The Book of Geoffroi de Charny with the Livre Charny

Edited & translated by NIGEL BRYANT & IAN WILSON

Ian Wilson, thank you for chatting to us. Before we dive into your book would you please tell us something of your studies and career to date? 

I was hugely privileged to have been an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, during the early 1960s – the heady era of Bruce McFarlane, ‘A.J.P.’ Taylor, Karl Leyser, and not least Alan Bennett, with all of whom I had terms of tutoring during my three years at Magdalen. Back at that time neither my abilities nor my inclinations favoured an academic career, my earliest post-graduate employment being in advertising management, first for retail companies, then for regional newspapers. However, a ‘spare-time’ interest in the Turin Shroud that had begun in 1966 with a three-month research stint at the British Library (then the superb Round Room within the British Museum), led in 1973 to an invitation to examine the original in Turin, followed five years later by the writing of a book on the subject which effectively launched my three-decade-long career as a self-employed author. 

The often-controversial topics that I subsequently chose to write on usually had a historical angle to them, and always I tried to be conscientious and objective in researching and addressing the issues involved. Invariably, however, these publications were directed towards the general reader rather than towards the specialist. The Book of Geoffroi de Charny, which most unexpectedly came into being during what was intended as my ‘retirement’ in Queensland, Australia, is thereby not only my first-ever academic book, it is due to appear within just a few days of my eightieth birthday!

Who was Geoffroi de Charny? Can you give us a potted biography with his most notable achievements?

I first came across Geoffroi de Charny during my 1960s ‘Shroud history’ research at the British Library. A third son, and therefore never heir to Burgundy’s once imposing Charny castle and its estates, he earned great respect amidst the courts of kings Philippe VI and Jean II both for his military doughtiness in Hundred Years War escapades, and for his common-sense diplomatic skills dealing with blue-blood renegades such as Charles of Navarre. Appointed bearer of France’s hallowed Oriflamme battle-standard, he died resolutely defending it with his life at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. 

Amongst present-day medievalists his most notable achievement is regarded as his composition of the Livre de Chevalerie, a lengthy prose treatise. Amongst the world-at-large he is better known, commendably or otherwise, for his association with the Turin Shroud, for it was in the country church that he founded in 1353 at his tiny fief of Lirey in Champagne that the Shroud would first come to public attention a few years later, immediately generating still ongoing controversy. 

Perversely contradicting such current understandings, amongst the Book of Geoffroi de Charny’s more startling findings are that Charny was not the Livre de Chevalerie’s author (I suggest that this was his son of the same name), nor did he ever publicly display the Shroud during his lifetime. However, any such robbing him of these core ‘achievements’ in no way diminishes either his historical importance or his literary interest.

You write that there’s nothing quite like de Charny’s memoir, Livre Charny, in medieval literature. What does it offer that other lives don’t?

Yes, as a piece of writing the Livre Charny really is most singular. It is somewhat misleading to label it as a memoir. This is because even though it includes vignettes that are readily recognisable as autobiographical, these are written in the second person singular and they lack the all-important apparatus of dates, names and locations by which they can be treated in the usual manner of a memoir. It would similarly be misleading to vaunt the Livre as an exemplar of fine literature.   Composed in a metre otherwise known mainly from the bawdy trouvère Rutebeuf, French literary savants have scorned its stylistic shortcomings, which is probably why it has been largely ignored for so long. 

Instead, the Livre’s positively outstanding features are its unassuming modesty and its down-to-earth honesty. Rather than glamorising knightly pursuits in the manner of most of his contemporaries, Charny dwells on the humiliating and often excruciating ‘hard knocks’ that anyone should expect when trying to follow in his footsteps, whether this might be losing to a weaker opponent in a jousting tournament, leading a cavalry charge into an ambush, getting knocked off a scaling ladder at the height of a siege, or being wracked by thirst and homesickness whilst becalmed en-route to a crusade. Via such self-deprecation and his choice of the second person Charny makes the reader feel to be right there by his side in the midst of such travails, and adding a significant extra frisson to these feelings is his intense brand of medieval piety, an unswerving conviction that if sufficient trust can be placed in God and in the Virgin Mary, then all will always be well, come what may. 

When did you first encounter it and what made you decide to publish it?

During my 1966 stint at the British Library, I came across extracts from the poem that had been published back in the late 19th century by the French scholar Arthur Piaget. It was Piaget who was so disdainful of its literary qualities, hence this was hardly an encouraging introduction. Back at that time my main interest concerned whether the poem might contain any mention of the Shroud, which so far as I could determine it did not. Nevertheless because of its lively autobiographical elements I continued to want to better understand Charny’s difficult medieval French, and in 1992, whilst researching my Shakespeare: The Evidence, quite by chance I came upon the hitherto overlooked Oxford manuscript of the poem’s full text, at that stage unaware that this dated from Charny’s lifetime. Then nearly two decades later, whilst attempting an ‘in retirement’ working translation of the poem, a task which began shortly after my coming across the similarly overlooked Madrid manuscript, the realisation dawned that both the Oxford and the Madrid manuscripts necessarily dated to within Charny’s lifetime. Likewise I realised that these manuscripts displayed many intriguing and otherwise undocumented clues concerning how the poem had first been very royally received at the French court, then most abruptly discarded. And because both manuscripts’ existence remained largely unknown to modern-day scholars, despite their being housed in major public collections, these were the circumstances in which I decided that the findings needed academic publication.

How many original manuscripts still survive?

The Madrid and Oxford manuscripts are the only two manuscripts of Charny’s writings that are firmly dateable to from within his lifetime (specifically to 1352), thereby being the only two that can carry a serious claim to being ‘original’, even though it is highly unlikely that either of them was penned by Charny himself. Both manuscripts liberally feature Charny heraldry, and both include the Livre poem and Demandes, whilst emphatically lacking the Livre de Chevalerie. The manuscripts’ many indications of the Livre poem’s and Demandes’ abrupt abandonment are among several reasons for strongly doubting that Charny could or would have gone on to compose the lengthy Chevalerie during the few years of his life that remained to him.

How did you come to work with the esteemed Nigel Bryant, one of Boydell’s most cherished authors?

‘Coming to work’ with Nigel Bryant – albeit at a transglobal distance! – has indeed been a very special privilege, and one that was entirely unexpected. Upon my recognising the Oxford and Madrid manuscripts’ significance my initial objective had been for a full-scale new academic biography of Charny to be accompanied by a verse translation of the Livre poem which I struggled to develop in partnership with a teacher resident in France, Hugh Duncan. Though it was always intended that this translation should be rigorously checked by the best available specialist, I was very conscious that its many uncertainties of meaning demanded something more, besides which my attempts to explain the complexities of the manuscript findings within the context of Charny’s life story irksomely interrupted the biography’s narrative flow. 

Thankfully it was Boydell’s co-founder Richard Barber who quite wonderfully came up with the ideal solution. Richard suggested that Boydell might be prepared to publish a critical edition of the Livre poem consisting of an elucidation of the manuscript findings and a briefer Charny biography provided by me if this was accompanied by a suitably definitive edition and translation of the poem to be provided by Nigel Bryant. It was a proposition that I could hardly refuse, and the icing on the cake for me has been the sheer brilliance behind Nigel’s quite unexpected decision to translate the poem into straight prose. Upon my reading this for the first time I was positively bowled over to find myself listening to Charny speaking so directly and disarmingly candidly across six and a half centuries as if it was only yesterday. In Nigel I could not have wished for a more pleasant, helpful and above all, knowledgeable working partner. From the very outset I had wanted a 100% professional translation of the poem, one that could withstand the most rigorous and critical of scholarly scrutiny, and all thanks to Nigel (and of course to Richard), this dream has been most ably and happily realised.   

Tell us about de Charny’s link to the Turin Shroud

I would guess that my early mentions of the Shroud mostly answer this question, though perhaps worth mentioning is a curious incidental finding. This is Charny’s hitherto unknown but necessarily close association with a talented and quirky artist, Jean le Noir, who owned a flourishing art studio a mere stroll from Charny’s Paris home-base and who created the sadly vandalised illuminations that once illustrated Charny’s Livre poem in the Madrid manuscript. Hitherto no-one who has argued for the Shroud being the work of a medieval artist has been aware of this link to le Noir, most notably including the author of the latest book on the forgery theme, Gary Vikan, a former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Whilst the whole tenor of the Livre poem makes any deliberate fraud on Charny’s part highly unlikely, and there is nothing about le Noir’s art to suggest that he would have been minded to conjure up the Shroud’s so enigmatic imagery (his depiction of Christ’s side-wound, for instance, is light-years removed from the naturalism of its counterpart on the Shroud), I fully expect to see future claims identifying le Noir as the Shroud’s mystery artist-forger. For me, however, the true story of this remarkable object, and how Charny acquired it, has to have been altogether more complex.

Now that scholars have the opportunity to read it what do you think they will learn from the Livre Charny?

More than anything, I think, the Livre Charny provides a unique insight into Charny’s personality that readily supports his contemporaries often glowing assessments of him, and renders obsolete the current more muted modern-day scholarly perceptions of him, based as these are on the mis-attributed Livre de Chevalerie. Additionallyand partly thanks to the unusually detailed account of an outward crusading voyage that is provided in the Livre poem, we can now be confident that Charny did not accompany Dauphin Humbert II’s ‘useless’ crusade to Smyrna of 1345-7, as modern-day scholars currently suppose. Instead he was one of Edouard de Beaujeu’s team of commandos who very successfully wrested Smyrna’s harbour fortress from its Turkish occupiers in a little-known but daring crusading assault that they launched on 28 October 1344 – an achievement that would prove a high moment both for Beaujeu’s and for Charny’s careers upon their subsequent return to France. As yet another new finding, and this is especially thanks to the Madrid manuscript of the Livre poem, we now know that Charny played a far more intimate and high-profile part in the formulation and demise of France’s so short-lived chivalric Company of the Star than has previously been realised. 

Do you have a favourite episode in the poem?

One of my favourite episodes is his account of reluctantly borrowing a fortune from moneylenders in order to equip himself for competing in his first public tournament, then riding proudly out to admiring gazes, only to be swiftly and soundly beaten by a slightly built opponent far less well-accoutred and mounted than himself. It is an absolutely classic example of Charny’s endearing penchant for self-deprecation…

What is next for you? Will you continue your work on Geoffroi de Charny or do you have other plans?

Being nearly eighty your question reminds me of the dictum: ‘How to make God laugh – tell him your plans!’ Sometime I would like to publish a fuller biography of Charny (now no longer needing to explain the underling manuscript arguments), and the bulk of this essentially I have already to hand. Rather more urgently needed is a yet-to-be-written biography of Charny’s son of the same name in the light of his being the Livre de Chevalerie’s true author. (Historically ‘Charny II’ as I call him has long been under-valued, and his link to the Shroud, one that is considerably better documented than that of his father, has yet to be properly elucidated.) Such academic ventures aside, for the world-at-large I feel a strong need to put together a book that would substantially correct and update my own former writings on the Shroud’s history in the light of the significant new insights that I have gained during this last decade. All this said, I continue to hanker every more wistfully to spend some time on the life painting and drawing pursuits that I had originally intended for my retirement years! 

We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?

Thankfully some very swift government action at the outset of the outbreak has mostly saved Australia, and certainly my home state of Queensland, from the high level of fatalities and prolonged restrictions that have been experienced elsewhere around the world. This said, the task of obtaining illustrations from European libraries was certainly made more difficult by the lockdowns and lengthy closures. Nevertheless throughout the whole project, and especially because of my antipodean location, I have been deeply grateful for the most generous way that French authorities in particular have made so many of their libraries’ manuscripts and archival resources freely available online. 

The Book of Geoffroi de Charny:
with the Livre Charny

Edited and translated by Nigel Bryant
By Ian Wilson

10 colour & 12 b/w illus.; 152pp
£60/$95, 9781783275854
April 2021
Hardback and ebook
Boydell Press



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