The True Chronicles of Jean le Bel, 1290-1360, trans. Nigel Bryant

The True Chronicles of Jean le Bel, 1290-1360, trans. Nigel Bryant

The True Chronicles of Jean le Bel were written at some point between 1352-51, and describe the early part of the reign of Edward III. They were commissioned by John of Hainault, the uncle of Edward’s wife, and were written for a contemporary aristocratic secular audience.

This has a very different tone to most medieval chronicles, which can be fairly dry affairs. Instead Le Bel is almost chatty, describing the events he covers in a light, conversational tone. He was clearly writing for a contemporary secular audience who expected to be entertained, rather than for ‘posterity’ or for the archives of a monastery. One down side of this for a modern reader is the glee with which he reports the looting and pillaging that went alongside most military campaigns in this period – we are no longer so impressed by tales of how Edward III’s armies looted countless towns, plundered and burnt villages and so on. Even Le Bel sometimes acknowledges that the events were unfortunate, but saw them as an unavoidable part of warfare.

One of the aims of his book was to recount the deeds of the aristocracy, so they could be judged against contemporary expectations. It is clear that Le Bel and his audience were steeped in Arthurian mythology, and very much saw themselves as operating in that world, which makes some sense of some otherwise implausible events. 

Le Bel actually took part in some of the events recorded here, in particular Edward III’s rather lacklustre early campaign in Scotland, in which little was achieved. As a result we get a detailed account of some minor skirmishes and a not terribly successful attempt to trap a raiding Scottish army. Later on Le Bel bases much of his work from eyewitnesses to the events, and is refreshingly willing to admit that he can’t give any more details about a particular campaign because he knows nothing about it!

He isn’t always terribly reliable on place names or detailed geography, leaving the editor of his work with the job of trying to make sense of some of his stories. As he was writing for a contemporary audience he felt no need to give the full name of most nobles, and instead normally gives titles. This makes life a little more confusing for the modern reader, but would have made perfect sense at the time (and is of course how the modern media works – nobody feels the need to specify which Prince of Wales or Duke of Westminster is being referred to in a news story!) His does get some individuals mixed up, especially in Scotland where the various members of the Douglas family cause him some problems. However the translator’s notes help clear up these problems.

This is by far the most readable medieval chronicle I’ve read – due to a mix of Le Bel’s own prose, which is considered to be a remarkable piece of French literature, and to the skill of the translator. It is also a very useful source for the early years of the Hundred Year’s War, giving us a rare idea of how the participants in the war saw the events happening around them.

Sections
Edward III's Accession
The Campaign in the Borders 1327
'The Black Douglas'
The Claims to the French Crown
War with Scotland
The War with France Begins
1340-58
The War of the Breton Succession
Edward and the Countess of Salisbury
The War in Brittany
Edward and the Countess of Salisbury
The War in Gascony
Crécy and Calais
King John's Reign Begins
The Prince of Wales's Campaign
Plunder and Uprising
Edward's Last Campaign

Author: Jean le Bel
Translator: Nigel Bryant
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 294
Publisher: Boydell
Year: 2015


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