“She was busy writing rondeaux […] which was not good for her”

“She was busy writing rondeaux […] which was not good for her”

Princess Margaret of Scotland (d. 1445)

PART 1 (and part 2)

In our forthcoming METS edition, Six Scottish Pieces: Courtly and Chivalric Poems, Including Lyndsay’s ‘Squyer Meldrum’, Rhiannon Purdie (University of St Andrews) and I bring together six Older Scots poems that reflect on two of the most significant themes of Older Scots literature: Sovereignty — both of the nation and individual — and Good Governance — how best to rule the public realm and the private body of the self. Over the coming months we’ll write about each one, beginning here with a Complaint for the death of Margaret, Princess of Scotland.

Princess Margaret was the eldest daughter of James I of Scotland, author of The Kingis Quair. She was (unhappily) married at the age of eleven to the French dauphin Louis (later Louis XI). She died aged only twenty on 16 August 1445, and at the subsequent inquest into her death, extremely interesting information was revealed about her wider literary activities.

Margaret’s entry to Tours on the occasion of her marriage. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS fr. 93r

The dauphin’s chamberlain suggested that Margaret had fallen ill through lack of sleep, caused by the long hours she spent each night writing rondeaux and ballades:

the King asked him what caused this illness and he replied that it came from a lack of sleep, as the doctors had said […] and often she was busy writing rondeaux, such that she sometimes made twelve in a day, which was not good for her.

To date, no poetic compositions by Margaret are known to survive and it is possible that those poems reportedly written by Margaret were lost when Louis XI ordered the destruction of his wife’s papers shortly after her death. However, it is also possible that Margaret’s work survives without attribution alongside the known work of her female attendants and others in her literary circle. Poetry by two of the women named in the inquest as Margaret’s fellow writers (Jeanne Filleul and Marguerite de Salignac) survives alongside verse by other contemporary royal and aristocratic French women and their attendants in a series of fifteenth-century French manuscript anthologies and one early sixteenth-century printed collection where it appears in named form and anonymously. That the work of these women survives both in named and anonymous form lends hope to the idea that verse by Margaret might also survive in anonymous form, perhaps in the same manuscript and printed anthologies.

As well as writing verse, Princess Margaret also owned a number of books. I have written elsewhere about the likelihood of Margaret’s having read the recently composed French romance Cleriadus et Meliadice (c. 1440–44), <fn>Wingfield, Emily. “‘And He, That Did it Out of French Translait’: Cleriadus in France, England and Scotland, c. 1440–1550.” Neophilologus 95.4 (Oct. 2011): 64960. Available online at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11061-010-9239-8.</fn> which her lady-in-waiting, Prégente de Mélun, borrowed from Marie de Clèves, the wife of Charles d’Orléans, and she is also known to have had a chest (kept by another lady-in-waiting, Annette de Cuise) which contained “un livre qui parle d’amours, et de chansons et ballades, et aucunes lettres d’estat” (a book about love, with songs and ballads, and other letters of estate).  In addition, she owned a verse paraphrase of the Book of Job, Les Vigiles des Morts, written by Pierre de Nesson, the uncle of another poet and female attendant in Margaret’s circle (Jamette de Nesson), and we know too that she gave a richly decorated book of hours to one Abbot Nicolas Godard when she commissioned the founding of a chapel at Saint-Laon in Thouars, where she had hoped to be buried.

Recueil d’Arras, fol. 8, Bibliothèque municipale d’Arras

Margaret’s death appears to have inspired an outpouring of literary grief and five complaints about her — four in French and one in Scots (edited for METS) — are extant.

1. The first poem about her death was written by the French court poet, Blosseville, and appears (in Paris, BnF, 9223, fols 65v–66) alongside verse by other members of Margaret’s courtly circle.

2. The next set of memorial verses concerning Margaret survives at the end of a book of hours, commissioned by Margaret’s sister, Isabella, the duchess of Brittany (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS lat. 1369 (p. 446)). Four stanzas in the voice of the deceased dauphine are framed by two initial stanzas addressing the Virgin Mary and describing Margaret’s consciousness of her impending death, and a concluding stanza in which the writer prays for the redemption of his/her own soul. In the intervening stanzas the dauphine is imagined as bidding farewell to those she knew.

3. The next anonymous French text, known as La Complainte pour la mort de Madame Marguerite d’Escosse, daulphine de Viennoys (“Lament on the death of Madame Margaret of Scotland, dauphine of Vienne”), survives in Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal 3523 (pp. 461–73), The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS 71.E.49 (fols 335r –40v) and Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS fr. 1952 (fols 52r–61r). It comprises thirty-six stanzas, each of ten octosyllabic lines, and the poem as a whole is divided into two halves. In the first half, the speaker requests that God make the natural world weep with him and requests the same of the French and Scottish royal houses. He then proceeds to document Margaret’s virtues before crying out against Nature and Death itself. In the second half of the poem the voice of reason counsels the previous speaker to accept the inevitability of death rather than rail against it and reminds him that God did not spare even his own son from death.

The Arsenal manuscript contains a significant body of verse by the French poet, Alain Chartier. There survives a story — later depicted visually in a pre-Raphaelite painting by Edmund Blair Leighton — in which Margaret was said to have kissed the sleeping poet; when asked why she kissed Chartier, Margaret reportedly replied, ‘I did not kiss the man, but the precious mouth which issued so many excellent words and virtuous lines.’ Although the story is most probably apocryphal — Margaret was very young at the time of Chartier’s visit to Scotland and he was dead by the time of her arrival in France — it does reflect both Margaret’s known association with poets who also served in official capacities at the French court and the shared material contexts of the Complainte and Chartier’s works.

Margaret of Scotland and Alain Chartier, Edmund Blair Leighton, 1903

4. In its third (and latest) manuscript witness, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS fr. 1952, the Complainte pour la mort de Madame Marguerite d’Escosse is prefaced by another, hitherto unknown and therefore unpublished, Complaincte de feue ma dame Marguerite descosse daulphine de viennoys faicte a chaalon en champaigne pour son piteux trespassement (“Lament for my late lady Marguerite of Scotland, dauphine of Vienne, written at Châlons in Champagne for her sad passing”) (fols 40r–52r). Comprising forty-five mainly ten-line stanzas, and written in the elaborate rhyming style favoured by the Grands Rhétoriqueurs, such as Jean Marot and Jehan d’Auton (e.g., “Hee, Dieu! quel perte / Nous est ouverte / Et descouverte, / Durement verte”; “Ah, God! What a loss / is presented to us / and revealed, / cruelly unripe” (fol. 41v)), the poem anticipates the sentiments of the better-known Complainte in its call for universal mourning, outcry against Death, and its extended praise for and cataloguing of the princess’ virtues and physical beauty. <fn>I will be discussing these texts in further detail in a forthcoming monograph on the literary texts associated with Scotland’s royal women in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.</fn>

The seemingly genuine expressions of grief articulated in this poem’s concluding stanzas and the poem’s title would suggest that it was composed very soon after Margaret’s death, in Châlons, perhaps by a member of her courtly and literary circle, and the same might well be true of the first Complainte — and its Scots translation. We know that Margaret was associated throughout her life with court administrators and servants who combined their day-to-day activities with the production of verse. As such, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that those same courtiers were prompted to express their grief for Margaret’s death in a medium they shared with her on an apparently daily basis.

In the second part of this blog, I discuss the Scottish translation. I demonstrate how it parallels and anticipates literary traditions better known from fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Scottish literature and how it accords thematically with the far broader Scottish tradition of advice on personal and public governance.


by Dr Emily Wingfield

University of Birmingham

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