Philippe De Commynes- A Courtly Middle-Man
Objective memoirs or economy with the truth? Michael Jones sifts for an assessment through a courtier's recollections of power politics in fifteenth-century Europe.
The memoirs of Phillipe de Commynes (1447-1511) have been recognised as a major historical source since their publication. Michel de Montaigne's critique has been widely accepted:
The narrative is clear, and the author's good faith shines plainly through it. He is free from vanity when speaking of himself, and from partiality and malice when speaking of others.
Many modern accounts simply paraphrase the Memoirs: the frame- work of events, policies attributed to leading princes and Commynes' sharply-observed characterisation are all reproduced. Among these portraits those of Charles of Burgundy (1467-77) and Louis XI of France (1461-83), in particular, have coloured all subsequent assessments.
It is acknowledged that memoirs – in the sense of political recollections the word is first popularised by Commynes – often result in partial accounts like all autobiography. But it has normally been accepted that Commynes achieved admirable detachment. 'Careful, perspicacious and reflective, he judges men and events dispassionately', was a verdict passed less than twenty years ago. Other recent work suggests the opposite.