1902 Encyclopedia > Geoffroy de Villehardouin

Geoffroy de Villehardouin
French historian
(c. 1160 - c. 1213)

GEOFFROY DE VILLEHARDOUIN, (C. 1160-C. 1213), the first vernacular historian of France, and perhaps of modern Europe, who possesses literary merit is rather supposed than known to have been born at the château from which he took his name, near Troyes in Champagne, about the year 1160. Not merely his literary and histori-cal importance, but almost all that is known about him comes from his chronicle of the fifth crusade, or Conquête de Constantinople. Nothing is positively known of his ancestry, for the supposition (originating with Du Cange) that a certain William, marshal of Champagne between 1163 and 1179, was his father appears to be erroneous. Villehardouin himself, however, undoubtedly held this dignity, and certain minute and perhaps not very trustworthy indications, chiefly of an heraldic character, have led his most recent biographers to lay it down that he was not born earlier than 1150 or later than 1164. He introduces himself to us with a certain abruptness, merely specifying his own name as one of a list of knights of Champagne who with their count, Thibault, took the cross at a tournament held at Escry-sur-Aisne at Advent 1199, the crusade in contemplation having been started by the preaching of Fulk de Neuilly, who was com-missioned thereto by Pope Innocent III. The next year six deputies, two appointed by each of the three allied counts of Flanders, Champagne, and Blois, were despatched to Venice to negotiate for ships. Of these deputies Ville-hardouin was one and Quesnes de Béthune, the poet, another. They concluded a bargain with the seigniory for transport and provisions at a fixed price. Villehardouin had hardly returned when Thibault fell sick and died ; but this did not prevent, though it somewhat delayed, the enterprise of the crusaders. The management of that enterprise, however, was a difficult one, and cost
Villehardouin another embassy into Italy to prevent if possible some of his fellow-pilgrims from breaking the treaty with the Venetians by embarking at other ports and employing other convoy. He was only in part suc-cessful, and there was great difficulty in raising the charter-money among those who had actually assembled (in 1202) at Venice, the sum collected falling far short of the stipu-lated amount. It is necessary to remember this when the somewhat erratic and irregular character of the operations which followed is judged. The defence that the crusaders were bound to pay their passage-money to the Holy Land in one form or other to the Venetians is perhaps a weak one in any case for the attack on two Christian cities, Zara and Constantinople; it becomes weaker still when it is found that the expedition never went or attempted to go to the Holy Land at all. But the desire to discharge obligations incurred is no doubt respectable in itself, and Villehardouin, as one of the actual negotiators of the bargain, must have felt it with peculiar strength.
The crusaders set sail at last, and Zara, which the Venetians coveted, was taken without much trouble. The question then arose whither the host should go next. Villehardouin does not tell us of any direct part taken by himself in the debates on the question of interfering or not in the disputed succession to the empire of the East,-—_ debates in which the chief ecclesiastics present strongly protested against the diversion of the enterprise from its proper goal. It is quite clear, however, that the marshal of Champagne, who was one of the leaders and inner counsellors of the expedition throughout, sympathized with the majority, and it is fair to point out that the tempta-tion of chivalrous adventure was probably as great as that of gain. He narrates spiritedly enough the dissensions and discussions in the winter camp of Zara and at Corfu, but is evidently much more at ease when the voyage was again resumed, and, after a fair passage round Greece, the crusaders at last saw before them the great city of Con-stantinople which they had it in mind to attack. When the assault was decided upon, Villehardouin himself was in the fifth "battle," the leader of which was Mathieu de Montmorency. But, though his account of the siege is full of personal touches, and contains one reference to the number of witnesses whose testimony he took for a certain wonderful fact, he does not tell us anything of his own prowess. After the flight of the usurper Alexius, and when Isaac, whose claims the crusaders were defending, had been taken by the Greeks from prison and placed on the throne, Villehardouin, with Montmorency and two Venetians, formed the embassy sent to arrange terms. He was again similarly distinguished when it became necessary to remonstrate with Alexius, the blind man's son and virtual successor, on the non-keeping of the terms. Indeed Villehardouin's talents as a diplomatist seem to have been held in very high esteem, for later, when the Latin empire had become a fact, he was charged with the delicate business of mediating between the emperor Bald-win and Boniface, marquis of Montferrat, in which task he had at least partial success. He was also appointed mar-shal of " Romanie "—a term very vaguely used, but appa-rently signifying the mainland of the Balkan Peninsula, while his nephew and namesake, afterwards prince of Achaia, took a great part in the Latin conquest of Pelopon-nesus. Villehardouin himself before long received an im-portant command against the Bulgarians. He was left to maintain the siege of Adrianople when Baldwin advanced to attack the relieving force, and with Dandolo had much to do in saving the defeated crusaders from utter destruc-tion, and conducting the retreat, in which he commanded the rear guard, and brought his troops in safety to the sea at Eodosto, and thence to the capital. As he occupied

the post of honour in this disaster, so he had that (the command of the vanguard) in the expedition which the regent Henry made shortly afterwards to revenge his brother Baldwin's defeat and capture. And, when Henry had succeeded to the crown on the announcement of Bald-win's death, it was Villehardouin who fetched home his bride Agnes of Montferrat, and shortly afterwards com-manded under him in a naval battle with the ships of Theodore Lascaris at the fortress of Cibotus. In the settlement of the Latin empire after the truce with Lascaris Villehardouin received the fief of Messinople (supposed to be Mosynopolis, a little inland from the modern Gulf of Lagos, and not far from the ancient Abdera) from Boniface of Montferrat, with the record of whose death the chronicle abruptly closes.
In the foregoing account only those particulars which bear directly on Villehardouin himself have been detailed ; but the chronicle is as far as possible from being an autobiography, and the displays of the writer's personality, numerous as they are, are quite involuntary, and consist merely in his way of handling the subject, not in the references, as brief as his functions as chronicler will admit, to his own proceedings. The chronicle of Villehardouin is justly held to be the very best presentation we possess of the spirit of chivalry, not the designedly exalted and poetized chivalry of the romances, not the self-conscious and deliberate chivalry of the 14th century, but the unsophisticated mode of thinking and acting which brought about the crusades, stimulated the vast literary development of the 12th and 13th centuries, and sent knights-errant, principally though not wholly of French blood, to establish principalities and kingdoms throughout Europe and the nearer East. On the whole, no doubt, it is the more masculine and practical side of this enthusiastic state of mind which Ville-hardouin shows. No woman makes any but the briefest appear-ance in his pages, though in reference to this it must of course be remembered that he was certainly a man past middle life when the f-vents occurred, and perhaps a man approaching old age when he Bet them down. Despite the strong and graphic touches here and there, exhibiting the impression which the beauty of sea and land, the splendour of Constantinople, the magnitude of the effete but .still imposing Greek power made on him, there is not only an _entire absence of dilation on such subjects as a modern would have dilated on (that was to be expected), but an absence likewise of the elaborate and painful description of detail in which contempor-ary trouvères would have indulged. It is curious, for instance, to compare the scanty references to the material marvels of Constan-tinople which Villehardouin saw in their glory, which perished by sack and fire under his very eyes, and which live chiefly in the melancholy pages of his Greek contemporary Nicetas, with the elaborate descriptions of the scarcely greater wonders of fabulous courts at Constantinople itself, at Babylon, and elsewhere to be found in his other contemporaries, the later clianson de geste writers and the earlier embroiderers of the Arthurian romances and romans d'aventures. And this latter contrast is all the more striking that Villehardouin agrees with, and not impossibly borrows from, these very writers in many points of style and phraseology. The brief chapters of his work have been justly compared to the laisses or tirades of a chanson in what may be called the vignetting of the subject of each, in the absence of any attempt to run on the narra-tive in the precise forms, and in poetical rather than prosaic word-order of the sentences. Undoubtedly this half-poetic style (ani-mated as it is and redeemed from any charge of bastardy by the freshness and vigour which pervade it) adds not a little to the charm of the book. Its succession of word pictures, conventional and yet vigorous as the illuminations of a mediaeval manuscript, and in their very conventionality free from all thought of literary presentation, must charm all readers. The sober lists of names with which it opens ; the account of the embassy, so business-like in its estimates of costs and terms, and suddenly breaking into a fervent description of how the six deputies, ' ' prostrating them-selves on the earth and weeping warm tears, begged the doge and people of Venice to have pity on Jerusalem ; " the story immediately following how the young count Thibault of Champagne, raising himself from a sickbed in his joy at the successful return of his ambassadors, "leva sus et chevaucha, et laz ! com grant domages, car onques puis ne chevaucha que cele foiz," compose a most striking overture. Then the history relapses into the business vein and tells of the debates which took place as to the best means of carrying out the vow after the count's decease, the rendezvous, too ill kept at Venice, the plausible suggestion of the Venetians that the balance due to them should be made up by a joint attack on their enemy, the king of Hungary. Villehardouin does not in the least conceal the fact that the pope (" l'apostoilles de Rome," as he calls him in the very phrase of the chansons) was very angry with this ;
for his own part he seems to think of little or nothing but the reparation due to the republic, which had loyally kept its bargain and been defrauded of the price, of the infamy of breaking company on the part of members of a joint association, and perhaps of the unknightliness of not taking up an adventure whenever it presents itself. For here again the restoration of the disinherited prince of Constantinople supplied an excuse quite as plausible as the liquida-tion of the debt to Venice. A famous passage and one short enough to quote is that describing the old blind doge Dandolo, who had ' ' Grant ochoison de remanoir (reason for staying at home), car viels horn ere, et si avoit les yaulx en la teste biaus et n'en veoit gote (goutte)," and yet was the foremost in fight.
It would be out of place to attempt any further analysis of the Conquête here. But it is not impertinent, and is at the same time an excuse for what has been already said, to repeat that Villehar-douin's book, brief as it is, is in reality one of the capital books of literature, not merely for its merit, but because it is the most authentic and the most striking embodiment in contemporary literature of the sentiments which determined the action of a great and important period of history. There are but very few books which hold this position, and Villehardouin's is one of them. If every other contemporary record of the crusades perished, we should still be able by aid of this to understand and realize what the mental attitude of crusaders, of Teutonic knights, and the rest was, and without this we should lack the earliest, the most undoubtedly genuine, and the most characteristic of all such records. The very inconsistency with which Villehardouin is chargeable, the absence of compunction with which he relates the changing of a sacred religious pilgrimage into something by no means unlike a mere filibustering raid on the great scale, add a charm to the book. For, religious as it is, it is entirely free from the very slightest touch of hypocrisy or indeed of self-consciousness of any kind. The famous description of the crusades, gesta Dei per Francos, was evidently to Villehardouin a plain matter-of-fact description, and it no more occurred to him to doubt the divine favour being extended to the expeditions against Alexius or Theodore than to doubt that it was shown to expeditions against Saracens and Turks.
The person of Villehardouin reappears for us once, but once only, in the chronicle of his continuator, Henri de Valenciennes. There is a great gap in style, though none in subject, between the really poetical prose of the first historian of the fifth crusade and the Latin empire and the awkward mannerism (so awkward that it has been taken to represent a "disrhymed" verse chronicle) of his follower. But the much greater length at which Ville-hardouin appears on this one occasion shows us the restraint which he must have exercised in the passages which deal with himself in his own work. He again led the vanguard in the emperor Henry's expedition against Burilas the Bulgarian, and he is represented by the Valenciennes scribe as encouraging his sovereign to the attack in a long speech. Then he disappears altogether, with the exception of some brief and chiefly diplomatic mentions. Du Cange discovered and quoted a deed of donation by him dated 1207, by which certain properties were devised to the churches of Notre Dame de Foissy and Notre Dame de Troyes, with the reservation of life interests to his daughters Alix and Damerones, and his sisters Emmeline and Haye, all of whom appear to have embraced a monastic life. A letter addressed from the East to Blanche of Champagne is cited, and a papal record of 1212 styles him still "mar-shal of Bomania." The next year this title passed to his son Erard ; and 1213 is accordingly given as the date of his death, which, as there is no record or hint of his having returned to France, may be supposed to have happened at Messinople, where also he must have written the Conquête.
The book appears to have been known in the ages immediately succeeding his own ; and, though there is no contemporary manu-script in existence, there are some half dozen which appear to date from the end of the 13th or the course of the 14th century, while one at least appears to be a copy made from his own work in that spirit of unintelligent faithfulness which is much more valuable to posterity than more intelligent editing. The first printed edi-tion of the book, by a certain Blaise de Vigenère, dates from 1585, is dedicated to the seigniory of Venice (Villehardouin, it should be said, has been accused of a rather unfair predilection for the Vene-tians), and speaks of either a part or the whole of the memoirs as having been printed twelve years earlier. Of this earlier copy nothing seems to be known. A better edition, founded on a Nether-

landish MS., appeared at Lyons in 1601. But both these were
completely antiquated by the great edition of Du Cange in 1657,
wherein that learned writer employed all his knowledge, never since
equalled, of the subject, but added a translation, or rather paraphrase,
into modern French which is scarcely worthy either of himself or
his author. Dom Brial gave a new edition from different MS. sources
in 1823, and the book figures with different degrees of dependence
on Du Cange and Brial in the collections of Petitot, Buchon, and
Michaud and Poujoulat. All these, however, have been superseded
for the modern student by the editions of M. Natalis de Wailly
(1872 and 1874), in which the text is critically edited from all the
available MSS. and a new translation added. The charm of Ville-
hardouin can escape no reader ; but few readers will fail to derive
some additional pleasure from the two essays which Sainte-Beuve
devoted to him thirty years ago, and which may be found reprinted
in the ninth volume of the Causeries du Lundi. (G. SA.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-21 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries