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The Grandes Chroniques de France was a vernacular history produced from the 1270s through the early fourteenth century at the abbey of Saint-Denis, a center of French historiography. Because of its place of origin, the chronicle has been interpreted as an attempt to make the facts of French history accessible to those who could not read Latin.[1] Although this was certainly one motivation, the literary structure and content of the chronicle clearly shows that Primat, the monastic author-translator, deliberately wrote a new history, based on a Latin Dionysian (from Saint-Denis) compilation but supplemented by information drawn from the newly emerging tradition of vernacular prose history. To understand how the Grandes Chroniques helped shape the royal image in France, it is therefore essential to examine the historiographic tradition of Saint-Denis and the tradition of regional vernacular historiography. Further, because the Grandes Chroniques was commissioned during the reign of Louis IX, the chronicle must be considered in the light of Louis's political ideology.

Louis IX's Political Ideology

Recent studies of French political thought suggest that Capetian ideology, of which the Grandes Chroniques is an important manifestation, was firmly established by the mid-thirteenth century.[2] During Louis IX's reign, members of the court and of the abbey of Saint-Denis blended ideas first formulated among a handful of chroniclers and poets in the circle of Louis's grandfather, King Philip Augustus, into a coherent theory of kingship. Louis's saintly personality and dedication to the Crusades earned him a reputation in Europe as a preeminent Christian king.[3] Those close to Louis IX built upon his saintly reputation by promoting the concept of Christian kingship through expressions of royal power such as ceremonials, artistic commissions, and the text of the Grandes Chroniques . Although few of these expressions can be connected directly to Louis's patronage, they embody ideas about the special nature of French kingship that were important to his government.

The French king was presented as the rex christianissimus in the ceremony of coronation, three versions of which were elaborated during the reign of


Louis IX: the Ordo of Reims, c. 1230; the Ordo of 1250; and the Last Capetian Ordo (the Ordo of Sens), c. 1250–70.[4] As early as the Ordo of Reims, the ceremony contributed to the development of the mythology of kingship by stressing the origin of the holy oil with which the French king was anointed, oil thought to have been miraculously delivered by God at the baptism of Clovis, the first Christian king of France. Among the prerogatives given the king to reinforce his special status was the right to take communion of both bread and wine, a privilege normally restricted to the priesthood. Ideas about sacred monarchy expressed in the Ordo of Reims were developed further in the Last Capetian Ordo , which stressed that the French king was the "only one among all kings to be consecrated with heaven-sent oil." This ordo , probably used from Philip III through Philip of Valois, helped define the special nature of French kingship.[5]

The ordination of the French kings at their coronation gave them the miraculous power to cure scrofula, the "king's evil," in a second ceremony celebrating France's Christian kingship. Cures of illness by the king's touch are recorded as early as the reigns of Philip I and Louis VI, but after its first mention in a monastic treatise of the early twelfth century the royal practice of touching for the "king's evil" was not clearly discussed in chronicles or accounts until descriptions of the reign of Louis IX were written.[6] These descriptions indicate that Louis IX's reign marked, if not the revival of the practice, at least its increased visibility in midthirteenth-century France, and they clearly demonstrate that Louis possessed the power to heal because he was king of France, not because he was saintly.[7]

Louis's artistic commissions also promoted the holiness of French kingship. The Sainte-Chapelle, built to house newly acquired relics of Christ's passion, was dedicated in 1248, just before Louis set out on his first crusade. Its stained glass program places an unusual emphasis on Old Testament kingship, including Louis as the only king from the Christian era.[8] Commissions such as the Old Testament Picture Book (Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 638) merge Old Testament history and French kingship in an even more sophisticated way. Through secularized representations of royal actions in Old Testament stories, they infuse biblical action with contemporary resonance; in the process, biblical history becomes more secular and French royal history more sacred.[9]

Later in Louis IX's reign, royal commissions centered more frequently on French kingship without the mediation of Old Testament models. Thus coins struck during Louis's monetary reforms in the 1260s associated the king's shield with the cross and the legend "Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat," an assertion of Louis's sovereignty that presented him implicitly as Christ's representative on earth.[10] Since the barons were forbidden to copy Louis's écu d'or , these coins became a powerful symbol of his monarchy.

Similar attitudes toward the French monarchy are evident in commissions undertaken by the monks at Saint-Denis. In a move Louis surely approved in the 1260s, the abbey translated the bodies of several kings and queens of France to elaborately sculpted tombs arranged around the crossing of the abbey church.[11] This arrangement celebrated the genealogical continuity of the French ruling house, the descent of French kings from Merovingians to Carolingians and, through Louis VIII and Philip Augustus, from Carolingians to Capetians. The proximity of the royal tombs in the church to those of Saint Denis and his companions also attested to the special relationship between the French house and


France's patron saint. French kings therefore appeared in a privileged position suited to their status as "most Christian," a status that would be impressed upon all the pilgrims who came to the abbey church to visit the graves of the martyrs.[12]

The Tradition of Regional Vernacular History

The Grandes Chroniques was only one of many vernacular prose histories that appeared in France in the early thirteenth century.[13] Precursors of the Grandes Chroniques , such as the Pseudo-Turpin chronicle (c. 1200–30), the chronicle of the Anonymous of Chantilly (c. 1210—30), the Chronique des rois de France by the Anonymous of Béthune (before 1223), and the Abrégé de l'histoire de France of the Ménestrel of Alphonse of Poitiers (before 1260), were regional or national histories written specifically for a lay audience ignorant of Latin.[14] They served purposes different from those of the Latin universal chronicles favored by monastic audiences or the chansons de geste of the nobility.

Authors of the earliest vernacular histories emulated existing genres of French literature such as the epic.[15] In the thirteenth century, however, they consciously changed the narrative structure of vernacular history, distancing it from that of the epic, to give more credibility to the stories recounted in the chronicle.[16] In the process, historiographers forged a new French literary language to convey a "literature of fact."[17]

Among the early French histories, the Grandes Chroniques de France is the preeminent example of this "literature of fact." Adapting the language and form of vernacular history, Primat translated the Latin chronicles preserved at the abbey of Saint-Denis in the 1270s and drew upon contemporary French histories such as the Anonymous of Chantilly's Chronique des rois de France and the Ménestrel of Alphonse of Poitiers's Abrégé de l'histoire de France to write a royal history that displaced earlier examples of the genre by the early fourteenth century.[18]

The Grandes Chroniques was written near Paris, the seat of French government, for a Parisian audience consisting of the king and those who worked closely with him. Unlike such vernacular histories as the French Pseudo-Turpin chronicle, whose origins in northern France and Flanders were noble and perhaps antiroyal,[19] the Grandes Chroniques is a quintessentially royalist text. It is therefore a good vehicle for studying the creation and development of the royal image in court circles between the late thirteenth and the early fifteenth centuries.

The Latin Chronicle Tradition at Saint-Denis

The Grandes Chroniques took its present shape over a period of 100 years, during which the monks of Saint-Denis translated into French the Latin chronicles that they had compiled.[20] From the time of the first copy, dated around 1274, until the mid-fourteenth century, the task of continuing the Grandes Chroniques was entrusted to the abbey. Drawing on rich Latin and vernacular traditions, Primat, the original monastic author-translator, produced a French text that traced the history of the French kings from the fall of Troy through the reign of Philip Augustus. He added elements from contemporary vernacular histories to a translation of writings that had been assembled in Latin anthologies by Dionysian compilers as


early as the first quarter of the thirteenth century: the Latin histories of Aimoin of Fleury, Sigebert of Gembloux, Einhard, Pseudo-Turpin, Hugh of Fleury, the continuator of Aimoin, and Guillaume of Jumièges.[21] Primat interwove these Latin and vernacular sources in a genealogical frame, producing a sequence of royal biographies that for the most part began with the king's coronation and ended with his death.

As his primary Latin source, Primat used an anthology (B.N. lat. 5925) made at Saint-Denis in the 1250s. He placed the French texts in the same order as many of the Latin ones and incorporated marginal notes from that manuscript, which he may have written himself to comment on and correct its text.[22] Like the earliest translator of the Pseudo-Turpin chronicle, Primat modified and supplemented this source.[23] He edited it; added translations of texts such as the Latin Descriptio qualiter (designed to authenticate relics owned by the abbey) and the life of Louis VII, neither of which was present in B.N. lat. 5925; clarified portions of his translation from Latin by comparing it to contemporary vernacular chronicles; and smoothed over transitions between the disparate elements that made up the Latin manuscript.[24]

Primat also structured his Grandes Chroniques differently from the Latin anthology. As the arrangement of decorated initials, rubrics, and chapter lists in these manuscripts makes clear, the Latin compendium was designed to present a collection of histories with their individuality preserved, whereas the first Grandes Chroniques (Ste.-Gen. 782) was conceived as a unified whole. In the Latin manuscript large decorated initials reinforce the originality and autonomy of component parts, marking Aimoin's Epistula in librum de gestis Francorum ad Abbonem abbatem (fol. 1), Aimoin's preface to the Historia Francorum (fol. IV), the four books of Aimoin's Historia Francorum and the Gesta Dagoberti (fols. 6, 19, 34V, 69V, and 73), the Vita Caroli Magni by Einhard (fol. 123), the Pseudo-Turpin chronicle (fol. 132), the Gesta Ludovici Pii imperatoris (fol. 149V – followed by shortened lives of his successors), the prologue to the Vita Ludovici VI Grossi regis and the Vita (fol. 199V), and the prologue to the Gesta Philippi Augusti and the Gesta (fols. 248V–249V). Primat chose to omit the two longer passages that preceded Aimoin's history and the prologues that set apart the lives of Louis VI and Philip Augustus. Further, he prefaced each book (except that describing the life of Louis VII, which came from another source) with chapter lists. Primat also added a prologue and subdivided the text of B.N. lat. 5925. Thus the life of Charlemagne was divided into five books and that of Philip Augustus into three; the life of Charles the Bald was made into a single book.[25] As we shall see, many of Primat's new subdivisions were reinforced by illustrations, perhaps to draw special attention to those portions of the text.

Because B.N. lat. 5925 was a recueil , it contained no prologue to the work as a whole. Primat integrated part of the proem of Aimoin's Latin chronicle with which B.N. lat. 5925 began (fol. 6), with an edited version of the prologue of a contemporary vernacular history commissioned by Louis IX's brother, the Abrégé de l'histoire de France by the Ménestrel of Alphonse of Poitiers. To these he added material of his own to shape a royalist reading of the Grandes Chroniques .[26]

Primat's prologue is most telling when it departs from its models. Certain additions and omissions reveal the bias of the Dionysian historiographer. Whereas


the Ménestrel of Alphonse of Poitiers enumerated diverse sources for his text—ranging from lives of saints to "a book which describes the gestes of the French kings which is at Saint-Germain-des-Près"—Primat listed only the chronicles of Saint-Denis.[27] Similarly, Primat stressed genealogy to a greater extent than did the Ménestrel, perhaps because of Saint-Denis's role as royal necropolis.[28] Some changes in the Ménestrel's prologue clarify the didactic purpose and audience of the Grandes Chroniques : Primat declared that the king and princes "with lands to govern" should "profit from the example of history."[29] Still other alterations introduce a common literary topos in which the translator who has undertaken the work at the request of his patron humbly begs the pardon of his readers for the inadequacy of his translation.[30]

Primat used a paragraph from Aimoin's Latin proem as a transition from the Ménestrel's text to Primat's largest original contribution to the prologue. Although Aimoin's Epistula and Praefatio were included in B.N. lat. 5925, their subject matter was too specific for the prologue to the Grandes Chroniques ; the Epistula was addressed to Aimoin's abbot, and the Praefatio described the customs and institutions of Gaul and Germany.[31] Primat used the most generalized portion of Aimoin's Proemium , a text following the preface, which celebrated the prowess, fame, and devotion of the ancient Franks.[32] Primat's adaptation first mentions the Trojan origins of the French, then discusses the ferocity with which the French fought their enemies and the mercy with which they treated their subjects, and concludes with a description of the reverence that inspired the French to convert to Christianity.[33]

This description of the French people provides a smooth transition to Primat's major addition to the prologue: two long passages that reinforce themes of holiness and seem to relate specifically to the political ideology of Louis IX's court. The first passage describes France's special role as defender of the church; it stresses the holiness of the French nation in an elaboration on Aimoin's description of the ancient Franks.[34] Primat then tells why France merits her special status: first, because Saint Denis protects France and, second, because Paris is the center of learning "by which the holy church is sustained and enlightened," having moved to France from Greece and Rome—an event referred to as the translatio studii .[35] These original passages end with a prayer that God maintain learning and chivalry in France.[36]

Primat's additions to the prologue draw attention to the genealogy of the French kings, but they also praise the holy nation that the kings govern under the protection of Saint Denis. Indeed, by juxtaposing his reference to the translatio studii with the prayer that follows it, Primat suggests that France and her kings must strive continually to merit their special status in the eyes of God.[37] Thus Primat's own additions to the prologue cast the chronicle in a didactic, even moralizing, frame; they lead readers, whether royal or noble, to anticipate a history of the holy kingdom of France and its most Christian kings that will provide models for their own behavior.

The additions to the prologue, the interpolations of texts like the Descriptio qualiter and the life of Louis VII, the use of vernacular histories to clarify and expand the text, and the restructuring of the Latin source (B.N. lat. 5925) demonstrate Primat's intention to shape a history for a vernacular audience. Three of his


changes in particular distinguish the Grandes Chroniques from other works. First, the revised structure of the French text, reflected in book divisions and decoration, pays increased attention to the lives of Charlemagne, Charles the Bald, and Philip Augustus. Second, the language of the translation is more "objective" than that of the contemporary vernacular histories that Primat used as sources. Third, original additions to the prologue place the text that follows squarely within the framework of Louis IX's royal ideology. The following chapters consider whether the Grandes Chroniques 's illustrations, the most obvious additions to this vernacular chronicle, were equally innovative.


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