Quentin Durwardby Walter Scott / Historical Fiction
Produced by Martin Robb
by Sir Walter Scott, Bart.
The scene of this romance is laid in the fifteenth century, when thefeudal system, which had been the sinews and nerves of national defence,and the spirit of chivalry, by which, as by a vivifying soul, thatsystem was animated, began to be innovated upon and abandoned by thosegrosser characters who centred their sum of happiness in procuring thepersonal objects on which they had fixed their own exclusive attachment.The same egotism had indeed displayed itself even in more primitiveages; but it was now for the first time openly avowed as a professedprinciple of action. The spirit of chivalry had in it this pointof excellence, that, however overstrained and fantastic many of itsdoctrines may appear to us, they were all founded on generosity and selfdenial, of which, if the earth were deprived, it would be difficult toconceive the existence of virtue among the human race.
Among those who were the first to ridicule and abandon the self denyingprinciples in which the young knight was instructed and to which hewas so carefully trained up, Louis XI of France was the chief. Thatsovereign was of a character so purely selfish--so guiltless ofentertaining any purpose unconnected with his ambition, covetousness,and desire of selfish enjoyment--that he almost seems an incarnation ofthe devil himself, permitted to do his utmost to corrupt our ideasof honour in its very source. Nor is it to be forgotten that Louispossessed to a great extent that caustic wit which can turn intoridicule all that a man does for any other person's advantage but hisown, and was, therefore, peculiarly qualified to play the part of a coldhearted and sneering fiend.
The cruelties, the perjuries, the suspicions of this prince, wererendered more detestable, rather than amended, by the gross and debasingsuperstition which he constantly practised. The devotion to the heavenlysaints, of which he made such a parade, was upon the miserable principleof some petty deputy in office, who endeavours to hide or atone for themalversations of which he is conscious by liberal gifts to those whoseduty it is to observe his conduct, and endeavours to support a system offraud by an attempt to corrupt the incorruptible. In no other light canwe regard his creating the Virgin Mary a countess and colonel of hisguards, or the cunning that admitted to one or two peculiar forms ofoath the force of a binding obligation which he denied to all other,strictly preserving the secret, which mode of swearing he reallyaccounted obligatory, as one of the most valuable of state mysteries.
To a total want of scruple, or, it would appear, of any sense whateverof moral obligation, Louis XI added great natural firmness and sagacityof character, with a system of policy so highly refined, considering thetimes he lived in, that he sometimes overreached himself by giving wayto its dictates.
Probably there is no portrait so dark as to be without its softershades. He understood the interests of France, and faithfully pursuedthem so long as he could identify them with his own. He carried thecountry safe through the dangerous crisis of the war termed for thepublic good; in thus disuniting and dispersing this grand and dangerousalliance of the great crown vassals of France against the Sovereign, aking of a less cautious and temporizing character, and of a more boldand less crafty disposition than Louis XI, would, in all probability,have failed. Louis had also some personal accomplishments notinconsistent with his public character. He was cheerful and witty insociety; and none was better able to sustain and extol the superiorityof the coarse and selfish reasons by which he endeavoured to supplythose nobler motives for exertion which his predecessors had derivedfrom the high spirit of chivalry.
In fact, that system was now becoming ancient, and had, even whilein its perfection, something so overstrained and fantastic in itsprinciples, as rendered it peculiarly the object of ridicule, whenever,like other old fashions, it began to fall out of repute; and the weaponsof raillery could be employed against it, without exciting the disgustand horror with which they would have been rejected at an early period,as a species of blasphemy. The principles of chivalry were cast aside,and their aid supplied by baser stimulants. Instead of the high spiritwhich pressed every man forward in the defence of his country, LouisXI substituted the exertions of the ever ready mercenary soldier, andpersuaded his subjects, among whom the mercantile class began to make afigure, that it was better to leave to mercenaries the risks and laboursof war, and to supply the Crown with the means of paying them, than toperil themselves in defence of their own substance. The merchants wereeasily persuaded by this reasoning. The hour did not arrive in the daysof Louis XI when the landed gentry and nobles could be in like mannerexcluded from the ranks of war; but the wily monarch commenced thatsystem, which, acted upon by his successors, at length threw the wholemilitary defence of the state into the hands of the Crown.
He was equally forward in altering the principles which were wont toregulate the intercourse of the sexes. The doctrines of chivalry hadestablished, in theory at least, a system in which Beauty was thegoverning and remunerating divinity--Valour, her slave, who caught hiscourage from her eye and gave his life for her slightest service. It istrue, the system here, as in other branches, was stretched to fantasticextravagance, and cases of scandal not unfrequently arose. Still, theywere generally such as those mentioned by Burke, where frailty wasdeprived of half its guilt, by being purified from all its grossness.In Louis XI's practice, it was far otherwise. He was a low voluptuary,seeking pleasure without sentiment, and despising the sex from whom hedesired to obtain it.... By selecting his favourites and ministers fromamong the dregs of the people, Louis showed the slight regard which hepaid to eminent station and high birth; and although this might benot only excusable but meritorious, where the monarch's fiat promotedobscure talent, or called forth modest worth, it was very different whenthe King made his favourite associates of such men as the chief of hispolice, Tristan l'Hermite..
Nor were Louis's sayings and actions in private or public of a kindwhich could redeem such gross offences against the character of a manof honour. His word, generally accounted the most sacred test of a man'scharacter, and the least impeachment of which is a capital offenceby the code of honour, was forfeited without scruple on the slightestoccasion, and often accompanied by the perpetration of the most enormouscrimes... It is more than probable that, in thus renouncing almostopenly the ties of religion, honour, and morality, by which mankindat large feel themselves influenced, Louis sought to obtain greatadvantages in his negotiations with parties who might esteem themselvesbound, while he himself enjoyed liberty. He started from the goal, hemight suppose, like the racer who has got rid of the weights with whichhis competitors are still encumbered, and expects to succeed of course.But Providence seems always to unite the existence of peculiar dangerwith some circumstance which may put those exposed to the peril upontheir guard. The constant suspicion attached to any public person whobecomes badly eminent for breach of faith is to him what the rattle isto the poisonous serpent: and men come at last to calculate not so muchon what their antagonist says as upon that which he is likely to do;a degree of mistrust which tends to counteract the intrigues of such acharacter, more than his freedom from the scruples of conscientious mencan afford him advantage..
Indeed, although the reign of Louis had been as successful in apolitical point of view as he himself could have desired, the spectacleof his deathbed might of itself be a warning piece against the seductionof his example. Jealous of every one, but chiefly of his own son,he immured himself in his Castle of Plessis, intrusting his personexclusively to the doubtful faith of his Scottish mercenaries. He neverstirred from his chamber; he admitted no one into it, and wearied heavenand every saint with prayers, not for forgiveness of his sins, butfor the prolongation of his life. With a poverty of spirit totallyinconsistent with his shrewd worldly sagacity, he importuned hisphysicians until they insulted as well as plundered him..
It was not the least singular circumstance of this course, that bodilyhealth and terrestrial felicity seemed to be his only object. Makingany mention of his sins when talking on the state of his health, wasstrictly prohibited; and when at his command a priest recited a prayerto Saint Eutropius in which he recommended the King's welfare both inbody and soul, Louis caused the two last words to be omitted, saying itwas not prudent to importune the blessed saint by too many requests atonce. Perhaps he thought by being silent on his crimes he might sufferthem to pass out of the recollection of the celestial patrons, whose aidhe invoked for his body.
So great were the well merited tortures of this tyrant's deathbed, thatPhilip de Comines enters into a regular comparison between them and thenumerous cruelties inflicted on others by his order; and consideringboth, comes to express an opinion that the worldly pangs and agonysuffered by Louis were such as might compensate the crimes he hadcommitted, and that, after a reasonable quarantine in purgatory, hemight in mercy he found duly qualified for the superior regions...The instructive but appalling scene of this tyrant's sufferings was atlength closed by death, 30th August, 1483.
The selection of this remarkable person as the principal character inthe romance--for it will be easily comprehended that the little loveintrigue of Quentin is only employed as the means of bringing out thestory--afforded considerable facilities to the author. In Louis XI'stime, extraordinary commotions existed throughout all Europe. England'sCivil Wars were ended, rather in appearance than reality, by the shortlived ascendancy of the House of York. Switzerland was asserting thatfreedom which was afterwards so bravely defended. In the Empire and inFrance, the great vassals of the crown were endeavouring to emancipatethemselves from its control, while Charles of Burgundy by main force,and Louis more artfully by indirect means, laboured to subject them tosubservience to their respective sovereignties. Louis, while with onehand he circumvented and subdued his own rebellious vassals, labouredsecretly with the other to aid and encourage the large trading towns ofFlanders to rebel against the Duke of Burgundy, to which their wealthand irritability naturally disposed them. In the more woodland districtsof Flanders, the Duke of Gueldres, and William de la Marck, called fromhis ferocity the Wild Boar of Ardennes, were throwing off the habitsof knights and gentlemen to practise the violences and brutalities ofcommon bandits.
[Chapter I gives a further account of the conditions of the period whichQuentin Durward portrays.]
A hundred secret combinations existed in the different provinces ofFrance and Flanders; numerous private emissaries of the restlessLouis, Bohemians, pilgrims, beggars, or agents disguised as such, wereeverywhere spreading the discontent which it was his policy to maintainin the dominions of Burgundy.
Amidst so great an abundance of materials, it was difficult to selectsuch as should be most intelligible and interesting to the reader: andthe author had to regret, that though he made liberal use of the powerof departing from the reality of history, he felt by no means confidentof having brought his story into a pleasing, compact, and sufficientlyintelligible form. The mainspring of the plot is that which all who knowthe least of the feudal system can easily understand, though the factsare absolutely fictitious. The right of a feudal superior was in nothingmore universally acknowledged than in his power to interfere in themarriage of a female vassal. This may appear to exist as a contradictionboth of the civil and canon laws, which declare that marriage shall befree, while the feudal or municipal jurisprudence, in case of a fiefpassing to a female, acknowledges an interest in the superior ofthe fief to dictate the choice of her companion in marriage. This isaccounted for on the principle that the superior was, by his bounty, theoriginal granter of the fief, and is still interested that the marriageof the vassal shall place no one there who may be inimical to his liegelord. On the other hand, it might be reasonably pleaded that thisright of dictating to the vassal to a certain extent in the choice ofa husband, is only competent to the superior from whom the fief isoriginally derived. There is therefore no violent improbability in avassal of Burgundy flying to the protection of the King of France, towhom the Duke of Burgundy himself was vassal; not is it a great stretchof probability to affirm that Louis, unscrupulous as he was, should haveformed the design of betraying the fugitive into some alliance whichmight prove inconvenient, if not dangerous, to his formidable kinsmanand vassal of Burgundy.
[Some of these departures from historical accuracy, as when the deathof the Bishop of Liege is antedated, are duly set forth in the notes.It should be mentioned that Mr. J. F. Kirk, in his elaborate History ofCharles the Bold, claims that in some points injustice has been doneto the Duke in this romance. He says: The faults of Charles weresufficiently glaring, and scarcely admitted of exaggeration; but hisbreeding had been that of a prince, his education had been better thanthat of other princes of his time, his tastes and habits were more, notless, refined than theirs, and the restraint he imposed upon his sensualappetites was as conspicuous a trait as his sternness and violence.]