History of Literature

French literature


Philippe de Commynes

born c. 1447, Comines, Flanders [now on the Belgian-French border]
died October 18, 1511, Argenton-Château, France

statesman and chronicler whose Mémoires establish him as one of the greatest historians of the Middle Ages.

Commynes was the son of a knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece and was the godson of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. He was brought up at the Burgundian court and in 1464 became squire to Philip’s son Charles of Charolais (Charles the Bold). He took part in a war against Louis XI of France in 1465 and accompanied Charles the Bold on his first expedition against Liège (1466–67). When Charles succeeded to the duchy of Burgundy in 1467, he appointed Commynes his counselor and sent him as ambassador on missions to England, Brittany, and Spain. In 1468 he was present at the famous meeting at Péronne, when Charles virtually held Louis XI as prisoner, and was able to negotiate an agreement between them.

Recognizing Commynes’s abilities as a diplomat, Louis persuaded him in 1472 to desert Charles the Bold and enter his service as a chamberlain and confidential adviser; Commynes was rewarded handsomely for his move. After Louis’s death in 1483, Commynes was at first one of the counselors of the regent, Anne of Beaujeu, but he intrigued against the government with the duke d’Orléans (the future Louis XII of France) and was implicated in the “Mad War” between the two. As a consequence, he was imprisoned for several months but was eventually restored to favour at the end of 1489 by Charles VIII, who used him as a negotiator and later as ambassador to Venice at the beginning of the expedition to Italy (1494–95). He was not in the government during the early years of Louis XII’s reign but later helped formulate Louis’s Italian policy.

Commynes’s Mémoires, composed 1489–98, were posthumously published in three segments (1524–28). The memoirs reveal him as a writer of considerable talent, remarkable for his psychological perceptiveness, his sense of the picturesque, and his vivid narrative. Despite his sympathy for Louis XI, he succeeded in achieving impartiality, but his work contains many errors of fact and omission.



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