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Commines, Philippe De

COMMINES, PHILIPPE DE (c. 1445-c. 1511), French historian, called the father of modern history, was born at the castle of Renescure, near Hazebrouck in Flanders, a little earlier than 1447. He lost both father and mother in his earliest years. In 1463 his godfather, Philip V., duke of Burgundy, summoned him to his court, and soon after transferred him to the household of his son, afterwards known as Charles the Bold. He speedily acquired considerable influence over Charles, and in 1468 was appointed chamberlain and councillor; consequently when in the same year Louis XI. was entrapped at Péronne, Commines was able both to soften the passion of Charles and to give useful advice to the king, whose life he did much to save. Three years later he was charged with an embassy to Louis, who gained him over to himself by many brilliant promises, and in 1472 he left Burgundy for the court of France. He was at once made chamberlain and councillor; a pension of 6000 livres was bestowed on him; he received the principality of Talmont, the confiscated property of the Amboise family, over which the family of La Trémoille claimed to have rights. The king arranged his marriage with Hélène de Chambes, who brought him the fine lordship of Argenton, and Commines took the name d'Argenton from then (27th of January 1473). He was employed to carry out the intrigues of Louis in Burgundy, and spent several months as envoy in Italy. On his return he was received with the utmost favour, and in 1479 obtained a decree confirming him in possession of his principality.

On the death of Louis in 1483 a suit was commenced against Commines by the family of La Trémoille, and he was cast in heavy damages. He plotted against the regent, Anne of Beaujeu, and joined the party of the duke of Orleans, afterwards Louis XII. Having attempted to carry off the king, Charles VIII., and so free him from the tutelage of his sister, he was arrested, and put in one of his old master's iron cages at Loches. In 1489 he was banished to one of his own estates for ten years, and made to give bail to the amount of 10,000 crowns of gold for his good behaviour. Recalled to the council in 1492, he strenuously opposed the Italian expedition of Charles VIII., in which, however, he took part, notably as representing the king in the negotiations which resulted in the treaty of Vercelli. During the rest of his life, notwithstanding the accession of Louis XII., whom he had served as duke of Orleans, he held no position of importance; and his last days were disturbed by lawsuits. He died at Argenton on the 18th of October, probably in 1511. His wife Hélène de Chambes survived him till 1532; their tomb is now in the Louvre.

The Memoirs, to which Commines owes his reputation as a statesman and man of letters, were written during his latter years. The graphic style of his narrative and above all the keenness of his insight into the motives of his contemporaries, an insight undimmed by undue regard for principles of right and wrong, make this work one of the great classics of history. His portrait of Louis XI. remains unique, in that to such a writer was given such a subject. Scott in Quentin Durward gives an interesting picture of Commines, from whom he largely draws. Sainte-Beuve, after speaking of Commines as being in date the first truly modern writer, and comparing him with Montaigne, says that his history remains the definitive history of his time, and that from it all political history took its rise. None of this applause is undeserved, for the pages of Commines abound with excellences. He analyses motives and pictures manners; he delineates men and describes events; his reflections are pregnant with suggestiveness, his conclusions strong with the logic of facts.

The Memoirs divided themselves into two parts, the first from the reign of Louis XI., 1464-1483, the second on the Italian expedition and the negotiations at Venice leading to the Vercelli treaty, 1494-1495. The first part was written between 1489 and 1491, while Commines was at the château of Dreux, the second from 1495 to 1498. Seven MSS. are known, derived from a single holograph, and as this was undoubtedly badly written, the copies were inaccurate; the best is that which belonged to Anne de Polignac, niece of Commines, and it is the only one containing books vii. and viii.

The best edition of Commines is the one edited by B. de Mandrot and published at Paris in 1901-1903. For this edition the author used a manuscript hitherto unknown and more complete than the others, and in his introduction he gives an account of the life of Commines.

Bibliography. - The Memoirs remained in MS. till 1524, when part of them were printed by Galliot du Pré, the remainder first seeing light in 1525. Subsequent editions were put forth by Denys Sauvage in 1552, by Denys Godefroy in 1649, and by Lenglet Dufresnoy in 1747. Those of Mademoiselle Dupont (1841-1848) and of M. de Chantelauze (1881) have many merits, but the best was given by Bernard de Mandrot: Memoirs de Philippe de Commynes, from the MS. of Anne de Polignac (1901). Various translations of Commines into English have appeared, from that of T. Danett in 1596 to that, based on the Dupont edition, which was printed in Bohn's series in 1855.

(C. B.*)

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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