The Livre de Fauvel BnF fr. 146 was written at a time of crisis, when it was not certain who the next ruler would be. When a glorious past seemed both so near and so far. When recent wars – and the prospect of future wars – were real. When the economy was in crisis due to mismanagement by a powerful minority seeking their own gain. When insurgents from abroad threatened the state.
The year was (probably) 1316. That year, the French monarchy, the Capetian royal family, had found themselves without direct male heirs. Again. The female line, quite apart from being, you know, women an’ all, was dogged by claims of adultery. The throne was empty, awaiting the outcome of a pregnancy. If the baby was male, he would be king, but who should be regent? And if the baby was female, or should die, who would be the next king?
Against this backdrop, a group of educated and talented artists who worked in the royal chancery with the highest affairs of state produced a lavish manuscript of story, poetry, song, artwork, and historical writing. They must have had considerable financial backing for materials, sources, and time. They had a message for the new ruler, and it was this: evil is everywhere, but do not let it win.
They sound their message in various ways around and including the central text of the tale of the horse-man Fauvel. Fauvel, half man half beast, who is faun, dun, tan – that strange reddy-brown colour that is not quite natural except in foxes. Foxes, like Reynard, the wicked deceiver who rapes, pillages, steals chickens, and continually deceives the forgiving lion Noble with his fake piety and feigned contrition. Reynard who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Fauvel – faux vel, false veil; Flattery, Avarice, Villainy, Vanity, Envy, Laziness – is no better; indeed, he has images of Reynard on the walls of his palace. Wait. A horse in a palace? Oh yes, Fauvel has been raised by Fortune and is petted and washed by nobles and churchmen alike. He has a false court of deceivers. He is served by an army of Vices. He sits astride the French throne in beastly splendour. To an accompaniment of song and glorious imagery Fauvel feasts, fornicates, and washes in the fountain of youth so that he will never die.
Scroll forward in time 700 years with the addition of fake tan. To empty promises and hollow words (Louis X, like his father Philip IV, had vowed to go on crusade in the footsteps of their saintly forebear Louis IX, but never did). To money-grabbing elites (Enguerran de Marigny had run the treasury dry). To an armed populace taking the law into their own hands (bands of unemployed soldiers were terrorising the country). To new movements in the art world that made use of new technology (ars nova techniques in music notation and performance). To people, fearing the changes around them, acting desperately to support the loudest voice, a voice which cries: it’s not you, it’s them. And I’ll give you everything you want, no matter what the cost.
It was a climate that could not afford to let Fauvel have his second coming. For if it did, society as it was known would be overturned. The apocalyptic readings in Fauvel abound. The creators of fr. 146 were playing a dangerous game. ‘It was just a joke’ would be no excuse for their biting satire. They needed protection, as well as resources. Both probably came from the elder statesman Charles de Valois, powerful kingmaker, and uncle and brother to kings. His name can be found in the purported authorial naming in the manuscript if it is considered an anagram (and there are strong reasons to do so). As it turned out, the baby was a boy, who died after only a few days. The new king, Philip V, is looked upon kindly by history. Perhaps he heeded Fauvel’s message. Alas, others did not. After Philip’s death the hundred years war kicked into full swing. The black death spread across Europe, destabilising society again. Art, music, and literature responded in new ways. Time marched on regardless.
The Fauvel manuscript is a complex network of meanings and connections, some of which are obvious, some of which take some time to reveal themselves. Some require a detailed knowledge of the messy politics of early fourteenth-century France to fully understand (if indeed we can really understand them at all). But there is one meaning for which no knowledge of Middle French, medieval Latin, or medieval music notation is required: Fauvel is a lying, dangerous monster of a man, and he is very near.
Images: Paris, BnF fr. 146, Le livre de Fauvel, fol. 11r (detail). Viewable on Gallica.fr. Public domain. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8454675g/f32.double.r=fauvel
Michael Vadon, flickr site, creative commons share-alike licence. https://www.flickr.com/photos/80038275@N00/20113295303
This post was inspired by writing my article ‘The Medieval (Music) Book: A Multimodal Cognitive Artefact’, forthcoming in the History of Distributed Cognition (vol. 2), University of Edinburgh Press: http://www.hdc.ed.ac.uk. You may also want to read @theLitCritGuy’s post on Trump and Freud from a year ago (which I quote in my article): https://thelitcritguy.com/2015/08/27/donald-trump-the-id-of-republican-politics/