November 8, 2011

The Characters of Theophrastus

Jean de La Bruyère (1645–96) was a French essayist and moralist whose Les caractères de Théophraste, traduits du grec, avec les caractères ou les moeurs de ce siècle (The characters of Theophrastus, translated from the Greek, with the characters or the morals of this century) is a masterpiece of French literature. Employed as a tutor in the royal household of Louis XIV, La Bruyère observed first hand the vanity and pretensions of the aristocratic society around him. His work consists of a translation of the treatise by the Greek writer Theophrastus (circa 372–288 BC), and a series of character sketches and topical essays relating to contemporary France written in the style of Theophrastus. La Bruyère published the first edition of his book in 1688, which was followed by no fewer than nine successive editions by the time of his death in 1696. He not only expanded and revised the text from one edition to the next; he also amended it during printing, further enriching it with ever more variety. The copy presented here is one of three rare copies of the first printed drafts, and thus reflects the very basic starting point from which the work evolved. La Bruyère's book inspired a wave of imitators, causing the influential monthly Le Journal de Trévoux to remark in 1701: “The entire country of letters has been invaded by characters.”

Arthurian and Other Romances of the 13th Century

This 13th century manuscript, with text in two columns and superbly decorated, is an anthology of romances from the Middle Ages. The first two texts, L'Estoire del Saint Graal (The history of the Holy Grail) and L'Estoire de Merlin (The history of Merlin) are dedicated to the Arthurian legends and are attributed to Robert de Boron (circa 1200). The third text, Le Roman des Sept Sages de Rome (The romance of the seven wise masters of Rome), is a work of ancient Eastern origins, deriving from the Book of Sinbad, which was well-known in 12th century France in several French versions. The last text, the La Penitence Adam (The penitence of Adam), is a translation by a monk named Andriu of the Latin legend of the wood of the Cross, with a theme similar to that of the Holy Grail. The entire manuscript is adorned with richly painted illustrations and initial letters illuminated on a gilded background. The marginal extensions, the antennae, are decorated with characters, grotesque and fantastic animals that liven up the upper and lower sections of the pages with their antics, such as a school of monkeys seen on folio 355r. The expressive design, at times verging on caricature, fresh colors, and nuances give a particular vivacity to the narration, which is quite perceptible in such scenes as the conception of Merlin (f. 113v) or of the man falling from a bridge as predicted by Merlin (f. 138v). These stylistic qualities combining verve and elegance make the manuscript one of the most beautiful specimens of Artesian production from the end of the 13th century. The manuscript was part of the Visconti Library in Pavia, northern Italy, prior to coming into the French royal collections following its confiscation by Louis XII from the library of the dukes of Milan.

The Book of the City of Ladies

Christine de Pisan (circa 1364–1430) was born in Italy and came to France at the age of four with her father. Arguably the first woman in Europe to earn a living as an author, she is widely regarded as an early feminist who spoke out for the rights of women and espoused female achievement. She wrote poems and prose texts that were often allegorical and philosophical and that reflected her own original and engaged personality. She prepared the books with the aid of copyists and illuminators and offered them to patron princes and kings. Le Livre de la Cité des dames (The book of the city of ladies) is perhaps the best expression of Christine’s lucid and humanist feminism. An implied response to St. Augustine's City of God, and also inspired by the work of Boccaccio, the book was written as a dialogue between student and master. The allegorical figures of Reason, Justice, and Rectitude enter into a conversation with Christine and invite her to build a city for famous women of the past and virtuous women of all times in a world made for men. Among the approximately 30 known copies of the text, this well known and beautifully illustrated copy contains the signature of its owner, Jean de Berry (1340–1416), a great bibliophile of the House of Burgundy.

The Most Memorable Strange Tales Observed from the Birth of Jesus Christ to Our Century

After studying law in several French universities, Pierre Boaistuau (1517–66) spent much time travelling throughout Europe in the service of different ambassadors, which gave him the chance to examine the curiosities of the contemporary world. Upon his return to Paris, he wrote and published his complete works in the brief period between 1556 and 1560. His books were the origin of two dominant genres in the second half of the 16th century: the histoires tragiques (tragic stories) and the histoires prodigieuses (strange tales). Histoires prodigieuses (Strange tales) was the last work published in Boaistuau’s lifetime. Largely inspired by the Alsatian humanist and encyclopedist, Conrad Lycosthenes (1518–61), it drew upon many sources: contemporary stories of the birth of monsters, fantasy stories, omens and the supernatural, and mythological texts and medieval tales, all mixed in with Boaistuau's own observations. Illustrated with 49 wood engravings depicting monsters and prodigious events, the tales were later republished, adapted, and translated many times.

Dangerous Liaisons

French author Pierre-Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos (1741–1803) published Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous liaisons) in 1782, signed only with his initials. Widely regarded as scandalous work, the epistolary novel etched the name of Laclos in the literary tradition of the 18th century, in which fiction in the form of purportedly discovered letters and memoires flourished, and in which debauchery and anonymity were interlinked. In the novel, the characters Merteuil and Valmont, aristocratic members of an overly mannered, rarified society near the end of the ancien régime, hatch an infernal trap in which they themselves fall, leading to the story’s tragic ending. The prodigious success of Les Liaisons dangereuses was only equaled by that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse (The new Heloise) 20 years earlier. The novel, which Laclos initially entitled Le danger des liaisons (The danger of liaisons), is suffused with tension and moral ambiguity, and critics have long debated whether Laclos intended to write a work exposing the decadence of the aristocratic society of his day. This manuscript is a copy of an initial unknown draft, worked on by Laclos at two different times. Laclos later reordered some of the letters in the novel.

The Dove’s Neck-Ring

Abu Muhammad Ali ibn Ahmad ibn Said ibn Hazm (994–1064 AD; 384–456 AH) was a renowned Andalusian poet and religious scholar from Cordoba. He was born into an eminent family and, after receiving a distinguished and wide-ranging education, served the Umayyad caliphate in its decline. His political activities led to his imprisonment and banishment, and he wrote Tawq al-hamamah (The dove’s neck-ring) while in exile, in response to a friend’s request. The book is often considered the most detailed and insightful book on the nature of love and its causes ever written in the Arab world. The work includes prose love stories and poetry and analyzes affection as a human emotion. The book is divided into 30 chapters, starting with the “signs of love,” which include the constant desire to look at the lover, the desire to talk together, the hurrying to meet the lover, and the throbbing of the heart on meeting. Other chapters include such themes as dreaming about the lover, love at first sight, letter writing, and sending an emissary to a lover.