Although Charles d'Orléans is currently ranked as one of the best fifteenth-century English poets - and this despite the fact that he only lived in England from 1414 to 1440 during his imprisonment - modern scholarship has not paid sufficient attention to him. The volume edited by Mary-Jo Arn attempts to do justice to this desideratum by addressing a number of key questions which promise to reevaluate Charles' life and poetry and also to resituate him both within the English and the French context.
Michael K. Jones begins with a critical examination of the historical records regarding the Hundred Years' War and Charles' involvement in peace negotiations. Ironically, the role played by Joan of Arc providing relief for the city of Orleans eventually proved to be fully counterproductive for Charles and the attempts on both sides to achieve a peace settlement; nevertheless, as Jones also points, out, the Burgundians probably would not have cooperated at any rate, meaning that Joan's impact on the duke's life was rather minimal. William Askins explores the actual living conditions for Charles d'Orleans and his brother Jean of Angoulême in British imprisonment particularly in light of their readings and cultural contacts. The historical documents also demonstrate that Charles, above all, enjoyed considerable freedom and was allowed to travel around in England for a great deal of time. The library acquired by both brothers during their stay in England and Charles' dedication to writing poetry in English indicate the close "interaction between the brothers and their keepers" (p. 45). Both Gilbert Ouy and Mary-Jo Arn examine the manuscripts produced by the poet and his brother, but whereas the first only discusses the various contacts the brothers had with major scriptoria and what books they used for their poems, Arn compares Charles' manuscripts with his English and his French poems to determine the poet's specific attitude toward his work and its recording on parchment. She concludes that Charles considered his French oeuvre as open-ended, as a continuous process, as the many blank passages in the manuscripts indicate, whereas the English oeuvre appears as a final product ready for being read to the audience as a dit. Arn also attempts to answer the question why Charles did not return to France with the manuscript containing his English poems. The reasons remain unclear, but it might well be, as Arn suggests, that Charles did not expect his French audience back home to be able to read English, and so the manuscript served as a "souvenir" (p. 78).
Claudio Galderisi examines Charles polyglot poetry in which he perceives an interest to create a distance between himself and his environment and to experiment with the various languages (cf. also my study Multilingualism in Late-Medieval Poetry, in Komparatistik. Mitteilungen 1996. Deutsche GeselIschaft fur Allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft, Dresden, 1996, pp. 44-69, considered neither here nor in the bibliographical supplement). John Fox approaches the same issue, but uses a linguistic method analyzing Charles' imaginative use of words and offering new translations. Rouben C. Cholakian carries out an impressive comparison of ballads composed before Charles' release back home in 1440 and after in order to demonstrate that the poet did not suddenly change his attitude toward his surroundings and transformed into a highly active person. On the contrary, Charles' personality, as expressed in his verses, proves to have been consistently reflective, drawn inward, and meditative both in England and in France.
A. C. Spearing discusses the similarities and dissimilarities between Charles d'Orléan [sic] and King James I of Scotland who also was one of the major poets of his time (The Kingis Quair) and who had some contacts with the French royal prisoner. Both their works reveal significant parallels in the use of allegory and the dream topos, and so also in the correlation of the abstract and the personal. Charles enjoyed personal contacts with the English poet William de la Pole, whose work is studied by Derek Pearsall in comparison with the former's poetry. Janet Backhouse analyzes the famous miniature illustration in Charles's English manuscript Royal MS 16 F.ii and attempts to relate it to Calais, although it shows him as writing in the Tower in London. Even though Charles spent most of his time outside of London, the Tower provided, as Backhouse argues, the best symbolic framework for the poet, indicating his royal status.
Jean-Claude Mühlethaler studies the theme of imprisonment as a poetic device both in the work of Charles d'Orléans and his contemporaries, but limits himself mostly to French poets such as Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Froissart, and Christine de Pizan. The inclusion of Francois Villon and Oswald von Wolkenstein would have been a valuable addition. A. E. B. Coldiron concludes the volume with an excellent examination of the reception of Charles' poetry in Englad [sic] until the 20th century. The manuscript tradition demonstrates that he was considered a major English poet of his time, even though he also faced much political opposition and was not accepted by the early-modem printers (!). These only referred to him as a historical figure, but did not show any interest in his poetry. Consequently, in the process of the early-modern canon formation in England Charles was largely left out and, especially in the nineteenth century, (falsely) considered only as a translator of his French poetry into English who neither fit into the medieval period nor into the Renaissance.
This pleasant and very illuminating volume concludes with a bibliographical supplement and an index. On the basis of the studies published in this volume we may indeed hope that research on Charles d'Orléans will be invigorated and begin afresh.
Studi Medievali, December 2001