The subject of Anne D. Hedeman’s excellent book is a small group of fifteenth-century manuscripts, rich and idiosyncratic in both conception and execution, of the Dialogues written by Pierre Salmon to counsel Charles VI, the mad king of France. There are three illustrated versions of the text. The first two were commissioned by Salmon himself, around 1409 (Paris, BN fr. 23279) and between about 1413 and 1415 (Geneva, BPL fr. 165). The third was made for François Rochechouart at the end of the century (Paris, BN fr. 9610). Salmon’s first version addresses classic philosophical problems such as the conduct of rulers, but during a desperate era in which the king had lost touch with reality while the country was more than usually troubled. Salmon, a royal secretary who had supervised the making of at least one manuscript for Jean de Berry, seems to have taken it upon himself to cure the king, to point him in the right direction doctrinally, and to defend himself as a loyal counselor – the three goals of the earlier version’s three sections. The rather defensive aim of the third section (Salmon’s Lamentations and correspondence) sets out all that he has done for the king on several fronts, from medical to diplomatic, to show his loyalty – a reasonable move for the counselor to a ruler subject to paranoid outbursts. In his second version of the Dialogues, the Geneva copy, Salmon prudently expanded his tripartite text to address the king’s successor and advisors, when it became evident that a cure was impossible. To this version he added a treatise on virtue and vice, including his own Boethian encounter with female personifications. The third incarnation of the text occurred c.1500 when François de Rochechouart, apparently admiring Salmon’s prominent place in the king’s service, commissioned a copy that enhanced the counselor’s role, creating a mirror for advisors rather than for the princes they serve. Even the above brisk summary shows that Salmon’s project, as Hedeman lays it out here, has much to tell us about early fifteenth-century French politics and theories of kingship.
But the text of Salmon’s Dialogues, available in an edition published by G.-A. Crapelet since 1833, has been the object of historical and literary attention before. One of Hedeman’s chief contributions has been to leapfrog over the accepted edition of the text, upon which modern scholarship on the work has been based, and to return to the original manuscripts. Crapelet, it seems, highhandedly omitted a full third of the text, the catechistic second part, on the grounds of its tedium, and neglected the revised Geneva version. Hedeman considers not just the whole text but what might be called the life of the tradition. Her study of the later copy made for Rochechouart suggests that the text and images Salmon intended to restore the king’s memoire et souvenanceembodied a valuable relationship between ruler and trusted counselor that outlasted the circumstances of its inscription. She takes advantage of recent scholarship’s greater sensitivity to reader, presentation, attentiveness to the whole manuscript rather than selected parts, and issues of fashioning and reception of a text. All this enriches her examination of the images.
The subjects of the miniatures in these books range from sacred history to proverbs to the illustration of recent events in the lives of recognizable rulers – events, to cite one miniature, that are nevertheless set in a moralized landscape with Y-shaped paths and demon-infested water hazards. We may be tempted to see depictions of historical figures such as Charles VI, the duke of Berry, and Richard II as potentially documentary. Hedeman’s examination of the miniatures teases out conventional poses taken from contemporary genres such as the complainte, distinguishing them from “concrete court realia.“ As the king reclines on his bed in several of the miniatures, for example, in conversation with Salmon, he rests his cheek on his hand in a familiar gesture of brooding. (A “truer” depiction would have shown him not picturesquely melancholy but raving, filthy, and incontinent, disabled by psychotic episodes for as long as six months at a time). The reality of the king’s behavior would have been unthinkable in such a context, of course. What Salmon shows us and what Hedeman so skillfully unravels, is a stance for the king in relation to his people, his God, and his royal ancestors – a wishful therapeutic vision conveyed by the king’s advisor to the illuminators, offering him a way back from madness to his proper place at the head of the kingdom.
All this is accomplished in a clearly written and organized text barely sixty pages long, supplemented by eight fine color plates and three useful appendices. Hedeman examines her manuscripts in a remarkably diffuse rather than raking light, balancing historical background, literary traditions, and codicological details, and bringing an art-historian’s eye to her consideration of text-image relationships. The result is consistently illuminating.