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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Gutierre Diaz de Gamez

The Unconquered Knight, A Chronicle of the Deeds of Don Pero Nino, Count of Buelna

translated and edited by Joan Evans (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2004). xv+232pp. $24.95/£14.99. ISBN 1843831015.

Medieval military historians have been well-served by Boydell and Brewer's decision to republish as part of its First Personal Singular Series a paperback version of The Unconquered Knight, A Chronicle of the Deeds of Don Pero Nino, Count of Buelna. This English translation of an important mid-fifteenth century Castilian chronicle was the work of Joan Evans and was first printed by Rutledge in 1928. Usually referred to in Spanish as El Victorial, this work treats the life of a late medieval warrior whose chivalric deeds place him in the tradition of William Marshal.

Born around 1378, Pero Niño was raised in the royal household where his mother served as nursemaid to the crown prince, the future King Enrique III (1390-1406). The two boys, who were roughly the same age, became fast friends. It was during Enrique's reign that Pero Niño came of age and it is from this period that most of his chronicle dates, including its most vivid military passages. Taking up arms around the age of fifteen, the young nobleman had his first taste of battle fighting rebels against the crown, then served under Constable Rui Lopez Davalos in a war with Portugal, one of several such conflicts with the neighboring kingdom that broke out during the closing decades of the century. During these campaigns, Niño first demonstrated skill with a crossbow that became one of his hallmarks.

In 1404, with nearly a decade of campaigning already under his belt and having passed his twenty-fifth birthday, he was appointed to his first independent command, a squadron of Castilian galleys sailing the western Mediterranean in pursuit of the many corsairs who operated out of bases in Italy, Sicily, and southern France. During this same period, he raided Moslem principalities in North Africa that regularly sent their corsairs against Christendom.

In 1405, in accordance with Castile's treaty obligations to France, he was dispatched north in command of three galleys to aid the French during their latest round of hostilities with England. For the next two years, he fought the English, operating off Gascony, Brittany, and north through what the chronicle calls the Flanders Channel. On one occasion, he raided along the south coast of England, from Cornwall to Plymouth; on another, he recruited and led a successful amphibious expedition against the channel island of Jersey. When not at sea, Niño solidified his reputation as one of the great jousters of the era and contracted a liaison with a highborn French noblewoman, widow of the recently deceased admiral of France.

Throughout these years at sea, Niño frequently exhibited the rashness that would become another of his hallmarks; as a result, he incurred numerous wounds, including one from an arrow wound that nearly cost him his leg.
Summoned back to Castile in 1406, Niño received a hero's welcome at court, including a knighthood conferred by the king and an eventual appointment as commander of the royal bodyguard. Rather than accept an ambassadorship that would have returned him to France, he participated in the latest campaign against Moorish Granada, directed by the king's younger brother, Prince Fernando de Antequera, later King Fernando of Aragon. Shortly after Enrique's death, Niño contracted a secret marriage to Doña Beatriz, a member of the royal family. When the match became known, it encountered considerable opposition from Niño's recent commander, Prince Fernando, now serving as co-regent. There followed some months of exile, during which the nobleman sought sanctuary across the Pyrenees in southern France; a situation that endured until 1409, when he obtained a pardon from the prince-regent and the latter's approval of his marriage. For several more decades, Niño served the monarchy in the person of King Juan II (1406-1454), father of Isabel la Catolica, who conferred upon him the title Count of Buelna in 1431. During the 1440s, he retired to the life of an aging, but highly respected aristocrat; and, in December, 1453, he drew up his final will.

Around 1402, the chronicle's author, Gutierre Diaz de Gamez, entered Niño's service; at the time, both men were in their early twenties. Gamez quickly rose to become the nobleman's standard bearer (alferez), a post he would continue to occupy for the better part of five decades. While the chronicle supplies no biographical details about its author, beyond his age, it makes clear that he was present at most of the battles fought by his master as well as the latter's many triumphs in the lists, activities that earned Niño considerable repute not only as a warrior, but as a nearly unbeatable opponent in tournaments.

In the words of Gamez,

Manifest was it that the especial grace of God was with him, since in none of the battles given or in any of the great adventures attempted did he ever turn his back on the enemy, nor was he ever beaten…but he was always victorious. (p. 15)

Around the early 1430s, Gamez began to write the account of Niño's deeds that would become an important part of the chronicle literature of late medieval Castile. The work is mentioned approvingly in Niño's will of 1435 in which the nobleman made financial provisions for his standard bearer and gave orders that his chronicle be preserved in the sacristy of the church of Cigales. (Despite this precaution, the original has never been found.) The chronicle closes with the death of Niño's second wife after their marriage of nearly forty years; its final sentence reads, “And this noble countess doña Beatriz died on the tenth day of the month of November, in the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ 1446.” When in December, 1453, the count drew up another will, he failed to mention Gamez, leading latter day historians to conclude that the chronicler had died in the intervening years.

Despite having noticeably abridged the original text, the English translation provides what the majority of readers would rightly consider to be its most significant parts, those that tell of Niño's early career, in particular the three years when he served as a naval commander leading galleys against the coasts of North Africa and England. It is the narrative from this period, largely reproduced in Evans' translation, that contains the author's highly detailed descriptions of medieval warfare, descriptions that render the chronicle of considerable value to military historians, especially those studying war at sea as it was conducted at the beginning of the fifteenth century. For it is in the area of galley warfare and the amphibious operations necessary to coastal raiding that El Victorial shines forth as one of, if not the best medieval account.

On the other hand, the volume is not without its scholarly limitations, several of which may adversely affect those using the text in their research. To begin with, The Unconquerable Knight is not a translation made from either the surviving manuscripts (of which there are fewer than a half dozen) or from a well-established Spanish edition; instead, it comes out of a French translation by the Counts of Circourt and Puymaigre published in Paris in 1867. In other words, the work is a translation of a translation.

In justice to Ms. Evans, at the time she was working on the chronicle, there did not exist any complete Spanish edition to which she could have recourse. In 1928, the only Spanish version in print was an extensively abbreviated one, published in 1782 by Don Eugenio de Llaguno Amírola, a work which scholars generally characterize as inadequate. In line with the criticism, Evans says of this edition:

[Laguno] seriously perverted it [referring to the manuscript he employed] and made many omissions without any mention of the fact. Not even the beautiful printing of his edition can disguise the fact that it is unsatisfactory. (Preface, p. xi.)

In her preface, she went on to observe that “no critical edition of the Spanish text…has yet been produced; and it is much to be hoped that one will soon be undertaken.” (Preface, p. xiii.)

Not until twelve years later did that critical edition in Spanish finally materialize under the title El Victorial, Crónica de Don Pero Niño, Conde de Buelna, por su alférez, Gutierre Díez de Games. It was the work of Juan de Mata Carriazo, the twentieth century's most important editor of Spanish chronicles. During the late 1930s, while the Spanish Civil War was raging , Mata Carriazo worked from a difficult to read manuscript (ms. 17648) preserved in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. Upon its appearance in 1940, his edition of the Victorial became volume one in Espasa-Calpe's well-known Colección de Crónicas Españoles, a significant source for scholars working on the late medieval history of Castile. To accompany the text, the editor produced an eighty-two page Estudio Preliminar and while he specifically eschews any claims to having provided the definitive treatment, this study remains the most significant one dealing with the manuscript, its subject, and its author.

Comparing the English translation to Mata Carriazo's complete Spanish edition, it becomes clear that Evans has provided her readers with less than 60 % of the original text ; and while she has retained the most illuminating passages from the perspective of a military historian, she has excised much that sheds light on the nature of fifteenth century chronicles. Admittedly, a fair amount of this missing material constitutes the authorial “throat-clearing” common in medieval works; for example, Gamez devotes a full twenty pages to what he characterizes as the four most powerful princes in history (Solomon, Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander, and Caesar), pages that bear virtually no relation to his subject.

On the other hand, Evans has made decisions on what to leave out of the English version that are considerably less justifiable, at least from this reviewer's point of view. She has failed to translate most of the narrative relating to the family's background, including passages that help situate the house of Niño in the politics of late fourteenth Castile. She has removed what appears to be a thirteen page account of the reign of Pedro the Cruel written by Pero Niño's grandfather, a die-hard supporter of the controversial monarch. Having discovered this material among family papers, Gamez thought it worth reproducing in his chronicle as a means of shedding further light on the family. By contrast, Evans did not think it worth including; despite the fact that these pages provide historians with a rare eyewitness account of Pedro's reign.

Finally, and most significantly, Evans has dropped out the concluding chapters of the chronicle, terminating her translation at that moment in 1409 when Pero Niño is reconciled with the prince-regent and his marriage to Doña Beatriz wins the latter's approval. None of the material printed in the last twenty-four pages of Mata Carriazo's Spanish edition, material in which Gamez summarizes the nobleman's later career, has made its way into the English version.

Evans explains this omission as follows:

I have not scrupled to stop the narrative at the time of Pero Niño's marriage to Doña Beatriz; for one thing, the rest of the Vitorial is less personal in its narrative and less interesting in its events, and for another, it is better to remember Pero Niño unconquered and happy than to watch him fighting the enemies he could not overthrow—Destiny, Old Age, and Death. (p. xv.)

While correctly characterizing the concluding section of the chronicle as “less personal and less interesting” than the parts she has chosen to include, her decision to omit it entirely leaves the reader with no idea of what ultimately happened to Pero Niño. What is more, in the real world, “destiny, old age, and death” make up one's existence every bit as much as prowess and triumph; to gloss over them is more fitting for a novelist than a historian.

The problem is compounded by Evans' failure to provide either a more complete introduction to accompany her translation or a more extensive set of notes or, better still, a combination of the two. Unlike Mata Carriazo's 82-page study of the Victorial, her brief preface encompasses fewer than seven pages and relays only the most basic information about the chronicle, its historical context, subject, author, and place in chivalric literature. Had Evans extended this preface by even a page or two, she could have at least sketched in the count's later career, thereby compensating in some measure for the removal of the chronicle's closing chapters. In the same way, although there are 156 endnotes, most of these are the notes of a translator, i.e. those showing the Spanish word or phrase as it appeared in the original text. The number of informational notes situating the chronicle in its historical context or identifying the many individuals who appear in its pages is woefully inadequate. It is unfortunate that in deciding to reprint the book, Boydell and Brewer did not also commission a new introduction to replace the old one and a considerably expanded note structure, additions that would have made the translation of far greater use to historians.

On the whole, the translation is an accurate if slightly dated one. While the attempt to eliminate redundancy somewhat masks the nature of fifteenth century writing, it undoubtedly renders Gamez more readable by a modern audience; in the opinion of this reviewer, a worthwhile trade-off. Having said this, there are several, relatively minor complaints one might make concerning the translation. Scholars would be better served if, on appropriate occasions, Evans were to use the original Spanish term and include an explanatory endnote at its initial use rather than drag out English synonyms, some of which are not entirely equivalent. What is more, attempts to clean up and therefore gloss over inconsistent or confusing passages might be better handled by giving a literal translation of the text, then explaining the problem in the notes.

Despite several shortcomings, The Unconquered Knight is a valuable contribution to the list of medieval literature available in English. The substance is there for any student of military history or the history of chivalry, who cannot or does not wish to read the original in Spanish. At the same time, it is strongly recommended that scholars intending to make serious use of Pero Niño's chronicle in their research (and who possess the requisite language skills) should venture beyond Evans' translation, to consult the Mata Carriazo's edition with its preliminary study, if only to form a more complete understanding of the source they are using.

J. Andrew Villalon

University of Cincinatti <avillalon@cinci.rr.com>

Page Added: December 2005