Guillaume de Machaut, The Capture of Alexandria, trans. Janet Shirley, introduction and notes by Peter Edbury.  Aldershot:  Ashgate, 2001.

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 importance.  Scholars 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 chivalry.  Guillaume 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 enemies./  That’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 Cyprus.  (Neither 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 crusading expeditions.)  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 translation.  Most 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 academic libraries.

                                                                Clifford J. Rogers

                                                                United States Military Academy