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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Famous Frenchwomen
The Speaker, August 4, 1900

The Women of Mediaeval France. Pictures of the Old French Court. By Catherine Bearne. London: Fisher Unwin.

We have a pleasant recollection of Mrs. Bearne's previous work, Lives and Times of the Early Valois Queens. In that and in the volume before us, we find much suggestive information on one of the most interesting problems to the modern politician- the political women of the middle ages. Mrs. Bearne herself, it is true, cares little for the philosophy of history and a great deal for its romance. She has a personal vision of mediaeval Paris which might have added a chapter to Hugo's Notre Dame. The gorgeous fairs, where rich armour and merchandise were sold in the open air, the heavy and fantastic apparel of the aristocracy, the brawl in the streets at night, the flash of steel in the moonlight, the cry of the factions, the mysterious "tall man in the red hood," who came out to soliloquise over the corpse of the murdered Duc d'Orléans, all these she presents with the clearness and colour of pictorial art. But she does not seek herself to draw from the careers of the great women she describes any of the morals which almost immediately present themselves to the mind of the reader. She does not trouble herself about the problem of the political woman of to-day, and will not, we fancy, until the controversy is conducted in a more romantic manner, until the streets of the city echo at midnight with the cry that the Chevalier Courtney has lured that political misogynist, the Sieur Chamberlain, into a quaint old tavern, where he has fallen under the sword of the Chevalier Begg.

The reader can hardly fail, as we have hinted, to be struck by the reflection that the exclusion of women from Governmental posts, called both by its opponents and supporters an "ancient" thing, is in reality a particularly modern thing. By a refinement of irony it belongs to democracy and to democracy alone. And, although it would be absurd either for Mrs. Bearne or for us to make these old stories a test of any definite political question, we fancy that a study of the mediaeval women whom she describes can hardly fail to raise the reader's opinion of the mental and moral capabilities of the sex.
Indeed, in this general moral matter, the facts as presented by Mrs. Bearne are very remarkable. The book before us deals roughly with the Court of France from the time of Crécy to the death of Anne de Bretagne. The two most striking sketches are those of Jeanne de Bourbon and Isabeau de Baviére. The period thus covered was one of black and aimless cruelty, horrible for Europe, and trebly horrible for France, watching the break-up of the whole civilisation of St. Louis. To the panic, bitterness and barbarity of most of the princes is added one nightmare touch, worthy of Balzac's romances- the touch of their startling juvenility. On every side we hear of profligates of thirteen and tyrants of fourteen; the land seems dominated by a race of sinister and unnatural boys. We read in Mrs. Bearne that Pedro slaughtered children and women, trampled his wife, wallowed in the blood of his own brothers; and then, as a mere trivial detail, that most of this happened between his sixteenth and nineteenth birthday. Yet amid this society, so intense and exacting that mere lads were careworn and depraved, women contrived to hold their own. So far from being the whitefaced and cowering slaves immured in castles which some satirists of the mediaeval times have represented them, they spoke often with as high a head, as clear a voice, as ringing a chivalric eloquence as any King in Europe. Indeed, in the stories told by Mrs. Bearne the royal women differ little from the royal men, except in being a little more steadfast and far more sincere. Only a very dull "modern," we think, could fail to be stirred with the story of the little twelve year-old French princess, married to Richard II. of England, who when a whole craven nobility were bowing to Henry IV. tore the Lancastrian badge from her retainers' uniform and sent, in the name of a husband thrice her age, a childish and magnificent defiance to the usurper. It is the same everywhere. The mother of Pedro the Cruel stood up against him almost alone to defend her daughter-in-law and fellowwoman. Valentine Visconti, by her tranquil and benignant force of mind, was able to win back to sanity the literal maniac, Charles VI. Jeanne de Bourbon shared all the largest and most statesmanlike troubles of her husband, Charles V.

It may be said that these queens and princesses were intellectually exceptional women. We fancy not, and we fancy that this notion is based on a complete failure to comprehend the real lesson of the middle ages. Take, by way of parallel, the case of the kings. From the Conquest to the death of Elizabeth, there are hardly five kings in English history who do not give an impression of a certain moral and intellectual greatness. That all these eldest sons of eldest sons were really, by an immortal coincidence, the ablest men of their age, is incredible. In mere intellect they were doubtless inferior to the counsellors they bullied and the statesmen they sent to the block. They were average men; and their glory is this, that they showed of what average men are capable, when they are endowed with a heroic opportunity. The whole need and passion of a nation demanded that one man should be great, and except in the two or three cases in which he was an utter dastard, he was great. One modern man alone, perhaps, has seen clearly the true lesson buried under the ruins of the feudal ages, in which so many solemnly quarry for mere fancies, revivals and superstitions. That man was Walt Whitman. He saw, though he only dimly expressed, that what had once been possible to one average man, might be possible to every average man, if only a more heroic view of citizenship lifted him into that large atmosphere and fired him with that imperial self-esteem. We incline to think in the same manner that the human grandeur of Jeanne de Bourbon was due far less to innate capacity than to common intelligent grasp of an intensely imaginative position.

Mrs. Bearne's work suffers from a few practical errors. If she will compare the statement of the paternity of Jeanne de Bourbon contained in the text with that contained in the table of genealogy, she will see that her statement is, to say the least of it, misleading. Such confusions are, however, unusually rare in her work.

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