A Leap from the Crowd

john the good

This week I present another unexpected delight from my holiday reading.  The extract (scroll down for a text and translation) is from Knyghthode and Bataile, a mid-fifteenth-century translation in verse of Vegetius’s De re militari.  The translation’s prologue describes an unnamed priest from Calais coming to Westminster on the occasion of one of Henry VI’s royal entries into London.  (The illumination above, from BN MS Français 6465, is of John II of France’s entry into Paris in 1350, as depicted by Jean Fouquet at roughly the same time that Knyghthode was written).

The priest takes his recently completed translation with him and finds a knight, Sir John Beaumont, who reads a little of the work and promises to present the book to the king. Joyce Coleman has a great essay on this ‘leap from the crowd’, perhaps real, perhaps imaginary, perhaps staged, in which a poet finds a patron.  Daniel Wakelin and Catherine Nall have also written wonderfully on this under-rated poem.  I like the way the poet talks encouragingly to himself (reminiscent of Thomas Hoccleve’s Series, as is the meta-fictional moment at which Beaumont reads out the first line of the translation itself).  The poet does a great job of (re-)creating the fast-paced dialogue and sounds of Westminster within an eight-line double croisée stanza (ababbcbc).

It’s a superb blend of the naturalistic and the formal.  As Wakelin has shown,  the author of Knyghthode and Bataile had likely seen the verse translation of Palladius’s Opus agriculturae made for Duke Humfrey.  The poet of On housbondrie (see earlier posts here and here) adds formal intricacy to his address to Duke Humfrey via concatenation, and via both internal and serpentine rhyme, emphasised by coloured inks.  Our anonymous Calais priest doesn’t copy this directly, but finds his own way of enhancing the formality of his prologue.  The c-rhymes of one stanza become the a-rhymes of the next, so the rhymes rotate and carry over.  Amidst all this contingency (a leap, a chance encounter, a snatched conversation), rhyme guarantees order and poetic control.

Now, person of Caleys, pray every seynte
In hevenys and in erth of help th’availe.
It is, that in this werk nothing ne feynte,
But that beforn good wynde it go ful sayle;
And that not oonly prayer but travaile
Heron be sette, enserche and faste inquere,
Thi litil book, Of Knyghthode and Bataile,
What chivaler is best, on it be were.

[Now, parson of Calais, pray to every saint in the heavens and in earth for the benefit of help.  Namely that there be nothing defective in this work, and that it will travel at top speed on a fair wind; and so that not only prayer but also effort may be applied to it, seek and diligently enquire which knight is best, may he pay attention to it, your little book, Of Knyghthode and Bataile.]

Whil Te Deum Laudamus up goth there
At Paulis, up to Westmynster go thee;
The Kyng comyng, Honor, Virtus the Quene,
So glad goth up that blisse it is to see.
Thi bille unto the Kyng is red; and he
Content withal, and wil it not foryete.
What seith my lord Beaumont?  “Preste, unto me
Welcom.”  (Here is t’assay, entre to gete.)

[When Te Deum Laudamus is sung there at St Paul’s, get yourself up to Westminster;  at the King’s arrival Honour, at the Queen’s  Virtue, are sung so gladly that it is a joy to witness.  Your petition is read to the King, and he is happy with it and will not forget it.  What does my lord Beaumont say?  “Priest, to me you are welcome.”  (This is the moment, to try to get an ‘in’.)]

“Of knyghthode and bataile, my lord, as trete
The bookys olde, a werk is made now late,
And if it plese you, it may be gete.”
“What werk is it?”  “Vegetius, translate
Into balade.”  “O preste, I pray the, late
Me se that werk.”  “Therto wil I you wise:
Lo, here it is!”  Anon he gan therate
To rede , thus:  Sumtyme it was the gise…

[“A work was recently composed, my lord, about knighthood and battle, just as ancient books discuss, and if it please you, it can be provided.”  “What text is it?”  “Vegetius, translated into rhyme royal.”  “O priest, I pray you, let me see that poem.”  “I will show it to you:  Lo, here it is!”  At once he began thereupon to read, thus: Sometime it was the custom (i.e. the first lines of his translation of Vegetius]

And red therof a part.  “For my servyse
Heer wil I rede,” he seith, “as o psaultier.”
“It pleaseth you right wel; wil your advyse
Suppose that the kyng heryn pleasier
May have?”  “I wil considir the matier;
I fynde it is right good and pertynente
Unto the kyng; his celsitude is hier;
I halde it wel don hym therwith presente.”

[And he read a part thereof.  “I will read herein in my devotions,” he says, “as though on the Psalter.”  “It pleases you very well; is it your judgement to think that the King might find pleasure in reading it?”  “I will consider the subject matter; I find it very good and appropriate for the King; his Highness is nearby; I consider it right to present him with it.”]

(NB my translation was made with the help of Joyce Coleman’s essay and the notes on the prologue given in The Idea of the Vernacular, ed. Wogan-Browne et al.)

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