Roman de Troie, in French Prose (The Romance of Troy)

Master of Girart de Roussillon

(Burgundy, Mid-15th Century)
In French prose, illuminated manuscript on parchment, seventeen large miniatures 31 x 23 cm (12.2 x 9 in.) Southern Netherlands, probably Brussels - Circa 1450-60

This manuscript has never been displayed publicly.

The romance of the siege and destruction of Troy and the diaspora of the Trojans is the greatest literary text of Antiquity, both in Greek and Latin. It became the supreme aspiration of the Middle Ages to claim descent from the chivalric knights of Troy. The origins of Rome were traced to Aeneas; Britain was reputedly so-called after Brutus of Troy; Paris was named after the Trojan prince whose abduction of Helen led to the war; and Troyes was to be the new Troy. The first printed book in the English language was a Trojan romance (c. 1474). Above all, the fifteenth-century Dukes of Burgundy revelled in their supposed descent from the Trojans and they promoted it unceasingly. The library of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy 1419-67, included 17 manuscripts on the history of Troy, and at least ten copies were owned by his successors Charles the Bold, 1467-77, and Philip the Handsome, 1482-1506 (A. Bayot, La légende de Troie à la cour de Bourgogne, Bruges, 1908; J. Barrois, Bibliothèque Prototypographique, Paris, 1830, pp. 143-45 and 239-41). Since the artist of the present manuscript was a full-time employee of Charles the Bold (see below), it is by no means impossible that this manuscript too was destined for the ducal library. At very least, it is the finest surviving manuscript of a text consciously promoted from within the Burgundian court. The earliest great working of the Trojan legend in the French language was the twelfth-century Roman de Troie of Benoît de Sainte-Maure, in just over 30,000 lines of epic verse. In the thirteenth century, this poem was rendered for the first time into French prose, perhaps to add credibility to what might have been dismissed as fiction when chivalric romance became paramount during the Crusades. That original version, known to literary historians as ‘Prose 1’, is the text represented by the manuscript here. The author claims to have written it in the Morea, now the Peloponnese peninsula, then a Frankish principality. It opens with a description of the geography of the eastern Mediterranean, followed by the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece which resulted in the first destruction of Troy, the romance itself from Benoît de Sainte-Maure through to the return and death of Ulysses, and finally a short continuation taken from the romance of Laudomata, son of Hector, who returned to Troy and re-established a knightly kingdom. All these are characteristic of the ‘Prose 1’ version.

The most up-to-date and detailed list of surviving manuscripts of ‘Prose 1’ is that on the website of Arlima, Archives de literature du Moyen Âge, recording 12 manuscripts of this text, including the present copy, listed as ‘localisation actuelle inconnue’. One of the 12 was destroyed in the Second World War.

In approximate order of date, these manuscripts are:

1. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms fr. 1612, late thirteenth century, 25 historiated initials.

2. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms fr.1627, early fourteenth century, one miniature (very rubbed).

3. formerly Tours, Bibliothèque municipale, ms 954, dated 1358, on paper, no miniatures; destroyed in the War, 19 June 1940.

4. Florence, Biblioteca Riccardiana, cod. 2025, probably fourteenth century, some sketches for miniatures never completed.

5. Maredsous, Bibliothèque de l’Abbaye, ms fo 26, mid-fifteenth century, on paper, 67 coloured drawings.

6. The present manuscript, on parchment, 17 illuminated miniatures (with another now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, see below).

7. Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS 5008, fifteenth century, on paper, incomplete, no miniatures.

8. Lyon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms 878, fifteenth century, incomplete, two miniatures remaining (all others removed).

9. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms nouv. acq. fr. 10052, late fifteenth century, on paper, no miniatures.

10. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms ms nouv. acq. fr. 11674, late fifteenth century, on paper, space left for one miniature never added.

11. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms fr. 12602, late fifteenth century, on paper, incomplete, spaces left for miniatures never added.

12. London, British Library, Add. MS 9785, c. 1500, on paper, incomplete, no miniatures.

There is an earlier list of manuscripts by Marc-René Jung, La legende de Troie, 1996, pp. 442-43 and 455-84, incorporating copies also of a slightly different and revised text of ‘Prose 1’, known as the ‘prose remainée’, or later version. Including these too, the total number of manuscripts of different families of ‘Prose 1’ now reaches 18 or 19. The additions are: 13, Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Cod. Hamilton 340, fifteenth century, incomplete, spaces left for 17 miniatures never added; 14, Cambridge, Trinity College, O.4.26, incomplete, 7 surviving miniatures (of 10); 15, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms fr. 785, spaces left for 12 miniatures never added; 16, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms fr. 1631, dated 1485, on paper, incomplete, no miniatures; 17, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms fr. 24401, fifteenth century, incomplete, 23 miniatures with drawings and left for others never added; 18, Saint Petersburg, Rossijskaja Nacional’naja Biblioteka, fr.F.v.XIV.12, early sixteenth century, 18 coloured drawings; and 19, the manuscript listed by Jung on p. 442 as “Ophem, Bibl. du comte Hemricourt de Grunne (XVe s.)” on which no information appears to be published and may, in fact, be the present manuscript if it was acquired by that collection in 1938.

Every one of these, with the possible exception of the last, is in the inalienable possession of a European public collection. None is outside Europe. No other has come to the market since the present copy was sold in 1938. Each copy is slightly different and every one contributes to knowledge of the text; this manuscript has never been studied first-hand by any literary scholar.

The manuscript is missing 13 leaves. At least nine of the manuscripts above are also incomplete. The report of our copy by Constans (1912) cites its nineteenth-century owner as claiming that it had “environ 150 pages” and “une quarantaine” of fine miniatures. The former is only a guess (the complete manuscript had 122 folios) and, even if every missing leaf had a picture, which is unlikely, it can never have had more than 30, not 40. The numbers of leaves and miniatures now are exactly as they were when the manuscript was described by Quaritch in 1898.

In fact, one missing miniature from the present manuscript survives. It is B-13.519 among the Rosenwald cuttings in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. (Nordenfalk and others, 1975, pp. 185-87, no. 47), showing the meeting of Achilles and Hector. It belonged the collections of Edouard Warneck (1834-1924) and Arthur Sambon (1867-1947) before passing to Léonce Rosenberg by 1913. It is a fragment, cut close to the picture, not a whole leaf, which suggests the collecting taste of the earlier nineteenth century. The fragments of text on its verso correspond to parts of folios 75v and 76r of British Library Add. MS 9785 (no. 12 on the list above), which allows us to match it as part of the missing leaf 43 of the present manuscript. That fact was hitherto unknowable.

With the Washington cutting, the present manuscript had a cycle of at least 18 miniatures, and probably more. This is almost unprecedented among manuscripts of the ‘Prose 1’ text. Most are relatively humble copies. At least eight are on paper. Four have no pictures at all and six have spaces left for miniatures never completed. Only two have a larger repertoire of illustrations, no. 1, with 25 small thirteenth-century historiated initials, and no. 5, a paper manuscript with 67 sketchy coloured drawings. Judged at least from the standpoint of a luxury copy on parchment with fully coloured and illuminated pictures, this is (even in its present condition) the finest and richest manuscript of the text extant.

The manuscript opens on folio 1r, “Ci commence li prologue de la vraie hystoire de Troye, Li anciens sages que de philosophie erent …”. The second leaf, which would be the clue to eventual identification in the Burgundian or other courtly inventories, begins “Grece est moult grant”. The text ends on folio 121v, “ … estre tenue et comme il fu etc. Explicit la vraie histoire de Troye.”

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