It is only one of only four copies (of a total edition of 250) finely printed in Gothic on parchment-like paper, and richly illuminated in vivid watercolors in the style of medieval manuscripts, with decorative borders, fleurons, large and small initials, ornaments, vignettes and highlights in gilt relief by French painter, aquarellist, illustrator and lithographer Eugène Lami (1800-1890). It landed on my desk a few years ago. I've never forgotten it.
According to Brunet, the illuminated copies here noted cost an astounding 300 Francs at the time of publication, 1830, of this, “Un des plus jolis romans de chevalerie et des plus attrayants” (Backer. "One of the prettiest romances of chivalry and the most attractive").
Antoine de la Salle (c.1385-c.1460) “was nearly seventy years of age when he wrote the work that has made him famous, L'Hystoire et plaisanle cronicque du petit Jehan de Saintre et de la jeune dame des Belles-Cousines Sans autre nom nommer, dedicated to his former pupil, Jean de Calabre. An envoi in manuscript 10,057 (nouv. acq. fr.) in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, states that it was completed at Châtelet on the 6th of March 1453 (i.e. 1456)…
“The hero is not imaginary. Jehan de Saintre flourished in the Hundred Years' War, was taken prisoner after Poitiers, with the elder Boucicaut, and was employed in negotiating the Treaty of Brétigny. Froissart mentioned him as ‘le meilleur et le plus vaillant chevalier de France' [The best and the bravest knight of France]. His exploits as related in the romance are, however, founded on those of Jacques de Lalaing (c. 1422-1453), who was brought up at the Burgundian court, and became such a famous knight that he excited the rivalry of the 'Belles-Cousines,' Marie de Bourbon and Marie de Cleves, duchesse d'Orleans.
"Lalaing's exploits are related by more than one chronicler, but M. Gustave Raynaud thinks that the Livre des fails de Jacques de Lalaing, published among the works of Georges Chastellain, to which textual parallels may be found in Petit Jehan, should also be attributed to La Salle, who in that case undertook two accounts of the same hero, one historical and the other fictitious. To complicate matters, he drew, for the later exploits of Petit Jehan, on the Livres des faits de Jean Boucicaut, which gives the history of the younger Boucicaut. The atmosphere of the book is not the rough realities of the English wars in which the real Saintre figured but that of the courts to which La Salle was accustomed” (Encyclopeadia Britannica, 11th Edition).
“…The Petit Jehan represents an attempt at unified narrative fiction. It traces the career and development of a young page in the court of Jean le Bon through the various phases of his career; squire, knight, and courtly lover. The focal point is Jehan’s relationship with ‘Le Dame des Belles Cousines’ or ‘Madame,’ a close relative of the queen, Bonne de Bohême. This young widow singles out the page when he is still a child and places him under her protection. Becoming at once his patroness and preceptor, she instructs him the the art of courtly love and gives him practical lessons in currying court favor, attiring himself as a gentleman, and equipping his horses and men.
“The first part of the book is thus chiefly didactic in intent…At the point where that hero has achieved renown as a crusader, however, the plot suddenly veers unexpectedly away from this dry chronicle. Jehan informs Madame that he has decided to undertake a series of tournaments at the court of Germany and finds, to his astonishment, that his mistress, with whom for the past fifteen years he has maintained the most ideal of relationships, lashed out at him with indignation. Madame thus stands revealed for the first time, not as a selfless ministering angel but as a willful, dominant female, determined to have her way at all costs…But La Salle’s treatment of the stock situation is singularly subtle and delicate. Never does he allude to the grosser aspects of the relationship; rather he presents it with the discretion of the well-bred gentleman and achieves thereby a higher and more refined brand of humor than that usually called forth in the novella” (Cholakian, Patricia Francis and Rouben Charles Cholakian, The Early French Novella, pp.93-95).
This is indeed, one of the most beautiful editions of Petit Jehan ever issued, and this illuminated copy with gilt relief is a jaw-dropper.
Antoine de la Salle was attracted to the pleasures and follies of love, observed and chronicled them. In addition to Petit Jehan, he is credited as the compiler of the licentious Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles (1462), a collection of stories in the tradition of Boccaccio's Decameron, and Les Quinze Joies de Mariage (The Fifteen Joys of Marriage, 1462), not a marriage manual but, rather, a wry, charming, and ribald peek into 15th century French customs and behavior of husbands and wives.
He is one our best sources for the manners and mores of courtly love (not to be confused with Courtney Love).
[LAMI, Eugène]. [SALLE, Antoine de la]. Histoire et Chronicque du petit Jehan de Saintré et de la Jeune Dames des Belles Cousines, sans aultre [sic] nom nommer; Collationnée sur manuscrits de la Bibliothéque Royale et sur les éditions du XVIe siècle. Paris: Publié par Didot Frères, Libraires, Imprimeurs du Roi et de l”Institut, 1830.
First Edition thus, one of only four copies (of a total edition of 250) finely printed in Gothic on parchment-like paper, and richly illuminated in vivid watercolors in the style of medieval manuscripts with decorative borders, fleurons, large and small initials, ornaments, vignettes and highlights in gilt relief by Eugène Lami (per Backer). Octavo. (4), 369, (15), 36 pp.
With critical notes on the 1724 edition, a Historical and Bibliographical Notice, and Glossary.
Full crimson morocco bound by Frost & Co. of Bath c. 1960. Borders ruled in gilt. Central panel with gilt tooled inner border within parallel double-ruled borders in gilt. Interlocking central double-ruled diamond in gilt with gilt fleurons at points. Five raised bands to spine with pointillé rules in gilt. Six compartments, one lettered in gilt, five with triple ruled borders in gilt, gilt corner ornaments and central decorations in gilt. Gilt rolled edges. Gilt decorated dentelles. Red moire silk doublures. Top edge gilt, others untrimmed.
Brunet 528. Backer 112. Cf. Rahir 578. Cf. Rothchild 3062.
Images courtesy of David Brass.