René of Anjou, Count of Provence, Duke of Anjou, Bar and Lorraine, and King of Jerusalem and Sicily, is today better known as an author and patron of the arts than as a political figure. Yet he was born into a family of kings and dukes, and had a long career as a soldier, administrator and statesman. His life encompassed the conquest of Normandy by Henry V and its reconquest by Charles VII, the rise and fall of the Duchy of Burgundy, and the Renaissance of the Italian city-states. He had ties to royal houses not only in France but also in England and Spain: his sister married Charles VII of France and his daughter married Henry VI of England. But his great ambition, to repossess the Angevin kingdom of Sicily, was ultimately unsuccessful, and even before his death his lands and titles were being reclaimed by the king of France. The legend of good king René is that of Boethius: when Fortune turned against him, he sought consolation in art and literature. Like all such legends, it is at once true and false: René was a noted writer and a patron of the arts, but he was also a powerful political figure and his activities as a patron and artist should be seen in the context of an active military and political career.
In addition to some poetry, three works can be attributed to René of Anjou: the Mortiffiement de Vaine Plaisance, a religious allegory (1455); the Livre du Cuer d'Amours Espris, a romantic allegory (1457); and the Forme et Devis d'un Tournoy, an entirely practical treatise on how to hold a tournament (1460). All three works were written during a period when René was a central figure at the court of his brother-in- law, King Charles VII. During the occasional pauses in two decades of fighting with the English, he organized several of the most famous and extravagent tournaments of the mid-fifteenth century. Among them were a tourney at Nancy in 1445, on the occasion of the marriage of his two daughters Marguerite and Yolande; the Emprise de la Gueule du Dragon at Razilly in 1446; the Emprise de la Joyous Garde, at Saumur, also in 1446; and the Pas de la Bergère, in 1449, at Tarascon. Already known as a writer and a patron, René may have been inspired by the publication of Antoine de la Sale's treatise on the tournament in 1458 to write a treatise of his own, "a little treatise ... on the form and way in which I think a tourney ought to be undertaken at court or elsewhere in the marches of France ...."
The tournament described by René in the tournament book is, surprisingly, different from the pas d'armes held at Razilly and Saumur. It has no allegorical or literary theme: no Fountain of Tears, no Arthurian tableaux, no elaborate vows or challenges. Instead, René says that he is describing a tournament adapted from the ancient customs of France, Germany, and the Low Countries:
I have taken this form mostly from that used for organizing tourneys in Germany and on the Rhine, but also from the customs that they follow in Flanders and Brabant, and in the same way from the ancient customs that we used to follow in France, which I have found written down in manuscripts. From these three customs I have taken what seems good to me, and have made and compiled from them a fourth way of holding a tourney ....
The tournament described by René is a melee fought by two sides; individual jousts are only briefly mentioned as following the tournament itself. Although he assumes that the reader already is familiar with tournaments, his text is remarkably comprehensive and comprehensible. While there is no reason to think that the tournament described in the book ever actually took place, the text and illustrations together present a vivid spectacle, and provide nearly all the information one might need to hold a tournament like the one described. René carefully describes the heraldic ceremonial, the layout of the lists, the costumes of heralds and judges, the weapons and armor, the arrangements for lodgings for the tourneyers, and the prizes.
There are a number of studies of King René and his works. I have consulted Noël Coulet, Alice Planche, and Françoise Robin, Le roi René: le prince, le mécène, l'écrivain, le mythe, Aix-en-Provence, Édisud, 1982 and Susan Wharton, éd., Le livre du cuer d'amours espris, Paris: Union Générale d'Éditions, 1980.
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