After 200 years the RHS is publishing a modern scholarly edition of Jehan Creton’s Prinse et mort du roy Richart d’Angleterre (Camden 5th series, No. 65): first edited and translated in 1824 by the Rev. John Webb, who had no more than a rudimentary knowledge of the Middle French language in which the poem was composed.
It is an important source for the history of the turn of the 14th/15th centuries. Written in Middle French, in Paris, almost immediately after the events it describes, it is quite free from any untoward influence from the new regime in England, which replaced Richard II with the usurper Henry IV. Creton was a Frenchman, sent by the duke of Burgundy, uncle of the French king and the leading political personage of his time, to join Richard’s second expedition to Ireland in 1399. He wrote of events he had witnessed at close quarters, which led to his account disagreeing with the official English (Lancastrian) version of events. He, therefore, received a largely bad press from historians who have tended to judge him a lightweight author and a witness of little merit with his choice of verse as a vehicle being judged frivolous.
Such an interpretation does not stand up to scrutiny. Internal evidence shows that Creton was attached to the earl of Salisbury at this time, and was thus privy to information from one of Richard’s closest confidants. By far the most learned of Richard’s circle with a first hand knowledge of all the new writing from France, Salisbury it was who urged Creton to make an account of the King’s misfortunes and travails so that the truth might become known. There are two valid reasons for his choice of verse: internal evidence suggests that he was writing for reading aloud – he refers constantly to listeners and not to readers – when the rhymes and cadence of the verse make it easier to follow the narrative.
In the second place it is likely that Creton felt that only a most highly sophisticated verse form was suitable for describing the fate on an anointed king. Comparison with contemporary French poets shows that he was following an established verse tradition, something that anyone lacking literary skill would find impossible. Creton’s other works published here further demonstrate what a mature writer he was. His epistle to Richard II, whom he considered still to be alive at this point, follows closely the account in the Prinse et mort, as he rehearses for the King the main events related there. The classical allusions in the ballades demonstrate that he was a man of learning.
However, the most interesting item, apart from the new evidence of the deposition, is his epistle to the duke of Burgundy, which makes much play with Les Faits et dits memorables of Valerius Maximus. There are a significant number of extracts from Valerius which show that Creton was ‘borrowing’ word-for-word from the Classical author and his sources, clearly copying out passages from a a MS which he had under his hand. This is a new discovery, previously unknown to scholars. Christine de Pizan, a much better known contemporary poet, was doing exactly the same. Creton’s work is clear evidence of a cultural upsurge in France in the latter part of the 14th century which took place within the medieval tradition and which cannot be viewed as presaging the Renaissance.
My work on the Prinse et mort began as a doctoral thesis. Creton’s poem turned out to be a fortuitous choice: with only six surviving MSS, the initial work of classification and choice of base MS was manageable for a tyro editor. It falls into three sections: rather more than 2,000 lines written in quatrains and an important prose section of almost 12 pages in this new edition. These describe events that Creton himself had witnessed, or at least that happened while he was with Richard. The final section, almost 1,500 lines of couplets, the verse form used by Christine and most other authors at this time, deals with events occurring after Creton had returned to France. On examining the four MSS in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), at which time I did not know the identity of the author, it was gratifying to discover that one of the MSS named him and also contained his other works, two epistles and four ballades. These are edited at the end of the Prinse et mort.
Initial examination of the six MSS suggested that the two in London, BL Harley 1319 and Lambeth Palace Library 598, were the earliest. What stood out in Harley 1319 were the sixteen exquisite miniatures which are fully reproduced here. Creton clearly meant the Prinse et mort to be illustrated as he refers in his poem and in his epistle to Richard to his account in words and pictures. The Lambeth MS has spaces for them; two of the Paris MSS mark the position of the miniatures, but two do not.
I began by transcribing the complete first section of all six MSS. Harley 1319 stood out: it was traced in a 1405 inventory of Jean de Berry’s MSS; it was definitely early; it had the miniatures; and it was carefully copied, the scribe going to far as to revise his text from a second exemplar. The Lambeth MS, also judged to be early 15th-century had a considerable number of unique readings. Two of the MSS in Paris did not have the miniatures or reference to them, neither did they divide the text into ‘chapters’ as the other four do; the two remaining MSS in the BnF were later. Thus Harley 1319 was chosen as base MS. All six MSS were then fully transcribed and significant variants from the base MS noted.
This has been a difficult MS to bring into a form suitable for the modern reader. The later Middle Ages were a brilliant era, so evident from the colour miniatures, at least for the top echelons of society, but so different from society as it later evolved. What seemed important in presenting the book, at least to the then Literary Director, Professor Andrew Spicer and to his advisory readers and to myself, was that there should be a facing-page translation instead of the glossary of Middle French words that is almost standard practice for critical editions of this kind. So I set to work again and I hope that the ensuing result goes some way to capturing the spirit of Creton’s original masterpiece.
I also hope that the presence of the translation does not make it too difficult for the reader to make his way around the text. The Introduction describes the work and assesses its significance. There are footnotes on the translation page which also apply to the text and which are intended to elucidate Creton’s work in its historical setting. The footnotes beneath the original French text provide variant readings in the other MSS. And there is a third set of notes printed at the end of the work, identified by asterisks in the text, which have been designed primarily for language specialists. Creton’s poem is notable not just as a principal historical source, but also for its hauntingly beautiful illustrations intended for a pictorial retelling of the story, and as a source for the development of the French language.
It may seem that, with almost 2,750 footnotes, the editorial process has been a laborious task. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was educated at a village school in the north-east of Scotland and later at the University of Aberdeen. The work, on which I have been engaged for many years, has been a great pleasure; it has opened up new worlds in a language which has become as familiar to me as my own English, and different ways of thinking which seem strange to us today.
A test of the quality of a piece of work might be the extent to which it gives rise to new questions for further research. Some of the issues raised here might include: first, whether any extra MSS of the Prinse et mort, or additional writings by Creton, or supplementary information about him can be discovered, possibly in the Burgundian archives; secondly, more details of Salisbury’s role and any connections between the French authors and contemporary Italian writers, and maybe their English counterparts, for example Chaucer, Gower, and the author of Richard the Redeless; and thirdly, whether a computer analysis of the text might lead to other discoveries about the French language as it was used around 1400.
It is my hope that this full publication of the Prinse et mort – text and illustrations, unusual in the Camden series – will encourage apprentice scholars, currently at the age I was when I began, to examine the medieval world with a fresh eye.
About the author
Lorna A. Finlay has degrees in French and Medieval Studies from the University of Aberdeen where she was also awarded the Frederick C. Roe Prize for excellence in French language. She has studied extensively in France, particularly at the University of Rennes, Brittany, and in Paris, as well as in London.
Her researches into the deposition of Richard II in 1399 were begun under the supervision of †Armel H. Diverres, sometime Carnegie Professor of French in the University of Aberdeen. The present edition was originally submitted as her doctoral thesis, which she has completely revised for publication from the original manuscripts.
About the Camden Series
The Royal Historical Society’s Camden Series is one of the most prestigious and important collections of primary source material relating to British History, including the British empire and Britons’ influence overseas. The Society (and its predecessor, the Camden Society) has since 1838 published scholarly editions of sources—making important, previously unpublished, texts available to researchers. Each volume is edited by a specialist historian who provides an expert introduction and commentary.
Today the Society publishes two new Camden volumes each year in association with Cambridge University Press. The series is available via Cambridge Journals Online and full access is available to the Society’s Members and Fellows, as part of new Member benefits from 2022. We welcome proposals for new Camden volumes: for more on how to submit an idea to the editors, please see the Camden Series page of the RHS website.
Cover illustration : Figure XIII. King Richard is ambushed by Northumberland (BL MS Harley 1319 fo. 44r.) © The British Library Board.