Walter Scott’s Review of Thomas Johnes’ Translation of Froissart’s Chronicles


Edinburgh Review vol. 10, January 1805, pp. 347-62


The following text was reprinted in The Friends of Hafod Newsletter 16/17 Winter 1998-9, pp. 18-29.   The reprint was brought to my attention and made available to me by the Newsletter’s editor, Caroline Kerkham; the text was scanned by Robert Shields.





Sir John Froissart's Chronicles of England, France, and the

adjoining Countries, from the latter part of the Reign of

Edward II. to the Coronation of Henry IV







[p. 347] It has long been, and we fear will long remain a reproach to the literary character of Britain, that so little has been done for the preservation of her early historians. An uniform edition of our chronicles corrected from the best manuscripts, and elucidated by suitable notes and references, might surely be expected from our colleges: and a wealthy and patriotic public would encourage and reward the undertaking. Since, however, it is the fate of so many of our historians to slumber in manuscript and black letter, we ought to view, with indulgent gratitude, the exertions of an individual who has drawn from obscurity the most fascinating, of this venerable band. Whoever has taken up the chronicle of Froissart, must have been dull indeed if he did not find himself transported back to the days of Cressy and Poitiers. In truth, his history has less the air of a narrative than of a dramatic representation. The figures live and move before us; we not only know what they did, but learn the mode and process of the action, and the very words with which it was accompanied. This sort of colloquial history is of all others the most interesting. The simple fact, that a great battle was won or lost, makes little impression on our mind, as it occurs in the dry pages of an annalist, while our imagination and attention are alike excited by the detailed description of a much more trifling event. In Froissart, we hear the gallant knights, of whom he wrote, arrange the terms of combat and the manner of the onset; we hear the soldiers cry their war-cries; we see them strike their horses with the spur; and the liveliness of the narration hurries us along with them into the whirlwind of battle. We have no hesitation to say, that a skirmish before a petty fortress, thus told, interests us more than the general information that twenty thousand Frenchmen bled on the field of Cressy. This must ever be the case, while we prefer a knowledge of mankind to a mere acquaintance with their actions; and so' long also must we account Froissart the most entertaining; and perhaps the most valuable historian of the middle ages. Till now, his chronicles have only existed in three black letter editions printed at Paris, all we believe very rare; in that which was published by Denys Sauvage about 1560, and reprinted in 1574; and finally, in an English translation [p. 348] by Bourchier Lord Berners, which we believe sells for about twenty guineas, and is hardly ever to be met with. Under these circumstances, we are bound to receive with gratitude every attempt to give more general access to the treasures of Froissart, especially as the size of his chronicles prohibits the idea of an edition undertaken with the usual views of profit.  Mr. Johnes, the present translator, we understand to be a gentleman of fortune, whose hours of leisure and retirement are dedicated to literary research, and who sends the present volume forth from his private press at Hafod. Like his predecessor Lord Berners, he is probably pricked on to his undertaking 'by the love and honour which he bears to our most puissant sovereign, and to do pleasure to his subjects both nobles and commons,' and, like that good baron, he 'prays them that shall default find, to consyder the greatness of the historie and his good will that asks nothing else of them for his great labour, but of their curtesye to amende where need shall be, and yet for their so doing prays to God finally to send them the bliss of heaven.' If, therefore, in the course of our present investigation, we find it necessary to descend into the lists with so gentle a knight, he may rest assured that the arms we employ shall only be those of courtesy.


     The present translation of Froissart will consist, when finished, of four large quarto volumes. The best authorities have been resorted to for various readings, and large additions are in many places made from manuscripts in the translator's library.


     It appears to us an omission of some consequence, that nothing is told the English-reader of the history of Froissart himself, the mode which he took to acquire the knowledge of the events he narrates, the distribution of his history into books, and the arrangement of his chronology. We are the more disappointed in this respect, because the translator could be no stranger to three Memoires on these subjects published in the Transactions of the Academie Royale, vol. 10. 13. 14. by Mons. de la Curne de Ste. Palaye. We are tempted in some degree to supply this defect, by giving, chiefly from these authorities, a short sketch of the life and character of this venerable historian...


[pp. 348-53: Scott's own discourse on Froissart's life has been omitted from this transcription]


[p. 353] From this short sketch, by which we have endeavoured, in some measure, to supply a great omission in Mr. Johnes's translation, our readers may gather some idea of Froissart and his writings. He was no sequestered monk, who from [p. 354] the depth of his cloister casts a timid and inexperienced eye upon the transactions of mankind; still less could he contract that spirit of prejudice and interested superstition which too often defaces the writings of an ascetic. Froissart, though a churchman, was, in every sense, a man of the world, but actuated by a spirit of ardent investigation, and breathing in every page the high spirit of chivalry imbibed in the courts and castles where he loved to dwell. He is superstitious according to the manner of his age, but it is the superstition of an ignorant soldier, who tells a wonderful story merely because he believes it true, or of a poet who loves the marvellous that excites his imagination, and not that of a monk whose interest either warps his own judgement or induces him to practise on the credulity of others. When he degenerates, therefore, into the marvellous, it is usually in some such romantic tale as that of the spirit who so long served the Lord of Corasse, and brought him news of all that passed in foreign kingdoms, or of the wonderful bear which was hunted and slain by Sir Peter of Berne, after which he became a noctambulist, and by his midnight wanderings and gambols terrified his wife into a pilgrimage to St James of Compostella, from which she declined to return to so unruly a bedfellow. But while we are sometimes amused with these popular tales of terror, we are delivered from the dull and deliberate legends of saints and miracles with which the pages of the monkish historians are so unmerifully garnished. The curate of Lestines, though a good Catholic, by no means piqued himself upon zeal for the church, that ignis fatuus which led astray his contempories. Indeed, from the tenor of his life we think he may be safely trusted, when he asserts that he was prompted to his laborious task by the, wish to record the deeds of chivalry which he loved, and to stigmatize with eternal shame the actions of the recreant or dishonourable. He also had this very great advantage over contemporary historians, that, excepting the assistance derived from the Chronicles of Jean le Bel in compiling his first volume, his materials were drawn from original sources. Not only the inferior knights and squires, but even the petty potentates at whose courts he resided, communicated freely to him their actions and motives, and, by hearing both sides, and comparing them together, he was usually able to discover the truth, or at least to state to his readers in what the best authorities differed. As his chronicles were regularly written out, and presented to his patrons during the intervals of his travels, he afforded to his contemporaries a sure pledge of his veracity. For surely he would have been ill advised, who, during the fourteenth century, would have forged a false tale upon the pretended averment of a feudal prince or baron who was yet alive to avenge the insult while he corrected the error. Neither was our [p. 355] historian remiss in examining the written documents of the time. He has preserved several leagues, letters, &c. and refers to many others; and the heralds to whom the transactions of diplomacy were then usually committed, underwent many a close examination from our indefatigable traveller.  Above all, we must allow Froissart the praise of the most unblemished impartiality, in spite of the peevish impeachment of Bodin, Brantome, and most of the French writers. It is true, it would have been difficult to narrate the victories of Cressy and Poitiers, without wounding the national vanity of France; but if Froissart was patronized by Queen Philippa, he was also admitted a member of the household of King John of France; if he was the familiar friend of Percy, he had been the guest of Douglas; if he admired the Black Prince, he admired equally Bertrand du Guesclin; and if a distinction can be made, his natural generosity seems rather to have inclined towards the side of the French chivalry, who by individual valour, and the most generous self-devotion, struggled to support, in an overwhelming tempest, the throne of their monarchs and the independence of their country. The transactions in his own country were comparatively too insignificant to bias his integrity, though he always speaks with warmth and pride of the race and arms of Hainault. Lastly, let it be remembered, that if a part of his chronicle was composed at the request of the Count of Namur, the ally of England, he was induced to continue it by the Earl of Blois, the steady friend of France. In the latter case, he thus anticipates and repels the accusation of being swayed by the prejudices of his patron. 'Let it not be said that I have been corrupted by the favours of Guy Count of Blois, who caused me to write this work, and has paid me for it liberally...Nay, truly! I will not speak save the downright truth, without colour or favour; and, it is the will also of the gentle Prince and Earl that I should record only the very fact.’


It remains to notice the defective points in this celebrated work. Formed upon a variety of detached conversations, the Chronicle contains amass of information, more or less accurate, concerning almost every country in Europe, and upon every species of transaction civil and military, from the attack and defence of a fortress to the ordering of a festive banquet. But it must be owned that this information is strangely and confusedly piled together; and it oftener happens to the man who has recourse to Froissart's authority, that he lights unexpectedly upon something curious and valuable, which he was not looking for, than he is able to find the information which he wished to obtain. Froissart wrote with the haste of a traveller, and with the ardent impetuosity of a mind too much engrossed with the immediate narrative, to think of what [p. 356] had gone before, or of what was to follow after. We have says Monsieur de Ste. Palaye, lively descriptions of tumultuous meetings of warriors of all ages, kindreds and languages: the riotous banquet is protracted late into the night; while each, in emulation of his companions, details what he has seen, heard or acted; and the fatigued traveller throws the lively but confused dialogue upon paper ere he retires to rest. It is also necessary to observe, that the events are often inserted not in the order in which they took place, but in that in which they came to Froissart's knowledge, to the utter confusion of all chronology. Nay, sometimes when an event has been already told in its regular order, as the battle of Aljubarotta in Spain, the historian, having afterwards acquired new lights on the subject from a different quarter, is not at the pains to new-model the whole narration, but thrusts his second edition into the middle of whatever he was writing when he heard it, and leaves the gentle reader to compare and reconcile the accounts as best he may. In this respect, his splendid work may be likened to a piece of ancient tapestry full of knights, ladies, castles, tilts, tournaments, battles and pageants, but presenting to the eye no regular or uniform picture. It must be also admitted, that if Froissart was unfettered by the prejudices and superstition of the cloister, he was strongly imbued with the romantic spirit peculiar to his age. Hence, his credulity must have frequently been imposed on by those who were willing to satisfy with a marvellous tale the wandering priest's eager thirst after information; and hence too, himself a poet, we may be permitted to suppose him partial to that edition of a story which produced the highest effect, and rather unwilling too narrowly to question the precise truth of the chivalrous narrations which he esteemed so delicious. There is much room to suspect that the story of the self-devoted burghers of Calais received its higher and more romantic colouring from Froissart (See p.267, Note); and our accurate countryman, Lord Hailes, had proved that Froissart erred in placing Queen Philippa at the head of the English army at the battle of Nevil's-cross in which David II. of Scotland was routed and made prisoner (p. 347. Note). We may add to his Lordship's argument, that Laurence Minot, a court-poet of the day, would not have omitted so favourable a subject of panygeric in his poem on that engagement.


It remains to examine the merits of the present translation, which will perhaps be best accomplished by pointing out in what it excels or falls short of that which was executed by Lord Berners. In one respect, the translators are in a similar situation, being both, we believe soldiers, and both above that rank of fortune which is usually the station of literary adventurers.


John Bourchier [p. 357], lord of Berners, was chancellor of the exchequer and governor of Calais during the reign of Henry VIII., and had the singular good fortune to retain the precarious favour of his jealous master, although he was at once a man of talents, and descended from the Plantagenets. He died at Calais about 1532. His translation of Froissart was executed at the command of Henry himself, and may be supposed to mark a dawning taste for the English language at the court of that monarch. Lord Berners's version of Froissart was published by Pynson in1523. It is written in the pure and nervous English of that early period, and deserves to be carefully consulted by the philologist. In one respect, the old baron must be allowed to possess an infinite advantage over Mr. Johnes. He lived when the ideas of chivalry yet existed, and when its appropriate language was yet spoken among his readers; so that he was enabled to translate the conversation of Froissart's knights and nobles by the corresponding expressions in English, which he, himself a knight and noble, daily used and heard at the court of Henry. Mr. Johnes, on the other hand, has undertaken the very difficult and hazardous task of translating the French expressions of chivalry into what is, with respect to the ordinary communications of life, a dialect absolutely extinct: for it must be obvious, that Froissart can no more be rendered with truth and effect into modern English, than Lord Berners could be introduced into the modern drawing-room in his buff coat, slashed sleeves, and trunk hose. In describing the war-cry of 'A Douglas, a Douglas!' the translator renders it 'Douglas forever!' by which the ensenzie {sic: enseigne?] of a feudal chieftain is degraded into the shout of a mob. We fear also that Mr. Johnes is deficient in a very important part of Froissart's language, that which relates to heraldry. The arms of Douglas are described (p. 32) as 'argent on a chef argent,’ which it is impossible to blazon. In p. 201, they are rightly given, 'Argent a chief azure;' but he has omitted 'three stars gules on the chief,' as mentioned by Froissart, edit. 1559, p. 95.


We proceed to compare the translations in the following interesting passage, reducing the orthography of Lord Berners, which is extremely vague, to nearly the modern standard. The subject is the battle of Cressy; and the historian has already described, in the most lively colours, the disorder in which the French multitude came pouring on the small, but compact and well-ordered host of England.


‘When the French king saw the Englishmen, his blood changed, and (he) said to his marshalls, "Make the Genoese go on before, and begin the battle in the name of God and St Denis." There were of the Genoese cross-bows about a fifteen thousand, but [p. 358] they were so weary of going a-foot that day, a six leagues, armed with their cross-bows, that they said to their constables, "We be not well ordered to fight this day, for we be not in the case to do any great deed of arms; we have more need of rest." These words came to the Earl of Alencon, who said, "A man is well at ease to be charged with such a sort of rascals, to be faint and fail now at most need.” Also the same season, there fell a great rain and an eclipse, with a terrible thunder; and before the rain, there came flying over the battles a great number of crows for fear of the tempest coming. Then anon the air began to wax clear, and the sun to shine fair and bright, the which was right in the Frenchmen's eyen, and on the Englishmen’s back. When the Genoese were assembled together, and began to approach, they made a great leape and cry, to abashe the Englishmen; but they stood still, and stirred not for all that. Then the Genoese again the second time made another leape and a fell cry, and stepped forward a little; and the Englishmen removed not one foot. Thirdly again, they leaped and cryed, and went forth till they came within shot; then they shot fiercely with their cross-bows. Then the English archers stepped forth one pace, and lette fly their arrows so wholly and thick that it seemed snow. When the Genoese felt the arrows piercing through heads and arms and breasts, many of them cast down their cross-bows, and did cut their strings, and returned discomfited. When the French king saw them flee away, he said, "Slay these rascals, for they shall let and trouble us without reason." Then ye should have seen the men-at-arms dash in among them, and killed a great number of them, and ever still the Englishmen shot whereas they saw the thickest press; the sharp arrows ran into the men-at-arms and into their horses; and many fell horse and men among the Genoese; and when they were down, they could not relieve again, the press was so thick the one overthrew another. And also, among the Englishmen, there were certain rascals that went on foot with great knives, and they went in among the men-at-arms, and murdered many as they lay on the ground, both earls, barons, knights and squires, whereof the King of England was after displeased, for he had rather they had been taken prisoners.


This remarkable passage is thus rendered by Mr. Johnes.


'You must know, that these kings, dukes, earls, barons and lords of France, did not advance in any regular order, but one after the other, or any way most pleasing to themselves. As soon as the king of France came in sight of the English, his blood began to boil, and he cried out to his marshals, “Order the Genoese forward, and begin the battle, in the name of God and St Denis."


[p. 359]'There were about fifteen thousand Genoese cross-bowmen; but they were quite fatigued, having marched on foot that day six leagues, completely armed, and with their cross-bows.


‘They told the constable, they were not in a fit condition to do any great things that day in battle. The earl of Alencon, hearing this, said, "This is what one gets by employing such scoundrels, who fall when there is any need for them.”


‘During this time, a heavy rain fell, accompanied by thunder and a very terrible eclipse of the sun; and before this rain a great flight of crows hovered in the air over all those battalions, making a loud noise. Shortly afterwards it cleared up, and the sun shone very bright; butt he French had it in their faces, and the Englishmen in their backs.’


‘When the Genoese were somewhat in order, and approached the English, they set up a loud shout, in order to frighten them; but they remained quite still, and did not seem to attend to it. They then set up a second shout, and advanced a little forward; but the English never moved. They hooted a third time, advancing, with their cross-bows presented and began to shoot. The English archers then advanced one step forward, and shot their arrows with such force and quickness, that it seemed as if it snowed.’


When the Genoese felt these arrows, which pierced their arms, heads and through their armour, some of them cut the strings of their cross-bows, others flung them on the ground, and all turned about, and retreated, quite discomfited. The French had a large body of men at arms on horseback, richly dressed, to support the Genoese.


'The king of France, seeing them thus fall back, cried out, "Kill me those scoundrels; for they stop upon our road, without any reason." You would then have seen the above mentioned men at arms lay about them, killing all they could of these runaways.


'The English continued shooting as vigorously and quickly as before; some of their arrows fell among the horsemen, who were sumptuously equipped, and, killing and wounding many, made them caper and fall among the Genoese, so that they were in such confusion they could never rally again. In the English army there "'ere some Cornish and Welshmen on foot, who had armed themselves with large knives: these, advancing through the ranks of the men at arms and archers, who made way for them, came upon the French when they were in this danger, and, falling upon earls, barons, knights and squires, slew many, at which the king of England was afterwards much exasperated.' p. 324. 325.


Upon the mere point of style in this passage, we are of the opinion that the ancient translator has considerably the advantage. In describing the shouts with which the Genoese endeavoured to sustain their own dubious courage, and appal their enemies, contrasted with the obstinate and ominous silence of the English, the words of Lord Berners are not only better chosen, but the sentences are better arranged, and convey a more lively picture to the eye. On the other hand, the modern translation is more accurate, mentioning[p. 360], the original purpose of the body of men-at-arms (Scott's footnote: Denis Sauvage's edition bears that this body of cavalry was English; but we presume Mr. Johnes followed a better authority. The Black Prince's men-at-arms were in the rear of the archers) by whom the Genoese were to have been supported, but who in the end trampled them down, and the country of the light infantry who were mingled among the English archers and cavalry. (Scott's footnote: Berners calls them 'rascals', Mr. Johnes 'Cornish and Welshmen.' Froissart seems to give them both characters, 'pillars et bideau, Gallois et Cornuaillois.' This slaughter must have been greatly increased by these irregular troops; for the dismounted knights were usually unable to rise, from the weight of their armour.)


We give another example of the language of the two translations, in the celebrated answer of Edward. 'They with the prince sent a messanger to the kynge, who was on a little windmill-hill; than [sic] the knight said to the king, "Sir, the Earl of Warwick and the Earl of Camfort, Sir Reynold Cob ham , and other such as be about the prince your son, are fiercely fought withal, wherefore they desire you that you and your battle will come and aid them; for if the Frenchmen increase, as they doubt they will, your son and they shall have much ado." Then the king said, "Is my son dead or hurt, or on the earth felled?" -"No, Sir," qouth the knight, "but he is hardly matched; wherefore he hath need of your aid."-"Well," said the king, "return to him, and to those that sent you hither, and say to them, that they send no more to me for any adventure that falleth so long as my son is alive; and also say to them, that they suffer him this day to win his spurs; for if God be pleased, I will this journee be his, and the honour thereof, and to them that be about him.


Mr. Johnes's version runs thus –


'The first division, seeing the danger they were in, sent a knight (Scott's footnote: Sir Thomas Norwich. -MSS) in great haste to the king of England, who was posted upon an eminence, near a windmill. On the knight's arrival, he said, "Sir, the earl of Warwick, the lord Stafford, the lord Reginald Cobham, and the others who are about your son are vigorously attacked by the French and they intreat that you would come to their assistance with your battalion, for, if their numbers should increase, they fear he will have too much to do.”


‘The king replied: "Is my son dead, unhorsed, or so badly wounded, that he cannot support himself?" "Nothing of the sort, thank God,” rejoined the knight, "but he is in so hot an engagement, that he has great need of your help.” The king answered, "Now, sir Thomas, return back to those that sent you, and tell them from me, not to send again for me this day, or expect that I shall come, let what will [p. 361] happen, as long as my son has life; and say, that I command them to let the boy win his spurs; for I am determined, if it please God, that all the glory and honour of this day shall be given to him, and to those into whose care I have entrusted him." p.327.


In this passage also, we may remark a sort of flatness in the modern version. For example, 'so hot an engagement' does not convey quite the idea of 'so hardly matched,' nor does it well express 'il est en dur parti d'armes,' which implies personal conflict as well as presence in a battle. Upon the whole, there is a sort of amplification, perhaps unavoidable in modern language, which sounds tamer and less like the tone of chivalry than that employed by Lord Berners. In short, the Chronicle is as it were neatly bound in calf extra; nay the leaves, back and edges are gilt; but it wants the massy garniture of antique clasps, gilt knosps, and silver roses, which add to the dignity of Lord Berners's version.


Although the style of Mr. Johnes is unquestionably inferior to Lord Berners, and although it is occasionally degraded by such quaint expressions as sheering off; making off; shewing their heels, and the like, we cannot but bestow high commendation on the fidelity and attention with which the task of translation has been executed. In a historical point of view, there can be no comparison betwixt the usefulness of Mr. Johnes's version and Lord Berners's, as the latter has not only failed to correct the errors of Froissart as to proper names of persons and places, but has deplorably aggravated them. The Earl of Stamford, to recur to the passage last quoted, is in Froissart called le Compte D' Estanfort, and in Berners's hands he becomes Camfort. Mr. Johnes, on the contrary, though his notes are not numerous, has bestowed laudable diligence in correcting the text of his author; has left few blunders, and we trust has made none. The opportunity of comparing so many various manuscripts has doubtless tended much to reform the text, and we do not venture to offer criticism where we have not had an opportunity of seeing the original authorities. It might be worth Mr. Johnes's while to consult the splendid manuscript of Froissart, formerly belonging to the Conventual Library of Newbattle, and now to the Earl of Ancram. 


Engravings from many rare and curious illuminations are given in this volume. They present to us the dresses, costume and manners of Froissart's heroes, and add greatly to the interest of the publication.


After all, it may occur to our reader, that an edition of Lord Berners's translation, reduced to a systematic orthography, and corrected and enlarged where correlation and enlargement was necessary, might have superseded the labours of Mr. Johnes, and, at the same time, have preserved an ancient English classic. But we are more disposed to be grateful for what may be considered as [p. 362] a free gift to the public, than strictly to examine how far it might have been made more acceptable. If the Hafod press performs what is incumbent on that of Clarendon, the founder is surely entitled to choose betwixt the character of a translator and editor; and while, as a private individual, he discharges at his own expence a public duty we willingly say, God speed his labours.