The ‘Livre des fais du bon messire Jehan le Maingre, dit Bouciquaut’ is one of the beautiful manuscripts included in the Royal Armouries’ Agincourt exhibition at the Tower of London, commemorating the battle’s 600th anniversary this year.To accompany the exhibition, the Royal Armouries has produced a catalogue with Yale University Press, edited by our Curator of Tower History and Tower Special Collections Malcolm Mercer and trustee Professor Anne Curry. Here, contributor to that publication Dr Craig Taylor of the University of York, introduces you to the man and this remarkable object.
Jean le Meingre, Marshal Boucicaut, was a seasoned military commander with experience in the Northern Cusades and against the Turks. He was born August 28, 1366 and died June 21. In his early years he became a page at the court of Charles VI of France, and at the age of 12 he accompanied Louis II, Duke of Bourbon, in a campaign against Normandy. At age 16 he was knighted by Louis on the eve of the Battle of Roosebeke (November 27, 1382).
Boucicaut was taken to England as a prisoner after the battle of Agincourt in November (1415) with other leading commanders. Boucicaut remained in custody, his ransom unpaid, probably dying at Metheley in Yorkshire on 25 June 1421 at the age of fifty-six. His body was returned to France and buried at Tours, alongside that of his father.
The Livre des fais du bon messire Jehan le Maingre, dit Bouciquaut
The Livre des fais du bon messire Jehan le Maingre, dit Bouciquaut presented Jean Le Meingre, as a flower of chivalry and the embodiment of the highest qualities expected of a knight. The text is one of the finest medieval chivalric biographies, written at the high point of this genre, as seen in parallel examples such as Guillaume de Machaut’s life of King Peter I of Cyprus, Cuvelier’s biography of Bertrand Du Guesclin and the Chandos Herald’s life of the Black Prince.
Yet where all other medieval chivalric biographies were written posthumously, the Livre des fais du bon messier Jehan le Maingre, dit Bouciquaut is unusual because it was written while its subject was still alive. The text was completed by 9 April 1409 and must have been written during Boucicaut’s governorship of Genoa (1401–9). The anonymous author was a close supporter of Le Meingre and almost certainly a cleric from Paris. He claimed that he was encouraged to write the book by Boucicaut’s comrades, who were keen to create a permanent record of the great deeds that they had witnessed. The author denied that Boucicaut himself had played any direct role in the composition of the work, but it does seem highly likely that Boucicaut did know that the biography was being written, and he could conceivably have commissioned it. Either way, there is no doubt that the text served as a defence of the tarnished reputation of Boucicaut following his controversial involvement in the murky politics of Genoa, Venice, Florence and Pisa.
Following the conventions of chivalric biographies, the Livre des fais recounted the great deeds of arms of its hero, from the battlefields of France and Flanders to the great wars against the enemies of Christendom in Prussia, Hungary and the eastern Mediterranean. The work celebrated the knighthood of Boucicaut, presented as a perfect knight who demonstrated unmatched prowess, courage and leadership, but also courtesy and other courtly virtues.
The biographer recounted not only Boucicaut’s martial adventures, but also his defence of women through the creation of a chivalric order of the Emprise de L’Escu vert à la Dame Blanche (Enterprise of the Green Shield of the White Lady). In the prologue, the author emphasised the important role played by writers and the written word alongside knights and knighthood. He described Knighthood (‘Chevalerie’) and Wisdom (‘Science’) as twin pillars that upheld the laws of God and man, and argued that any kingdom lacking wisdom would subside into anarchy, just as any realm without knighthood would be conquered by its enemies. It was fitting, therefore, argued the author, that the deeds of the finest knights should be celebrated just as much as the writings of great sages.
In the fourth and final part of the Livre des fais du bon messire Jehan le Maingre, dit Bouciquaut, the anonymous author drew together the themes of the book by comparing the virtues and qualities of Boucicaut with those of the great heroes of antiquity, effectively underlining the lessons presented by his life and constructing a manual of chivalry and knighthood.
To discover more from our ‘Agincourt’ publication, please see further posts via this link, or pick up a copy for yourself via the Yale University Press website. The Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition is open at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For more details please visit our website.