpret authoritative texts. The entire translation project represented an attempt to inform and disseminate


to the king's advisers the best available knowledge on how to rule effectively. Situated clearly within the traditional Mirror of Princes genre, Charles V's program became a conscious instrument of social policy. Aristotle's Ethics and Politics had already been assimilated in simplified form in encyclopedias and vernacular Mirror of Princes texts commissioned by French rulers. But Oresme's French translations and commentary, the first complete versions in the vernacular of these works, showed an ambitious expansion of social and political goals in addressing these texts in all their complexity.

Oresme had been involved in the political reform movement during the 1350s. His earliest vernacular writings showed his reliance on Aristotle's Politics as a guide to right principles of rule. Oresme probably encouraged Charles V to make the complete texts of the Ethics and Politics the capstone of the translation project. In preserving the academic structures of the Latin translations, Oresme appropriated their authority for the vernacular. He was, however, fully aware of the difficulties that confronted him and his readers. In their compilation, commentaries, glossaries, and indexes, his re-presentation of these texts attempted to make them accessible to their new audience.

As master of the texts, Oresme also had to design the new cycles of illustration for Charles V's first (MSS A and B ) and second sets of the texts (MSS C and D ). The luxurious presentation of the vernacular versions of the Ethics and Politics not only signified their textual value but also contributed to the prestige of the enterprise. Thoroughly immersed in Aristotelian and scholastic theory on the value of images in cognitive and mnemonic processes, Oresme devised innovative visual structures based on representational modes appropriate to their respective texts. Grounded in rhetorical figures and strategies, the programs of the Ethiques featured personifications, metaphors, and allegories; the Politiques , paradigms as models and examples of regime types and social structures. Triadic organization of the picture field and the use of architectural settings are further evidence of Oresme's awareness of mnemonic theory. Based also on his training in Aristotelian modes of argument such as definition, Oresme had inscriptions inserted within the picture fields as a means of creating visual definitions of key terms and concepts analogous to those introduced within the text itself or amplified in his glossaries or indexes. Although in some cases Oresme referred to iconographic models in moral treatises and Mirror of Princes texts such as the Morgan Avis au roys , he invented new programs, particularly in the Politiques cycle.

Oresme's revision of the programs of the luxurious library copies of Charles V's first set of translations became necessary when they were reformatted and re-edited for more modest portable versions. The most striking case of such revision occurred in the second Ethiques manuscript (C ), possibly as the result of dissatisfaction expressed by the patron. Oresme probably furnished now-lost verbal instructions to the miniaturists, who headed three workshops favored by the king and identified with the Master of Jean de Sy, the Master of the Coronation Book of Charles V, and the Master of the Coronation of Charles VI. Supervising the production of the manuscripts was the scribe, specifically identified in C and D with


Raoulet d'Orléans, whose reputation with Charles V was well established. The collaborative nature of manuscript production, including intervention by the patron, dispersed control among those responsible for the execution of the book. Perhaps the most intangible contribution belonged to the miniaturists, whose personal styles, skills, and subjective biases could alter the content and reception of the illustrations. Oresme himself may, however, have been able to exercise some control over the interpretation of the programs by using them as talking points in oral explications or discussions during the readings favored by the king at mealtimes or other appropriate occasions.

Oresme's design of the programs of illustration thus afforded him a level of extratextual commentary that provided a way to update and concretize the verbal translations. He was thus able to appropriate and transform Aristotle's text to advance a contemporary fourteenth-century agenda of moral, political, and social principles. As a moralist, he came down against the fashionable and extravagant pleasure-loving classes in visual denunciations of hunting, excessive expenditure, and surrender to sexual temptation. Instead, Oresme identified the highest moral standards with representatives of the clerical or academic life. In an overt political compliment, a monumental personification allegory identified the kingdom of France as the stronghold of Justice. Even more to the point, in the frontispiece of Charles V's first copy of the Politiques , where Royaume is honored at the apex of Aristotle's three paradigmatic good regimes, the exemplary ruler was identified as a French king.

In the programs of illustrations Oresme also developed subjects or themes that translated textual concepts in terms of the historical experience of his readers, specifically the difficult period of the late 1350s and early 1360s, when the very existence of the Valois monarchy was threatened by military defeats, by the imprisonment of King John the Good during the first phase of the Hundred Years' War, and by the dynastic challenge of Charles the Bad of Navarre and his allies. Oresme's visual sermons addressed the political community as guides to moral and political conduct. The effect of these teachings on Oresme's readers is, of course, difficult to gauge. As far as public policy goes, Oresme's tract on the debasement of the coinage led to political reform, as did the election of a royal chancellor by the king's council for a few years coinciding with the publication of the Politiques .[1]

The illustrations affirmed medieval social hierarchies. In a positive sense the readers who were genz de conseil could have associated the importance of this institution with Charles V's council, of which they were part. Negatively, although vividly, portrayed were representatives of the lower classes. Chief among them in the Ethiques programs were the unforgettable giant and dwarf, metaphors of the generic vices of Superhabondance and Excès. Menacing urban craftsmen appeared as one of the three noncitizen groups in the illustrations of Book VII of the Politiques . In the same miniatures agricultural workers were also excluded from participation in political life. Yet in other illustrations, the life of the peasant was favorably depicted as the foundation of the stability of the political community. These illustrations carry multivalent, possibly ironic meanings.


In other, less political, contexts, however, Oresme took more unconventional positions. His own authorial identity grew more prominent in the inscription and dedication portrait of C and in the personalization of the glosses with abbreviations of his name. Likewise, Oresme's identification, and indirectly that of his patron, with the joys of the contemplative life in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom emerges from the stunning climax to the cycle, the monumental personification allegory, in C . Another innovative element is Oresme's emphasis on Aristotle's theory of the mean imaginatively expressed in moral, social, and political terms. Departing from the medieval practice of assigning superior status to the largest figure, Oresme equates the center of the picture field and intermediate scale with normative values. While Oresme's emphasis on the ideal of the mean may have also signified his own personal taste, and perhaps that of Charles V himself, the translator's stress on the ability of the individual to make a moral choice based on reason and free will prefigures a central concern of humanistic thought. The invention of the decision allegory as a representational mode provides a visual confirmation of such a position. Channels of international exchange, such as diplomacy, and other contacts of Charles V's court with Petrarch and centers of early humanism such as Avignon and Naples, may have encouraged the development of themes relating to the moral and intellectual growth of the individual. Consistent with early humanism is Oresme's historical consciousness of the separation of contemporary society from ancient culture, in which he was deeply interested.

Charles V's commission of Oresme's vernacular versions of Aristotle's authoritative texts is both the climax of his translation project and an important precursor for future developments in the patronage of French art and culture. The use and enrichment of the French language as an instrument of the monarchy was an important aspect of his policy. Oresme's praise of and improvement of the French language come to mind as precursors of Joachim Du Bellay's famous Deffence et illustration de la langue françoyse of 1549. In a similar fashion, Oresme's lexical enrichment of French heralded Rabelais's achievement.[2] The climax to the monarchical effort to place literature and learning under royal control was the founding under Richelieu of the French Academy, an institution that exists to the present day.

More than a century passed following the death of Charles V before political conditions and the personality of the king permitted the resumption of an intensive monarchical patronage of an official royal library and a program of translations. During this time, members of the royal family, the dukes of Burgundy, and the aristocracy continued to sponsor individual translations of ancient and contemporary works, fostered also in the last quarter of the fifteenth century by the rising tide of humanism.[3] Only with the reign of Francis I did royal patronage of translations, particularly of ancient authors, again become an articulated cultural policy.[4]

Another influential precedent for Francis I was Charles V's attempt to establish under royal auspices a center for creating and disseminating information and knowledge independent of the conservative University of Paris. Under the influence of Guillaume Budé, Francis I founded in 1530 the establishment later known


as the Collège de France.[5] Open to the public, this institution was at first dedicated to the study of ancient and oriental languages, subjects favored by humanists and reformers.[6]

In short, Charles V's patronage of language, letters, and art, exemplified by Nicole Oresme's French translations of Aristotle, is rooted in a specific period of late fourteenth-century history. Yet, as this brief summary suggests, certain tendencies to centralize government control of language, culture, and art are permanent features of French culture still clearly evident today.



Preferred Citation: Sherman, Claire Richter. Imagining Aristotle: Verbal and Visual Representation in Fourteenth-Century France. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.