Life Imitating Art Imitating Life Imitating Art Imitating Life? A Peek at Machaut and Le Franc – Part I by Uri Smilansky

Part I of IV by Uri Smilansky

Helen Swift has written extensively (2017, but also 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2013) about an extraordinary work, the Complainte du livre du Champion des Dames a maistre Martin le Franc son acteur­­. Martin le Franc (c. 1410-1461) must have composed this 60-strophe dream-poem by 1451, this being the date of its first surviving copy. As the name suggests, the poem dramatizes a debate (or rather, mud-slinging match) between a book containing Le Franc’s major work—the 24,000-verse and much better-known Champion des Dames (c. 1442)—and its author, following its supposedly unsuccessful presentation at the Burgundian court. It will surprise no-one to hear that, following a learned Boethian discussion, the author clears himself of any wrongdoing.

As luck would have it, this very same talking book—or, in any case, the one presented to the Duke of Burgundy and that the Complainte purports to ventriloquize—has survived to this day as Brussels, KBR, MS 9466. Even more fortuitously, the earliest surviving version of the Complainte mentioned above is appended to a second copy of the Champion, also presented at the Burgundian court only a few years after that of the Brussels manuscript (a colophon on fol. 147v attests that the Champion’s text was copied in, though this is by no means the end of the creation process). This second book is now Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, français 12476

The addition of the Complainte to the second, later copy of the Champion suggests that lessons have been learned from the first attempt, a notion further strengthened by the enhanced presentation of the second volume. While its main text remains virtually identical, it offers 66 illuminations compared to the first version’s two, with Pascale Charron (2000) demonstrating that the new visual programme was geared specifically to appeal to Burgundian viewers. They highlight the anecdotal, narrative elements of the Champion des Dames rather than its extensive polemical and moralizing elements, the latter being some of the accusations levelled by the book at its author as having caused its negative reception. Regardless of whether the first book was indeed poorly received (which is by no means certain), the presentation of a new copy with the shorter poem at its end creates a performance in the real world which validates its own artistic content by imitating the actual, imagined or invented real-life events surrounding its predecessor.

So far, so good, but what does this have to do with Machaut? Well, Le Franc mentions Machaut (c. 1300-1377) three times in the Champion, demonstrating not only his own knowledge, but an expectation of familiarity among his audiences. The mid-century Burgundian book-collection, after all, contained a number of Machaut manuscripts (now sadly lost), and the venerable author of three generations earlier knew and dedicated works to the founder of the Valois-Burgundian dynasty, Philip the Bold (1342-1404), this being the grandfather and namesake of the Duke to whom Le Franc presented his works, Philip the Good (1396-1467). Furthermore, Machaut has been credited with important contributions to many of the literary topoi found in Le Franc’s work, from the structural use of debate, to concepts theorized in modern criticism as intertextual, metatextual, transtextual and metafictional. Perhaps the most visible parallels between the outputs of the two authors are the centricity of performance and its discussion as the driving forces behind central plotlines, and the use of false retraction, whereby the relationship between Le Franc’s Complainte and Champion mirror that between Machaut’s two judgement poems, the Jugement dou Roi de Behaigne (before 1346; mid-1330s?) and the Jugement dou Roi de Navarre (c. 1349). Suggesting a nod towards the earlier master is thus not overly controversial.

Comparisons between the two authors are usually, and understandably, confined to comparing their respective literary outputs, and most often relate to Machaut’s debate poetry. Still, Le Franc’s explicit conflation between art, life, book and performance—echoing and expanding upon Machaut’s earlier tendencies—perhaps gives license to casting the net wider. But how much wider? And what would the net ensnare? Tune in to the next instalment in a couple of weeks, or send your own suggestions on a 21st Century postcard, via Twitter.


Selected further reading:


Gaston Paris, ‘Un poème inédit de Martin Le Franc’, Romania, 16 (1887), pp. 383-437.

Helen J. Swift, ‘Courting Controversy? Poetic Manipulation of Politics in the Mid-Fifteenth Century’, in R. Barton Palmer and Burt Kimmelman (eds), Machaut’s Legacy: The Judgment Poetry Tradition in the Later Middle Ages and Beyond (University Press of Florida, 2017), pp. 62-86.

Pascale Charron, ‘Les Réceptions du Champion des dames de Martin Le Franc à la cour de Bourgogne: ‘Tres puissant et tres humain prince […] veuillez cest livre humainement recepvoir’’, Bulletin du bibliophile, 1 (2000), pp. 9–31.

R. Barton Palmer, ‘The Metafictional Machaut: Reflexivity in the Judgment Poems’, in R. Barton Palmer (ed.), Chaucer’s French Contemporaries: The Poetry/Poetics of Self and Tradition (New York: AMS Press, 1999), pp. 71–92.

R. Barton Palmer with Domenic Leo and Uri Smilansky, The Debate Poems, in R. Barton Palmer and Yolanda Plumley (eds), Guillaume de Machaut: The Complete Poetry & Music, volume I (TEAMS, Medieval Institute Publications: Michigan, 2017).



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