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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

For Commines could not attach himself to violence and folly


In

PHILIPPE DE COMMINES we meet the last chronicler of the Middle Ages, and the first of modern historians. Born about 1445, in Flanders, of the family of Van den Clyte, Commines, whose parents died early, received a scanty education; but if he knew no Latin, his acquaintance with modern languages served him well. At first in the service of Charles the Bold, in 1472 he passed over to the cause of Louis XI. His treason to the Duke may be almost described as inevitable; for Commines could not attach himself to violence and folly, and was naturally drawn to the counsels of civil prudence. The bargain was as profitable to his new master as to the servant. On the King's death came a reverse of fortune for Commines: for eight months he was cramped in the iron cage; during two years he remained a prisoner in the Conciergerie (1487-89), with enforced leisure to think of the preparation of his _Memoires_.[3] Again the sunshine of royal favour returned; he followed Charles VIII. to Italy, and was engaged in diplomatic service at Venice. In 1511 he died.

[Footnote 3: Books I.-VI., written 1488-94; Books VII., VIII., written 1494-95.]

The _Memoires_ of Commines were composed as a body of material for a projected history of Louis XI. by Archbishop Angelo Cato; the writer, apparently in all sincerity, hoped that his unlearned French might thus be translated into Latin, the language of scholars; happily we possess the Memoirs

as they left their author's mind. And, though Commines rather hides than thrusts to view his own personality, every page betrays the presence of a remarkable intellect. He was no artist either in imaginative design or literary execution; he was before all else a thinker, a student of political phenomena, a searcher after the causes of events, an analyst of motives, a psychologist of individual character and of the temper of peoples, and, after a fashion, a moralist in his interpretation of history. He cared little, or not at all, for the coloured surface of life; his chief concern is to seize the master motive by which men and events are ruled, to comprehend the secret springs of action. He is aristocratic in his politics, monarchical, an advocate for the centralisation of power; but he would have the monarch enlightened, constitutional, and pacific. He values solid gains more than showy magnificence; and knowing the use of astuteness, he knows also the importance of good faith. He has a sense of the balance of European power, and anticipates Montesquieu in his theory of the influence of climates on peoples. There is something of pity, something of irony, in the view which he takes of the joyless lot of the great ones of the earth. Having ascertained how few of the combinations of events can be controlled by the wisest calculation, he takes refuge in a faith in Providence; he finds God necessary to explain this entangled world; and yet his morality is in great part that which tries good and evil by the test of success. By the intensity of his thought Commines sometimes becomes striking in his expression; occasionally he rises to a grave eloquence; occasionally his irony is touched by a bitter humour. But in general he writes with little sentiment and no sense of beauty, under the control of a dry and circumspect intelligence.


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