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Named for his uncle Charles VI, Charles of Orleans (b. 1394) was a prince of the house of Valois, son of Louis of Orleans and Valentina Visconti of. As a member of the royal house of France, as a vitally important pawn in the Hundred Years War as it was played out by the various French and English factions, each of whom seemed to vie with the other for distinction in greed, bad judgment, and vindictiveness, and as an important poet of the French Middle Ages, Charles of Orleans has been written about and analyzed from many points of view in order to support many kinds of arguments.

Charles's childhood was one of extreme wealth and culture. Surrounded by fabulous luxury, he was exposed to learning and learned people from an early age. His mother was not only intelligent and lettered, but attentive to and supportive of her. Charles spent his early years at a number of Valois castles in the Loire region, where he and his brothers were tutored in Latin by Nicole Garbet, bachelor of theology and secretary to Louis. Louis, though more distant than Valentina, provided his sons with a model of princely ambition, charm, largesse, and cunning. Charles's early life was thus in some ways a "good preparation" for his future captivity in England: a life lived away from the seat of power, in semi-retirement with his mother and siblings, a life monotone, in the word of Champion.



In 1415, at the age of twenty-one, he was captured at the battle of Agincourt. Perhaps he was one of the lucky ones—much of the flower of French chivalry died that day—but Charles himself never felt his fate was in any way fortunate. Pulled from under a heap of bodies on the battlefield, he was taken, together with other noble prisoners, to England. Charles spent twenty-five years in captivity, shuttled from one English castle to another.

At the approach of his release in 1440, it was clear that not only the French but also many of the English felt that a horrible injustice had been done to the duke of Orleans. To hold a nobleman captive for decades, to prevent him from effectively administering his lands and exercising the social, legal, and governmental duties of his own culture, bordered on the inhuman. Charles himself spoke in retrospect of his feelings of despair and his desire for death while in captivity. It is no surprise that when he shook the English dust from his feet he cut off all but a very few contacts with the land of his captivity. In spite of talk in the earlier poetry of his narrator's retirement to the Castle of No Care, Charles did not withdraw from the world around him on his return to France. He campaigned in Italy, rebuilt his domains, had a family, and, above all, wrote and shared poetry with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances.

Charles's captivity in England is hardly to be equated with imprisonment, even though his movements were limited and his activities observed to some degree. A never-ending stream of goods and servants moved to and fro between the duke and his home, at least in the early years. The captured "property" of Henry V, Charles was a royal "guest" in the households of a number of English noblemen.

What kind of man was Charles of Valois, duke of Orleans? Though he was highly thought of in his own time (both as a man and as a poet), scholars who write literary history, after ignoring him for centuries, have often been less than kind to the duke. He has been seen as refined but ineffectual, weak-willed and self-centered.

It would be possible to counter these negative judgments with positive ones based on historical materials, but a few facts will suffice here. We know, for instance, that Charles was an able administrator and a good politician who worked tirelessly from prison to free his brother, govern his lands, and protect his property, that he was a loyal friend, that he worked for peace between France and England, that he suffered much sorrow in his life (not least because of his long imprisonment), and that he was devout. Charles of Orleans was not a passive prisoner. In comparison with the library of his contemporary Philip the Good of Burgundy, Charles's books reveal a serious, reflective turn of mind, one more interested in philosophy, science, and theology than in chronicle and romance. The two works he wrote in Latin demonstrate his seriousness as well as his genuine interest in religion. In addition, we know from his life history that he was well-read in philosophy, medicine, theology, literature (including the classics), and many other subjects, that he had an interest in clocks and other mechanical devices, and that he was a musician. It is evident from his writings as well as his diplomacy that he was always able to see more than one side of a situation and to act as reality dictated when idealism was impracticable.

Charles's was both a serious and a playful mind, and he had a sense of humor to match his wit. He loved subtle and complex ideas, techniques, and images. His utterly remarkable lack of self-importance led him to indulge in self-mockery and to play elaborate games with art and reality. All of these traits and tendencies manifest themselves in his love poetry.


Poetry, for Charles, was a kind of play, but it was also a serious pursuit, both technically and aesthetically. His primary subject was love—love, that is, of the highly-wrought, artificial, rule-bound sort popular in the poetry (and in the courtly mythology) of his age. He began writing poetry before his capture by the English, and he was still composing poetry when he died at seventy.

PRINCE AND POET - adapted from Fortunes Stabilnes: Charles of Orleans's English Book of Love, ed. M. Arn, 1995

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An epic reading
Feb 26, 2021 06:57 am
For highlighting the importance of women in history and mentioning Pizan! Great read!
Jan 19, 2021 06:50 am
Great reading
Jul 12, 2020 05:51 am
Heartbreaking. Great Post!
May 30, 2020 05:21 am
Great Post in an uncommon cenary and a great end! I loved it!
May 05, 2020 05:41 am

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