Machaut, The Capture of Alexandria, trans. Janet Shirley, introduction
and notes by Peter Edbury.
The Capture of
Alexandria comprises a blank verse translation of Guillaume de Machaut’s
La prise d’Alexandre by Janet Shirley, an informative
historical introduction and notes by the respected Crusade historian Peter
Edbury, translated excerpts from the Chronique des quatre premiers Valois,
and some legal documents illustrating the reasons for the murder of King Peter
of Cyprus in 1369.
Although Guillaume de Machaut is one of the most important literary
figures of fourteenth-century France, this volume is clearly aimed at those
interested in the text primarily for its historical rather than its literary
more interested in Machaut than in King Peter will presumably find the
forthcoming edition by Angela Hurworth or the reportedly in progress
edition/translation by R. Barton Palmer more useful.
Less than a quarter of
Machaut’s rhymed chronicle actually deals with King Peter’s expedition of
1365, which consisted largely of the capture and sacking of Alexandria.
When the sections on the subsequent raids, the breaking of the Turkish
siege of Gorhigos, and attacks on Tripoli and Ayas (1367) are added in, about
half the total work deals directly with warfare.
Both in these portions and in the elements dealing with Peter’s
recruiting trips to the West, his abortive duel with the lord of Lesparre, and
his death, there is much incidental material of interest to students of
de Machaut, as author of Le confort d’ami, was something of an
authority on that subject, and it is interesting to see his (apparently not
ironic) willingness to describe Peter as the “tenth Worthy,” a paragon of
knighthood, despite the king’s willingness to torture the daughter of one of
his chief vassals after she tried to take the veil to escape an unsuitable
marriage he had arranged for her-- not to mention his mass slaughter of Moslem
men, women, and children in his sack of Satalia.
(Pp. 30-31: “All night and day/ [Peter] plans how to destroy God’s
where his heart and all his joy are set,/...And he achieved it wonderfully
well./...fair women died,/ Turks, children, Saracens, young girls, by fire/ or
by the sword.”)
For me, this reinforced my skepticism of those who argue that Chaucer and
Mallory are being ironic when they describe brutal warfare as “glorious.”
As a former servant of John the
Blind of Bohemia, Machaut had seen some warfare, and he based this chronicle on
the direct testimony of experienced campaigners like Jean de Beauvillier,
Gautier de Conflans, and especially Jean de Reims.
Thus, there are interesting nuggets of information about the
nuts-and-bolts of fighting to be extracted from the text, for example that the
Turks feared Christian crossbowmen above all else (p. 118);
the observation that even a wretch defending a fortress is as valuable as
a good knight attacking it (p. 70); and an implication that the range of a
stone-throwing “petrary” is greater than two bow-shots (pp. 114, 106).
Students of the chronicle genre, and those who make use of chronicle
evidence, should take note of Machaut’s aside on pp. 176-7:
“Only fools tangle with lords and tell them things they don’t wish to
be told. Speak pleasantly and say what nobles want to hear, and you’ll be
safe, welcomed, called intelligent, a loyal man;
but do the other thing and say what they don’t like-- then you’ve
begun a process that may kill you, even though you spoke the truth.”
Peter’s campaigns against the
Turks are not well known, except to historians of the later Crusades or of
Peter nor Alexandria appears in the indexes of Jonathan Sumption’s Trial by
Fire or Kenneth Fowler’s Medieval Mercenaries, even though French,
English and Gascon soldiers of the Hundred Years War took part in these
Historians of the period interested in expanding the horizons of their
knowledge of medieval warfare and chivalry will find the few hours needed to
read through this translation of Machaut’s text worth their while.
Those with a more specific interest in King Peter will of course also
find much of worth, including Edbury’s defense of the value of Machaut’s
testimony even where it conflicts with Cypriot chronicle-- though they should
also be aware that in a fair number of places, as Edbury notes, Machaut is
clearly not reliable.
The translation is clear,
graceful, and generally accurate, especially given the difficulties of a verse
of the problems there are in the translation, unfortunately, seem to relate to
military matters, as when “gens d’armes” is translated “fighting
men,” or even simply “men”-- much less restrictive categories (p. 66, 76).
On the other hand, the more general French term “engins” is in
various places translated as the more specific “mangonels” or
“petraries” (pp. 114, 117).
Archers described in the original as firing “strongly” (forment)
are said by Shirley to be firing “fast” (p. 152); and where the original
says “The king saw how dangerous this was, and that he would not reach them
[or “finish them off”: d’eaus ne venroit à chief], so long as they
kept up their fire; for if he lost his horses, he and all his knights would be
in peril of their lives,” the translation has only “he saw how dangerous
this was, that if they kept this rate of shooting up, he’d lose his mounts,
his knights, his life.” (Ibid.)
Thus, where Machaut is saying only that the king couldn’t attack his
enemies without losing his horses, Shirley’s text implies he also could not
stand still. Students
of military affairs must therefore be careful not to read too much into precise
words in this edition without checking the original French-- which would have
been easier to do had the publisher included line numbers, as the editors
apparently intended to do (p. vii).
Other than that flaw, the book is well produced.
Recommended for all
Clifford J. Rogers
United States Military Academy